Beauty, brains, and an iron will: Irene of Athens used all of these to stay in power in the cut-throat world of the Byzantine Empire. Officially, Irene may have been a regent for her son the Emperor, but unofficially? Everyone knew that she called the shots. Brace yourself: We’re unveiling the story of Irene’s spectacular rise to power and her chilling fall from grace.
Irene Of Athens Facts
1. She Suffered A Tragedy Early On
Irene was born in Athens, sometime between 750-755. We don’t know much about her parents, but she was very young when they passed, leaving the poor little girl at the mercy of different relatives. Since Irene didn’t have any siblings, she must have had quite a lonely childhood being shuttled from one house to another. But even if her extended family didn’t shower Irene with love, their general fanciness did help her out. Irene’s distinguished relatives put her in the running to marry the Emperor’s son.
2. She Wasn’t The Most Likely Candidate For Empress
No one knows exactly how the Roman Emperor, Constantine V, came to choose Irene as the bride of his son Leo IV. While she definitely came from an honorable family, many other hopefuls were better suited to the title. Our best guess as to how Irene snagged Leo’s hand? It’s simple: She was hot. Irene’s incredible beauty caught Leo’s eye—but at the same time, her good looks had a dark side too.
3. She Had a Creepy “Courtship”
Some historians believe that Leo selected Irene at a dicey event called a “bride show.” This was an unholy hybrid of a fashion show and an auction, with the grand prize being marriage with the Emperor’s son. If this is how Leo and Irene’s meet-ugly went down, it was definitely an unorthodox method for choosing a royal bride. Spoiler: Irene’s love life would get even weirder as the years went on.
4. She Clashed With Her New Family
From the get go, Irene and Leo weren’t exactly a match made in heaven. Irene was an iconophile, which means she worshipped holy images, while Constantine V and Leo were totally against sacred pictures. Honest to God, that’s what this enormous disagreement boils down to—old timey religion is weird! Even though it sounds like small change to us, this disagreement was a major problem. Over the years, it would lead to enormous feuds, as we shall soon see…
5. She Did Her “Duty”
Sure, Irene had controversial ideas about religion—but she had what’s most important in a royal bride: A healthy reproductive system. Our girl got pregnant and gave birth to a son soon after she celebrated her first anniversary with Leo. The ecstatic new parents named their boy Constantine VI after his grandfather. But the happy days didn’t last very long.
6. She Gained An Important Title
Sadly, Constantine Senior did not live to get to know his grandson too well. He passed when the child was just four and with his demise, his son Leo officially became the Emperor. Since this change in circumstances meant that Irene levelled up to become Leo’s Empress Consort, one can imagine she wasn’t too heartbroken about her father-in-law’s passing. However, Irene’s ascent to Empress wasn’t without complications.
7. She Was A Fierce Ally
Are you even an emperor if you don’t have power-hungry relatives trying to kick you off the throne? Almost immediately after Leo became the head honcho of the Byzantine Empire, he learned that the job had other, let’s say, interested applicants. His own half-brothers challenged his reign, forcing Irene and Leo to fight fire with fire. Some sources claim that Irene suggested a vicious punishment: Under her guidance, Leo sentenced his own relatives to exile. Unfortunately for the royal couple, this wouldn’t be the last they saw of their would-be usurpers.
8. He Returned The Favor
Leo IV got his wife a unique push present: Religious tolerance! He became more accepting about his wife’s reverence for icons, even though his family had a long history of banning that kind of thing. Breaking with tradition (and perhaps looking a little whipped?), Leo appointed iconophile monks to high positions in his court. Irene had a strong influence on her man, but she couldn’t get too comfortable: It didn’t last.
9. He Had A Change Of Heart
After three years of accepting his wife’s different beliefs, Leo IV suddenly had a change of heart. He started cracking down on anyone suspected of icon-worship and brought back his dad’s practice of persecuting and torturing them. A number of Leo’s own ex-courtiers faced these drastic treatments. Why did Leo suddenly start singing a different tune, you ask? It all goes back to our girl Irene.
