Irene: the Ruthless Monarch Who Lent a Hurricane Her Name

Millions are braced for the onslaught of Hurricane Irene as it rakes across the U.S.’s eastern seaboard. For the tens of thousands forced to flee the storm’s path, its name will only be remembered as the source of panic and destruction, an unwelcome conclusion to the summer months. Fair enough. As TIME’s Kayla Webley explained during hurricane season last year, the names of tropical storms get assigned in an all-together boring, mechanical process. But the legacy of Irene — ironic already because it’s a name derived from the Greek word for “peace” — or at least that of history’s first prominent Irene, is worth considering. First published in Time

I liked the idea of this as an article. But when I read it I found it so full of factual errors that I could not publish it – please follow the link above if you wish.

Instead here is a profile of this amazing woman from Wikipedia.

Irene of Athens – Early life and rise to power 

Irene was born to a noble Greek family of Athens, the Sarantapechos family. Although she was an orphan, her uncle, Constantine Sarantapechos, was a patrician and possibly strategos of the theme of Hellas. She was brought to Constantinople by Emperor Constantine V on November 1, 769, and was married to his son Leo IV on December 17. Although she appears to have come from a noble family, there is no clear reason as to why she would have been chosen as Leo’s bride, leading some scholars to speculate that she was selected in a bride-show, in which eligible women were paraded before the bridegroom, until one was finally selected.

On January 14, 771, Irene gave birth to a son, the future Constantine VI. When Constantine V died in September 775, Leo was to succeed to the throne at the age of twenty-five years. Leo, though an iconoclast (opposed theologically to the veneration of icons), pursued a policy of moderation towards iconodules (those who venerated icons), but his policies became much harsher in August 780, when a number of courtiers were punished for icon-veneration. According to tradition, he discovered icons concealed among Irene’s possessions and refused to share the marriage bed with her thereafter. Nevertheless, when Leo died on September 8, 780, Irene became regent for their nine-year old Constantine.

Irene was almost immediately confronted with a conspiracy which she heard was to raise to the throne the Caesar Nikephoros, a half-brother of Leo IV. To overcome this challenge, she had Nikephoros and his co-conspirators ordained as priests, a status which disqualified them from ruling, and ordered them to administer Holy Communion on Christmas Day.

As early as 781, Irene began to seek a closer relationship with the Carolingian dynasty and the Papacy. She negotiated a marriage between her son and Rotrude, a daughter of Charlemagne by his third wife Hildegard. Irene went as far as to send an official to instruct the Frankish princess in Greek; however, Irene herself broke off the engagement in 787, against her son’s wishes.

Irene next had to subdue a rebellion led by Elpidius, the strategos of Sicily, whose family was tortured and imprisoned, while a fleet was sent, which succeeded in defeating the Sicilians. Elpidius fled to Africa, where he defected to the Arabs. After the success of Constantine V’s general, Michael Lachanodrakon, who foiled an Arab attack on the eastern frontiers, the strategos of the Bucellarian Theme, Tatzates, defected to the Arabs, but due to the failure of negotiations Irene had to agree to pay an annual tribute of 70 or 90,000 dinars to the Arabs for a three year truce, give them 10,000 silk garments and provide them with guides, provisions and access to markets during their withdrawal.

Rule and resolution of the Iconoclasm controversy

Her most notable act was the restoration of the Orthodox veneration of icons (images of Christ or the saints). Having elected Tarasios, one of her partisans, to the patriarchate in 784, she summoned two church councils. The first of these, held in 786 at Constantinople, was frustrated by the opposition of the soldiers. The second, convened at Nicaea in 787, formally revived the veneration of icons and reunited the Eastern church with that of Rome.[1] (See Seventh Ecumenical Council.)

While this improved relations with the Papacy, it did not prevent the outbreak of a war with the Franks, who took over Istria and Benevento in 788. In spite of these reverses, Irene’s military efforts met with some success: in 782 her favoured courtier Staurakios subdued the Slavs of the Balkans and laid the foundations of Byzantine expansion and re-Hellenization in the area. Nevertheless, Irene was constantly harried by the Arabs, and in 782 and 798 had to accept the terms of the respective Caliphs Al-Mahdi and Harun al-Rashid.

As Constantine approached maturity he began to grow restless under her autocratic sway. An attempt to free himself by force was met and crushed by the empress, who demanded that the oath of fidelity should thenceforward be taken in her name alone. The discontent which this occasioned swelled in 790 into open resistance, and the soldiers, headed by the Armeniacs, formally proclaimed Constantine VI as the sole ruler.

A hollow semblance of friendship was maintained between Constantine and Irene, whose title of empress was confirmed in 792; but the rival factions remained, and Irene, by skillful intrigues with the bishops and courtiers, organized a powerful conspiracy on her own behalf. Constantine could only flee for aid to the provinces, but even there participants in the plot surrounded him. Seized by his attendants on the Asiatic shore of the Bosphorus, Constantine was carried back to the palace at Constantinople; there, his eyes were gouged out. He died from his wounds several days later. A solar eclipse and a darkness of 17 days’ duration were attributed by common superstition to the horror of Heaven.

Although it is often claimed that, as monarch, Irene called herself “basileus” (βασιλεύς), ’emperor’, rather than “basilissa” (βασίλισσα), ’empress’, in fact there are only three instances where it is known that she used the title “basileus”: two legal documents in which she signed herself as “Emperor of the Romans” and a gold coin of hers found in Sicily bearing the title of “basileus”. In relation to the coin, the lettering is of poor quality and the attribution to Irene may, therefore, be problematic. In reality, she used the title “basilissa” in all other documents, coins and seals.

Legacy

Irene reigned for five years, from 797 to 802. Pope Leo III, who needed help against enemies in Rome and who saw the throne of the Byzantine emperor as vacant (lacking a male occupant), crowned Charlemagne as Roman Emperor in 800. This was seen as an insult to Byzantium and the Orthodox Church and caused another rift between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. Nevertheless, Irene is said to have endeavoured to negotiate a marriage between herself and Charlemagne; but according to Theophanes the Confessor, who alone mentions it, the scheme was frustrated by Aetios, one of her favourites.[3]

In 802 the patricians conspired against her and placed on the throne Nikephoros, the minister of finance (logothetēs tou genikou). Irene was exiled to Lesbos and forced to support herself by spinning. She died the following year.

Her zeal in restoring the icons and monasteries made Theodore the Studite praise her as a saint[4] of the Eastern Orthodox Church, but she was not canonized. Claims about her supposed canonization are mainly from Western sources.[5] Such claims are not supported by the Menaion (the official liturgical book providing the propers of the saints of the Orthodox Church), the “Lives of Saints” by Nikodemos the Hagiorite, or any other relative book of the Orthodox Church.

Family

By her marriage to Emperor Leo IV the Khazar, Irene had only one son Constantine VI, whom she succeeded on the throne. A female relative of Irene, Theophano was chosen in 807 by Emperor Nikephoros I as the bride of his son and heir Staurakios. An unnamed female relative was married to the Bulgar ruler Telerig in 776. Irene also had a nephew.

Advertisements

About proverbs6to10

Interested in Byzantium and Patrick Leigh Fermor
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s