WHO IS IRENE OF ATHENS, AND WHY DOES SHE MATTER?

The Roman and Byzantine eras were grounded in discovery, innovation and great enlightenment. Many old beliefs were challenged religiously, politically and scientifically. Iconoclasm runs rampant but was the hallmark of the era.

One would think, having grown up in an iconoclastic society, that Irene of Athens would have additionally embraced the concept and continued to challenge past beliefs and traditions. But you would be wrong, it turns out.

When it comes to Irene of Athens, who ruled the Byzantine Empire at the turn of the 9th century, iconoclasm was fine as long as it wasn’t for religious reasons. For what she thought was for the safety and protection of her family as royalty, she put an end (albeit temporarily) to the concept of inconclasm when it comes to images and idols dedicated to Jesus Christ and saints as held by the Roman Catholic Church.

Irene became close to the Catholic Church – making her one of the first rulers so aligned – when her husband has his ascent to the throne challenged by a half-brother. Irene worked out an agreement with the Pope to have the half-brother and an associate ordained as priests, which would then have officially ruled them out from ascending to the throne. That started a long relationship between Irene and the Church in Vatican City, and as she ascended to the throne herself, her alignment with the church became more pronounced, so much so that it caused a divide in the empire and led to an incursion and an eventual civil war between her loyalists and part of the military who were opposed to her budding autocratic (and in some ways, theocratic) leadership.

As she ascended to power, she essentially gave thanks to the Catholic Church by all but eliminating iconoclasm through the Byzantine Empire, severely punishing those who did not pay sufficient homage to the various symbols and idols dedicated to Christ and the saints of the Church. She also mandated that all monasteries of the Roman Catholic Church remain open and operational, which went against the common practice of the time to de-emphasize influence of the Catholic Church, and Christianity in general, within the Empire.

Rumors and conjectures abounded (8mostly from Western Europe, not from the Byzantine Empire of the East, of which she ruled) that Irene of Athens was canonized by the Church for her unwavering support and fidelity to the Church. The truth was that Irene was never canonized into a saint, but the rumor just showed how predominant her fealty was and how much it was believed that it shaped her reign on the throne and caused fractures in the Empire because of the religious bent to her rule, which was not supported by tradition (it was believed that the church and state would be separate, explaining why priests could never ruler be placed in such powerful upper-level positions in the government).

Irene was eventually deposed from the throne and exiled to the island of Lsbos, where she died a year after arrival.  – an ignominious end to one of the Byzantine Empire’s more controversial reigns.