Irene Sarantapehos the Athenian (797-802)

Constantine VI

Irene Sarantapehos the Athenian

Empress Irene of Athens was the first woman ever to be the ruler of the Byzantine Empire. She was born in Athens (752) and her father was Theofylaktos Sarantapechos. Her uncle was the famous and rich Constantine Sarantapechos governor of Athens. In 769, Emperor Constantine V Copronymus chose her as a bride for his son Leo. Irene arrived in Constantinople and married Leo IV the Khazar. On December 17th 769, she was crowned Empress of the Greek Empire in Aghia Sofia Church.

" Leo the Fourth, the son of Constantine V and the father of the Constantine VI, was of a feeble constitution both of mind and body, and the principal care of his reign was the settlement of the succession. The association of the young Constantine was urged by the officious zeal of his subjects; and the emperor, conscious of his decay, complied, after a prudent hesitation, with their unanimous wishes. The royal infant, at the age of five years, was crowned emperor along with his mother Irene; and the national consent was ratified by every circumstance of pomp and solemnity, that could dazzle the eyes or bind the conscience of the Greeks.

An oath of fidelity was administered in the palace, the church, and the hippodrome, to the several orders of the state, who adjured the holy names of the Son, and mother of God. "Be witness, O Christ! that we will watch over the safety of Constantine VI the son of Leo, expose our lives in his service, and bear true allegiance to his person and posterity." They pledged their faith on the wood of the true cross, and the act of their engagement was deposited on the altar of St. Sophia. The first to swear, and the first to violate their oath, were the five sons of Constantine V Copronymus by a second marriage; and the story of these princes is singular and tragic. The right of primogeniture excluded them from the throne; the injustice of their elder brother defrauded them of a legacy of about two millions sterling; some vain titles were not deemed a sufficient compensation for wealth and power; and they repeatedly conspired against their nephew, before and after the death of his father. Their first attempt was pardoned; for the second offence they were condemned to the ecclesiastical state; and for the third treason, Nicephorus, the eldest and most guilty, was deprived of his eyes, and his four brothers, Christopher, Nicetas, Anthemeus, and Eudoxas, were punished, as a milder sentence, by the amputation of their tongues.

For himself, that emperor Constantine V had chosen a barbarian wife, the daughter of the khan of the Chozars; but in the marriage of his heir, he preferred an Athenian virgin, an orphan, seventeen years old, whose sole fortune must have consisted in her personal accomplishments. The nuptials of Leo IV and Irene were celebrated with royal pomp; she soon acquired the love and confidence of a feeble husband, and in his testament he declared the empress guardian of the Roman world, and of their son Constantine the Sixth, who was no more than ten years of age. During his childhood, Irene most ably and assiduously discharged, in her public administration, the duties of a faithful mother; and her zeal in the restoration of images has deserved the name and honors of a saint, which she still occupies in the Greek calendar."

Gibbon Edward (1782)


On January 14, 771, Irene gave birth to a son named Constantine. In August 775, Constantine V died leaving Leo IV sole rule of the Byzantine Empire. Emperor Leo IV was an iconoclast and viewed the veneration of icons as idolatry. On the other side, empress Irene was iconophile and defended the use of icons. In 776, Leo IV crowned his son Constantine VI co-ruler of the Greek Empire. The five younger brothers of Leo challenged him for the throne, so he had them sent on exile. Leo died in September of 780 of fever while fighting against the muslim armies. Constantine VI, was nine years old at his father's death, so Irene became his regent, along with a minister named Stavrakios. The brothers of her husband tried again to take over the throne, but their army was defeated. In 780, Irene negotiated a marriage between her son and the daughter of the Emperor of Romans Charlemagne, Rotrude. The Greeks called her Erythro and sent a monk to educate her in Greek language and manners. However, the alliance between Greeks and Romans fell apart by 786 and Irene broke the engagement in 788.

In 782, Irene appointed the general Michael Lachanodrakon, to defend the eastern frontiers of the Empire against the invasions of the Arab army. The muslims were victorious and they reached even Chrysopolis (Skoutari), on the asian side of Bosporus. Irene signed a peace treaty and was forced to pay an annual tribute of 70000 golden nomisma (coins) to the Arabs. She also had to give them 10000 silk garments and to provide them with guides and provisions during their withdrawal from the Greek Empire.



In 784, Tarasius was enthroned as Patriarch of Constantinople and on August 17, 786, a council was convened in the Church of the Holy Apostles to consider the issue of iconoclasm. However, the council was disrupted by forces backed by Irene's opponents on this issue. Another meeting took place in Nicaea in 787 and was attended by 367 bishops. With Patriarch Tarasius presiding, the council, known also as the Seventh Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, condemned Iconoclasm and formally approved the veneration of icons. Both Irene and her son signed the document adopted by the Council which ended on October 23, 787. This also brought the Greek Church back into unity with the Roman Church. The same year, the Empress visited the city of Veroia in Macedonia and after she reconstructed it she renamed it as Irenoupolis.

In 788, Irene held a bride show to select a bride for her son. Of the thirteen possibilities, she selected Maria of Pontus, a granddaughter of Saint Philaretos and daughter of a wealthy Greek official. The marriage took place in November 788 and is recorded in the chronicle of Theophanes the Confessor. In 794, Constantine found a mistress named Theodote, divorced Maria and sent her with their daughters Euphrosyne and Irene to a convent on the island of Prinkipos. In September, 795, Constantine and Theodote were married though the Patriarch Tarasius objected and refused to take part in the wedding ceremony. From this point on, relations between Constantine and his mother Irene worsened. Constantine conspired to take the throne himself. He planned a revolt inside the palace and with the help of armenian troops he managed to become the sole ruler of Byzantium.

Constantine VI was not a successful emperor. He was defeated by the Bulgars and by the Arabs, and his military failures made him very unpopular. His uncles attempted again to take control and so he made his mother again co-ruler. This time his mother organized a plot to overthrow him and finally she murdered him on August 15, 797. Irene was now the Queen of the Byzantine Empire but placing a woman on the Imperial throne was unheard. Thus, the Pope of Rome considered the throne vacant. On Christmas Day in 800, the Pope placed an imperial crown on Charlemagne's head and gave him the title of "Emperor of the Romans". Charlemagne proposed marriage to Empress Irene so that the Roman Empire of the West would be united with the Greek Empire of the East. However in 802, Irene was overthrown in a palace coup by her finance minister (logothetes) Nikephoros. She abdicated and spent the rest of her life in Lesbos, where she died in 803.