- (c. 752-802)Empress, imperial regent, and even emperor herself (r. 797-802), Irene was an important and powerful figure at the Byzantine court in the late eighth and early ninth century. Irene was able to exercise great influence, in part because of the premature death of her husband, Leo IV (r. 775-780), but also because of her own talents and ambition. Like all emperors, Irene was active in religious, political, and military policy. She was in diplomatic contact with the great Carolingian ruler Charlemagne and even attempted to arrange a marriage alliance with the Carolingian. Her involvement in religious policy seriously strained relations with the church of Charlemagne. Her political ambitions also had serious repercussions in the Frankish world, particularly when she usurped the imperial throne from her son and gave Charlemagne's advisors a further justification for encouraging Charlemagne to take the imperial title.At the death of the iconoclastic emperor, Constantine V in 775, Leo IV succeeded to throne with his wife, Irene. With the early and unexpected death of Leo, Irene was thrust into great prominence in the Byzantine Empire as the regent for her young son Constantine VI (r. 780-797). Throughout the 780s, Irene was the guiding force in the empire and introduced important new policies that were often contrary to those of her predecessors, the most dramatic of which was overturning the policy of iconoclasm. Unlike Leo III, Constantine IV, and, to a lesser degree, Leo IV, Irene favored the veneration of icons as an integral part of religious life and practice in the Byzantine Church. Consequently in 787, with her son, Irene presided over the Second Council of Nicaea. This council officially reversed the iconoclastic policies of the previous three generations and restored icons to a respected place in the church. The council was ecumenical-its decisions were binding on all Christians-and was attended by a large number of bishops, monks, and priests from the Byzantine Empire. It also boasted two representatives of the pope, Hadrian I (772-795), whose presence confirmed the universal nature of the council. The pope's legates returned to Italy with the decisions of the council, which were to be accepted by the churches under Hadrian's authority. Indeed, the Council of Nicaea achieved two goals that undermined recent imperial policy: the abolition of iconoclasm and improvement in relations with the west.Irene's good relations with the pope established at the council were part of a broader effort on her part to improve relations with the leaders of western Europe. Her efforts to improve relations with western leaders, however, achieved only partial success, and the council at Nicaea was both a high point and a low point in her efforts to secure better relations with western leaders. Although she gained the good graces of the pope, Irene lost the good relations she had secured earlier in the decade with the most important leader in western Europe, Charlemagne. At the outset of her regency, in 781, Irene sought to arrange a marriage alliance with the great Carolingian ruler. Charlemagne was clearly pleased by the proposed marriage between his daughter, Rotrude (d. 839), and Irene's son and the future emperor, Constantine. The children were quite young at the time, ages six or seven and eleven respectively, but this would have been a marriage alliance of great importance, at least to the Carolingian ruler, who saw the prestige of the association with the imperial throne in Constantinople. The marriage, however, never came to be, and relations between Charlemagne and Irene worsened before the end of the 780s.Irene's support of the Lombard duke Arichis, whom she promised to grant the rank of patrician in return for his obedience, surely angered the great Carolingian, who sought to establish his authority over much of Italy. Even more serious damage was done to Carolingian-Byzantine relations by the council in 787. Although representatives of the pope were invited, no representatives of the Carolingian church, the largest church in western Europe, were invited. This slight enraged the great king and gravely harmed relations between Charlemagne and Irene. Indeed, in response to the council, Charlemagne commissioned an answer to the perceived errors of Irene's council. The Caroline Books (Libri Carolini) were written by Theodulf of Orléans, with some possible aid from Alcuin, to denounce the veneration of icons promoted by Irene. Based on faulty translations of the acts of the council, the Caroline Books were a bitter denunciation of Irene's policy as heresy and a statement of the orthodoxy of the Carolingian church.Although Irene's relationship with the greatest power of western Europe was seriously damaged by the late 780s, she spent most of the decade strengthening the empire. She had success quieting the unrest brought on by Leo the Isaurian's religious policy, as well as some success defending the frontiers of the empire. In 790, however, she faced a serious internal rival-her own son. In that year, Constantine, in full manhood by now and recently married to a Byzantine noble's daughter, sought to end his mother's excessive influence and assert his own authority. Irene was sent into internal exile from 790 to 797, and Constantine ruled as sole emperor. His reign was not the most successful, however; he faced military setbacks against Arab and Bulgarian armies on the empire's eastern and northern frontiers. He also divorced his wife to marry a woman at court, which caused great scandal in Byzantine society. His military failures and personal scandals undermined confidence in him and allowed for the return of his mother. On August 15, 797, she launched a successful coup, and she had Constantine arrested and blinded in the very room of his birth. Even though he probably survived the blinding, he was now rendered unfit to rule, and Irene ruled as emperor until 802, when she was overthrown.Although she did not rule as emperor for long, her usurpation was not without significant consequence, at least in western Europe. Indeed, her impact in the Byzantine Empire during her sole reign was not great, but her usurpation had important repercussions for Charlemagne and his court scholars. Already in the 790s Charlemagne's advisors had spoken of him in imperial terms, noting that he was a great conqueror who ruled over much of the old Western Roman Empire. Many of Charlemagne's advisors denounced Irene's actions, declaring that a woman could not rightfully hold the office of emperor. In a famous letter in 799, Alcuin noted that "the governor of that empire has been deposed by his own circle and citizens." For Alcuin, therefore, as for others around Charlemagne, the imperial throne was vacant because a woman claimed to hold it. Irene's deposition of her son and usurpation of the throne was used as a further justification for Charlemagne himself to claim the title of emperor. And, although the exact meaning for all involved remain unclear, Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III on December 25, 800. Irene's ambition and failure in relations with western Europe played some role in that great event.See alsoAlcuin of York; Carolingian Dynasty; Charlemagne; Hadrian I, Pope; Leo III, the Isaurian; Leo III, Pope; Theodulf of OrléansBibliography♦ Davis, Raymond, trans. The Lives of the Eighth-Century Popes (Liber Pontificalis): The Ancient Biographies of Nine Popes from a.d. 715 to a.d. 817. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 1992.♦ Herrin, Judith. The Formation of Christendom. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.♦ McKitterick, Rosamond. The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians. Longman: London, 1983.♦ Obolensky, Dmitri. The Byzantine Commonwealth: Eastern Europe, 500-1543. New York: Praeger, 1971.♦ Riché, Pierre. The Carolingians: A Family Who Forged Europe. Trans. Michael Idomir Allen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.♦ Sullivan, Richard. Heirs of the Roman Empire. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974.
Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.
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