Empress Irene Timeline

Empress Irene Timeline

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Irene of Athens

Known for: sole Byzantine emperor, 797 – 802 her rule gave the Pope the excuse to recognize Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor convened the 7 th Ecumenical Council (2 nd Council of Nicaea), restoring icon veneration in the Byzantine Empire

Occupation: empress consort, regent and co-ruler with her son, ruler in her own right
Dates: lived about 752 – August 9, 803, ruled as co-regent 780 – 797, ruled in her own right 797 – October 31, 802
Also known as Empress Irene, Eirene (Greek)

Empress Regent (780 AD-797 AD) [ edit | edit source ]

Following the death of her husband, Irene was made empress regent in the name of her son. In 781 AD, Leo's half brother Caesar Nikephoros attempted a coup. In response, Irene had Caesar ordained as a priest making it impossible for him to rule. Irene also brought an end to centuries long Iconoclasm. After her first attempt to allow the adoration of icons under the patriarch Tasarios failed in the Curch of the Holy Apostels 786 AD, she started a second council 787 AD in the Hagia Sophia in Nicaea south-east of Constantinople that was successful and is now widely known as the Second Council of Nicaea. In the summer of 782 AD, Byzantium faced a massive invasion by the Abbasid Caliphate led by Caliph Harun Al-Rashid. In the end, Irene payed the caliph: 70,000-90,000 silver dinars per anum for 3 years, as well as tribute of 10,000 silk garments. In 790 AD, Irene's son was reaching maturity and growing tired of her autocratic rule. That year an open rebellion supported by Armenian soldiers in the Byzantine military took place. A hollow façade of friendship was maintained by Irene and her son. In 797, Irene hatched a conspiracy of her own, with the support of many bishops and courtiers. She also bought off the military as well. While her son was absent from the capital at Constantinople, she set a trap for him. Ultimately, he was captured, blinded and locked up in prison for good.

Just history.

Empress Irene (image from “Pala d’Oro”, Venice)

Not much is known about Irene’s early life. She born between 750 and 755 CE and was related in some way to the noble Greek Sarantapechos family of Athens. She was an orphan, and there is some mystery around why she was chosen from obscurity to be the bride of Leo IV, heir to Constantinople. It is thought she might have been selected in the first instance of a “bride show”, where girls of outstanding beauty were brought together and a wife was chosen. There is no evidence of this though.

However, she came to the attention of Constantine V Copronymus, the ‘dung-named’ so nicknamed after an unfortunate baptismal font incident as an infant, he married Irene to his son Leo in the chapel of St. Stephen in the Daphne palace. She was crowned in the same ceremony. The couple had a son, named Constantine after his grandfather. Four years later, Leo succeeded his father Constantine to the throne of the Byzantine Empire. Little Constantine was made co-emperor with his father when the child was five years old. This did not make Leo’s half brothers happy as they were angling to get a share of the inheritance. However, Irene and her son withstood the first of many conspiracies against them.

Abruptly, Leo died when Constantine was ten years old under mysterious circumstances. There was a rumor Leo died of a fever after taking and wearing a jeweled crown from the church of St. Sophia. This was supposed to be the wrath of God. However, other rumors persisted that his death came from a more earthly sources- Irene, as she stepped in as Empress-Regent for her young son. The jeweled crown story was not just to cover Irene’s tracks. This period in Byzantine history is fraught with conflicts between iconoclasts and iconophiles. Icons were images, most of which were beautifully wrought and encrusted with gold, jewels and swathed in silks, of God and the saints. Leo and his forefathers were iconoclast, which meant they followed a strict prohibition against images because they felt they were blasphemous. Many of the icons were destroyed. Irene was an iconophile, and revered the icons as holy. The crown story put a stain on Leo’s memories, and helped gather support for the policy u-turn on the icons Irene began implementing.

