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This Week In History

Empress Irene of Athens. April 19, 797.

On November 1, 768, a young and beautiful girl from Athens arrived to Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire. At the time she was one of the many applicants to marry Leo IV, future emperor. History nevertheless will remember her as one of the most powerful and controversial Byzantine Empresses, not only for her solo rule and her opposition to her son, but also for stopping, at least for some time, iconoclasm.

Irene was unlikely to be chosen as Leo´s future wife for two reasons: first, she came from a noble family from Athens, not from Constantinople´s aristocracy. The second reason, even more significant, was that the Emperor Constantine V fiercely defended iconoclasm, while Irene supported, and possibly also professed veneration of icons. This was a pinpoint at that moment in the Byzantine politics, as Eastern Christian Church considered this worship “idolatry”.

Leo IV acceded to the throne in 775, but died only 5 years later, leaving Irene as regent in her son´s name, who was only 10 years old. 6 weeks after Leo´s death, she was victim of a conspiracy that tried to enthrone her brother-in-law and Leo´s half-brother. After she hindered the attempt, she had the perfect excuse to remove high dignitaries and build a new loyal court.

From the first stage of her regency, Irene stated her intent to transcend the earmarked role of an empress, this is to say, wife and mother of emperors. As her son grew near the age of majority, part of the aristocracy and the army wanted to downgrade her and proclaim Constantine emperor. These attempts came abruptly to an end when on April 19, 797 Irene ordered loyals to capture her son. He was blinded and died some days later.

Great part of the concern that had grown surrounding the Empress was due to her relaxed policies concerning the veneration of religious images, a practice that divided the Byzantine Empire during the 8th and 9th centuries. Irene, that opposed iconoclasm, she called the Second Council of Nicaea in 787, which condemned iconoclasm as heretical and brought an end to the first iconoclast period (730–787) and temporarily reconciled the Roman and the Byzantine Church.

Her religious policies where the main cause that arouse conspiracies against her. The other cause was that she was a woman ruling on her own, not contempt with her regent role. These facts triggered indirectly the rise of the Carolingian dynasty to the Empire, as the pope, Leo III considered that the throne of Constantinople was vacant, as no man occupied it. The pope therefore felt free to choose a new emperor, Charlemagne, who was crowned Western Emperor in December 25, 800.

This could have been the event that reunited the Roman East and West. Irene had already tried to pact the wedding of one of her sons to Charlemagne´s daughter, and after Charlemagne´s coronation, she postulated herself as bride of the Frankish emperor, but none of these proposals succeeded. Nevertheless, the pope´s gesture was interpreted as a declaration of political and religious independence of Rome, opposing Byzantine authority, and from then on, the Roman imperial inheritance became a point of dissent, as Byzantium  considered itself as the only legitimate heir of “Romanness”.

One could think that the death of Constantine would have strengthened Irene´s position as Empress but the truth is that this death only helped to deteriorate her image, considered and ungodly woman that worshipped icons and had murdered her own son. This, together with a lack of success in the military eroded her popularity.

In the end, her own court turned against her and she was deposed in 802 and banished to Lesbos, deprived of imperial dignity and left to survive by her own means combing wool until she died on August 9, 803.

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