Not much is known about Irene’s early life. She born between 750 and 755 CE and was related in some way to the noble Greek Sarantapechos family of Athens. She was an orphan, and there is some mystery around why she was chosen from obscurity to be the bride of Leo IV, heir to Constantinople. It is thought she might have been selected in the first instance of a “bride show”, where girls of outstanding beauty were brought together and a wife was chosen. There is no evidence of this though.
However, she came to the attention of Constantine V Copronymus, the ‘dung-named’ so nicknamed after an unfortunate baptismal font incident as an infant, he married Irene to his son Leo in the chapel of St. Stephen in the Daphne palace. She was crowned in the same ceremony. The couple had a son, named Constantine after his grandfather. Four years later, Leo succeeded his father Constantine to the throne of the Byzantine Empire. Little Constantine was made co-emperor with his father when the child was five years old. This did not make Leo’s half brothers happy as they were angling to get a share of the inheritance. However, Irene and her son withstood the first of many conspiracies against them.
Abruptly, Leo died when Constantine was ten years old under mysterious circumstances. There was a rumor Leo died of a fever after taking and wearing a jeweled crown from the church of St. Sophia. This was supposed to be the wrath of God. However, other rumors persisted that his death came from a more earthly sources- Irene, as she stepped in as Empress-Regent for her young son. The jeweled crown story was not just to cover Irene’s tracks. This period in Byzantine history is fraught with conflicts between iconoclasts and iconophiles. Icons were images, most of which were beautifully wrought and encrusted with gold, jewels and swathed in silks, of God and the saints. Leo and his forefathers were iconoclast, which meant they followed a strict prohibition against images because they felt they were blasphemous. Many of the icons were destroyed. Irene was an iconophile, and revered the icons as holy. The crown story put a stain on Leo’s memories, and helped gather support for the policy u-turn on the icons Irene began implementing.
Again, Leo’s half brothers raised their head and tried to overthrow Irene. She had the head of the revolt, Nicephorus, as well as other generals and consuls arrested, scourged and tonsured, or forcibly made monks. Nicephorus and his brothers were ordained priests, which disqualified them from becoming emperor. The brothers were forced to administer communion at Christmas Day mass in St. Sophia. Although it was a regency, Irene began ruling in her own name. She issued coins holding the orb of state and Constantine’s name was placed on the reverse. She replaced minister with men who owed their power to her not her husband or father-in-law. They were inexperienced, but were loyal and that was what Irene was looking for. She and her minister, Staurakios, ruled the empire. The empire grew rich from trade, especially the silk trade. Irene recognized its importance, and like China before them the Byzantine Empire tried to corner the market. Irene built the palace of Eleutherios, which was surrounded by the silk workshops. These were mostly staffed by women, and because of fears of having the skilled workers kidnapped they were not allowed to leave.
Little Constantine came of age and was ready to rule in his own right, however, Irene was not ready to step aside. He mounted a rebellion, but unfortunately for him an earthquake gave Irene and Staurakios time to counter his plans. Irene had her son imprisoned and made the imperial army swear they would never allow him to rule and they would only be loyal to her. However, she was not popular with the army before and this did not improve that at all. Constantine finally got his rebellion and confined his mother her palace of Eleutherios, where she was as trapped as the silk workers. Constantine did not make an especially good showing as a ruler. He was defeated by the Bulgars and the Arabs. The generals tried to bring back his Uncle Nicephorus, but Constantine was not going quietly and had his uncles blinded and their tongues torn out. There was a old law that the Emperor had to be of sound body, so anyone missing organs was right out.
Constantine was on the wrong side of the army, and got himself on the wrong side of the church when he tried to divorce his wife and marry a new one. He went ahead and put his mistress on the throne, but no one was happy about it. When the new wife miscarried a son, Irene sprung into action. Constantine was riding back from an unsuccessful campaign against the Arabs when he was captured and taken back to Constantinople. He was thrown in a dungeon and his eyes gouged out, effectively making him ineligible for rule. There is debate as to whether Irene gave the order to maim her own son, but she must have certainly knew about it. Constantine died not long after. Irene was the sole ruler of Constantinople, and empire was thicker than blood.
The Empire was frantic. With Constantine dead, there was no heir and Irene was getting on in years and a woman besides. At one point, it was proposed she marry Charlemagne, which would have united the Eastern and Western empires for the first time in hundreds of years. Pope Leo had declared the throne of Constantinople technically empty since Irene was a woman. This would unite the empires and put a man on the throne. However, no self respecting Byzantine wanted to see a barbarian Frank on as Basileus of Constantinople. Irene’s minister of finance, another Nicephorus, mounted a coup d’etat and crowned himself emperor. Irene was exiled to the island of Lesbos and forced to support herself by spinning wool. She died a year later on August 9, 803.
Sources available on request