Irene of Athens

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Irene Sarantapechaina (Greek: Ειρήνη Σαρανταπήχαινα), known as Irene of Athens or Irene the Athenian (Greek: Ειρήνη η Αθηναία) (c. 752 – August 9, 803) was a Byzantine empress regnant from 797 to 802, having previously been empress consort from 775 to 780, and empress mother and regent from 780 to 797. As monarch she called herself basileus (βασιλεύς), 'emperor', rather than basilissa (βασίλισσα), 'empress'.


Early life and rise to power

Irene was born to a noble Greek family of Athens, the Sarantapechos family. Although she was an orphan, her uncle, Constantine Sarantapechos, was a patrician and possibly strategos of the theme of Hellas. She was brought to Constantinople by Emperor Constantine V on November 1, 769, and was married to his son Leo IV on December 17. Although she appears to have come from a noble family, there is no clear reason as to why she would have been chosen as Leo's bride, leading some scholars to speculate that she was selected in a bride-show, in which eligible women were paraded before the bridegroom, until one was finally selected.

On January 14, 771, Irene gave birth to a son, the future Constantine VI. When Constantine V died in September 775, Leo was to succeed to the throne at the age of twenty-five years. Leo, though an iconoclast (opposed theologically to the veneration of icons), pursued a policy of moderation towards iconodules (those who venerated icons), but his policies became much harsher in August 780, when a number of courtiers were punished for icon-veneration. According to tradition, he discovered icons concealed among Irene's possessions and refused to share the marriage bed with her thereafter. Nevertheless, when Leo died on September 8, 780, Irene became regent for their nine-year old Constantine.

Irene was almost immediately confronted with a conspiracy which she heard was to raise to the throne the Caesar Nikephoros, a half-brother of Leo IV. To overcome this challenge, she had Nikephoros and his co-conspirators ordained as priests, a status which disqualified them from ruling, and ordered them to administer Holy Communion on Christmas Day.

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