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Bible Encyclopedias
Irene

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

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(Eipnjv, Peace), empress of Constantinople, and one of the most extraordinary, though corrupt characters of the Byzantine empire, was born in Athens about A.D. 725. An orphan, 17 years of age, without any fortune except her beauty and talents, she excited the admiration of the then reigning emperor, Leo IV, and in A.D. 769 became his lawful wife. Her love for power, it is said, caused her to commit the crime of murder, for her husband, who died in 780, is generally believed to have been poisoned by her. During his reign she had acquired not only the love, but also the confidence of the emperor, and in his testament he declared her empress guardian of the Roman world, and of their son Constantine VI," who was, at the decease of Leo IV, only ten years of age. Educated in the worship of images, she was herself an ardent opponent of the iconoclasts, who held sway during the reign of her husband, and who, even at one time, had caused her banishment from his court on account of her secret worship of images, and her conspiracies with image-worshippers against iconoclasm. "But, as soon as she reigned in her own name and that of her son, Irene most seriously undertook the ruin of the iconoclasts, and the first step of her future persecution was a general edict for liberty of conscience. In the restoration of the monks, a thousand images were exposed to public veneration; a thousand legends were invented of their sufferings and miracles. As opportunities occurred by death or removal, the episcopal seat were judicially filled; the most eager competitors for earthly or celestial favor anticipated and flattered the judgment of their sovereign; and the promotion of her secretary, Tarasius, gave Irene the patriarch of Constantinople, and the command of the Oriental Church." But the decrees of a general council could only be repeated effectually by a similar assembly, and to this end she convened a council of bishops at Constantinople, A.D. 786.

By this time, however, the people and the army had learned to abhor the worship of images in place of the true God, and the council was opposed by a mob, assisted by the troops, and even driven from the capital. This by no means intimidated Irene in her marked course. She had determined on the reintroduction of image-worship and the extirpation of all iconoclasts, and well did her zeal for the restoration of this gross superstition deserve to be rewarded by the Church (Greek) with a saintship (which she still occupies in the Greek calendar). A second council was convened only a year after the first had been broken up, but this time at Nice. "No more than 18 days were allowed for the consummation of this important work; the iconoclasts appeared not as judges, but as criminals or penitents; the scene was decorated by the legates of pope Adrian and the Eastern patriarchs, the decrees were framed by the president Tarasius, and ratified by the acclamations and subscriptions of 350 bishops. They unanimously pronounced that the worship of images is agreeable to Scripture and reason, to the fathers and councils of the Church; but they hesitate whether that worship be relative or direct; whether the godhead and the figure of Christ be entitled to the same mode of adoration. Of this second Nicene Council the acts are still extant; a curious monument of superstition and ignorance, of falsehood and folly" (Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Romans' Empire, 5, 37 sq.). Meanwhile, however, the young emperor was attaining the maturity of manhood; "the maternal yoke became more grievous; and he listened to the favorites of his own age, who shared his pleasures, and were ambitious of sharing his power." But Irene was by no means ready to concede to her son the power which she preferred to hold in her own hand, and, ever vigilant, she soon penetrated the designs of her son. As a consequence, there arose at court two factions.

The young and the vigorous gathered around the heir presumptive, and in 790 he actually succeeded in assuming himself the government of affairs. As Constantine VI he became the lawful emperor of the Romans, and Irene was dismissed to a life of solitude and repose. "But her haughty spirit condescended to the arts of dissimulation: she flattered the bishops and eunuchs, revived the filial tenderness of the prince, regained his confidence, and betrayed his credulity. The character of Constantine was not destitute of sense or spirit; but his education had been studiously neglected; and the ambitious mother now exposed to the public censure the vices which she herself had nourished, and the actions which she herself had secretly advised." Meanwhile a powerful conspiracy was also concocted against Constantine, and only reached his ears when he knew it to be impossible for him to successfully resist. In haste he fled from the capital. But his own guards even had been bought in the interests of Irene, and the emperor was seized by them oil the Asiatic shore, and transported back to Constantinople to the porphyry apartment of the palace where he had first seen the light. "In the mind of Irene ambition had stifled every sentiment of humanity and nature;" and it was decreed, in a bloody council which she had assembled, that Constantine must by some means be forever rendered incapable of assuming the government himself. While asleep in his bed, the hirelings of Irene entered the room of the prince and stabbed their daggers with violence and precipitation into his eyes, depriving him not only of his eyesight, but rendering his life even critical. As if this crime were in itself not sufficiently great, the youth was even deprived of his liberty when it was found that he had survived the fatal stroke, and confined in a dungeon, where he was left to pine away. Thus the unnatural mother, guilty of a crime unparalleled in the history of crimes, secured for herself the reins of government. But still Irene was not free from anxieties. Though the punishment which her crime deserved did not immediately follow the bloody deed, it yet came surely. Her two favorites, Stauracius and AEtius, whom she had raised. enriched, and entrusted with the first dignities of the empire, were constantly embroiled with each other, and their jealousies only ceased with the death of the former, A.D. 800. In order to secure her possession of the throne, she sought a marriage with Charlemagne; but the Frank emperor had evidently no relish for a woman who had committed so many crimes, and the scheme proved abortive. Two years later, her treasurer, Nicephorus, rebelled against her, and, suddenly seizing her person, banished her to the isle of Lesbos, where she was forced to spin for a livelihood. Here she died of grief, AD. 803. (See ICONOCLASM). (J. H. W.)

Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Irene'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​i/irene.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.
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