In this column, I’ll be looking at an inspirational girl from every century, starting in the 21st century and working back to the 1st century CE. As a historian and feminist, I thought this was the perfect way to share the stories of awesome historical girls from around the globe. Hopefully you’ll learn about some girls you might not have otherwise heard about as these Trailblazers deserve to be your next role models!
My 8th century trailblazer, Irene of Athens, was a woman who shocked the world in various ways and demonstrated that Byzantine women had greater access to power than their European neighbours by becoming the first female Roman Emperor in history. Nonetheless, like many women throughout history, becoming powerful also meant they became controversial, as their control disturbed established gender norms. In this blog, I will explore Irene’s contentious rule and illustrate why I think she still deserves to be a trailblazer.
Before I start though, there are a couple of terms I want to explain as I know not everyone spends their days with their heads buried in history books:
Queen Regnant – A queen who is ruling in her own right, either with or without a husband.
Iconoclasm – Iconoclasm was a religious policy which banned religious images and led to the widespread destruction of icons.
Iconoclast – Someone who follows the policy of Iconoclasm
Iconophile – Someone who uses religious icons and images
Byzantine Empire – This was the eastern branch of the Roman Empire, which lasted from 395–1453. Its capital city was Constantinople, which is modern-day Istanbul.
Now that we have got that over with…female regnants were an anomaly in medieval European history and many of the most powerful countries never had a queen regnant. That is not to say there were no powerful women in the medieval world: many queens and empresses had extreme power through their husband, but very few ruled in their own right. France, for example, has never had a queen regnant to this day. In the Byzantine Empire, however, things were a little different. The Byzantine Empire endured for over a millennium, from 330-1453 and in this time had at least three independent empresses. While this may not seem a lot, when compared to European kingdoms, this can be seen as fairly progressive. In comparison, England, which came up to its millennium mark in the 21st century, has had only five queen regnants, including our current queen Elizabeth II. That three empresses ruled the Byzantine Empire, albeit briefly, at a much earlier period of history immediately reveals to us how different its society must have been from European society.
Irene of Athens was born in 752 in, you guessed it – Athens. She was born to a noble family and in 768 was married by Constantine V to his son and heir, Leo IV, in Constantinople. Although she was a noblewoman, we can see no particular reason as to why Constantine V wanted his son to marry Irene. Therefore it is possible that she was picked in a bride-show, where girls were paraded in front of a bridegroom until he chose one (a bit like a medieval Take Me Out). Leo IV became Holy Roman Emperor after his father passed away. Irene proved a fierce wife, refusing to give up her own beliefs for her husband. Most significantly, Leo IV was an Iconoclast (opposing the use of religious icons and imagery), while Irene was an Iconophile. This caused many clashes while they were married. While initially, Leo IV had a fairly moderate policy towards iconophiles (including his wife), in 780, he started to pursue a harsher policy. He started to persecute Iconophiles and make people swear oaths to uphold iconoclasm. Many courtiers were arrested, tortured, and imprisoned. The reason for these persecutions is most probably because Irene had been hiring Iconophile supporters within the palace and Leo IV was trying to clean up his palace. But it wasn’t just courtiers that were affected — Leo discovered icons concealed among Irene’s possessions and imposed his own kind of punishment: he refused to share the marriage bed with her after that. Irene, however, stuck to her guns and thus they had no further children after Constantine VI.
Leo IV died only five years into his reign, leaving Irene as regent for their nine-year-old son, Constantine VI. As regent, Irene was fearsome. She headed off conspiracies, defeated rebellions, and negotiated with leading monarchs of her day, including Charlemagne and Harun al-Rashid. She also initiated the Second Council of Nicea and convened the Seventh Ecumenical Council. In 787 this council voted to end the practice of iconoclasm. An enormous amount of Byzantine religious art from before 726 (the year iconoclasm was introduced) was destroyed due to this iconoclasm. By ending iconoclasm, Irene made a permanent mark on Byzantine history, as a saviour of cultural icons and great artworks. Although there would be a resurgence of iconoclasm between 814 and 842, Irene had made the first crucial blow to iconoclasm. In addition to this, Irene was also known for her generous financial policies, which were especially beneficial to monasteries.
Did I say powerful women were often seen as controversial? Irene was also controversial because she may or may not (okay she almost definitely did) murder her son, the rightful ruler of Byzantium. As Constantine VI grew up, he became increasingly resentful of his mother’s influence as regent. Rival factions rose up throughout the 790s and in 797 Constantine VI increasingly tried to take full control of his throne. In the end, Irene organized a coup where Constantine was captured and blinded, dying from his wounds just a few days later. By effectively murdering her only son, Irene took back the throne. Incredibly, despite her vicious actions, she remained in power for five years, calling herself at different times both emperor and empress. During this time she tried to combat poverty and assist the people, but greatly decreased the coffers of the empire. Unrest and rebellion was also rife at this time.
The Pope declared Charlemagne emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and Byzantium in 800, as he believed a woman couldn’t possibly rule (despite the fact Irene had been doing it for years!) The Byzantines felt quite differently to the Pope. There was no specific limitation on a woman ruling the empire (HOORAY!) Although Byzantine women were generally isolated from many things, the Byzantine throne was highly adaptive: there was no set precedent for the continuation of dynasties and even murderers (like Irene) frequently became rulers. While a woman becoming the ruler of Byzantium was no doubt shocking to many of the Byzantine people, there was no real question of her not being able to rule. Nonetheless, Irene’s grand r and controversial plan was to marry Charlemagne and thus unite the western and eastern halves of the Roman Empire to keep her power. But sadly for her, she was overthrown in a coup and exiled to the island of Lesbos before she could enact this plan.
Irene has had a mixed legacy and due to the limitations of this column I’ve only been able to paint a small picture of what Irene did in her extraordinary life. On the one hand, by initiating the Seventh Ecumenical Council and putting an end to iconoclasm she is still considered a hero to Orthodox Christians today. She also tried to help the poor and various other worth causes. Nonetheless, clearly, murdering your son to become ruler does not make you an upstanding citizen, but when viewed in the light of what men would do to take a throne, Irene’s actions do not seem totally condemning. She is considered a trailblazer for literally blazing a trail through Byzantium as the first female Roman emperor. She made plenty of mistakes but she fought for what she believed in, and she did not see her gender as an obstacle to overcome. Although Irene was totally ruthless, if she hadn’t have been it was unlikely she would have kept her throne or even got it in the first place! As arguably the most powerful woman in Byzantine history, she deserves recognition for her position and her ambition, even if she didn’t always achieve what she hoped to.
Girl Museum Inc