Again, Leo’s half brothers raised their head and tried to overthrow Irene. She had the head of the revolt, Nicephorus, as well as other generals and consuls arrested, scourged and tonsured, or forcibly made monks. Nicephorus and his brothers were ordained priests, which disqualified them from becoming emperor. The brothers were forced to administer communion at Christmas Day mass in St. Sophia. Although it was a regency, Irene began ruling in her own name. She issued coins holding the orb of state and Constantine’s name was placed on the reverse. She replaced minister with men who owed their power to her not her husband or father-in-law. They were inexperienced, but were loyal and that was what Irene was looking for. She and her minister, Staurakios, ruled the empire. The empire grew rich from trade, especially the silk trade. Irene recognized its importance, and like China before them the Byzantine Empire tried to corner the market. Irene built the palace of Eleutherios, which was surrounded by the silk workshops. These were mostly staffed by women, and because of fears of having the skilled workers kidnapped they were not allowed to leave.

This solidus struck under Irene reports the legend BASILISSH, Basilisse. Photo Credit- Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

Little Constantine came of age and was ready to rule in his own right, however, Irene was not ready to step aside. He mounted a rebellion, but unfortunately for him an earthquake gave Irene and Staurakios time to counter his plans. Irene had her son imprisoned and made the imperial army swear they would never allow him to rule and they would only be loyal to her. However, she was not popular with the army before and this did not improve that at all. Constantine finally got his rebellion and confined his mother her palace of Eleutherios, where she was as trapped as the silk workers. Constantine did not make an especially good showing as a ruler. He was defeated by the Bulgars and the Arabs. The generals tried to bring back his Uncle Nicephorus, but Constantine was not going quietly and had his uncles blinded and their tongues torn out. There was a old law that the Emperor had to be of sound body, so anyone missing organs was right out.

Constantine was on the wrong side of the army, and got himself on the wrong side of the church when he tried to divorce his wife and marry a new one. He went ahead and put his mistress on the throne, but no one was happy about it. When the new wife miscarried a son, Irene sprung into action. Constantine was riding back from an unsuccessful campaign against the Arabs when he was captured and taken back to Constantinople. He was thrown in a dungeon and his eyes gouged out, effectively making him ineligible for rule. There is debate as to whether Irene gave the order to maim her own son, but she must have certainly knew about it. Constantine died not long after. Irene was the sole ruler of Constantinople, and empire was thicker than blood.

The Empire was frantic. With Constantine dead, there was no heir and Irene was getting on in years and a woman besides. At one point, it was proposed she marry Charlemagne, which would have united the Eastern and Western empires for the first time in hundreds of years. Pope Leo had declared the throne of Constantinople technically empty since Irene was a woman. This would unite the empires and put a man on the throne. However, no self respecting Byzantine wanted to see a barbarian Frank on as Basileus of Constantinople. Irene’s minister of finance, another Nicephorus, mounted a coup d’etat and crowned himself emperor. Irene was exiled to the island of Lesbos and forced to support herself by spinning wool. She died a year later on August 9, 803.

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The only original source that deals at all fully with the reign of the empress Irene is the chronicle of Theophanes. Theophanes had his strong prejudices, against the iconoclasts and, later, against Irene’s successor, Nicephorus. But he was a conscientious and, as far as one can tell, a reliable recorder of facts. With regard to Irene he was writing about what had occurred in his own lifetime. His attitude towards her was a trifle equivocal but honest. He approved of her religious policy but was uncomfortable about her ambition and her dealings with her son. He can be accepted as a dependable witness for the reign. There are further references to the reign in the Lives of Theophanes, of the future patriarch Nicephorus I and of Theodore the Studite, and in Theodore’s early letters. None of them add very much to our knowledge. Later chroniclers all follow Theophanes.

