An East Roman (Byzantine) empress, Irene of Athens (752-803) convened the Seventh Ecumenical Council and restored the veneration of icons in the Byzantine Empire. Her usurpation of the imperial throne created a theoretical justification for the coronation of Charlemagne.
The first woman ever to hold the throne of the Roman Caesars in her own right, however illegally, the empress Irene was born to an obscure but noble Greek family of Athens. Her beauty alone seems to have gained her the marriage to Leo, son of the Emperor Constantine V Copronymus (740-75). Ruthless and ambitious, she is widely suspected of having poisoned her husband after which she governed the Empire as regent and sole ruler for 22 years. Noted for her liberality, her freeing of prisoners and, above all, for her convening of the Second Council of Nicaea, and for her efforts to restore the veneration of sacred images, Irene was popular among the people despite the irregularity of her conduct of the affairs of state.
Irene came to power as regent for her son (780) in the midst of the iconoclastic controversy which wracked the Empire for a century (726-87, 815-43). The veneration of sacred images (icons) having grown in intensity and popularity ever since the legalization of Christianity in the fourth century, had developed remarkably in the sixth and seventh centuries, especially encouraged by the emperors of the Heraclid dynasty. It had become so extreme in the East—to the point of bordering on idolatry—that a reaction developed against the practice. To their defenders, the icons were mere representations, visible images of invisible realities, subject to respect and devotion but never to veneration or worship—the position of the Roman Catholic Church to this day.
To the broad masses, however, especially the women, and to the monks who were drawn largely from the ranks of the common people, the line between the images and the sacred reality they were meant to represent was easily blurred. Widely regarded as holy in and of themselves, the icons gradually began to take the place of the idols that Christianity had overthrown. The first assault upon the icons was launched in the Arab Empire, the caliphate, whose ruler Yazid II, supposedly under Jewish influence (the details are very unclear), ordered the icons in Syria to be destroyed. Three years later, the emperor Leo III, never an enemy of images before, suddenly destroyed a major icon and issued an edict against their veneration in 730. When the patriarch of Constantinople, Germanus, showed a lack of sympathy for the emperor's policy, he was deposed the same year, and iconoclasm was firmly pursued despite fierce opposition from the monks.
The chief argument against the creation of images— that the practice violated the second commandment—was easily rejected by iconophiles on the grounds that the biblical injunction referred to images of false gods—idols—and that having revealed himself in the person of Christ and having bestowed His sanctity upon the Virgin and all His saints, the representation of real and tangible personages was valid. A much more complex, intellectual, and refined argument, however, was offered by the Syrian Christian philosopher Mansur, better known as St. John of Damascus, held by both the Catholic and Orthodox churches to have been the last of the Greek "Fathers of the Church." All subsequent arguments of a theological nature in favor of icons were based on his view, namely that the transitory image of the divine—i.e., the icon accessible to the senses—was a necessary link between man's perception of reality and the absolute reality of things divine accessible only to the soul.
There were several sources for the anti-image movement—iconoclasm or "image-smashing," as it came to be known. The biblical injunction and the excesses of veneration observed among the common people, already cited, were two major ones but not the least were the scorn of the Muslims (and Jews) who accused the Byzantines of idolatry, the hostility of the Monophysite Christians of Egypt and Syria who emphasized the unity of the divine—and hence undepictable—nature of Christ, and the hostility of the army with its vast number of Armenian officers and common soldiers whose national church also rejected such holy pictures. On the side of the iconoclasts were also found certain of the Isaurian (actually Syrian) emperors, and, it would appear, the urban mob. On the side of the iconophiles (image-lovers) or iconodules (image-adorers) were the papacy (with suitable cautions), the monks, and the female population. Iconoclasm was especially prevalent in the eastern parts of the Empire; iconophilism in the West. Irene, being an Athenian, was not only a woman but a "westerner" by birth and a devotee of the veneration of the icons who chose to espouse the iconophile cause.
In planning their restoration of icon-worship in the Empire, Irene and her advisors moved with caution, shrewdly awaiting the death of the iconoclastic Paul IV, patriarch of the Imperial Church, before appointing as his replacement the learned Tarasius (784-806). A well-born and highly educated court prelate, skilled in diplomacy, Tarasius was head of the imperial chancellery and de facto prime minister of the Empire. Meanwhile, during the minority of her son, who was only ten when his father died, the empress contented herself with removing iconoclastic generals and other officers, and seeing to it that her husband's five brothers were one by one forced into monasteries to forestall any potential coups. In 785, soon after his elevation, Tarasius invited Pope Hadrian to send delegates to a council, the purpose of which was to reverse the condemnation of the icons issued by the Council of 754.
The first attempt by Irene to convoke the council occurred in Constantinople on May 31, 786, when a conclave attended by the papal delegates was convened in the Church of the Holy Apostles. The council was immediately dispersed by hostile troops recruited by Constantine VI to guard the capital and the papal representatives returned to Sicily, but Irene shrewdly had Constantine's troops shipped to Asia on the pretext of their being sent on a campaign against the Arabs. She then replaced them with Bithynian troops more favorable to her views.
