In order to celebrate the Internation Women's Day, this week we will bring to the discussion some of the stories concerning royal women whose controversial figures were in the centre of studies and discussion for some long time. Also, to open the posts of this year, certainly later than planned, we begin with the Byzantine Empress Irene of Athens and how important she was to the Orthodox Eastern Church.
Born in Athens of a Greek noble family, between the years of 750 and 755, little is known regarding Irene Sarantapechaina's life before ascending to the Byzantine throne. In some bibliographies here consulted, it's said that she was orphan under the charge of an uncle. What can be said with some degree of certainty is that around the year of 769 she was brought to the Constantinople court of Constantine V where she was soon married off to his heir, Leo IV. What can be said regarding Irene is what she's mostly famous for: being the responsible for the veneration of icons. As we can see next:
"Her main achievement during her reign was the settling of the Iconoclastic Controversy. Her predecessors had denounced and destroyed icons, were the living pictures of the saints, and Mary and Christ. The emperor had taken the Jewish and Muslim stance that these icons were idols. She was responsible for the eventual most important festival known as the Feast of Orthodoxy, which is still celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Church."
In between the issue concerning the restauration of the icons, Irene was also in the midst of a struggle for power with her son when he became Constantine VI at age nine, after Leo IV died. In spite of the rumours that he was poisoned under her commands, Irene became Empress-Regent on behalf of her son and soon worked to have an alliance with Charlemagne by arranging a betrothal between his daughter and Constantine, but this would be later called off against his wishes. Amidst the relationship mother and son that worsened with time, there were other complications to the hungry for power Irene. The late Emperor Leo IV had four half-brothers who, upon his death, soon sought his crown. Rebellions like these were stopped by Irene's forces repetedly until she had them into priesthood, so that way their claims would be invalid.
Following the "clash over veneration of icons, a patriarch, Tarasius, was appointed in 784, on condition that veneration of images be reestablished. To that end, a council was convened in 786, which ended up disbanded when it was disrupted by forces backed by Irene's son Constantine. Another meeting was assembled in Nicae in 787. The decision of the council was to end the banning of image veneration, while clarifying that the worship itself was to the Divine Being, not to the images."This mended the relationship with Rome only briefly as they came to a mutual agreement to such religious matters.
Where politics were now concerned, opposition between Constantine and his mother grew, as she refused to give his son power, even the countless times he was manipulated by her to do as her will. After all, "in 788, Irene held a bride show to select a bride for her son. Of the thirteen possibilites, she selected Maria of Amnia", daughter of a wealthy Greek official. The match displeased Constantine VI, as he much preferred to have been married to the daughter of Charlemagne. However, not soon Maria gave him two daughters, he divorced her and married his mistress. Maria and the princesses were exiled and though one is said to have died at an early age, the other lived with Maria in a monastery, but, unlike her mother, had not taken the veil and married against Maria's wishes.
The second marriage involved Constantine VI in a complicated relationship with the Church which helped Irene consolidate her position as Empress. No matter if Constantine had been already in prison and rescued back, he started to lose supporters. As it's perceptible in the next paragraph:
"(...) When Constantine grew up, Irene refused to hand over power to him, and instead put him in prison. Even when Constantine was rescued and put in power, in 792 he ended up letting his mother have the power again. (...)"
"In 797, a conspiracy led by Irene to regain power for herself succeded. Constantine tried to flee but was captured and returned to Constantinople, where, on the orders of Irene, he was blinded by his eyes being gouged out. That he died shortly after is assumed by some; in other accounts, he and Theodote retired to private life. During Theodote's life, their residence became a monastery. Theodote and Constantine had two sons; one was born in 796 and died in May of 797. The other was born after his father was deposed, and apparently died young."
Once her son was heireless and Constantine VI himself was removed from her path from one way or another, Irene of Athens became the first Empress of such a vast empire alone. But precisely because she was a female that the Pope was quick to respond it by investing Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in a coronation in Rome, following the Frankish law that forbade any woman to reign solely, unless she was a consort.
In spite of this, Irene was recognized within her territories as Byzantine Empress and often she "took the male title Basileus (Emperor) in preference to the usual offical status of Empress. Since she could not claim dynastic connections to the emperor she had deposed, she put her own portrait on both the obverse and reverse of her."
What happened next was of no good to Irene, though. Even with all the ruthless that had given her power to depose her son and reign herself alone, little by little she started losing supporters. Firstly, she was already unpopular between the army, which was a supporter of her late son the emperor, and the fact she was surrounded by eunuchs did not help her cause; the invasions of outsiders enemies, as arabs, were possibly a consequence of this as we may see following the paragraph below:
"Another victory by the Arabs reduced Irene's support among the government leaders. In 803, the officials in government rebelled against Irene. Technically, the throne was not hereditary, and the leaders of government had to elect the emperor. This time, she was replaced on the throne by Nikephoros, a finance minister."
Another cause of her fall was the approach between the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne to the Byzantine Empress, who, in turn, was considering to accept his proposal of marriage. If she had accepted it, this would be an union of two empires that had not been since the fall of the Roman Empire.
"This situation was forced to a conclusion when Charlemagne proposed to marry Irene. The union would have brought East and West together for the first time in centuries. Irene was happy to accept, but no self-respecting Byzantine wanted to see a Frankish emperor on the throne, and so the ministers had to act now."
In response to these events that tensed these later years of Irene's reign, she was deposed and sent to exile. She would die the next year. Nowadays, Irene is best remembered as St Irene, whose day is still celebrated. Some sources claim her popularity in between the common folk, despite her intriguing manners to hold power and manage the whole iconoclasm issue. Whether be the case, controversial or not, Irene of Athens was not a typical medieval woman and she certainly held her ambitions too high to be the expected quiet christian lady of her days. Being so, for better or worse, she led the path to the next generation of sole queens and empresses the world would yet meet.