Further Reading

Agrippina : Sex, Power, and Politics in the Early Empire

Matrona Docta : Educated Women in the Roman Elite

St. Irene was involved in a number of situations where miraculous help was delivered in response to her prayers. One of the most impressive involves the Emperor Basil, the succesor to Emperor Michael. A nobleman related to St. Irene had been wrongly imprisoned by the Emperor Basil. The family appealed to St. Irene for her help. She appeared to the Emperor in a dream, telling him who she was and charging him to release the man whom he knew to be innocent. The Emperor refused to believe the truth of his dream. St. Irene repeated her warning, then struck the Emperor across the face. When he woke up in the morning, the mark on his cheek convinced him he hadn't been dreaming. He questioned the nobleman again, satisfied himself as to the man's innocence, and released him. He then sent his court artist to the convent of Chrysovolantou in order to get a glimpse of the abbess. When the artist returned with the sketch he'd made, the Emperor knew without a doubt St. Irene had indeed appeared to him. He wrote to her begging her forgiveness and prayers.

Empress Irene of Byzantium is also known as St. Irene to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She was an Athenian by birth and at seventeen (768) she married Leo, the heir of Emperor Constantine V. Constantine was known for his vehement opposition to the worship of icons and statues; a practice commonly known as iconoclasm. This caused bitter arguments in the Byzantine Empire. Constantine's enemies argued that anyone opposed to holy pictures must be against religion, called Constantine "Copronymus" a name derived from their allegation that he used the baptismal font to releive himself while being baptized. Most of the other names he was called were much more offensive.

When Constantine died in 775, the sickly Leo ascended the throne and lasted only five years. At his death Irene and their 10 year old son Constantine VI reigned jointly with Irene controlling things. Immediately she reversed her husband's iconoclastic policy. There were threats to her rule from her husband's half brothers, Christophorus, Nicephorus, Nicetus, Anthemus and Eudocimus. These men were harmless, inert and simple. They lacked the initiative and the cunning to form plots themselves so they were used by others who plotted for them as figureheads. Just after Irene ascended she got wind of a plot to dethrone her. Since Priests could not rule, Irene forcibly ordained all five brothers and made them serve the Imperial Court Mass on Christmas to demonstrate that they had left politics.

Another plot on their behalf surfaced in 792. Constantine VI, annoyed, blinded Nicephorus and cut the tongues of the other four. Visibly damaged, he felt that the incompetents would be less usable as figureheads. After another plot in 797 they were banished to Athens. Finally as if the writing wasn't clearly written on the wall a final plot to usurp the throne resulted in all of the brothers being blinded. Being a pretended to the throne included occupational hazrds.

When Constantine was old enough to rule Irene wanted to keep the power to herself and logically Constantine objected. In 790 Constantine plotted with friends to overthrow Stauricious, the eunuch who was Irene's chief minister. The plot also included banishing Irene to Sicily, which was regarded as the middle of nowhere at the time.

Irene and Stauricious discovered the plot, banished Constantine's friends and made the army swear an oath to Irene: "As long as you live, we will not receive your son to reign over us." They swore then dethroned Irene in favor of Constantine. Stauricious was whipped and banished and Irene confined to her palace. Within two years, however, she managed to regain her son's favor and he made her co-empress again.

Constantine divorced the empress to marry a maid of honor and was quickly unpopular with the people. Irene plotted with his troops who then sabotaged Constantine's campaign against the Saracens. His defeat made him even more unpopular among the people. In 797 the troops in Constantinople tried to assasinate Constantine. He escaped but some of his advisors who were working for Irene betrayed him to her. He was imprisoned in the room in which he had been born, and while he was sleeping, daggers were plunged into his eyes. To everyone's amazement he survived and wound up outliving the next four emperors into the reign of Michael II, "The Stammerer."

Irene reigned alone but the court was divided in a power struggle between the two eunuchs who served as her ministers: Stauricious and Aetius. She had no policies of her own, other than opposing iconoclasm, and for the most part was controlled by her favorites. Her policy on icons is what led to her sainthood: apparently the church felt that she was right on the first issue, and that a mother is entitled to keep her son in line.

In 802 the noblemen of Byzantium became bored of her incompetence and chose one of their number, Nicephorus, as Emperor. Irene gave up quietly asking permission only to continue living as a private citizen within her palace. Nicephorus asserted she could as long as she would reveal the location of the Imperial Treasures. When she gave them to him he banished her to the isle of Lesbos, where she was forced to earn her living by spinning wool. She died there disgruntled.

Irene| Irene: King and Autocrat | Irene of Chrysovolantou

Since she could not claim dynastic connections to the emperor she had deposed, she put her own portrait on both the obverse and reverse of her coins. She wears the full imperial dress, including the loros and the characteristic crown of empresses, which has pyramidal spikes and very long prependulia or ornamental chains.



The event that inspired the icon most often written of St. Irene involved another miracle. One night a novice was awakened by a bright light shining out in the courtyard. When she went to investigate, she found St. Irene out there praying, standing up as usual with her hands upraised. The novice was astounded to see St. Irene floating a full meter off the ground! What's more, the pine trees around her had bowed their tops down to the ground in reverence. In order to make sure this wasn't some delusion of the Devil, the novice tied her handkerchief to the top of one tree. In the morning, there it was, way up at the top of the straightened tree.