Irene of Athens (c.752-30 September 806), also known as Irene Sarantapechos, was the Byzantine Empress regnant from 797 to 806. Before becoming empress, she was consort to Leo IV from 775 to 780 and empress dowager from 780 to 797. She is most remembered for her marriage to Charlemagne in 803, unifying the Franks and the Byzantines. Her reluctance to follow the tradition of iconoclasm led to the end of iconoclasm in the Byzantine and Frankish Empires.
Born to the wealthy Sarantapechos family in Athens, Irene was an orphan raised by her uncle, Constantine Sarantapechos. Her uncle, a patrician and stragegos of Hellas, allowed for Irene to be a prudent choice for the wife of a future emperor. In 769, Emperor Constantine V brought her to Constantinople to marry his son, the future emperor Leo IV. It is said that Irene was noted for her beauty and wealth, making her a trophy wife for the young Leo IV. The two quickly produced a son in 771, who would eventually become Constantine VI.
Upon the death of Constantine V, Leo IV became the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, making Irene the empress consort. Though Leo was an iconoclast, his policies were much less severe than those of his predecessors. This, however, changed as his rule went on, much to the displeasure of Irene. The empress consort began saving icons and hiding them among her possessions. Upon Leo IV's discovery of this, he allegedly refused to share their marriage bed, though she wasn't punished like most other iconodules. Regardless, she became regnant for Constantine VI when Leo IV died in 780.
Due to the young age of Constantine VI upon his assumption as Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, Irene acted as regnant for him. An attempted conspiracy by Caesar Nikephoros to replace Constantine VI with Nikephoros was put down by Irene when she ordained the would-be Emperor and his conspirators as priests, which prevented them from being able to rule. Unfortunately for Irene, this wouldn't be the last time someone attempted to usurp her. Another coup later on by the strategos of Sicily led to a re-invasion of the rebellious Sicily and the defection of the conspirator to the Abbasid Caliphate. This resulted in a war with the Abbasids in 782. The Byzantines lost this war and had to pay tribute to the Abbasids for some time.
In 781, Irene began growing closer to the Franks, attempting to arrange a marriage between Constantine VI and Charlemagne's daughter, Rotrude. The arrangement, however, did not go as planned and the marriage was cancelled. As Constantine VI matured, Irene continued to make decisions for him until a series of rebellions led to Constantine's falling out with Irene. Eventually, following a final rebellion in 797 in which Constantine VI fled to the Asiatic shore of the Bosporus, Irene had Constantine dragged back to Constantinople where his eyes were gouged out. He did not survive due to his wounds.
Empress of Byzantium
With the Byzantine Empire now under her rule, Irene became Empress. As regnant, she had pursued a better relation with the papacy, but that did not stop Leo III from seeing the throne of Byzantium as vacant due to the lack of a male heir. Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of Rome, much to the dismay of the Byzantine Empire. Despite this insult, Irene continued to improve relations with the Franks.
In 802, Charlemagne and Irene announced plans to marry, which would unify the Franks and the Byzantines. This angered the patricians, who conspired to place the minister of finance, Nikephoros, on the throne. This rebellion was caught early and prevented by Irene, who had the rebellious Nikephoros and the conspirators share a fate similar to Constantine VI's. In 803, Irene and Charlemagne wed, combining the Frankish and Eastern Roman Empires. This dynastic union created the entity known as the Carolingian Union. In order to avoid angering the Byzantines, Charlemagne allowed for Irene to remain the Empress of the Eastern Roman Empire until her death in 806.
As empress under the newly unified nation, she took a pro-active role in uniting the two culturally-distinct peoples. She enacted several laws that forbade the mistreatment of Frankish travelers by Byzantines and replaced several senators and patricians with people that were sympathetic to the Franks. In 806, Irene and Charlemagne started a series of wars known as the Unification Wars with several Balkan nations. Later that year, however, she took ill and died on 30 September 806. She was buried under Irene's Square in Constantinople.
Irene is remembered in several ways. Her approach to iconoclasm, which led to its ultimate end, is well known. There have been many attempts to venerate her as a saint in the Christian Church, but none have been successful thus far. She is also remembered for marrying Charlemagne, which united the Byzantine and Frankish Empires. She is also remembered for being intelligent, cunning, and deceptive. Many scholars agree that, had Charlemagne not allowed Irene to continue her rule, she would have arranged his death. Others agree that such a move would be unwise and that her marriage with Charlemagne was, in fact, legitimate. Due to being past childbearing years, she did not have any children with Charlemagne and was not survived by any other direct descendants.