‘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.

Coins of Empress Irene

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

  1. a) The Gold Solidus that depict the portraits of both king and queen. The King is on right and the Queen is on left. The king is clean-shaven and wearing a crown, with a cross on globe in his hand. Irene is on the left wearing loros and holding sceptre surmounted by a cross. A cross is seen between their head. The reverse shows the portrait of Constantine V flanked by Leo III and Leo IV (The three generations ruled the Empire). All seated facing wearing crown and chlamys.
  2. b) The other Gold was issued when she became a regent for their nine-year-old son Constantine VI. The coin depicts the crowned bust of Irene facing and holding cross on the globe as well as scepter surmounted by a cross on the obverse. This signifies that Empress Irene is now playing the roles of both the Emperor and the Empress. On the other side of the coins, a bust of the new emperor is portrayed.

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.

Coins of Empress Irene

  1. b) These Gold Solidus depict the facing bust of Irene holding cross on globe and sceptre surmounted by a cross on the obverse and the same bust on the reverse. This type of coin is also found in different variety.
  2. a) This type of coins of Empress Irene bears the portraits of the Empress similar to the previous type. However, in this type, a dot appears on the left flan on the obverse and the letter “C” appears in the left flack on the reverse. The Significance of such variety is not clear.

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!

Coins of Empress Irene

  1. a) The first type depicts crowned bust of Irene holding cross on globe and cross-headed scepter and the reverse depicts crowned bust of Constantine VI, holding cross on globe, cross with a horizontal line beneath which has large M below with, X to left, N to right, A below.
  2. b) The second type signifies her sole reign. These types depict crowned facing bust of Irene similar to other coins. On the reverse, the coin depicts Large M with XXX to left, cross above, NNN to right, A below.

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.

The Mintage World Team comprises of experts, researchers and writers from the field of Philately, Notaphily and Numismatics who try to shed light on some of the most interesting aspects of coins, banknotes and stamps from not just India but across the globe as well.

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