The ecclesiastical gathering was then reconvened in the nearby city of Nicaea, where the First Ecumenical Council had been held nearly 500 years before. Known as the Second Council of Nicaea or the Seventh Ecumenical Council, more than 300 bishops attended this conclave which lasted from September 13 to October 13, 787. Irene managed the council in absentia but when it was clear that her campaign for the restoration of iconolatry had been successful, the attending prelates were brought to Constantinople for the eighth and last session which was held in the capital.
At the end of the deliberations, iconolatry was reestablished, iconoclasts were anathematized, and Constantine VI and his mother were hailed as the new "Constantine and Helena," in reference to the first Christian Roman Emperor and his pious mother. In more far-reaching matters, whenever icons came under attack in the future, those in favor of their use had all the carefully thought out and well-formulated arguments of Nicaea II at their disposal. The council was further hallowed in the minds of the Greeks by the fact that it was to become the last Ecumenical Council recognized by the Greek Church. In the short run, there is no question that the Byzantine government appreciated the support of the monks in favor of iconolatry and, just as they restored the icons, Constantine VI and Irene reversed the policies of Constantine V and Leo III secularizing the enormous monastic estates and limiting the number of monks in the capital.
In dynastic matters, Irene moved as shrewdly as she had done in ecclesiastical affairs. As early as 782, she had arranged for her son, then only 12, to marry Rotrud, daughter of Charlemagne, king of the Franks (786-814), the greatest Western ruler of the age, and had a tutor sent to his capital at Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen) to teach the German princess Greek and whatever else she might need to know about her future homeland, before her arrival. In 786, however, Charlemagne repudiated this brilliant alliance for reasons that are not clear but which probably concerned the council convened at Nicaea that year without his consultation and his own iconoclast resentment of Irene's well-known iconophile views. In any case, the rupture of the proposed union does not appear to have overly disturbed the empress, who, increasingly ambitious, had good reason not to want a daughter-in-law of such eminent rank. In 788, she arranged for Constantine to marry a certain Maria of Amnia, the daughter of a well-to-do but otherwise obscure family of Paphlagonia (supposedly as the result of a beauty contest held to select the bride). A single daughter was born of this marriage; she eventually reigned as the consort of Michael II (820-829).
For nearly two decades, Irene's power as regent was secure, but as Constantine VI approached manhood, he was determined to rule for himself. Fearing her son's growing independence, Irene pressed too far when she demanded that her own name precede that of his in all public documents. A plot was then hatched to remove Irene from power and have her banished to Sicily, but she learned of this in time and had her son confined in the palace, demanding a direct oath of allegiance to herself from the military. Upon learning of this, the troops of the Armeniac theme (military province) rebelled, secured the liberation of the emperor, and excluded Irene and her entourage of eunuch supporters from the palace.
Once in full power, Constantine embarked on a luckless war against the Bulgars in April 791 and another against the Arabs in October of the same year. Unsuccessful in the field and increasingly unpopular, in January 792, the emperor was rash enough to restore his mother to her former position of authority. Exactly three years later, however, in January 795, Constantine shocked public opinion by repudiating his empress-wife, placing her in a convent, and, on October 7, 796, entering into an irregular marriage with Theodote, one of her ladies-in-waiting. A son was born of this union but, although the patriarch was willing to grant a dispensation for the marriage, this son was considered illegitimate by the monks and the Church at large, and probably would never have reigned even if he had not died in infancy.
Though the monks were furious with Constantine for what they considered his sinful behavior and feared anything that might weaken the authority of the Church which was the basis for their own power, Irene appears to have supported her son's marital escapade precisely to create a reason for removing him from the throne. Though strengthened by a military victory against the Bulgars and on his way to meet the Arabs in battle, Constantine's perennial ineptitude allowed his mother to concoct a clever plot oiled with bribery, involving both civilian and army personnel. When Constantine learned of it, he chose to flee rather than stand his ground.
Captured as he attempted to reach the East, where loyal troops might be secured, he was brought to the palace to the Porphyry Chamber, where he had been born but 27 years before. There, on August 15, 797, he was blinded at his mother's orders, a frequently practiced maneuver that by Byzantine norms rendered a member of the imperial family unfit to reign. Constantine would die shortly after his mutilation, which was probably conducted in such a way as to achieve this result.
With the monks already inimical to him because of his adulterous marriage, he stood as a likely candidate around which the iconoclastic party, now in disarray, might conceivably rally and find a friend and supporter. Irene's ruthlessness and lust for power, hopelessly entwined with her fanatical devotion to the restoration of icons, had overcome all maternal instinct, all human feelings, and all fear of public opinion both at home and abroad. Constantine had to go, and Irene was willing to execute him. In this way, she became the first woman to sit upon the throne established by Augustus over eight centuries before and an all-male preserve until her time.
