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H - 99 : Irene - Empress Ditched by the Pope

Empress Irene with her Son Constantine VI in the Hagia Sophia (12th Century Mosaic)

Empress Theodora was not the only powerful woman in the Byzantine Empire. 250 years later, Empress Irene held the reins at a critical junction in history. Threatened in the east by the Khalifs and from the north by Bulgar horsemen (Turks), she also had to deal with the iconoclast dispute that ripped Byzantium apart and an unruly Pope who thought he was superior to the patriarch in Constantinople. Looking from a distance of 1’300 years, she did remarkably well. Her reign was not an outright success but she held Byzantium together and prepared the ground for Emperor Basil II who led it to new heights 200 years later.

Byzantium in 717 AD under Leo III, Irene's Father-in-Law, was threatened from all sides

Born to important nobility in Athens in 752 AD, she made it to the imperial court through the traditional bridal show where future emperors were presented with a selection of brides. Irene won with her dignity and beauty. What nobody noticed was how smart and intelligent she was. She hid it behind a veil of modesty. I will keep her biographical details short – there are many good bios to watch or read.

Portrait of young Irene made for her YouTube Video

Her marriage to Emperor Leo IV was uneventful. At the age of 19, she gave birth to a son, the future Emperor Constantine VI. Irene’s husband Leo IV was a fervent iconoclast – he believed that praying to portraits of Jesus, Virgin Mary and other Christian Saints  attracted God’s wrath because it defied the Ten Commandments. The continued success of Arab armies since the battle of Yarmouk in 638 AD must have had a reason. Over less than 100 years, Byzantium had lost two thirds of its Empire – the entire Levant, Egypt and North Africa. Muslims had no paintings in their mosques. They decorated them with abstract geometric pattern. Clearly, God must be taking the Muslims' side.

Arab Expansion from Mohammed's Death (632 AD) to the Abassids Dynasty (900 AD)

In the 8th century, Islam was yet not the religion we know today. For contemporary observers it was rather unclear what Islam actually was. The Khalifs in Damascus used coins with Christian symbols. Crosses were used in official stone inscriptions. Also, the earliest mosques were not aligned with Mecca and looked similar to Christian churches. There are also doubts whether Mecca already existed. At the time, it looked as if Arabs were just one of the many different Christian or Jewish groups which populated the Middle East. It would take another 100 years until Islamic scholars wrote down the Qur’an in Baghdad. If both sides, Byzantium and Arabs, worshiped the same God, then clearly worshipping icons must make the difference. It may be a stretched kind of logic for us today. But superstition run high in the early Middle Ages.

Close Shot of the Mihrab in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus

Irene was thrown in the middle of the iconoclast controversy. She loved icons of Saints and kept them in her private chambers. When her husband discovered two, she was put under house arrest. Her court paid an even higher price. Her staff got flayed and had their head shaved. But Irene had her fingers on the pulse of people. She knew that they cherished religious icons and saw them as integral part of the Byzantine identity. She understood that Byzantium could only survive if her people took up arms against external enemies and accepted the taxes required for defence. Byzantium did not have the means any longer to hire mercenaries or bribe its lethal enemies. It had to fight. Its people had to fight.

Byzantine Style Icon with Virgin Mary and Jesus

In 780 AD, Irene’s son was just 9 years old, Emperor Leo IV died from tuberculosis – some contemporaries claim that she poisoned him. For the next 10 years, Irene was Byzantium’s regent and governed on behalf of her son. He would be crowned Emperor at the age of 20. Contrary to tradition, Irene did not delegate decision making to the imperial council but took control herself. She quickly reinstated icons, professionalized the administration by bringing in eunuchs, upgraded the army and put in competent leaders. The imperial nobility who had pulled the strings for centuries was not pleased. Her years as regent were successful though. Whilst unable to push Bulgars and Arabs out of ancient Byzantine territory, she stabilized the fronts and the empire.

