Cleopatra, Zenobia and Boudicca, these queens echo down to us from history, they ruled, they became legends, they left their nations utterly destroyed in their wake.
Female rulers being so rare these women usually have the luxury of not having to be remotely as successful to enter legend, however this is not true of all female rulers, some don’t enter legend, even if they don’t destroy the country they ruled, Livia’s controlling of her husband Augustus in his later life and if that’s too much of a rumour there’s Agrippina’s influence on Nero or Theodora’s on Justinian. Though admittedly these women were not recognised rulers just the power behind the throne. However by later Rome outright female rulers existed such as in the 5th century when both the Western and Eastern halves of the Empire were openly ruled women Galla Placidia and Aelia Pulcheria, but even these two highly competent Empresses only ruled as regents for their sons and brothers but not in their own names.
And while it is true to say each of the above women held great power one women held even greater power, in fact perhaps the greatest power of all, Irene... Yes, I did say, Irene. If you’re are scratching your head and wondering who the hell this Irene is, relax, you certainly aren’t alone, but it probably won’t make you feel any better if I tell you Irene held more power than Cleopatra, Zenobia and Boudicca combined.
To put you out of your misery Irene was the first female Emperor of Rome. While Irene was certainly not the first woman to rule Rome she was the first to rule in her own name, but remains largely forgotten by history compared a lot of other female rulers, when at this moment by rights there should be a caretaker at the local research library shouting would all feminist authors writing a book about Irene please form an orderly queue.
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So it was to Irene the honour fell of being the first women to rule Rome in her own name as Emperor not Empress-Regent and what a reign it was to be matching the reigns of the most famous household name male Emperors. Unfortunately these household name male Emperors are not Diocletian, Hadrian or Augustus but Nero and Commodus, it fact to call her Caligula or Elagabalus would be to flatter her legacy, as through a combination of utter selfishness, murder, treachery and complete incompetence her reign was one of the most unmitigated disasters Rome suffered in its 2000 year history, Hannibal did less damage, and most likely this is the women Margaret Thatcher was a reincarnation of.
Now it wasn’t all roses for Irene at the beginning she didn’t inherit a Rome at the height of its power rather a Roman Empire that was down but far from out and needing a competent hand to nurture it back to health, instead she left it face down in the dirt and then sent a herd of elephants to trampling its face into a cow pat. So female writers then have not exactly flocked to inform the world about this sister’s accomplishment of becoming the most powerful person in the ancient world, here in the name of feminism I hope to correct this omission in female literature and let the world know about this un-mitigating female disaster.
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Helen of Troy may be a myth, but Irene of Constantinople unfortunately for all the citizens of that city is a historical fact, unlike Helen though Irene didn’t hail from Sparta but its great rival Athens. She was of noble birth but also an orphan so had little going for her except her looks, being rated as one of the beauties of her age. These looks got the note of the heir to the Roman Empire Leo. It was quite unusual for Roman Emperor to marry for anything but politics, the odd lucky one got to marry for love, and a few later ones tried to, often with a concubine or serving girl and quickly got the chop, the great unwashed being rather snooty about who they tipped their caps to. One Emperor Theodosius II when forced to marry by his sister Aelia Pulcheria had demanded that he wanted the most beautiful girl to be found, but he seems to be the only Emperor prior to Leo to marry for looks. So when Leo then the son of the reigning Emperor told his father he wanted to marry a young and pretty girl of his choice rather than have an arranged political marriage it was quite unusual for his father to consent. So 17 year old Irene of Athens, the face that sank a thousand ships, was brought before the son of the Emperor of Rome and on looks alone he chose her from many candidates as his bride. Leo settled down with his trophy wife becoming Emperor Leo IV six years later and reigning for just 5 years before dying in 680 leaving their 10 year old son Constantine as Emperor and the 28 year old Empress Irene as his regent. In effect a footballer’s wife had now become the most powerful woman on Earth.
At first Irene was only Empress-regent for her son but her later in her reign was to get this changed and herself declared senior Augustus and her son Junior formally making her Rome’s first official female ruler. The duel senior/junior Emperor relationship was very common in ancient Rome and either lasted harmoniously or the junior Augustus would bump off the senior to seize power. In this case with the relationship being that of mother and son surely she wouldn’t torture him to death at a time he wasn’t even trying to usurp her power?
However before we start discussing family shenanigans there’s even more pressing matters at hand for a megalomaniac seizing absolute power for herself to deal with. Rome wasn’t to healthy at that time, Spain had been invaded, North Africa was on its last legs, Italy was being pressured by Lombards and the Pope calling to the Empress for aid, worst of all the Arabs had retaken Egypt, this was bad but even worse the Arab army that was marching on the Middle East burning villages and farms and making it impossible for the Empire to feed itself, but you see mass death by starvation the loss of territory didn’t really bother her, what was really important was starting a religious purge, just to unite your people as your being invaded by foreigners. And what better way to organise a religious purge than remove 70% of the leadership of the army, because it’s the last thing you need when enemy armies are rampaging your countryside. However one can marvel at the competence and efficiency of Irene’s religious persecutions of the army, so effective was it she utterly destroyed the entire Roman army’s capabilities as a fighting force for two decades. However on the bright side despite the destruction of the army and famine throughout the Empire there was a happy ending as more importantly she did get her way on whether pictures of God where allowed in churches or not.
