Skip to main content

Irene, Byzantine Empress


Coregnant 780797, sole ruler from 797 to Oct. 31, 802; b. Athens, c. 752; d. Lesbos, Aug. 9, 803. Although married to Leo IV, "the Khazar," one of the more moderate iconoclastic emperors, Irene herself strongly supported the veneration of images. At Leo's death she became regent and coruler with her ten-year-old son, Constantine VI, and from this date moved with caution to reverse the iconoclastic policies of the late Emperor's Isaurian administration. In 784 she replaced Patriarch paul iv with the moderate, politic tarasius, and in 787 the seventh Ecumenical Council met in nicaea (ii) under her auspices to condemn iconoclasm. Tarasius was the author of the decree proclaiming the efficacy of icon veneration. In 790 Irene failed in her attempt to remove Constantine, and, opposed by the higher levels of the bureaucracy and by the Asiatic regiments of the army, she herself was briefly removed from power. She regained her position as coruler in 792. In 797, aided by the antagonism Constantine had aroused through his tyrannical pretensions and poor military leadership, she finally overthrew her son and had him blinded and deposed.

The chief event affecting the Eastern Empire during her reign was the coronation of charlemagne in Rome in 800. Although Irene and the anti-iconoclastic party had effected a rapprochement with adrian i in the period of the Council, the creation of a second empire completely confounded the political ideals of the Byzantines. Irene was willing to compromise with the Frankish ruler and may even have offered herself in marriage to him to re-unite the two worlds. But official Byzantine recognition of Charlemagne (as Emperor, but not as Emperor of the Romans) did not come until 814.

As emperor (i.e., Basileus, for Basilissa or Empress was not a recognized title at this time), Irene was not effective. She was unable to halt the incursions of the Bulgars, and her generous financial policies, especially friendly to monastic establishments, resulted in a severe loss of revenue. She was deposed in 802 by a conspiracy of high palace officials, one of whom succeeded her as Nicephorus I. Irene is venerated as a saint in the Eastern Church.

Feast: Aug. 9.

Bibliography: f. dÖlger, Corpus der griechischen Urkunden des Mittelalters und der neueren Zeit 1:335360. g. ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State, 156165.

[d. a. miller]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Irene, Byzantine Empress." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . 17 Jan. 2019 <>.

"Irene, Byzantine Empress." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . (January 17, 2019).

"Irene, Byzantine Empress." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved January 17, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.