Irene: the Ruthless Monarch Who Lent a Hurricane Her Name

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Millions are braced for the onslaught of Hurricane Irene as it rakes across the U.S.’s eastern seaboard. For the tens of thousands forced to flee the storm’s path, its name will only be remembered as the source of panic and destruction, an unwelcome conclusion to the summer months. Fair enough. As TIME’s Kayla Webley explained during hurricane season last year, the names of tropical storms get assigned in an all-together boring, mechanical process. But the legacy of Irene — ironic already because it’s a name derived from the Greek word for “peace” — or at least that of history’s first prominent Irene, is worth considering.

Why? Because Irene, the first empress of the Byzantine empire, smiter of Bulgars, commander of eunuchs, architect of conspiracies and smasher of others, was a lady not to be messed with. Just ask her son: she had his eyes gouged out.

Born to a noble family in Athens in the mid 8th century A.D., Irene ended up marrying Leo, son of Emperor Constantine V, who ascended the throne of the Byzantine Empire as Leo IV in 775. At the time, Christendom’s most important kingdom was wracked by a widespread theological schism between “iconophiles” and “iconoclasts.” The former were those who clung to the worship of Christian idols; the latter were those, inspired in part by the puritanical zeal of the new religion of Islam sweeping lands nearby, who sought to purge the faith of such false icons — relics of saints and images of divinities.

History records Irene as an iconophile, though her imperial spouse was an iconoclast. Perhaps because of that, Leo IV died from a fever in mysterious circumstances in 780. Irene assumed power as acting regent to her ten-year-old son and heir to the empire, Constantine (eventually Constantine VI), and swiftly had to smash a coup plot headed by her son’s uncle — the key conspirators were arrested and tonsured, their heads shaved as they were forcibly put into the priesthood, never to be a political threat again. Rebellions from Sicily in the west to territories around the Black Sea were put down. In 787, under Irene’s watch, 385 bishops gathered in the city of Nicaea and pronounced the Nicaean Creed, a seminal decree in the history of Christianity, which ensured the protection of icon-veneration and declared iconoclasts and a range of other supposedly heretical practitioners “anathema.”

But this ecclesiastical victory didn’t safeguard her rule. Mutinous plots lurked in every shadow of the palace and Irene would spend years in tacit conspiratorial struggle with her son, Constantine. Says one Byzantine chronicler: “They went for each other, hit and hit back in turn, and now Irene exercised absolute power, now Constantine took possession of the palace alone, again the mother, again the son, until their conflict resulted in a disaster for both.” Disaster first attended Constantine, though, who, while being co-ruler of the empire with his mother, was seized by Irene’s trusted eunuch general Staurakios, imprisoned in a fortress and blinded in 797. Constantine likely died of wounds sustained from torture.

The Byzantine historian Theophannes claims the sun was darkened for 17  days following news of the capture — and death — of Irene’s son, almost certainly carried out with her instruction or knowledge. Yet that didn’t dent her will to power. She would rule for five fitful years as the empire’s sole (and first female) monarch. Coinage minted in Irene’s image reveal the extent of her ambitions and confidence in her royal personage.  She was ousted in a palace coup in 802, with a trail of ruined families, political assassinations, shadowy imprisonments and carrion-strewn battlefields left in her wake. Irene died a year later; her storm had blown out, but in the turbulent Byzantine empire, the gale winds of conspiracy never cease, and there’d be many storms to come.

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