Under Irene, the Byzantine Army was rebuilt to 65'000 Men and 20'000 Mariners

A good example of her skillful leadership are the events around the Ecumenical Council in 786. When she invited bishops from her Roman Empire to sanction her iconophile policy, her teenage son rallied iconoclast troops to interrupt the proceedings. The 15-year-old youngster lusted for power. But he underestimated the diplomatic skills of his mother. She convinced the rebels to urgently move to the eastern frontier to stop an Arab invasion.  Based on iconoclast superstition, these soldier clearly must have an edge on the battlefield. Of course, they did not. Irene was now free to form an imperial guard loyal to her. The Ecumenical Council was called again and met in Nicaea in 787 AD. Icons were back. Due to the hasty preparations, the invitations did not reach the Frankish bishops on time though and they could not participate. Something that its ruler Charlemagne was very unhappy with.

Fresco of Irene and Constantine VI - she clearly chairs

the Second Council of Nicaea which brought Icons back

Despite the  events in 786, Constantine VI was crowned Emperor in 790. He was a man with a big ego and few skills. His performance on the battle field was dismal. In a battle against the Bulgars in 792, the coward fled and deserted his troops. Withing two years, her incompetent son had brought the Empire back to the brink. Irene was called back and made Co-Emperor. Byzantium needed her again. Constantine’s frivolous lifestyle finally led to his fall in 797. Clergy and nobles captured him. Irene was made sole Emperor. Her son died a few days later after he was blinded. Some sources say that she murdered him but this was not her style. She had many enemies who did not have a good word to say about her – this may be one of their stories.

Bust of Charlemagne from 1350, today in Aix-La-Chapelle

One of her enemies was the Frankish King Charlemagne, who used the pretext of Nicaea to occupy Benevento and Istria. He also tried to capture Venice but its citizens used the shallows of the laguna to their advantage. Charlemagne’s ships never made it to the city. It set Venice on course for becoming an independent city state which was never part of the Holy Roman Empire. But troubles did not end there. When the Abbasid Khalifs renewed hostilities in 798 against Byzantium, their fleet also threatened the Italian peninsula. Pope Leo III, a fearful man, asked Irene for military help. But she did not have forces to spare. Leo III thus made defense arrangements with the Frankish King and as a reward crowned him Roman Emperor on Christmas Day in 800 AD. Leo’s excuse was that a woman could not be the head of the Church – which she clearly was looking at the fresco depicting her at the Nicaea Council. Charlemagne had neither the resources nor the ambition to replace Irene. He proposed marriage instead – but the idea died in the court of Constantinople.

The Frankish Empire in 814 included most of Italy

As a side note, the Franks also failed to protect Rome. In 842 AD, a Muslim force raided Ostia and made it to the gates of Rome. Whilst unable to get inside the town walls, they plundered the Vatican and carried away most of the early Christian treasures.

Empress Irene depicted on both sides of a Byzantine Golden Solidus

In the long run, the creation of a second imperial title had lasting consequences. It signaled the end of Byzantium’s hopes to win back the West, specifically Italy. It also established the claims of future Popes to be superior to any Emperor. If it was up to them to chose and crown an Emperor, they clearly were senior and closer to God. Since Constantine the Great, the Roman Emperor always had been the head of church. Leo III turn this rule on its head and started the long way that eventually lead to the separation of church and state, one of the founding principles of our Western democracies. This never happened in Byzantium – more interestingly though, it did not happen in China either. It is still noticeable today.

Saint Irene from Athens in the Markus Church in Venice

In 802, at the age of 52, Irene was disposed in a bloodless coup d’état. She was exiled to the island of Lesbos where she died one year later. In a way, Irene had become untouchable. Deposed Emperors were usually assasinated. We know little about the plot that ended her reign. The fact that she passed away only a year after the coup may indicate ill health. Irene was one of Byzantium’s great Emperors. Her achievement of holding the empire together and keep the external enemies at bay demands respect. Without her achievements, Basil II, a successor 200 years later, could never have resurrected the empire again. For ending the war on icons, Irene was made a saint in the orthodox church. Did not happened to Emperor Charlemagne who is today hailed as father of modern Europe - a rather dubious claim - it is better to be canonized. His crowning reminds us today that tactical solutions may have unintended long-term strategic consequences.

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