The proceedings of the seventh oecumenical council are given fully in Mansi’s Concilia, volume 13, and are well summarised in Hefele’s Histoire des Conciles, edited by Ledere, volume 3, chapter 2. Such of the Acts and official documents of the reign as have survived are given in Zachariae von Lingenthal’s Jus Graeco-Romanum, volume 3, in Dolger’s Regesten der Kaiserurkunden des Oströmischen Reiches, volume 1, (nos 339-59), and in Grumel, Les Regestes des Actes du Patriarchat de Constantinople, volume 2. For the wars on the eastern frontier the most useful Arabic chronicler is Tabari, who wrote about a century later but copied earlier chronicles. For Charlemagne’s coronation and its relation to Byzantium there is a useful discussion in P. Charanis, Studies on the Demography of the Byzantine Empire, (Variorum Reprints) chapter 22, which summarises the various views of historians on the question. There is no satisfactory study of Irene’s economic policy, though her successor’s counter-policy has been much discussed. See Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine Empire, trans Hussey, pp 166-8. I think that no one has tried to understand Irene’s aims.

1 Tonsured in this context means the shaving off of the beard, not a monastic tonsure.

WI Charlemagne marries Empress Irene?

First of the opposition towards the marrige came not only from the Byzantine Court, but also the Carolingian one. both parties supporters regarded the other as a usurper. And it was merely a rumour anyway.

Secondly, at this point in time Irene was so unpopular amongst her own officials that a palace coup would have been virtualy inevitable at the mere mention of the idea. Sophisticated Byzantine officials would have been horrified at the prospect of having to submit to rule by a hairly, uncouth, uneducated, axe-wielding savage whose ancestors had only recently emerged from the northern forests. Should Irene actualy accept such an offer then she would be overthrown slightly earlier then IOTL.


First of the opposition towards the marrige came not only from the Byzantine Court, but also the Carolingian one. both parties supporters regarded the other as a usurper. And it was merely a rumour anyway.

Secondly, at this point in time Irene was so unpopular amongst her own officials that a palace coup would have been virtualy inevitable at the mere mention of the idea. Sophisticated Byzantine officials would have been horrified at the prospect of having to submit to rule by a hairly, uncouth, uneducated, axe-wielding savage whose ancestors had only recently emerged from the northern forests. Should Irene actualy accept such an offer then she would be overthrown slightly earlier then IOTL.

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.

What if Empress Irene of the Byzantine Empire married Charlemagne?

Irene was the first Byzantine Empress to reign in her own right, but over the course of her time in power Charlemagne supposedly considered marrying her. What would have happened if the man crowned Emperor of the Romans had married the Roman Empress in the 9th century?

Would depend whether they had a kid. If not, then history continues as in OTL for the most part, with the Holy Roman Empire having more of a claim to being Roman than it did in our timeline. If they do, then that kid inherits claims to both empires - though you can bet there would be a lot of people claiming each crown once each emperor pops their clogs.

Weɽ probably see the two empires have more interwoven politics and relations. The Carolingian Empire may have more long-term success owing to a very legitimate claim to the title of Rome however you have to imagine that a marriage to the Byzantine empress wouldn't fix the issues which ultimately brought the empire down - inheritance law. The Byzantines were already having problems holding on to their outer territories by this time and it's unlikely the trend would have been reversed.

I think a long-lasting union between the two nations is very unlikely. Neither would have been able to project the power necessary to have a real major influence on the other, and there was no land border between them at the time either, making things more difficult. That's not mentioning the fact that the days of Pax Romana were long gone by this time, and the largely Germanic peoples of Charlemagne's empire would have balked at the notion of being ruled from Constantinople - and vice versa for the Greeks of Byzantium.

Overall, not a huge amount of change from OTL. The Carolingian dynasty is remembered as being even more dominant during the Middle Ages and perhaps a wing of the dynasty is in control of Byzantium for a while, but there's no possibility of unification.

Disclaimer: All of my study of Byzantine history is amateurish.