10. He Caught Her Red-Handed
Apparently, Leo discovered some sacred images beneath Irene’s pillow. Apparently jealous that his wife had eyes for another (even if said other was a long-dead saint), Leo became furious. Irene struck back, vehemently denying that she had put them there. She said that someone was framing her, which was a fair point. After all, Irene was smart—and trying to hide things from your husband by putting them in the bed you share is a really dumb idea.
No matter what you believe, we can all agree on one thing: Leo’s discovery had huge consequences for both Irene and the country at large. Buckle up, y’all.
11. She Received A Cruel Punishment
After this kerfuffle, Leo refused to sleep with his wife. He was so disappointed in her lack of regard for his policies and beliefs that the relationship became extremely strained from that point onwards. Luckily for Irene, though, Leo just so happened to drop dead suspiciously soon after she fell out of favor with her husband. Was his demise just good fortune…or something more sinister?
12. Circumstances Favored Her
There are many theories about just how and why Emperor Leo passed. The simplest blamed his demise on poor health and stress (hey, being Emperor isn’t easy). The most scandalous theory is that Irene saw the tide was turning against her. To get out of an uncomfortable situation, she poisoned her husband. With that, Irene’s road to power was cleared of its main obstruction.
13. She Became Powerful
Once Leo was out of the picture, his nine-year-old son inherited the title. However, because Constantine was just a kid, his mother generously offered to act as his co-regent. This basically meant that Irene was the de facto ruler of the entire Byzantine Empire. Her son meanwhile was more of a token figurehead. Naturally, this did not sit well with many people, including several contenders to Irene’s throne.
14. She Fended Off Threats
Remember Leo’s half brothers? The ones who tried to overthrow him? Well, they resurfaced after his passing and decided to get the gang back together for one more shot at the throne. Little did they know they’d picked a battle with the wrong woman. When Irene found out they were plotting to get rid of her, she had their army caught, persecuted, and banished. And her revenge didn’t stop there.
15. She Dealt With Enemies
Leo’s brother, Nikephoros was the main mastermind of the plan to dethrone Irene. She came up with the brilliant idea to have him and his other brothers all ordained as priests, since a member of the clergy wasn’t allowed to rule. To add insult to injury, she had them serve mass at the Hagia Sophia on Christmas, so everyone would know of their change in status!
I think it’s safe to say that Irene was a woman you wouldn’t wanna cross.
16. She Also Tried To Build Bridges
Fearing that she’d probably put her in-laws’ backs up, Irene made an effort to extend an olive branch to her husband’s family. She did this by offering his sister Anthousa to become co-regent with her. Anthousa was having none of it however and politely refused to rule alongside her sister-in-law. Still mad about those “Irene maybe poisoned Leo” rumors, are we?
17. She Showed ‘Em Who’s Boss
Technically, Irene wasn’t the emperor. She was just filling in until her son was old enough. Despite this, Irene enjoyed her time near the throne. She made sure that coins had both herself as well as her son on them, with her image on the obverse (the “heads” side of the coin). Apparently not a subtle woman, Irene’s image also held the orb that was traditionally wielded by the ruler in power. Clearly, she believed she was much more than her son’s regent.
18. She Believed In Making A Statement
Unfortunately for Leo’s Evil Brother-In-Law #1, he didn’t learn his lesson. Even after Irene put Nikephoros in his place, he colluded with the Sicilian governor to overthrow Irene and replace her as her son’s regent. Just like last time, Irene discovered his plot and surprise, surprise, was none too pleased! She felt her enemies needed a loud and clear message, and she chose a bone-chilling way to let them know how she felt.
19. She Was Pretty Brutal
Irene sent a summons for the Sicilian governor Elpidios, but his loyal citizens stood by his side and refused to give him up. She retaliated by seizing his family, whom he had left in Constantinople. She thought submitting them to persecution and imprisonment would force Elpidios to surrender. Spoiler alert: It didn’t. He refused to back down, forcing Irene to send her men to capture him. Elpidios got out of that jam too, successfully escaping to Africa.
