Empress Irene of Athens -The first female ruler of the Byzantine Empire

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Empress Irene of Athens was the first female ruler of the Byzantine Empire. She was also known to have initiated the Second Council of Nicea. Irene was also known for her generous financial policies, which were especially friendly to monasteries.[1] After her death, she became a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church[2].

Empress Irene was born between 750 and 755 into a noble family of Athens.[3] In 769,  Emperor Constantine V chose her as a bride for his son and co-ruler Leo IV. The reason he chose her is unclear. However, most historians believe that it was because of Irene’s beauty.[4] On November 1, 769, Irene arrived in Constantinople.[5] She was betrothed in the palace chapel, Our Lady of the Pharos, on November 3rd.[6] Just over a month later, on December 17th, Irene was crowned Empress of the Byzantine Empire and married Leo IV at the chapel of St. Stephen.[7]

On January 14, 771, Irene gave birth to a son named Constantine VI.[8] In August 775, Constantine V died leaving Leo IV sole rule of the Byzantine Empire.[9] When Emperor Leo IV came to the throne, he and his wife’s views of religion began to clash. Emperor Leo IV was an iconoclast, which viewed the veneration of icons as idolatry.[10] Empress Irene strongly supported the veneration of icons.[11] These two different viewpoints of religion began to strain their marriage.

However, on Easter in 776, Leo IV crowned his son co-ruler of the Byzantine Empire.[12] He made his people swear to accept no one on the throne except for Constantine VI and his descendants. This made Leo’s younger brother, Nikephoros, mad.[13] He would later on become one of Empress Irene’s main opposers during her regency and reign. Leo began to promote iconoclast monasteries.[14] In 780, he made Paul of Cyprus, who was suspected of being an iconophile, to swear an oath to uphold iconoclasm.[15] During Lent of that year, Leo IV began to persecute Iconophiles. Many courtiers were arrested, tortured, and imprisoned.[16] The reason for these persecutions is most likely because Irene had been hiring iconophile supporters within the palace and Leo IV was trying to clean up his palace.[17]

On September 8, 780, Leo IV died, leaving his wife free to instil her beliefs as regent for their ten-year-old son, Constantine V.I[18] However, many people opposed her rule as regent. Nikephoros led a revolt along with many powerful figures.[19] He was defeated. Nikephoros’s army was arrested, tortured, and banished.[20] Nikephoros and his brothers were forced to be ordained into the priesthood and to administer communion on Christmas Day.[21]

During Irene’s reign as regent for her son, she named herself co-ruler.[22] Her first coins were issued with Constantine VI placed on the lesser important side of the coin.[23] In order to secure her position, Irene negotiated a marriage between her son and Charlemagne’s daughter.[24] In February 781, Elpidios, the Strategos (Governor) of Sicily, planned to depose her and make Nikephoros regent for Constantine VI.[25] When Irene learned about the plot, she was furious. She summoned Elpidios to Constantinople, but the Sicilians refused to surrender him to her. To make Elpidios submit, Irene had his wife and sons, whom Elpidios left in Constantinople, scourged, tortured, and imprisoned.[26] A year later, she sent a fleet to Sicily against Elpidios. Her men were victorious. However, Elpidios fled to Africa, where the Arabs received him as the Roman Emperor.[27]

 In 782, Irene appointed Michael Lachanodrakon, Constantine V’s general, to attack the Arab army on the Eastern frontier.[28] The attack was a success, but Tatzates, the Strategos of the Bucellarii, took his men and defected from Irene’s army to the Arabs.[29] This left a large province-wide open to an Arab attack. To prevent this, Irene had to negotiate an immense annual tribute of 70,000 or 90,000 dinars to the Abbasids for a three-year truce.[30] She also had to give them 10,000 silk garments and to provide them with guides, provisions, and access to markets during their withdrawal from the Byzantine Empire.[31] Irene demoted Tatzates and formed a policy to remove Constantine V’s generals from high command.[32]

The next year, Irene sent Staurakios, her favourite courtier, against the Slavs in Northern Greece, where he made the Slavs pay tribute to the empire. Irene celebrated his victory by hosting a triumph in 784.[33]In May, she and Constantine VI visited the Greek province of Thrace. The city of Beroia was renamed Irenoupolis.[34] She continued to the Bulgarian frontier and the resettlement of the territory that was reclaimed from the Slavs. She founded a province called Macedonia.[35]

With the success of the Bulgar front and the matrimonial alliance with Charlemagne, Irene turned her attentions on religious issues.[36] In 784, she replaced the Patriarch of Constantinople with the moderate Tarasius.[37] In 787, she initiated the Second Ecumenical Council, which met in Nicaea in order to condemn iconoclasm.[38] The Council ended with Tarasius in favour of icon veneration[39].