Well, if I was to offer you a short understanding of it nothing would have really happened. By the time Charlemagne was crowned Emperor, Irene was already entrenched as the main powerhouse in Constantinople, having murdered her son Constantine in order to keep herself in power. Not only did she go to such lengths in order to keep power, but she also developed an entire government system heavily dependent on her palace eunuchs, who essentially acted as Ministers. Thus, Irene never left the Palace, it was her eunuchs that took care of the show. Hence, with Irene locked in Constantinople, the one to come south would have been Emperor Charlemagne, yet having him abandon his realm for Constantinople would have been a highly unlikely proposition not only would it have periled his own position amongst the peoples he ruled, but it would have further guaranteed him the animosity of all Byzantines, who in reality perceived anyone that was not them as little more than uncouth barbarians.

Ultimately, of ever taking place, the marriage would have been a symbolic gesture of unity, a fragile gesture at that, liable to being broken the second Nikephoros launched his own palace coup against Irene. Furthermore, no kids could have been produced, Irene was over 50 at the time of Charlemagne's coronation - and that's ignoring the aforementioned distance argument.

I imagine that such an unlikely event would have had some serious repercussions. Charlemagne's crowning in OTL eventually led to the schism of the Catholic and Orthodox churches after all, from the Byzantine Patriarch's point of view, they were the true Roman Empire and the Pope in Rome had no authority to grant Charlemagne the title. I think the decision to marry Charlemagne would cause Empress Irene a great deal of political trouble back home. Maybe sheɽ use the marriage and symbolic joining of the two empires to try to reconcile the two branches of Christianity. I think that might lead to an uneasy peace, but would only delay the split until a later date in the future.

For more secular concerns, I'm not sure. I doubt the Western Europeans would have been okay with a political merger with the Byzantines and vice versa. Neither would have been willing to give up political power, and the distances involved were so vast that they were the reason for splitting the Roman Empire into West and East in the first place. I think Charlemagne and Irene would try for at least two sons, so that one could inherit the West and one the East. The political "union" would never be a true union but rather a personal union that would be very temporary in nature. Being family, though, I imagine that there would be more interaction between the Holy Roman Empire and Byzantine Empire than in OTL. Perhaps there would have been further intermarriages between Western monarchs and Byzantine princes/princesses. If relations were better then by the time of the Arab invasion (assuming that still happened and didn't get butterflied away) perhaps there would have been earlier and better coordinated Crusades. Maybe the Fourth Crusade which sacked Constantinople wouldn't have even happened, for example if the Byzantine Empire had more trade ties with the West which prevented Venice and Genoa from becoming true competitors in the first place. In the best case scenario for the Byzantines, maybe they would manage to hold onto more of their territory and stay stable for longer than 1453 as in OTL. Still, I doubt they could have held out for that much longer than that considering all of their issues with internal stability, so let's say they manage to hang on until the mid-1500s or late 1500s.

Of course, some historians theorize that the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks led to the fleeing of artists and scholars who brought their books along with them, causing the Renaissance in western Europe. Without the same influences of the Renaissance would the Scientific Method have been created as quickly? It was derived from philosophical ideas from rationalism, skepticism, etc. which were in turn all influenced by Greek works. I think that the technological inventions of the time like the improved printing press would have still occurred eventually but the artistic style changes might be different and the technological advances might have been delayed. Western Europe would have been weaker as a result but also safer from the Ottoman Empire which no longer would have been able to advance to Hungary so quickly. I'm not sure how Greece would fare here. They would be able to resist the Ottomans for a longer period of time, but perhaps would this lead to the Ottomans being harsher in their rule of Greece than they were in OTL or would they have been more lenient due to fear of a rebellion that could be difficult to stop? It's hard to say. I think Greece's culture was significantly different enough from the Turks' that an eventual uprising would have been inevitable. Perhaps it might go better than in OTL because they managed to resist the Ottomans and self-rule for longer, or perhaps it would go worse because the longer period of war against the Ottomans may have damaged the Greeks' economy, such as via Ottoman blockade of Greek cities with their navy. Depending on which way it went, the resulting strength of the Ottoman Empire would have an impact on how WWI played out (assuming it still occurred and didn't also get butterflied away).

