Coin of Irene of Athens (8th century). Image Credit: CNG.

By Gabby Storey

Irene Sarantapechaina was empress (775-780) of the Eastern Roman Empire through her marriage to Leo IV, regent for their son Constantine (780-790), co-regent (792-797), and later the first empress regnant of the Roman Empire (797-802).

Little is known of Irene’s early life other than her noble descent from the Sarantapechaina family. She was brought to Constantinople in 1768 and married Leo on 17 December. There has been several debates for the reasoning behind this alliance but none are conclusive.  

On 14 January 771 Irene gave birth to a son, Constantine VI. In September 775, emperor Constantine V died, and Leo and Irene ascended to the imperial thrones. Leo and Irene differed on their views regarding religious icons.

Leo’s persecution of iconophiles, of which Irene was one, led to marital disharmony. Leo’s death on 8 September 780 led to the accession of Irene as a regent mother, who took more power than was traditionally expected of female regents.

Irene’s early coins with Constantine depicted them as co-rulers, with Irene holding the imperial orb. Irene’s regency was beset with conspiracies and rebellions, as well as military defence. In 787, Irene restored the Eastern church with the papacy and the veneration of icons.

In 790, Constantine began to resist the rule of his mother, which erupted into rebellion, which was to intermittently last until Constantine’s death in 797, after he died from wounds from his eyes being gouged out.

The last years of her reign saw Irene facing the rising challenge of the Carolingian Empire, however relative peace was maintained by the two empires. Irene was deposed by the nobility on 31 October 802, and forced into exile to Lesbos where she died in 803.

She is buried at the Monastery of St Euphrosyne, Constantinople.

Recommended Reading

Dominique Barbe, Irène de Byzance: La femme empereur (Paris: Perrin, 1990)

Judith Herrin, Women in Purple: Rulers of Medieval Byzantium (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001)

Lynda Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium, AD 527–1204 (London: Routledge, 1999).

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