Unluckily for Irene, she hadn’t seen the end of Elpidios just yet.
20. Her Intentions Were Clear
File this one under “Wow, Irene, if you want people to stop trying to kick you off the throne, you could maybe, I don’t know, be a little less obvious about your lust for power?” Although Irene was only Empress Consort, she did not seem to consider her position temporary. She signed royal documents using the title of “Emperor” for herself.
21. She Had An Unfortunate Predecessor
Were all Irene’s outlandish gestures a way to scare off her enemies and hold onto power? If so, she may have been onto something. You see, Irene had good reason to be insecure about her future. The first Byzantine Empress, Martina, had met a horrendous fate. The people never accepted her and they showed their displeasure by slicing her tongue, chopping her sons’ noses off, then exiling her. Yeah…I can’t really fault Irene for not wanting a repeat of that.
22. She Planned A Strategic Marriage
Irene made an ambitious match for her son with Charlemagne’s daughter, Rotrude. Since Charlemagne was a powerful king, Irene probably figured that uniting their families would secure her and Constantine’s position as rulers. It sounded like a solid plan, but Irene shocked everyone (and puzzled historians forever after) with her next action.
23. She Double Crossed Her Ally
Clearly, Irene had been excited about the match between Rotrude and Constantine. Heck, she even asked her son’s bride-to-be to learn Greek and Roman customs. But after a couple years, she pulled the plug on the engagement, much to the boy’s distress. Some historians think that Irene ended things because she was a classic overbearing mom who didn’t want to share Constantine with anyone else. But we all know what happens when you smother things: They become even more desperate for independence…
24. Her Old Enemies Re-Emerged
Remember Elpidios, the Sicilian governor who escaped Irene’s wrath back in the day? He still had a bone to pick with Irene, so he defected to the Abbasid Caliphate, the ruling authority in Africa and Asia. Their leader invaded Anatolia on Elpidios’s behest. Irene sent her armies to stop the invasion. She was sure they’d win, but she was so, so wrong.
25. She Paid A Price For Peace
Irene’s army was no match for the Abbasids and after some days of fighting, her men had to surrender. In a humiliating concession, Irene was forced to pay an annual tribute of 70-90k dinars to the Abbasids to get them to agree to a three-year truce. She also gave them silk garments and provided them with a safe passage to vacate the territory. It was, in other words, Irene’s rock bottom. Well, up until now. Trust me, things will get worse later.
26. She Wanted To End Iconoclasm
One of Irene’s dearest ambitions was to end the practice of “icon-smashing” and bring back the reverence she felt that religious symbols and images deserved. But this wasn’t going to be a quick fix, so Irene started drawing up a clever plan. She decided to bide her time until Paul IV (patriarch of the Imperial Church) passed away. Once that happened, Irene could appoint a new patriarch, who’d support her beliefs. On paper, the plan made perfect sense. In practice, however, it was a complete disaster.
27. She Was Persistent In The Face Of Failure
Irene chose Tarasios as the new patriarch and he called for a council to support “Bring Back Icons, We Love Icons, Woo Woo!” Delegates from Rome were supposed to attend, only for the council to be disrupted by furious icon-smashing soldiers. They invaded the event and terrified the delegates into fleeing. Despite this frightening setback, our gal Irene was undeterred. She got to work coming up with a brand new plan.
28. She Won A Precious Prize
Irene came up with the genius idea to send half of army to Asia to defend the empire against the Arabs. There was just one problem: The threat didn’t exist. It was all a lie to get the icon-smashers out of town. With them gone, Irene replaced them with a force that was more sympathetic to her cause and called another meeting with the Papal delegates. This council officially ended the ban on icon veneration. With this, Irene finally achieve her long-time goal—only for everything to crumble around her.
29. Some Things Didn’t Go Her Way
Not everything was hunky dory during Irene’s co-reign. She had to deal with a conflict with the Franks, who seized some important land away from her. The Abassids, who we’ve already met, also gave her grief, forcing her to agree to more humiliating terms after their first truce ended. But, as they say in old school horror movies, the biggest threat was coming from inside Irene’s house.
