Irene, Another Byzantine Femme Fatale

I’m not sure what it is about Byzantine women, but they have a certain proclivity for manipulation and skullduggery.  Recall Theophano from my last blog.  And before both Theophano and Irene was Theodora, wife of Emperor Justinian.  That sixth century actress (a very disreputable profession in those days) rose to become perhaps the best-know Byzantine Empress.  I’ll blog about her later.

Irene came from Athens.  However, eighth century Athens in no way resembled the Athens of Pericles.  The great schools were gone.  The Parthenon was now and church, and would remain so until the Ottoman Conquest of the 15th century, when it became a mosque.  She was quite beautiful, but not much else is known about her.  She was married to Leo IV, son of Constantine V.  Constantine, like his father Leo III, was an ardent Iconoclast.  He and his fellow Iconoclasts believed that icons were idolatrous images proscribed by the Second Commandment.  The government vigorously punished those who clung to the icons.  Thousands of icons were destroyed and replaced with simple crosses, if anything at all. Those who continued to venerate icons, the Iconodules, were persecuted vigorously.  The Empire nearly erupted in civil war.  Iconodules from areas that favored Iconoclasm, mostly in Anatolia and other eastern provinces, fled to areas where icon veneration was still very popular, namely Greece, Thrace and Italy.  Being from Athens, Irene was an Iconodule.  Why Constantine V and his son Leo IV, both Iconoclasts, chose her for the imperial marriage is a mystery.

Irene played her hand skillfully.  Her Iconoclast husband was not only weak from years of tuberculosis, but he also lacked the political fortitude of his father.  Irene was know to be an Iconodule and she made no secret of her desire to push out the iconoclasts, but she was felt to be powerless while her husband lived.  When Leo was overcome by his tuberculosis and died, Irene became Regent for her eleven-year old son Constantine VI.  An army in Anatolia reacted with mutiny.  Irene put down the revolt but tread lightly thereafter.  Most of those in the government, army and in positions of power in the Church were Iconoclasts.

Irene skillfully removed Iconoclasts in power in the army.  When the Patriarch died, she replaced him with a like-minded ally.  Constantine was manipulated like a puppet.  Eventually, he tired of his mother’s treachery and shut her up in her imperial apartments and assuming complete control for himself.  However, his handling of the army was disastrous, leading to defeats at the hands of Harun al-Rashid.  Humiliating treaties required the Byzantines to pay considerable tribute to the Caliph.  Irene was said to have leaked false intelligence to her son that led him to withdraw his army from a key area, only to have the enemy seize it upon his retreat.  As a result, Constantine’s popularity with the army evaporated.  In desperation he  summoned his mother to his side.  Irene didn’t wait to act.  A group of soldiers surprised Constantine and his guards as they processed from the Hippodrome to a church in the north of Constantinople.  Their attack was intense, but the Emperor escaped by rowing himself across the Bosporus.  However, Constantine’s good fortune was exhausted.  He was captured by Irene’s agents and taken to the Porphyry Pavilion, the customary birthplace of all imperial children, and viciously blinded.  He soon died from this mutilation, leaving no heirs.  Irene quickly leapt in and claimed the reins of power.

But Irene’s popularity now hit its nadir.  The murder of her son was extremely unpopular and, though she never admitted it, the populace knew that she was responsible.  Her solution to her treacherous position was to lower taxes drastically.  This is is exactly what the Empire did not need.  The government was bankrupt.  A new treaty with Harun al-Rashid promised him more tribute.  The soldiers facing the Saracens wondered when and how they would be paid if the Empress was sending their money to their enemy.

In that same year, 800, Charlemagne, King of the Franks, was crowned Emperor of Rome on Christmas Day by Pope Leo.  The Byzantines were furious.  They were the true Romans.  They were the heirs of Augustus, Trajan and Constantine the Great.  This barbarian usurper was not.  And now the usurper added insult to injury.  Less than two years later, his court proposed marriage between the “Roman” ruler of the West and the Byzantine Empress, uniting Christendom’s two great empires.  However, Irene saw this as an opportunity, if not a necessity.  Her policies had driven the Byzantine Empire into poverty.  She needed a savior and Charlemagne fit the bill.  However, the prospect of a Byzantine empress marrying a barbarous adventurer was intolerable.  Noblemen gathered together at the Hippodrome and then proceeded to the Empress’ quarters.  When accosted, she offered no resistance.  she was exiled to Prince’s Island in the nearby Sea of Marmara and later to Lesbos.  Within a year she was dead, and the Byzantine Empire’s first empress to rule in her own right passed into the pages of history.


Great Sources:


Byzantium: The Early Centuries; J.J. Norwich

Byzantium: The Apogee; J.J. Norwich

A History of the Byzantine State and Society; Treadgold



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