- Irene of Athens
Empressof the Byzantine Empire
caption =This solidus struck under Irene reports the legend BASILISSH, "Basilisse".
reign =797 -802
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consort =Leo IV
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date of birth =c.752
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date of death =
9 August 803
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Irene Serantapechaina, known as Irene of Athens or Irene the Athenian (Greek: Ειρήνη η Αθηναία, "Eirēnē") (c. 752 –
August 9, 803) was a Byzantine empress regnant from 797 to 802, having previously been Empress consort from 775-780, and empress mother and regent from 780-797. As monarch she called herself " basileus" (βασιλεύς), 'emperor', rather than "basilissa" (βασίλισσα), 'empress'.
Early life and rise to power
Irene was born to a noble Greek family of
Athens, the Sarantapechos family, being notable for her beauty. Although she was an orphan, her uncle, Constantine Sarantapechos, was a patrician and possibly strategosof the theme of Hellas. She was brought to Constantinopleby Emperor Constantine Von November 1 769, and was married to his son Leo IV on December 17. Although she appears to have come from a noble family, there is no clear reason as to why she would have been chosen as Leo's bride, leading some scholars to speculate that she was selected in a bride-show, in which eligible women were paraded before the bridegroom, until one was finally selected.
January 14 771, she gave birth to a son, the future Constantine VI. When Constantine V died in August 775, Leo was to succeed to the throne at the age of twenty-five years. Leo, though an iconoclast, pursued a policy of moderation towards iconophiles, but his policies became much harsher in August 780, when a number of courtiers were punished for icon-veneration. According to tradition, he discovered icons concealed among Irene's possessions and refused to share the marriage bed with her ever after. Nevertheless, when Leo died on September 8 780, Irene became regent for their nine-year old Constantine.
Irene, almost immediately confronted with a conspiracy which rose up to raise to the throne the Caesar Nikephoros, a half-brother of Leo IV. To overcome this challenge, she had Nikephoros and his co-conspirators ordained as priests, a status which disqualified them from ruling, and ordered them to administer communion on
Christmasday. As early as 781, Irene began to seek a closer relationship with the Carolingian dynastyand the Papacy. She negotiated a marriage between her son and Rotrude, a daughter of Charlemagneby his third wife Hildegard. Irene went as far as to send an official to instruct the Frankish princess in Greek; however, Irene herself broke off the engagement in 787, against her son's wishes.
Irene next had to subdue a rebellion led by Elpidios, the strategos of
Sicily, whose family was tortured and imprisoned, while a fleet was sent, succeeded in defeating the Sicilians and Elpidius fled to Africa, where he defected to the Arabs. After the success of Constantine V's general, Michael Lachanodrakon, who foiled an Arab attack on the eastern frontiers, the strategos of the Bucellarii, Tatzates, defected to the Arabs, but the failure of the negotiations, Irene had to agree to pay a huge annual tribute of 70 or 90,000 dinars to the Arabs for a three year truce, give them 10,000 silk garments and provide them with guides, provisions and access to markets during their withdrawal.
Rule and resolution of Iconoclasm controversy
Her most notable act was the restoration of the orthodox veneration of
icons or images, a policy which she had always secretly favoured, though compelled to abjure it in her husband's lifetime. Having elected Tarasios, one of her partisans, to the patriarchate in 784, she summoned two church councils. The first of these, held in 786 at Constantinople, was frustrated by the opposition of the soldiers. The second, convened at Nicaea in 787, formally revived the veneration of images and reunited the Eastern church with that of Rome. [See Alexander, "et al", p. 423.] (See Seventh Ecumenical Council.)
While this improved relations with the Papacy, it did not prevent the outbreak of a war with the Franks, who took over
Istriaand Beneventoin 788. In spite of these reverses Irene's military efforts occasionally met with success: in 782 her courtier Staurakios subdued the Slavsof Macedonia and Greeceand laid the foundations of Byzantine expansion and re-Hellenization in the Balkans. Nevertheless, Irene was constantly harried by the Abbasids, and in 782 and 798 had to accept the terms of the respective Caliphs Al-Mahdiand Harun al-Rashid.
As Constantine approached maturity he began to grow restive under her autocratic sway. An attempt to free himself by force was met and crushed by the empress, who demanded that the oath of fidelity should thenceforward be taken in her name alone. The discontent which this occasioned swelled in 790 into open resistance, and the soldiers, headed by the
Armenian guard, formally proclaimed Constantine VI as the sole ruler.
A hollow semblance of friendship was maintained between Constantine and Irene, whose title of empress was confirmed in 792; but the rival factions remained, and Irene, by skillful intrigues with the bishops and courtiers, organized a powerful conspiracy on her own behalf. Constantine could only flee for aid to the provinces, but even there he was surrounded by participants in the plot. Seized by his attendants on the Asiatic shore of the
Bosphorus, the emperor was carried back to the palace at Constantinople; and there, by the orders of his mother, his eyes were gouged out. He died from his wounds several days later. A solar eclipseand a darkness of 17 days' duration were attributed by the common superstition to the horror of heaven.
Irene reigned for five years, from 797 to 802.
Pope Leo III, who needed help against enemies in Romeand who saw the throne of the Byzantine emperor as vacant (lacking a male occupant), crowned Charlemagneas Roman Emperor in 800. This was seen as an insult to Byzantium and the Orthodox Church and caused another rift between the Eastern Orthodox Churchand the Roman Catholic Church. Nevertheless, Irene is said to have endeavoured to negotiate a marriage between herself and Charlemagne; but according to Theophanes the Confessor, who alone mentions it, the scheme was frustrated by Aetios, one of her favourites. [See Garland, p. 89, who explains that Aetios was attempting to usurp power on behalf of his brother Leo.]
In 802 the patricians conspired against her and placed on the throne Nikephoros, the minister ("logothetēs") of finance. The haughty and unscrupulous princess, "who never lost sight of political power in the height of her religious zeal," was exiled to Lesbos and forced to support herself by spinning. She died the following year.
Her zeal in restoring images and monasteries has given her a place among the
saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Academic American Encyclopedia - Page 266 ISBN 0933880006]
By her marriage to Emperor
Leo IV the Khazar, Irene had only one son Constantine VI, whom she succeeded on the throne. A female relative of Irene, Theophano was chosen in 807 by Emperor Nikephoros I as the bride of his son and heir Staurakios. An unnamed female relative was married to the Bulgar ruler Telerigin 776. Irene also had a nephew. [Herrin, p. 56, 70, 134.]
* [http://www.roman-emperors.org/irene.htm De Imperatoribus Romanis - Constantine VI (780-797 A.D.) and Irene (797-802 A.D.)]
Anastasius Bibliothecarius"Chronographia tripartita"
Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium", Oxford University Press, 1991.
* Alexander, Archibald, and André Lagarde, Joseph Turmel. "The Latin Church in the Middle Ages", C. Scribner's Sons, 1915.
* Barbe, Dominique. "Irène de Byzance: La femme empereur", Paris, 1990.
last = Herrin
first = Judith
authorlink = Judith Herrin
year = 2001
title = Women in Purple:Rulers of Medieval Byzantium
publisher = Phoenix Press
location = London
id = ISBN 1-84212-529-X
last = Garland
first = Lynda
year = 1999
title = Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium, AD 527-1204
publisher = Routledge
location = London
id = ISBN 0415146887
* Wace, Henry and William Smith, "A Dictionary of Christian Biography, Literature, Sects and Doctrines," J. Murray, 1882.
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