Female rulers were an anomaly in medieval history. Many of the most notable thrones of the Middle Ages were never graced by a female monarch. While there were queens and empresses who had power through their husbands, few ruled in their own right. The Kingdom of France never had a female ruler in its entire history. The Holy Roman Empire was similarly situated (the only exception, Maria Theresa of Austria in the 18th century, was barred from being Holy Roman Emperor due to her gender).
The Byzantine Empire lasted for over a millennium (330-1453), and had three independent empresses. England is only coming up on the millennium mark in the 21st century, and even they have only had five queens (including the long-lived Elizabeth I, Victoria, and Elizabeth II). Although their reigns were relatively brief, the fact that Irene (r. 797-802), Zoe (r. 1042), and Theodora (r. 1042, 1055-1056) could rule at such a time shows the different mores Byzantium held in comparison to most of its medieval counterparts. The longest reigning of these, Irene, shocked the world and illustrated the greater access to power by Byzantine women than their neighbors by becoming the first female “Roman Emperor” in history.
Irene was not the first woman to hold substantial power in the Byzantine Empire. Certain empresses held substantial sway at court, including Theodora, wife of Justinian (r. 527-565), and Sophia, wife of Justin II (r. 565-578). But while these women were powerful, they were still subordinate to the emperor who actually reigned. Irene was unique in not just holding power as an imperial consort or dowager, but becoming the first actual female ruler of the Byzantine Empire.
Irene came from Athens, at that point a provincial backwater, to Constantinople and was married by Constantine V (r. 741-775) to his son and heir, Leo IV (r. 775-780). Leo only reigned for five years, leaving Irene as regent for their nine-year old son, Constantine VI (r. 780-797). As regent, she headed off conspiracies, defeated rebellions, and negotiated with leading monarchs of her day, including Charlemagne and Harun al-Rashid.
Most notably, she convened the Seventh Ecumenical Council. In 787, at the city of Nicaea, this council ended the practice of iconoclasm. Iconoclasm was a religious policy which banned religious images and also entailed the widespread destruction of icons. An enormous amount of Byzantine religious art from before 726 (the year iconoclasm was introduced) was destroyed due to iconoclasm. By ending iconoclasm, Irene scored a signature achievement in Byzantine history. Although there would be a resurgence of iconoclasm between 814 and 842 before being finally laid to rest by another regent-empress, Irene dealt the critical blow to iconoclasm.
As Constantine VI grew up, he became increasingly resentful of his mother’s influence. Rival factions rose up throughout the 790s. Although Irene’s status as empress was confirmed, Constantine was still the rightful ruler. In 797, Irene organized a conspiracy and Constantine was captured and blinded, dying from his wounds just a few days later.
By effectively murdering her only son, Irene had snuffed out the ruling dynasty. Incredibly, despite her vicious action, she remained in power by herself 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. The Byzantine military fell into a decline under her rule, which forced her to pay off the Abbasid Caliphate, the great eastern rival of the Byzantines.
In 800, Charlemagne was crowned Roman Emperor by the Pope. The Byzantines considered themselves successors of the Roman Empire (there was no break between the Eastern Roman and Byzantine Empires) and called themselves Romans. They considered the Pope’s action a gigantic insult, but the Pope reasoned that the imperial throne was vacant, since a woman couldn’t possibly be emperor.
The Byzantines felt differently. There was no specific limitation on a woman ruling the empire. It was highly unusual, especially given Byzantine social mores. Byzantine women, especially those from wealthy families, usually were secluded. But the Byzantine throne was highly adaptive: there was no set rule for the continuation of dynasties and even murderers frequently became emperor. While a woman becoming the ruler of Byzantium was no doubt shocking to many of the Byzantine people, there was no real question that she could rule. But Western Europe was heavily influenced by Germanic customs by this point, including the Frankish Salic Law, which forbade women from ruling. To them, the idea of a woman ruling the Roman Empire was not only ludicrous, but downright illegal.
In a brilliant but heavily criticized move, Irene proposed to marry Charlemagne. This was as much to shore up her own increasingly unstable power at home as it was to heal the breach between the two powers. If it had happened, the “Western” and “Eastern” halves of the Roman Empire would have been united for the first time since 395. But instead, Irene was overthrown in a coup in Constantinople. She was exiled to the island of Lesbos, where she had to support herself to survive.
Irene has had a mixed legacy. On the one hand, by initiating the Seventh Ecumenical Council, she is still considered a hero to Orthodox Christians. She also tried to help the poor. But her brutal murder of her son has understandably tainted her memory. Although some sources have described her as a saint, she has never been canonized.
But perhaps it is better to consider her memory in light of her times. Her methods were questionable, and as a ruler she made plenty of mistakes. But it is nonetheless impressive that in such an anti-female climate she could become Byzantium’s first female ruler. If she was anything less than ruthless, her rule would most likely never have come to pass. As the most powerful woman in Byzantine history (at least up to this point), Irene at the very least deserves greater recognition for her position and what she tried to achieve, even if those attempts mostly came to very little. In a broad understanding, Irene stands for the slightly more liberated gender culture that existed in Byzantium at that time in comparison to its European and Middle Eastern neighbors. Without such a society, Irene could never have risen above the greatest of glass ceilings to become the successor of the Caesars and the ruler of an empire.