Goodnight Irene

No one knows the exact year that Irene was born. It could have been 750 or 756 or somewhere in between. What we do know is that she was Greek and born in Athens. By the time of her birth Athens was a provincial backwater in the Eastern Roman Empire. Many of the buildings from its glory days survived though. Raids by Slavic tribesmen had been common for centuries but had subsided by this time. Athens’ history had been tumultuous but during this period it was probably fairly quiet.

As an aside, the Parthenon of Athens would largely survive intact until 1687 when it took a direct hit from an artillery round during a war that even most historians scarcely pay attention to. The gunpowder being stored in the Parthenon exploded and brought down a good deal of the structure, leaving it largely as we see it today. In any case while Irene was alive the Parthenon stood in almost all of its’s glory. It would continue to stand for nearly another thousand years.

Irene came from a wealthy and politically influential family. In particular they had significant regional influence.

In 769, which puts here somewhere between 13 and 19, she was sent to the Imperial capital, Constantinople. Today we’d call it Istanbul and centuries before Irene’s time it would have been known as Byzantium. It isn’t clear why but Emperor Constantine V selected her to marry his son and heir, Leo IV. Regardless of the reason, in hindsight this may have been a mistake.

Irene gave birth to a son in 771 who was named Constantine for his grandfather. At the age of five his father Leo crowned him and the two became co-emperors. This apparently wasn’t unusual at the time. When Constantine was nine his father died leaving him as the sole emperor.

At this point his mother Irene began to rule as regent. Today many believe that few women ruled historically but this is not true. In particular, regency by women has historically been common in Europe.

Within weeks Irene put down an attempted coup, torturing and banishing the leaders.

Irene also seems to have helped spread a rumour that her husband had died as a result of having sinned. RIP Leo.

A regent is expected to rule until the emperor has reached sufficient age to rule in his own right. Rather than do this Irene quietly started taking power for herself. Didn’t see that coming.

At one point she offered co-regency to her sister-in-law, Anthousa. This was apparently done as an attempt to placate her in-laws but again shows how often women were considered for leadership roles.

Irene ensured that coins of the realm showed her and her son as co-rulers. I think she was trying to tell the people something.

Later Irene crushed a rebellion by the military governor in Sicily.

After her son Constantine reached the age of majority he found that Irene was still running the empire. There was a period of conflict between Irene and her son in which each asserted their claim to be sole ruler of the empire. This ended with Constantine victorious.

Discontent continued however and two years later Constantine took a drastic step in an attempt to restore stability. He restored his mother’s titles and position. Irene and Constantine were again co-rulers. We might think that Irene would be grateful and would stop causing trouble. No. Irene continued to plot against her son. It took her five years of preparation but she was eventually able to launch a coup against her own son, the rightful ruler of the empire.

Constantine fled the capital but was eventually arrested and returned to the city. There he was blinded. Some have tried to claim she did not give the order, but it seems improbable that her followers would harm her own son in such a manner except on her orders.

And so Irene ruled the empire, for a time. After only five years Irene was herself overthrown by her finance minister and exiled to the island of Lesbos, where she was forced to support herself. She died only a year later.

And so ended the tumultuous life story, and brief rulership of Irene. She had attempted to seize power from her own son. After being invited to resume a role in government she had worked to overthrow her son and ultimately have him blinded.

The new emperor, Nikephoros, was not even a member of the imperial family. Irene’s actions had ended a dynasty. Constantine V should have left her in the provinces where he found her. Goodnight Irene.

The cover image depicts a fresco in Venice likely to be depicting Irene of Athens.

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