The overthrow of Constantine VI and seizure of the throne by Irene had grave repercussions that indirectly altered the history of the Western world. As early as 475, the Byzantine Church had been in schism with that of Rome and not until 519 was the patriarch of Constantinople reconciled with the pope. The collapse of Byzantine rule in Rome left the pope free of imperial influence but further alienated the center of the Church from the center of the Empire. The Slavic invasions of Eastern Europe which cut Constantinople from land contact with Rome were followed by the Arab domination of the Mediterranean that made contact by sea increasingly difficult, as well. To these strains were added the hostilities engendered by the iconoclastic controversy which pitted the icon-favoring popes against the iconoclastic emperors for most of the eighth century.
During this period from the fifth through the eighth centuries, the papacy had come to rely increasingly on the support of the Frankish kings, who, after the defeat of the Muslims at Poitiers in 732, could justly be hailed as the defenders of the faith. In any case, Charlemagne, greatest of the Frankish kings and master of a realm that stretched from northern Spain to Poland encompassing France, Germany, Northern Italy, and all Central Europe, was a force to be reckoned with. Although, in theory, the Byzantine Empire was the direct continuation of the Roman Empire of old and it was always recognized that there was but one Empire in the Christian world, the removal of Constantine VI from the throne in 797 and his replacement by his mother constituted a most disturbing turn of events.
While the coup that had cast Constantine from the throne, though illegal, was not without precedent, the placing of a woman on the imperial throne was a thing unheard of in Roman history since the empire had been founded in the first century b.c. The emperor was not a king to be succeeded by his widow or his daughter. Rather, he was the holder of a composite of offices, titles, and positions, including that of commander in chief of the army, all of which had been traditionally held only by men. Since a woman could not legally hold any of these positions (least of all that of commander of the army), the idea of a female emperor was a contradiction in terms.
With Irene on the throne, whatever the circumstances that brought her there, the Pope could legitimately consider the Roman throne to be legally vacant. Thus, it was on Christmas Day, in the year 800, during a visit of Charlemagne to Rome that the pope—undoubtedly with the king's prior knowledge and acquiescence—placed on his head an imperial crown, bestowing upon Charlemagne the title "Holy Roman Emperor" and thereby recognizing his vast realm as the restoration of the Roman Empire in the West.
Charlemagne was astute enough to realize, of course, that Irene's reign would one day end and that he would eventually be faced with an emperor legitimate in Byzantine eyes. He therefore sent emissaries to seek the empress's hand in marriage, apparently with the idea that after the death of the surviving partner one of his own children would succeed them since Irene's only son was dead and she was past childbearing age. Irene consented to this marriage, which accorded well with her ambitions and which would legalize her position, but her fall prevented its conclusion.
Thereafter, until its extinction by Napoleon in 1806, the term "Roman Empire" was used throughout Western Europe to refer to the holdings of the Holy Roman Emperor, whereas, for as long as it lasted (i.e., until the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453), Europeans would refer to the Byzantine state—to the dismay and outrage of its rulers—as the "Empire of the Greeks."
Although it was said of Irene that she had the mind of a man, she was not a competent ruler and much of her reign was dominated by the struggle between her favorite eunuchs. The army was demoralized and alienated by her conduct of affairs; the Arabs invaded Asia Minor as far as Ephesus and ravaged the frontier provinces until peace was obtained by the payment of a large tribute to the caliph, Harun al-Rashid. To curry favor with the masses, Irene reduced some taxes, especially in the capital, and abolished others, moves that were to prove ruinous coupled with the ravages experienced during the Arab invasion. In 802, Irene was finally overthrown by a palace coup led by Nicephorus, her own minister of finance. Realizing that her fall was final, Irene had the intelligence to step aside gracefully thereby perhaps saving herself from physical harm. Despite the dissatisfaction with her rule, however, Irene had many friends, especially among the monks who adored her, and she was allowed to live out the rest of her life in dignified exile on the island of Lesbos where she died in 803.
Irene of Athens was one of the most ruthless, ambitious, and forceful women ever to hold a throne and, in her determination to prevent her son from reigning and her boldness in daring to become the first woman ever to hold the Roman throne, she ranks with Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt and Catherine the Great as a profound breaker with dynastic tradition. Her convocation of the Second Council of Nicaea laid the institutional foundation for the permanent restoration of the icons in the Greek Church and codified the intellectual arguments in favor of the iconophile position. Perhaps most important of all, Irene's usurpation of the throne provided the ideological justification for the coronation of Charlemagne the Great as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, an institution that was to survive and to trouble Europe until laid to rest by Napoleon. In this way, she changed the course of European history and left a recognizable seal upon it for a millennium after her death.
Further Reading on Irene of Athens
Canons of the Second Council of Nicaea. Theophanes. Chronicle. Translated by H. Turtledove. University of Pennsylvania, 1982.
Anastos, M.V. "Iconoclasm and Imperial Rule 717-842," in Cambridge Medieval History, Vol. IV, The Byzantine Empire, Part I: Byzantium and its Neighbors. Chapt. III, Cambridge, England, 1966.
Jenkins, Romilly. Byzantium: the Imperial Centuries a.d. 610-1071. Random House, 1966.
Ostrogorsky. The History of the Byzantine State. Rutgers University Press, 1957.
Vasiliev, A. A. History of the Byzantine Empire 324-1453. University of Wisconsin, 1952.