Celebrating the Women of Byzantium – Part II

In continuing our series of blogs chronicling the women of Byzantium, we invite you to take a step back into history with us.  Last week, we shared the stories of Empress Pulcheria and Empress TheodoraThis week, we’re showcasing the splendiferous maiden and the scheming matriarch: Princess Theophano and Empress Irene.

Curious to learn more about Byzantium’s famous women? Click here for Part I, Part III, Part IV, and Part V.

Empress Irene (752-803)

Empress Irene mosaic. Photo via Pinterest.com

Not much is known of Empress Irene’s life before her marriage. It is estimated that she was born in Athens around 752-753. Much like Empress Theodora, Empress Irene was not born into royalty – it was the beauty of the young orphan that caught the eye of Emperor Constantine V.

Emperor Constantine brought Irene to Constantinople to marry his son (and heir to the Byzantine Empire), Leo.  But Irene’s beauty was simply not enough to make for an agreeable marriage.  Leo was a staunch iconoclast and refused to share a bed with Irene after icons had been found in her possession.  They had but one child together – Constantine VI.

Leo and Irene’s loveless marriage was short-lived as Emperor Leo died in 780, leaving their young heir to rule as emperor.  Since the empire could not be left in the hands of a 10-year-old boy (no matter how capable he may seem), Empress Irene was made co-emperor and regent until Constantine VI came of age.

Irene apparently enjoyed this newfound power a little too much.  She made many enemies and her opponents sought to place Leo’s half-brothers on the throne (claiming dynastic rights).  This threat was easily stopped: Irene had the half-brothers ordained as priests.  By law, clergy could not rule.

Eager to improve political relations between the two halves of the Roman Empire, Irene sought forth to marry Constantine VI to Rotrude (daughter of Charlemagne, who had been declared ruler of the Holy Roman Empire around the time Irene became Empress).  For whatever reason, Irene broke off the engagement and instead married her son off to Maria of Amnia (the Byzantine and Holy Roman Empires would be brought together by marriage one day…but more on that below!).

Constantine was fond of Rotrude, but not of Maria.  He did not have her crowned as Empress and, after fathering two daughters with Maria, forced his wife to become a nun.  Constantine then married Theodote, his mother’s lady-in-waiting.  He arranged for Theodote to be crowned, but the marriage was a very unpopular one.  The Church even questioned the marriage, citing that Constantine and Theodote’s union may not be legal (what with poor, confused Maria being simply sent away rather than divorced).

As Constantine neared adulthood, he found himself competing with his mother for power.  His attempts to overtake his mother were thwarted by the military who had been forced by the Empress to take an oath of loyalty to her alone. This struggle ended with Irene victorious – Constantine was mysteriously arrested and blinded (which, by law, rendered him unable to rule).  Empress Irene could now rule the empire alone.

Empress Irene’s first task was to rid herself of the “Empress” title – she would instead be referred to as “Emperor” and would be the first woman to rule the empire in her own right.

Emperor Irene’s reign was a fairly short one.  Pope Leo had brought Charlemagne (Constantine’s former father-in-law-to-be) to Constantinople with the hopes that Irene and Charlemagne would marry, uniting the two halves of the Roman empire.  Irene rejected this proposal (peace-by-marriage attempt #3 would be successful but, again, more on that below…).  Combined with the financial distress she brought upon the empire, this political faux pas frustrated the Byzantine nobles who sought to put Irene’s finance minister, Nikephoros, on the throne.

Under the pressure of the nobles, Irene agreed to this under the condition that she be allowed to live out the rest of her life in her palace.  Her terms were met and Nikephoros was crowned emperor in 802.

Irene’s palatial life as a private citizen ended shortly, though.  She was exiled to the island of Lesbos after being banished by Emperor Nikephoros for disclosing the location of the imperial treasures.  Irene died in exile in 803.

Despite the controversies surrounding her and the ineffectiveness of her reign, Irene is celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox church.  She was a staunch supporter of the church and thought iconoclasm to be heresy.  She restored the icons to the church and financially supported many monasteries.  She also supported her people, doing away with a tax that required soldiers’ widows to make payments to the government in place of their (deceased) husbands’ military service.  Her feast day is celebrated on August 9th.

Princess Theophano (955-991)

Theophano, mosaic by Pelagia Angelopoulou, 1991, St Pantaleonkirche Köln. Credit: Herman Koldeweijn. Photo via heritage-route.eu

Stylish, ostentatious, and (by ancient standards, at least) decadent, Princess Theopano’s legacy is not as politically or socially monumental as the Empresses Theodora and Pulcheria nor is does it have the infamy of that of Empress Irene.

The niece (by marriage) of Byzantine Emperor John Tzimiskes, the princess served as a political olive branch when she was betrothed to Otto II, heir to the Holy Roman Empire.  The marriage served as a peaceful alliance between the rival empires: Otto I wanted a grand Byzantine bride for his son (such an exotic, sophisticated bride would bring prestige to the Holy Roman Empire) and John Tzimiskes wanted to expand the Byzantine influence in the West.

And so, the beautiful Theophano arrived in Germany in 972, robed in beautiful silks and costumed in the finest Byzantine gold and gems.  The manuscript documenting the marriage between Otto II and Theophano on April 14, 972 still exists – it is a beautiful scroll featuring gold lettering and intricate designs and details (a manuscript befitting to Byzantine princess).  The Byzantine and Holy Roman Empires were (finally!) united by marriage.

As important an alliance as this was, the arrival of Theophano was not well-received by everyone.  Many criticized the princess for her lavish clothes and lifestyle: she bathed daily (a habit well ahead of her time, but virtually unknown in western Europe) and, most shockingly, insisted on eating with a golden two-pronged stick instead of using her hands.

After the death of Otto II in 983, Theophano served as regent for their son, Otto III, until her own demise in 991.  Her 8-year regency was apparently rather uneventful as there’s not much written about it.  She was buried in the church of Saint Pantaleon at Cologne.

Princess Theophano’s legacy may be rather superficial – she brought imperial luxury to the Holy Roman Empire and helped to bring Europe’s east and west together – but her influence is still felt by many today.  That two-pronged stick? You can most likely find it in your home; Princesss Theophano is credited with introducing the fork to the western world!

Main image (Emperor Leo & Empress Irene mosaic): https://media1.britannica.com/eb-media/80/12380-004-414D507A.jpg
Empress Irene
Princess Theophano
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Categorized in: