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Irene of Athens was the wife of the Byzantine Emperor Leo IV and mother of Constantine VI, both strong iconoclasts. She ruled jointly with her son, Constantine, after the death of her husband Leo. Irene was a strong iconodule. She arranged the convening of the Second Council of Nicea in 787 that restored the practice of veneration of icons. In 802 Irene was deposed and exiled to Prinkipo (now Büyükada) and then to Lesbos, where she died August 9, 803.
Irene was born in Athens about the year 752. Her family background is not known. It is believed that she was born of a Greek noble family. She apparently was a beautiful but orphaned girl who at the age of seventeen was brought to Constantinople by the Emperor Constantine V to be married to his son Leo in November 769. She gave birth to a son, Constantine, on January 14, 771. Leo, however, was a steadfast iconoclast who, according to tradition, found that Irene possessed icons and thereafter would no longer share their marriage bed.
Upon the death of Constantine V in 775, Irene's husband Leo ascended to the throne as Leo IV. Being in poor health, Leo died after only five years as emperor, on September 8, 780. With Leo's death, his son became emperor as Constantine VI, but since he was only ten years old his mother Irene was installed with him as co-emperor, and she immediately reversed the iconoclastic policies of her husband.
Not having a dynastic background, Irene was continually confronted by opposition forces, some of whom used Leo's half-brothers as figureheads. To blunt the threat from the half-brothers, she had them ordained as priests, since clergy could not rule. Then, she had them administer communion at the Divine Liturgy on the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord to demonstrate that they had rejected politics. Seeking closer relations with the Carolingians, Irene negotiated a marriage between her son and Rotrude, who was a daughter of Charlemagne by his third wife Hildegard. However, Irene broke off the engagement in 788, over her son's objections. Then, through the use of a bride-show, Irene selected Maria of Amnia as Constantine's bride. The couple were married in November 788. By this marriage they had two daughters, Euphrosyne and Irene. Constantine, however, did not like Maria and forced her to become a nun. In the meantime, having taken Theodote, Irene's lady-in-waiting, as mistress, Constantine arranged that Theodote be crowned augusta, a title which Maria was not granted, and then married her. Irene had taken a hands-off attitude with Constantine's handling of his marriage. The marriage, however, was very unpopular with the Church, because its legality was seriously questioned.
As Constantine matured he became involved in plots to wrestle control from Irene. To forestall threats of disloyalty and to strengthen her position in these feuds, Irene demanded that oaths of fidelity be taken only in her name. In 790, discontent swelled to open resistance when soldiers from the theme of Armeniacs proclaimed Constantine the sole ruler. By 792, the feud between Irene and her son had cooled and Irene's title as empress was confirmed. The rival factions continued their intrigues and, in 797, Constantine found it necessary to flee the palace. Captured by forces friendly to Irene, Constantine was brought back to Constantinople to the Purple Palace, Porphyra, where he was born, and there blinded in mid-August 797, apparently with the foreknowledge of his mother, Irene. He was 26 years old.
Ruling alone, Irene reigned from 797 to 802, calling herself basileus (βασιλεύς), "emperor," rather than basilissa (βασίλισσα), "empress." She showed little interest in finance or diplomacy, but made her mark in the Orthodox Christian world by rejection of iconoclasm. She sponsored many philanthropic endeavors, remitting taxes and canceling payments from soldiers' widows, which were required in lieu of the deceased soldiers' military service. Rivalries in court also intensified. Events came to a head when emissaries from Charlemagne and Pope Leo arrived in Constantinople with a proposal of marriage between Irene and Charlemagne. Thus the two halves of the Roman empire would be united. At this time, October 31, 802, the nobles of the empire, having been concerned with her financial incompetency, took action and chose Nikephoros, Irene's finance minister, as emperor. Nikephoros was then crowned by Patriarch Tarasius in St Sophia Cathedral.
Irene acceded to the change of events and only asked to continue to live as a private citizen in her palace. However, after she had disclosed the location of the imperial treasures she held Nikephoros banished her to the island of Lesbos, where she supported herself by spinning. She died on August 9, 803.
Irene's place in the Orthodox Christian church is that of a strong defender of the veneration of images. This came at a critical point in history, when the eastern empire was controlled by iconoclasts. With the election of Tarasius as the Patriarch of Constantinople on December 25, 784, she was able to convene the Seventh Ecumenical Council. Initially convened in Constantinople on August 1, 786, the council was moved to Nicea in May 787 because of the instigated opposition in Constantinople of soldiers loyal to the iconoclasts who forced the dissolution of the 786 sessions. Learning from the experience in Constantinople, Irene arranged that the council in 787 would be away from the capital, in Nicea, which incidentally was the site of Constantine the Great's council of 325. This council, in contrast with the robber council of 754 in Hieria, was attended by the patriarchs or their representatives. The council affirmed the principle of veneration of icons and declared iconoclasm a heresy. Theodore the Studite wrote a praising letter  to Irene because of her work in supporting icons. This letter became the beginning of the misconception that Irene is considered a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Though this claim is not supported by the Menaion, the "Lives of Saints" by Nikodemos the Hagiorite, or any other related book of the Orthodox Church, some Western sources  still cite Irene as a saint of the Orthodox Church, based on the writings of the Bollandists.
After Irene's deposition, the forces for iconoclasm returned to power, finally to be defeated under another strong iconodule leader, the Empress Theodora.
Irene of Athens
- Theodori Studitae Epistulae, by Theodore, Georgios Fatouros. Published by Walter de Gruyter, 1991 ISBN 3110088088, 9783110088083
- Vita Irenes, 'La vie de l'impératrice Sainte Irène', ed. F. Halkin, Analecta Bollandiana, 106 (1988) 5-27; see also W.T. Treadgold, 'The Unpublished Saint's Life of the Empress Irene', Byzantinische Forschungen, 7 (1982) 237-51.