Empress Irene

A Real Life Game of Thrones: Empress Irene (Part 2)


Last time we saw how Constantine finally took power for himself as Emperor of the Byzantine Empire, breaking away from the influence of his mother, Irene. However, his rule so far hasn’t been very impressive, and now Irene is back on the scene. This game is far from over.

Irene’s Machinations

Irene and Staurakios convinced Constantine that, besides his uncles, Alexios Mousele, the general of the Armeniacs, was also a threat to his throne. Following their advice, he had Mousele blinded as well. This proved a mistake, as Irene and Staurakios had probably intended. Mousele may well have been a potential source of trouble, but he and his Armeniacs had also thus far been Constantine’s most loyal supporters, and the only ones who refused to accept Irene as Empress. Now Constantine repaid their loyalty with cruelty. Constantine sent the Armeniacs a new general, one of his own adherents, but they wouldn’t have him. He was thrown in a dungeon and the entire province broke into open revolt against Constantine.

The Emperor first sent in a small force led by two of his followers, but it was defeated and both commanders lost their eyes for it. Constantine was forced to bring the entire rest of the imperial army against the Armeniacs. He defeated them and killed off or otherwise punished their leaders, but his image was badly tarnished by the ordeal. It sent a message to the entire army: loyalty to Constantine is soon forgotten.

After the debacle with the army, Constantine made a further mistake, which earned him opposition from the Church. Constantine’s wife had been chosen for him by his mother, and he resented her for it. What he wanted was to divorce her and marry his mistress. Irene happily consented to the idea of hiding the current Empress in a monastery somewhere, to make room for a new one. She likely foresaw the trouble this would generate for Constantine. The Patriarch (the leader of the Church of Constantinople, second in authority only to the Pope in Rome) also assented.

So Constantine, believing he had the green light, disposed of his wife and crowned a new Empress. But he had been deceived. The Church, despite the consent of Irene and the Patriarch, strongly opposed his second marriage and its legality was hotly debated. The Patriarch refused to perform the necessary ceremonies, coming up with excuses to have junior clergy perform them instead. Irene openly joined her voice with those of Constantine’s opponents.

Constantine tried to reconcile his opponents to his side, but eventually was forced to imprison or banish their spokesmen to shut them up. This further harmed his relations with the Church, although he would later work hard for reconciliation.

The Byzantine Empire ca. 780.

The Byzantine Empire ca. 780. (Source: Wikipedia user Cplakidas. Original here.)

The Final Act

Having so far survived all of these controversies, partially engineered by his own mother, Constantine now faced his biggest hurdle yet. In 796, he and Irene and their court were visiting the hot springs at Prousa in Greece, when news arrived that Constantine’s wife had prematurely given birth to a son. Constantine set off back to Constantinople, and Irene made use of his absence to plot against him.

Through bribes and promises, personally or via other members of her household, Irene started to draw everyone to her side, with a view of deposing Constantine. They started to undermine him where they could. When he started a new military campaign against the Arabs, his scouts were bribed into reporting that the Arabs were gone, in order to deprive Constantine of a potential victory. Constantine turned back, empty-handed. On top of his political troubles, Constantine suffered the loss of his son only half a year after he had been born.

Finally things came to a head. While on the road back home, one day Constantine found himself pursued by his mother’s supporters. Assuming they meant him harm, he fled. He got away and embarked a ship to look for a safe base of operations. What he didn’t know, however, was that there were traitors, his mother’s men, in his own retinue.

Constantine made it to Bithynia, a region to the southeast of Constantinople, and started to raise an army to defend himself and take back power. Irene contacted her adherents in Constantine’s retinue and threatened to expose the parts they had played in the plots against the Emperor, if they didn’t help her now. She demanded they seize Constantine and deliver him to her, before he could get his army together.

The traitors managed to capture Constantine and transport him back to Constantinople. While Irene isn’t quoted as having personally given the order, she must have known exactly what was to happen next. Constantine was thrown in the dungeon and his eyes were gouged out. He wasn’t heard from again and likely died from this treatment shortly after.

And Irene remained as sole ruler.

Irene and Constantine, ruling Byzantium together. Behind the scenes, it didn't look quite like this.

Irene and Constantine, ruling Byzantium together. Behind the scenes, it had never looked quite like this.

Empress Irene

Stepping over the corpse of her own son, Irene was now Empress of the Byzantines. Her rule was not trouble-free. In the West, the Pope crowned Charlemagne Emperor, arguing that the imperial throne was effectively empty. He made sly use of the laws of the Franks, which didn’t allow women to rule. In Constantinople, the brothers of Leo IV once again plotted against Irene. A first plot got them all banished. After a second plot, the four who still had eyes were now blinded.

Constantine’s death also changed the political dynamics of the Empire. With her son dead, Irene left no obvious choice for the next Emperor. Irene seems to have purely been interested in power for herself, giving no thought to posterity and leaving no heirs to transfer power to. The consequence was that her ministers began to scheme and plot to secure the throne for their own descendants. When Irene fell ill in 799, these rivalries at court intensified. As the minsters, mainly Stourakios and another, called Aetios, undermined each other’s positions and plans, government started to fall apart. When Stourakios fell ill and died, Aetios thought he was secure in his claim to the throne. In his arrogance, he insulted and antagonized other high-ranking members of the court, who decided to act against him.

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.

Nikephoros, Irene’s minister of finance (not the blinded brother of Leo IV), backed by those who didn’t want to see Aetios on the throne, decided to take power. He went to Irene’s palace and told the guards that Irene had sent for him. His story was that Aetios was pushing to get his brother onto the imperial throne and that Irene wanted to quickly crown Nikephoros in order to thwart him. The trick worked and the guards let Nikephoros into the palace. Nikephoros and his men placed Irene under house arrest and quickly had the Patriarch crown him Emperor.

Nikephoros initially tried to remain on good terms with Irene. He was technically a usurper and he could have really used her support to gain credibility for his own dynasty. He would later marry his son to a niece of Irene’s to strengthen his claim to the throne. However, Irene apparently gathered some support and tried to have Nikephoros assassinated, so he finally exiled her and ended her involvement in the imperial government once and for all.

Looking back upon an amazing career in the bid for the Byzantine throne, marked especially by the ruthless removal of her own son, Irene died in exile on August 9th, 803.


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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  1. Viren Tewani

    The Byzantines were, seemingly, had a great deal of depraved, mendacious and immoral people in their society. It is no surprise that their empire disintegrated. I think, having read into the kind of sick criminality they routinely perpetrated on their own people, the world was better without them. An honourless and despicable empire that deserved to fall?

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