I think that slight delay of technological development in western Europe would have made imperialism a little bit less effective than it was in real life. Other nations that were wealthy prior to imperialism, like China and India, would have had more time to grow in population and more time to potentially be exposed to new ideas from the West. While I think they, along with the African nations, would have eventually been colonized or forced into unequal treaties, the conditions would not have been quite as terrible as they were in real life. America may have been colonized a little later (again, assuming it still happened), and considering that the ideas of the Enlightenment were inspired by the Renaissance, would we have still had the American Revolution? I'm not really sure. Probably, since Britain was too far away and the colonists had too much dignity and were too well-armed, populous, and organized for Britain to truly control. I think the result would still be a democracy of some kind since democracy in America resulted from anti-establishment settlers' formation of new societies in a continent without nobles or monarchs but I don't know if it would have still had the same form of democracy.

Veneration of Images, Definite Decision for Worship or

Empress Theodora, the wife of the Byzantine Emperor Theophilos, secretly venerated icons even when she was married to a resolute iconoclast. Just like her female relatives, she kept icons inside her room. Her secret was revealed when a dwarf court jester named Denderis wandered into her room one night. Theodora had brought out her icons, and Denderis asked her what it was after he saw her kissing one. The empress replied that it was only a doll, and when dinner came, Theophilos asked Denderis where he went. The court jester answered that he just came from Theodora’s room and remarked that he saw the empress kissing a doll. It did not take long for Theophilos to realize that what the court jester saw was an icon. He stormed into Theodora’s room and asked for an explanation, but the empress only repeated what she said to Denderis. The emperor readily believed her or he just let the matter pass, and Theodora had the dwarf punished and threatened the next day. The definite decision for worship or veneration of images is recorded on the Bible Timeline Chart with World History at 842 AD.

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Restoration of the Veneration of Pictorial Icons

Theophilos died of dysentery on the 20th of January, 842 AD and as her son Michael III was just an infant. Theodora became the regent along with her uncle the Chief Magister Manuel and the Logothete of the Course Theoktistos. A year after Theophilos’ death, Theodora assembled a council to make a decision on the most important issue at that time: the controversial and unpopular imperial policy of iconoclasm. Her advisers told her that the restoration of the worship of idols was the only way to secure her son’s succession to the Byzantine throne. This was not an easy decision for her as there was a big chance for her husband to be anathematized in this council.

The council, which was presided by the prominent court spiritual adviser Methodius, assembled in March, 843 AD. The council deposed Patriarch John (who was then replaced by Methodius as Patriarch of Constantinople) while leading iconoclastic personalities were anathematized. Iconoclastic bishops and clergy were kicked out of their offices, and they were only allowed to remain if they repented in public. The deceased emperor Theophilos was the only exception thanks to Theodora’s earlier condition that he be exempted from condemnation. The empress later claimed that her husband repented in his deathbed. The veneration of pictures of icons was once again made legal starting in 843 AD. This legitimization did not cover sculptures that represented God, Jesus, and other saints.

Empress Irene Byzantium at the Terminus of the Silk Route

Irene in a panel in the famous Pala d’Oro
St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice

Byzantium and the Silk Trade: Byzantium was one of the most important western terminals of the Silk Road. Constantinople, the capital, stood at the crossroads of Europe and Asia where many sea and overland trade routes linked the two regions. Its value as a commercial center for the export of silks into Medieval Europe was enormous. At first, the Byzantine Empire’s main article of trade was Chinese silk, which was so scarce that it was coveted by westerners even more than spices or jewels. Even within the empire the wearing of silk was limited under Justinian’s rule (518-527 CE) court ladies who were entitled to wear silk could do so only if they purchased it in the Crown’s sale rooms situated in the Great Palace.

