Byzantine Empress Irene

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Saint Irene (Greek Ειρήνη η Αθηναία) (c. 752 - August 9, 803) was a Byzantine empress (although she called herself basileus, the male form of the word "emperor," rather than basilissa, "empress") from 797 to 802. She was the wife of Leo IV.

Originally a poor but beautiful Athenian orphan, she speedily gained the love and confidence of her feeble husband, and at his death in 780 was left by him sole guardian of the empire and of their ten-year-old son Constantine VI.

Seizing the supreme power in the name of the latter, Irene ruled the empire at her own discretion for ten years, displaying great firmness and sagacity in her government.

Her most notable act was the restoration of the orthodox veneration of icons or images, a policy which she always had secretly favoured, though compelled to abjure it in her husband's lifetime. Having elected Tarasius, one of her partisans, to the patriarchate in 784, she summoned two church councils. The former 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 adoration of images and reunited the Eastern church with that of Rome. (See Seventh Ecumenical Council.)

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 Bosporus, the emperor was carried back to the palace at Constantinople; and there, by the orders of his mother, his eyes were stabbed out. He later died from his wounds. A solar eclipse and a darkness of seventeen days' duration were attributed by the common superstition to the horror of heaven. However, modern research suggests that Constantine's wounds were not fatal and that he actually outlived his mother.

Irene reigned in prosperity and splendour for five years. However, Irene's triumph did have consequences. The Pope of the time saw that the throne of the Byzantine emperor was vacant (lacking a male occupant) and so crowned Charlemagne the Holy Roman Emperor. This was seen as an insult to the Orthodox Church and caused another rift between the Greek Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. Nevertheless, Irene is said to have endeavoured to negotiate a marriage between herself and Charlemagne; but according to Theophanes, who alone mentions it, the scheme was frustrated by Aetius, one of her favourites. A projected alliance between Constantine and Charlemagne's daughter, Rothrude, was in turn broken off by Irene. In 802 the patricians, upon whom she had lavished every honour and favour, conspired against her, and placed on the throne Nicephorus, the minister 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.


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