Now that the favour of icon veneration was restored, Constantine VI was seventeen and capable of ruling on his own.[40] However, his mother had no plans to relinquish her power to him. In 788, she broke off the marriage to Charlemagne’s daughter because it seemed that Charlemagne was unwilling to part with his daughter.[41] Irene found another bride for him. She was Maria of Amnia.[42] Constantine VI was unhappy with his mother for making his decisions for him.[43] From this point on, relations between Constantine VI and his mother Irene worsened. Constantine VI conspired to take the throne himself.[44] He planned a revolt inside the palace. By a fortuitous occurrence, the plot was thwarted by an earthquake.[45] Forcing Irene and Constantine VI to leave the palace to seek shelter, Staurakios formed a counter-attack in which Irene’s men succeeded.[46] She confined her son and demanded an oath of fealty from Constantine VI’s army to acknowledge her as ruler.[47] However, In September of 790, the troops Armeniac province refused to swear the oath and rebelled.[48] Irene’s authority was rejected, and Constantine VI was now confirmed as sole ruler.[49]

Constantine VI was not an effectual ruler.[50] He waged a luckless war on the Bulgars in April 791 and the Arabs in October.[51] This made him very unpopular, and in order to secure his throne, he made his mother co-ruler in January 792.[52] He shocked the public in 795 when he repudiated his empress and placed her in a convent.[53]  On October 7, 796, he entered into an unholy marriage with Theodote, his mistress.[54] Many people believed this marriage to be adulterous. Irene supported the marriage because she knew it made him even more unpopular. When Constantine VI had a son with Theodote, the people proclaimed him illegitimate.[55] This allowed his mother to forge a coup against her son.[56] When Constantine VI discovered the plot to overthrow him, he fled. However, he was captured and brought back to the palace[57]. On August 15, 797, Empress Irene ordered her son to be blinded, causing her son to die of this mutilation.[58] Irene was now sole ruler of the Byzantine empire. She styled herself as “Irene, the Pious Emperor” instead of Empress.[59]

By kladcat – CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Placing a woman on the Imperial Roman throne was unheard of.[60] No woman had ever reigned on her own in the Roman empire before. A king could not be succeeded by his mother or a daughter.[61] Thus, the Pope considered the throne vacant[62]. On Christmas Day in 800, during a visit to Rome, the Pope placed an imperial crown on Charlemagne’s head and gave him the title of “Holy Roman Emperor”.[63] This restored the Roman Empire of the west. Charlemagne knew that Irene’s days would end and there would be another Byzantine ruler to take her place.[64] He proposed marriage to Empress Irene, which she consented.[65]

However, her overthrow prevented her marriage to Charlemagne. In 802, Irene was overthrown in a palace coup by Nikephoros.[66] She abdicated and spent the rest of her life in Lesbos, where she died in 803.[67]

Thus, Empress Irene’s reign had been largely unsuccessful[68]. She was very insecure in her position, which led her to become ruthless. Her reign was beset by rebellions and wars. However, she was very successful with Bulgaria.[69] By the end of her reign, the Byzantines were no longer paying tribute to the Bulgars.[70] Her financial policy was successful. By the time of her abdication, she had a large amount of money which she handed over to Nikephoros.[71] Because of her restoration of icon-worship, she was canonised in the Eastern Orthodox Church as a saint.[72]


“Irene of Athens.” Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 8, Gale, 2004, pp. 135-138.

Garland, Lynda. Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204, Taylor

               and Francis, 1998.

MILLER, D. A. “Irene, Byzantine Empress.” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., vol. 7, Gale,

               2003, p. 572.

[1] Miller, p. 572

[2]  Miller p. 572

[3] Garland, p. 73

[4] “Irene of Athens” p. 135

[5] Garland, p. 73

[6] Garland, pp. 73-74

[7] Garland, p. 74

[8] Garland, p. 74

[9] Garland, p. 74

[10] Miller p. 572

[11] Miller p. 572

[12] Garland, p. 74

[13] Garland, p. 74

[14] Garland, p. 74

[15] Garland, p. 74

[16] Garland, p. 74

[17] Garland, p. 74

[18] Garland, p. 75

[19] Garland, p. 75

[20] Garland, p. 75

[21] Garland, p. 75

[22] Garland, p. 76

[23] Garland, p. 76

[24] Garland, p. 76

[25] Garland, p. 76

[26] Garland, p. 76

[27] Garland, p. 76

[28] Garland, p. 77

[29] Garland, p. 77

[30] Garland, p. 77

[31] Garland, p. 77

[32] Garland, p. 77

[33] Garland, p. 77

[34] Garland, p. 77

[35] Garland, p. 77

[36] Garland, p. 77

[37] Miller, p. 572

[38] Miller, p. 572

[39] Miller, p. 572

[40] Garland, p. 80

[41] Garland, p. 80

[42] Garland, p. 81

[43] Garland, p. 81

[44] Garland, p. 81

[45] Garland, p. 81

[46] Garland, p. 82

[47] “Irene of Athens” p. 137

[48] “Irene of Athens” p. 137

[49] Miller, p. 572

[50] “Irene of Athens” p. 137

[51] “Irene of Athens” p. 137

[52] “Irene of Athens” p. 137

[53] “Irene of Athens” p. 137

[54] “Irene of Athens” p. 137

[55] “Irene of Athens” p. 137

[56] “Irene of Athens” p. 137

[57] “Irene of Athens” p. 137

[58] “Irene of Athens” p. 137

[59] Garland p. 87

[60] Irene of Athens” p. 137

[61] Irene of Athens” p. 137

[62] Irene of Athens” p. 137

[63] Irene of Athens” p. 137

[64] Irene of Athens” p. 137

[65] Irene of Athens” p. 137

[66] Irene of Athens” p. 137

[67] Irene of Athens” p. 137

[68] Miller, p. 572

[69] Garland p. 91

[70] Garland p. 91

[71] Garland p. 91

[72] Miller, p. 572

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