Empress Irene

A Real Life Game of Thrones: Empress Irene (Part 1)

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The early Middle Ages are generally regarded as a savage period of history, and not without reason. Following the fall of the Roman Empire, politics became more local and more turbulent. A larger number of would-be rulers competed for a larger number of crowns.

What remained of the Roman Empire was only the eastern part, later denoted the Byzantine Empire. It was centered around its capital of Constantinople and still formed a large, fairly stable political entity. The Byzantines too, however, were not free of worry. Fighting the Bulgars on the western borders, in the Balkans, and the Arabs in the east, territory was slowly slipping away. Internally as well, things could get tempestuous. One particularly dramatic period was the reign of Empress Irene.

Irene of Athens

Irene was born in Athens between 750 and 755. Not too much is known about her early life. She was brought to Constantinople by Emperor Constantine V, to be married to his son and soon-to-be emperor, Leo IV. It isn’t clear why Irene was chosen specifically, but regardless, she now found herself propelled into the imperial court of Byzantium.

Irene soon bore Leo a son, Constantine after his grandfather, whom Leo made co-emperor of the realm when he was only five years old. This sparked the first conspiracy of the story. Leo had five half-brothers, who had hoped to have some day gained the thrones for one of their own. They plotted against Leo and Constantine, but apparently nothing came of it.

Leo died when Constantine was only 10, so his mother stepped in as Empress-Regent. Suspicions arose in retrospect that Irene may have helped Leo along on his way to the grave. After his death, a rumor was circulated, perhaps by Irene, that Leo died of a fever he contracted after taking and wearing a jeweled crown from the church of St. Sophia, the main church of Constantinople. It strongly suggested that he had succumbed to the wrath of God, casting a stain on his memory.

The reason Irene is suspected of circulating this rumor is due to her views on iconoclasm. In the 8th century, Leo IV and his forefathers had pursued a religious policy that stated that creating and worshiping images of God and of saints was blasphemous, and they ordered many of such images destroyed. Irene, however, was of the iconophile persuasion and after Leo’s death she pursued her own policies, undoing the iconoclast endeavors of her predecessors. The rumor suggested that iconoclast policies had not put Leo IV on God’s good side.

However, before Irene could pursue any of her own policies, her power had to be consolidated. The transfer of power was not without its hick-ups. Leo’s half-brothers rebelled once more, backed by a number of high officials who would rather see Nikephoros, one of the brothers, on the throne than young Constantine with Irene as regent.

The rebellion failed again. Several officials were arrested, whipped, tonsured (maybe link?) and banished. The five brothers were all forcibly ordained as priests and made to publicly administer the communion in the St. Sophia on Christmas day. This showed everyone that they had been subordinated to the imperial rule of Constantine and Irene.

The Byzantine Empire ca. 780.

The Byzantine Empire ca. 780. Constantinople is indicated with a yellow star. (Source: Wikipedia user Cplakidas. Original here.)

 

Irene’s Ambitions

Irene became Regent, but from the start she seems to have thought of herself as something more. On the first coins minted under her rule, she was depicted not as regent, but as co-empress. Her name appeared on the front of the coins, with little Constantine’s only appearing on the back.

She resolutely pursued her own policies, specifically breaking with those of her husband’s family, when she endorsed the worship of icons. To accomplish this, she had to overhaul the imperial government. Many officials were still loyal to iconoclast ideals and she had to replace them with her own trusted followers. She especially replaced many army generals, hand-picked by Constantine V, with her own men. Unfortunately, most of Irene’s men were eunuchs, who were not typically part of the army. This meant they were generally inexperienced as generals, and furthermore they were not well respected by their men. Irene had no choice, however; she needed an army loyal to herself.

When Constantine came of age to rule the empire in his own right, Irene was not quite ready to step down. She continued to dominate her son. In essence, the empire was ruled by Irene and one of her ministers, Staurakios, and Constantine was largely ignored. He quickly became fed up with this state of affairs. He gathered what few supporters he had and conspired to arrest and banish Staurakios. He would then take his place as co-ruler with his mother; not an unreasonable thing to wish for, considering that he was officially the Emperor.

An earthquake foiled his plan. Irene and Constantine had to leave the city for a safer hideout, giving Staurakios time to counter-plot. He stirred up Irene to punish her son’s co-conspirators and to reprimand Constantine. Irene locked her son up for several days and Constantine was still no closer to his rightful place as ruler. Their relationship went downhill from there.

Irene went on to show her true colours. Following Constantine’s rebellion, she made the imperial army swear that they would never allow him to rule and that they would be loyal only to her. What Irene really wanted was to rule by herself.

Constantine At Last

But Irene was not particularly popular with the armed forces. As a woman, she was never able to personally lead them into battle. Her appointments of eunuchs as army generals were not appreciated.

One of the provinces in particular, the Armeniacs, refused to accept Irene as Empress. They insisted on having Constantine as ruler, who made grateful use of their sentiments. Travelling to the province, he rallied their support and with the Armeniacs at his back, Constantine grew bolder. Upon returning to Constantinople, he had Staurakios arrested and banished. His mother he confined to her castle and firmly excluded from imperial matters. Finally, Constantine came into his own as ruler of the Byzantine Empire.

Constantine only briefly ruled on his own, and his achievements were not impressive. The army readily followed him, but his few campaigns against the Bulgars and the Arabs led nowhere. Even so, he might have made an effective ruler with more experience. It comes as something of a surprise that, after just two years, he called upon his mother to join him as co-ruler once more. Even Staurakios was recalled from his exile. The reasons are unclear, but no doubt Irene had been working towards this outcome all this time.

Constantine made it clear that he was the main ruler this time around. However, Irene was not about to give up her own claim to the throne and she continued to increase her own influence.

Constantine’s luck was not in. He suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of the Bulgars. A large number of high dignitaries were killed and a valuable baggage train was lost. Consequently, the imperial guard (an important political force in their own right) was unimpressed with Constantine’s martial prowess. They decided they would rather make Nikephoros, that same half-brother of Leo IV who had been aspiring to the throne since the beginning, their new emperor. But Constantine was not about to step aside; he had Nikephoros blinded and his four other uncles had their tongues torn out of their mouths, putting an end to their aspirations for now.

So Constantine hung onto his crown, but the game was not yet played. Next time: with Irene fully back in the fray, things are about to get ugly. Don’t forget to tune in!

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Sources:

Norwich, J. J. (2011.) The Popes. Vintage Books. London.

Garland, L. (1999.) Byzantine Empresses. Routledge. London/New York.

Marco is a theoretical (bio)physicist, currently engaged in unraveling the sequence-dependent dynamics of DNA molecules to earn his PhD at Leiden University. Other passions include literature and history.

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