The introduction of the silk worm into Byzantium, about the time of Justinian, expanded the empire’s domestic silk possibilities. Although Chinese silk continued to be imported, silk worms were raised throughout the empire, with the cocoons transported to Constantinople for spinning and weaving into cloth.

Empress Irene and the Silk Trade (752-803 CE). Called “Irene of Athens” in honor of her birthplace, Irene is mainly remembered for two dramatic events. One is her role in helping restore the use of Christian icons or images in Byzantium, which had been forbidden in the Eastern Orthodox form of Christianity. The other is her retaking of the crown from her son Constantine, blinding him, and possibly causing his death.

Given these sensational events, it is no wonder that few have acknowledged Irene’s role in promoting and expanding the silk industry in this western terminus of the Silk Route. Like all noble women and men, Irene loved silk textiles, both to wear and to adorn sacred objects and church decorations. The finest of her silk clothes was noted for the first time when she arrived in Constantinople from Athens for her marriage in 769 to the Byzantine Emperor Leo IV. Leo died when their only son, Constantine, was nine years old, leaving Irene as mother-regent and co-ruler with the young boy. After various conspiracies, she was forced into exile, only to be recalled after seven years when her unreliable and weak son was deemed unfit to rule. This time she was given complete control of all state services, including the fighting forces.

Even though she rarely appeared in public, Irene ruled in her own name, while also adopting for the first time the male title of basileus on legal documents. She had a new gold solidus (coin) minted that represented her as empress, and began a close relationship with the Carolingian dynasty and Roman papacy, hoping to have herself crowned as a Roman Emperor. It is said that at one time she wished to marry Charlemagne. Pope Leo III, however, announced that the throne of the Byzantine emperor was vacant since Irene was a female, leaving the way from him to crown Charlemagne as Roman Emperor in 800.

Image of Irene on both sides of her gold coin,
with title basilissa (empress)

Irene saw the enormous economic value of the Byzantine silk production. Like China in the past, she remained determined to keep its control firmly within the Byzantine sphere by creating large imperial controlled industries. To support these industries, Irene built a new palace called the Eleutherios located in the center of the city near the commercial port. The silk-weaving shops built around it were tightly monitored by the state with imperial guilds in charge of them.

While both male and females were employed in the workshops, called gynaecea, they were mostly staffed by women whose lives were strictly regulated. To avoid the danger of skilled workers being kidnapped by rival nations, the workers were not allowed to leave. Some describe them as being held as virtual prisoners. Further, though the silk trade generated large amounts of money, little made its way into the pockets of the workers.

The value of women silk workers in Byzantium was, however, acknowledged in the years following Irene. Tales of Byzantine workers being kidnapped exist, the most famous being that of the women silk weavers whom the Normans carried off as booty when they sacked the Greek city of Thebes in 1147. And, Carolyn Connor in her book “Women in Byzantium: Varieties of Experience 800-1200,” describes a festival from the eleventh century held every year in Constantinople which celebrated women engaged in cloth making and the female guilds.

• Why was Byzantium ideally placed to be the terminus of Silk Road trade?

• In what ways can you connect the making of silk to women in Byzantium?

• What was the point of forbidding silk workers to leave their place of employment?
Do you think it might have been easier or not to restrict the mobility of women workers than men workers?

1) Irene on one “Pala d’Oro” panel Find other famous Byzantiums here as well.

2) Gold Solidus Coin of Irene

3) Irene and Constantine in Council. This is a fresco of mother and son found in a monastery

4) Woven Silk fragment

This was suppose to have been sent from Byzantium to Charlemagne from imperial workshop: The images on it show influence of several cultures, including Byzantine and Indian.

Influential Women Women and Silk Production Exploring Primary Sources
Tang dynasty’s Wu Zetian Making Silk Primary Source Lessons
Princess Wencheng Wearing Silk
Sorghaghtani Beki Reviving Silk Traditions
Empress Irene

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