Now with all the important issues in the city settled, it was time to turn her attention to those pesky Arabs invaders and who better to deal with than he army she had just terrorised and the territories in the Empire under Arab threat? The army magnificently marched out of Constantinople and straight into the Arab camp and joined them followed by the province of Sicily.
Unsurprisingly at this point there was a little discontent in the Empire with Irene’s rule and when her son Constantine reached the age of 17 the provincial army declared him Emperor and revolted, with few willing to defend Irene the revolt was over almost as soon as it started with her imprisoned in a country palace. So happy days returned to the Empire under Constantine, that was until it turned out he really wasn’t a soldier in the mould of Trajan or Alexander, having more acutely attuned personal survival instincts and a fast horse. So Constantine adopted the policy of Danegeld to stop the Arab invasion which of course proved scandalous to middle class tax payers who undoubtedly complained ‘why should I pay for a lazy Arab to sit and do nothing, he should get a job, like attacking our Empire,’ and as this happened Irene was able to manipulate palace politics and get herself restored to the throne.
With the Danegeld payments ceasing now Irene was back in power the Arabs sent a fresh army to invade the Empire. Constantine perhaps sensing he needed to save face, and perhaps the Empire after his failed attempt at rule immediately gathered and army and headed to fight the Arabs but as he reached Anatolia news reached him from his mother the Arab army had turned back and returned to Egypt. Constantine returned to Constantinople expecting the gratitude of the city but instead met with derision and cries of cowardice as Irene’s message to him had been a lie and the Arab army hadn’t turned back. Irene had her son seized and dragged back to the palace where she had his eyes torn out after which he died. Ok she totally undermined the war effort, helped the enemy invade her country, but on the bright side she did get to torture her only child to death.
With half her empire occupied, her son murdered, her army betrayed, Irene now turned her attention to the economy it was still too healthy. She had always encouraged and even mix of corruption, factionalism and Social Darwinism among her palace advisers, a government based on the philosophy if they’re killing each other, they’re not killing me served her well. However with much of the city shocked by her brutal treatment of her son she started she had maybe gone a stage too far so some serious divide and rule was needed, playing off faction against faction with graft and bribes. Soon the economy was bankrupt and just as she had spent the last penny from the royal coffers the Arabs started getting shirty again. This time Irene took a leaf out of her son’s book and opted for Danegeld. However the city had no money, so she made the Arabs an exceptionally huge offer based on the principle what does it matter whether you promise someone a million or a billion when you haven’t got a penny to pay them. To her this seemed perfectly logical, however the citizens of Constantinople failed to see this logic and were getting very worried the Arabs may get a miffed when they found out they weren’t going to get a single payment.
Now Irene had ignored the Lombard threat to Italy and the Pope’s pleas for aid, and when they finally invaded the treacherous Pope decided to undermine her rule by actually protecting the people of Italy and worse still without any consultation of the Empress. The Pope did a deal with Charlemagne to protect the citizens of Italy and crowned him Holy Roman Emperor, so 400 years after the last Western Emperor the Empire was divided into two again. The situation became even more intolerable when the Pope suggested to Charlemagne he might do a better job at ruling the Eastern half than Irene. Irene acted quickly and offered to marry Charlemagne, an offer he apparently private laughed at deducing she just wanted to lure him the Constantinople to murder him, but in public entered polite negotiations. At this point the citizens of the Eastern Empire ungrateful for the years of fine rule Irene had given them rose up, not at the fact they were broke, starving, the Empire was divided and what’s left taken piece by piece, I mean that’s bad, but and uncouth, unwashed trouser wearing barbarian on the throne, now that’s beyond the pale. The revolt spread quickly, the forces loyal to Irene didn’t defect to the rebel’s camp though, because their weren’t any forces loyal to Irene and she was hauled out the palace and sent captive to Lesbos where she died or was murdered a year later.
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Irene often takes a lot of stick from many historians and it is sometimes be argued that Irene was the worst female ruler in the whole of history surpassed only by Britain in the 1980’s and at the beginning of this article I contrasted Irene’s fame with that of other female rulers such as Cleopatra, Zenobia and Boudicca and made the suggestion that she was deliberately forgotten by female writers who write books on the others obsessively. However there is a historical convention that when judging the reign of a rule you look at the state of the country at the beginning of their reign and the state at the end and judge them on the difference. If I use this convention Irene’s reign was undoubtedly bad but not terminal, she inherited an ailing empire and drove it to wrack and ruin, but not irreparably and the Empire was restored again under her successors to its full might. Whereas Cleopatra and Zenobia both inherited healthy countries and lead them to total annihilation by the end, so perhaps Irene can even be compared favourably to them.
Irene of Athens ruled the Roman Empire for 22 years, as Empress-Regent, Senior Augustus and then Empress, she was the first women to rule Rome in her own name in its history and her rule and unmitigated disaster, under her reign the Empire was once again divided into two, lost half its territories, was economically broken, collapsed as a military force, within she promoted corruption and treachery, riddled it with religious persecution and inflicted it with famine.
Oh yes, and was made a Saint.