Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Saturday, October 31, 2015

Irene of Byzantium: Empress, Regent, Empress Regnant, and Exile

Irene of Athens, empress consort, regent, and empress regnant of Byzantium (driven out of Constantinope, 31 October 802)


Born in Athens between 750 and 755, Irene Sarantapechaina seems to have been an orphan, though her Greek Sarantapechos family was a noble one--and there is no clear reason why the Byzantine emperor Constantine V decided that she would be the imperial bride of his son and heir, Leo, whom she married in December of 769. On 14 January 771 she gave birth to a son, who would eventually become Constantine VI. 
A gold coin from Irene's reign
as empress regnant,
797-802

Irene of Byzantium would eventually become involved in the iconoclast controversy, a conflict that arose about the use of religious icons. While the old emperor, Constantine V, and his son, who would succeed him as Leo IV, were both committed to the iconoclastic ("image breaking") position, rejecting the veneration of icons, Irene would prove to be an iconophile.

This became important when her husband, the emperor Leo IV, died in 780 and Irene became regent of Byzantium for the ten-year-old Constantine VI. (Some sources claim that Irene invited Anthusa of Constantinople, now St. Anthusa, to share the regency with her--Anthusa was Leo IV's sister.)

As regent, Irene sought stronger relationships with western Christendom, in particular with the emperor Charlemagne, proposing a marriage between her son and one of his daughter's, Rotrude. (This projected alliance was later broken off.) She also had to deal with internal conflict, a plot intended to replace her son on the throne.

But she also summoned a church council to Nicaea in 787-- now known as the Seventh Ecumenical Council. The assembled bishops rejected iconoclasm and restored the veneration of icons. The council also reunited the eastern church with the western church, strengthening ties to the papacy.

While her son might have been expected to rule alone by the time he was age sixteen, Irene would not cede her political role. Despite a rebellion against her in 790, when her nineteen-year-old son was proclaimed sole ruler and she was banished, Irene was recalled from exile and once again proclaimed co-ruler, her title of empress restored to her.

Although the reasons for this reconciliation aren't clear, what is clear is that though the two were "reconciled," tensions remained. In the ensuing internal conflicts and conspiracies, Constantine had some of his enemies beheaded, cut the tongues out of others, and blinded still others. He put aside his wife, Maria of Amnia, whom he had married in 788 (another alliance made by his mother); Maria of Amnia had given the emperor "only" daughters but no sons, so in 795 he sent her and their daughters (two, Euphrosyne and Irene) off to a convent and married his mistress, Theodate.

A tenth-century representation
of Irene
Constantine's rejection of his wife and his subsequent remarriage, which many viewed as adulterous, only contributed to the cause of his opponents. In 796, after the death of Constantine and Theodate's infant son, Irene moved against him. Irene had her son arrested and blinded (sheesh--family values, huh?)

From 797 until 802, Irene ruled alone, not as empress but as emperor--she used the title basilissa ("empress"), although she also employed the title "Irene the pious emperor." She once again established ties with Charlemagne, and in 802 there is some evidence that there was a marriage contemplated between the two.

But that was not to be. Irene was deposed in 802 and exiled, ending up, in the end, on the island of Lesbos. She died there in 803--according to some accounts, she had been reduced to spinning wool in order to survive.

There is an extended essay about Irene by Lynda Garland posted at De imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors.

Judith Herrin's Women in Purple: Rulers of Medieval Byzantium contains an excellent treatment of Irene ("Irene: The Unknown Empress from Athens") as well as a detailed examination of the life of the discarded Maria of Amnia's daughter (Irene's granddaughter) Euphrosyne ("Euphrosyne: A Princess Born in the Purple"), who was raised in a convent, became empress consort of Byzantium, then retired to a convent.