30. She Dreaded Losing Power
By this point, Irene’s son (remember, the real emperor) was getting older and craving independence. Irene began to realize that he might not be content playing second fiddle for too much longer. Mother and son were already clashing on certain ideas (Irene loved icons; Constantine hated them). Oh, and there was also the issue of Irene, y’know, forcing him to dump his girlfriend Rotrude. Irene had to think a way of bringing him to heel, fast. Unfortunately she…did not.
31. She Was Pretty Controlling
Not only did Irene end her son’s engagement to the girl he loved, she also decided to choose the next girl he would marry! Ironically, she chose her through a bride show (the same unromantic chattel-y way that Irene herself was allegedly chosen for Leo IV). Maybe Irene felt that choosing Constantine’s bride would help her keep control over the throne and the Empire? No matter her motivation, man oh man, this was a bad idea.
32. Her Son Struck Back
Constantine tied the knot with Maria of Amnia, his mama’s choice, but rebelled by making zero effort to make the marriage work. The couple did have two daughters, but the young emperor clearly didn’t consider them a reason to try and get along with his wife. Their story ultimately had a heartbreaking end, especially for poor Maria.
33. He Was Quite Selfish
Irene probably didn’t think her mama’s boy son would ever completely reject one of her orders. And yet, he got pretty darn close. He didn’t say no to marrying Maria, but once he decided that he didn’t like her, he sentenced his mother’s #1 bride to a grim fate. Constantine exiled Maria to a convent and then divorced her later on. The public didn’t love this outcome but they were even more upset when they discovered why Constantine had lost interest in his wife.
34. Her Son Wanted Power
Irene may have imagined that she could keep Constantine in her shadow forever and continue to reign in his place. Of course, that plan went south. Constantine decided he’d had enough when mommy dearest declared that her name should precede the Emperor’s name in official documents. This was the last straw; Constantine hatched a plot to depose and banish Irene.
35. She Lashed Out
Purely by accident, Irene happened to discover her son’s plan. His betrayal infuriated her and she lashed out with a deranged gesture. Irene had Constantine confined to the palace until he swore an “oath of fidelity to her.” If you think that strong-arming your Emperor-son into an unconvincing pledge of loyalty sounds like a recipe for disaster, you’re not wrong!
36. He Got Power
Unfortunately for Irene, her method to retain rule didn’t work too well because the army liked Constantine way more than Irene. They stood by him and proclaimed him to be the sole ruler of the empire, leaving Irene with no choice but to step down. An uneasy truce was struck between mother and son, according to which Irene could retain her title of “co-ruler,” but gave her little more authority than that of a figurehead. Karma is real, people.
37. He Struck Back
Leo’s half brothers were nothing if not persistent. After trying to oust Irene and Leo, they gave Constantine’s reign a .02g.1o. However, like always, their plans failed—and Constantine made them regret it. He blinded one of his uncles, Nikephoros, and slit the tongues of the others. But as we’ll see, even this wouldn’t deter them forever. These dudes just don’t give up—even when they should really just stay home and treasure the organs they have left.
38. He Wasn’t The Best Ruler
Tragically for Constantine, he wasn’t really the most confidence-inducing emperor of all time. After ousting his mother, his reign was a series of let-downs. He lost multiple campaigns against the Arabs and Bulgars and just couldn’t inspire his people to continue believing in him. Still, he might have continued in his position, if it wasn’t for one especially heinous mistake.
39. He Fell In Love With A Forbidden Woman
Remember how Constantine forced the wife of his mom’s choosing into a nunnery? Well, one of the reasons he never loved Maria was because he loved someone else: His mom’s lady-in-waiting. Her name was Theodote, and she was Constantine’s mistress before he threw caution to the winds and decided to marry her. As you can imagine, his people were none too pleased.
