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Description

Irene: First Female Byzantine Ruler

Irene as sole ruler (AD 797-802). AV solidus (4.47 gm). Constantinople. [pellet] EIRIhH bASILISSH, crowned half-length bust of Irene facing, wearing loros, holding globus cruciger and cruciform scepter / As obverse, but legend ends with officina mark Φ. Sear 1599. DO 1a. Very rare. An exceptional example, well struck on a broad flan. Mint state.

The brief sole reign of the Empress Irene was a milestone in both Roman and Byzantine history, as it marked the first time a woman ruled the Empire in her own right. Previous empresses had effectively wielded supreme power, but only by using a male figurehead as nominal ruler. Irene was a legendary beauty from Athens who married the Emperor Leo IV and soon came to dominate domestic affairs in his government. When Leo died in 780, Irene ruled as regent for her adolescent son Constantine VI. Though the Isaurian dynasty had initiated iconoclasm and vigorously attacked the use of sacred images, Irene was a fervent iconodule and began the process of reversing the divisive policy. She called a church council at Nicea in 787 that declared iconoclasm to be heretical. This won her enemies in the army, which was heavily iconoclast, and in 790 she was temporarily ousted in a coup led by her now 20-year-old son. But he showed no talent for ruling and recalled her two years later. After Constantine embarrassed the regime with a series of military blunders and public scandals, Irene had him ousted and blinded in 797, seizing sole power for herself. She tried to win popularity with generous handouts and tax reductions, but the state's coffers soon emptied and she faced a series of military disasters that further undermined her position. Furthermore, the accession of a female promoted the Pope in Rome to declare the imperial throne vacant and the Frankish king Charlemagne was duly crowned "Emperor of the Romans" in 800. He in turn sent Irene an offer of marriage which might have united Eastern and Western Christendom under one government and changed the course of history, but it was not to be: In 802 Irene was ousted in a coup led by her finance minister Nicephorus, who exiled her Lesbos, where she died the following year. Her devotion to icons led to her canonization in the Orthodox Church.

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Auction Dates
September, 2011
7th-12th
Internet/Mail/Phone Bidders: 2
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