‘Women on the throne’ was a less common picture during the ancient and medieval times but was not unheard of. A number of civilizations offer their gratitude to these fine and capable rulers who broke down the stereotypical barriers of the society and left behind a glorious legacy. The Byzantine Empire is no excuse. The Coinage of the Byzantine Empire gives an ample amount of examples of the women ruling with iron fist. Coins of Empress Irene are the testimonies of another Iron Lady of the Byzantine Empire.
Empress Irene of Athens was the first female ruler of the Byzantine Empire. Born between 750 and 755 into a noble family of Athens, she was chosen to be a bride of Leo IV – the son of Emperor Constantine V. Overnight, this orphan noble girl became a bride of an Heir of Byzantine Emperor. Emperor Constantine V died making Leo IV the next emperor. By the end of year 776, Leo IV ascended to the throne at the age of twenty-five years, with Irene as his empress consort.
This is how this Orphan girl became an Empress – the first Empress of the Byzantine Empire. The First Coins of Empress Irene were joint issues, issued along with her Husband. The first coins of Empress Irene are of two types
A couple of weeks after the death of Leo IV Irene was confronted with a conspiracy led by a group of prominent dignitaries that sought to raise Caesar Nikephoros, a half-brother of Leo IV, to the throne. Smart Empress Irene tackled this issue without the loss of a single drop of blood. She replaced all of them with dignitaries who were loyal to her and had Nikephoros and his four brothers ordained as priests, a status which disqualified them from the ruling. After this incident, Empress Irene appears to have been well aware that her position as regent was insecure. Hence she proclaimed herself and the next Empress of Byzantine and began ruling from the throne. Now, on the coins of Empress Irene only depict her Image. These coins of Empress Irene are known for her sole reign.
The Coins of Empress Irene are not only issued in Gold but also are found in copper. Two types of copper Follis were issued during her reign. One as a joint issue with her son Constantine VI and the other for her sole reign!
As monarch, Irene called herself “basileus” (’emperor’), rather than “basilissa” (’empress’). During the reign, Irene had to face many challenges which she tackled with utmost bravery and wit. She subdued a rebellion led by Elpidius, the strategos of Sicily, suppressed Abbasid attacks. She was most notably remembered for ending iconoclasm and the veneration of icons (images of Christ or the saints). However, with the advent new century, she saw her exit from the politics. In 802 the patricians conspired against her and placed Nikephoros, the minister of finance on the throne. Irene was exiled to Lesbos and forced to support herself by spinning wool. She died the following year.
As the first Empress of the Byzantine Empire, Irene had set up and excellent example and a path that was followed by a few women who became powerful empress in the course of time. The coins of Empress Irene prove to be an excellent account to narrate her story.