40. It Brought About His Downfall
Constantine married Theodote when he was around 25. Since he was technically single, Constantine didn’t imagine there would be a backlash to this decision. But wow, was he wrong! Patriarch Tarasius opposed the marriage and only accepted it after weeks had passed. Irene, on the other hand, didn’t throw any tantrums when she found out about Constantine and Theodote. However, if you know Irene, you know that she didn’t support the young couple out of the goodness of her heart. Nuh uh, she had yet another plan up her sleeve.
41. His Mother Was Ruthless
Irene knew that Constantine’s popularity was at an all-time low and that the people were already angry with him for divorcing his wife and marrying a maid. So Irene simply sat by and bided her time. She waited until she was sure that public opinion was completely against her son, and then she took her revenge. I can assure you that it was not pretty.
42. She Did Not Spare Her Own
When Constantine realized that his mother was about to lash out, he fled the palace, only to realize that he couldn’t go far. Irene’s men captured him and returned him to his furious mother. Irene decided that she’d had enough of Constantine’s disloyalty and the ordered her men to gouge out his eyes. The blindness and humiliation affected him so badly that he perished soon after the incident. And did everything work out for Irene after that? Wait and watch.
43. She Angered The Heavens
Irene’s devastating treatment of her own son didn’t go unnoticed by the universe. It resulted in a solar eclipse, which went on for a whopping seventeen days.
44. Her Old Enemies Reappeared
Guess who’s back? Back again? Leo’s half-brothers are back. Tell a friend. Seriously, these idiots are back AGAIN and they’re still trying to get Irene and her family off the throne. This time, they tried to take over Irene’s power but of course Irene discovered their plot and thwarted their plans. How do they not know better by this point? But not all of Irene’s enemies would be so easy to dispatch…
45. The Pope Wanted A Male Emperor
The clergy may have reluctantly accepted Constantine VI’s divorce and subsequent marriage, but they just couldn’t stomach the idea of having a woman on the throne after his passing. Pope Leo III therefore crowned Charlemagne as the true Roman emperor. However, the latter had no interest in seizing Irene’s authority. He was content to let her continue to reign. But…why? The answer is more scandalous than you might think.
46. Would She Remarry?
Talk about a power couple: Some sources insist that there had been talk of Irene marrying Charlemagne. While there is no written evidence, it’s certainly possible. It might have been a wise move as well, as it would have united the Eastern and Western parts of the Byzantine Empire. However, the matchmaking didn’t lead to an actual wedding. And sadly, there was yet another bend in the road for Irene.
47. She Was Forced Out
Here’s the deal: Irene was still holding onto power at this point. To keep the people on her side, she waived taxes and lowered duties. Good, right? Wrong. These were economically disastrous moves for the empire as a whole, leading the patriarchs to want to end her reign. As though that wasn’t bad enough, the army didn’t accept Irene as their leader. In this uncertain time, contenders began vying for the throne, but in the end, it was the public finance minister, Nikephoros, who deposed Irene. After staying on top for so long, Irene finally met her match.
Side note: Apparently the ancient world had like five names total. This Nikephorus is not the same dude as the inept uncle/brother-in-law/brother who kept trying to oust Irene and her family from the throne. Though this Nikephorus shared his name, this one actually succeeded.
48. She Knew When She Was Beaten
Irene realized that she was finally without any options, and there was no way she would be able to continue her rule. She stepped aside gracefully, hoping she wouldn’t have to face any physical punishment or humiliation. After decades of fighting for power, she just wanted to spend her final years in the palace as a private citizen, but Nikephoros had another plan up his sleeve.
49. She Spent Her Last Days In Exile
Nikephoros was a nasty piece of work. He told Irene he’d let her live in her palace if she disclosed the location of the imperial treasure. He was lying. Once he got the information, he broke his word and exiled Irene to Lesbos. She spent the rest of her days spinning wool to support herself and breathed her last in 803, less than a year after Nikephoros’s coup.
50. Some Remembered Her Fondly
There is no denying the historical significance of Irene’s rule. She restored monasteries and put an end to iconoclasm which made her a beloved of monks and orthodox believers. She even had a town named after her: Irenoupolis. Plus, allegedly the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrated her as a saint as well, although she was never canonized. All in all, not bad for an Empress Consort, eh?