Women Who Ruled: Irene, Empress of ConstantinopleIrene
Empress of Constantinople
752 – 803 A.D.

Irene, the famous Byzantine empress, was born in Anthens about 752, and died on the aisle of Lesbos, August 15, 803. She was an orphan and seventeen years of age, when her beauty and genius attracted the attention of Constantine V., who destined her to be the wife of his son and heir, Leo. Their nuptuals were celebrated with royal splendor at Constantinople, in 769.

Obliged by her husband to abandon the worship of images, to which she had been educated, she, however gained his love and confidence, and was appointed in his testament to administrator the government during the minority of their son Constantine VI., Then ten years of age. She immediately manifested her zeal for the restoration of images. For this object she assembled a council at Constantinople in 786, which was interrupted by the garrison of the capital. In the following year she called another council at Nice, in which the veneration of images was declared agreeable to Scripture and reason, and the fathers and councils of the Church. With the iconoclastic controversy is connected the struggle between the mother and the son for supremacy.

As Constantine advanced toward maturity, he was encouraged by his favorites to throw off the maternal yoke, and planned the perpetual banishment of Irene to Sicily. Her vigilance disconcerted the project, and, while the two factions divided the court, the Armenian guards refused to take the oath of fidelity which she exacted to herself alone, and Constantine became lawful emperor. Irene was dismissed to a life of solitude in one of the imperial palaces, but her intrigues led to the formation of successive conspiracies for her restoration.

On the return of Constantine from an expedition against the Arabs in 797, he was dispatched by assassins.

Irene succeeded to the throne, and for five years ruled the empire with prudence and energy. Intercourse was renewed between the Byzantine court and that of Charlemange, and Irene is said to have sent ambassadors to negotiate a marriage between that emperor and herself, and thus to unite the empires of the East and West.

As her golden chariot moved through the streets of Constantinople, the reins of the four white steeds were held by as many patricians marching on foot. Most of these patricians were eunuchs, and by one of them, the great treasurer Nicephorus, she was ensnared to her ruin. He was secretly invested with the purple, and immediately arrested and banished Irene to the Isle of Lesbos. There, deprived of all means of subsistence, she gained a scanty livelihood by spinning, and died of grief within a year. Her protection of image worship has caused her to be enrolled among the saints in the Greek calendar.


Reference: Woman: Her Position, Influence and Achievement Throughout the Civilized World. Designed and Arranged by William C. King. Published in 1900 by The King-Richardson Co. Copyright 1903 The King-Richardson Co.