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NICEPHORUS I., STAURACIUS, AND MICHAEL I.
§ 1. The Fall of Irene
THE Isaurian or Syrian dynasty, which had not only discharged efficiently the task of defending the Roman Empire against the Saracens and Bulgarians, but had also infused new life into the administration and institutions, terminated ingloriously two years after the Imperial coronation of Charles the Great at Rome. Ambassadors of Charles were in Constantinople at the time of the revolution which hurled the Empress Irene from the throne. Their business at her court was to treat concerning a proposal of marriage from their master. It appears that the Empress entertained serious thoughts of an alliance which her advisers would hardly have suffered her to contract, and the danger may have precipitated a revolution which could not long be postponed. Few palace revolutions have been more completely justified by the exigencies of the common weal, and if personal ambitions had not sufficed to bring about the fall of Irene, public interest would have dictated the removal of a sovran whose incapacity must soon have led to public disaster.
The career of Irene of Athens had been unusually brilliant. An obscure provincial, she was elevated by a stroke of fortune to be the consort of the heir to the greatest throne in Europe. Her husband died after a short reign, and as their son was a mere child she was left in possession of the supreme power. She was thus enabled to lead the reaction against iconoclasm, and connect her name indissolubly with an Ecumenical 1 For this negotiation see further below, Chap. X.
EASTERN ROMAN EMPIRE
Council. By this policy she covered herself with glory in the eyes of orthodox posterity; she received the eulogies of popes; and the monks, who basked in the light of her countenance, extolled her as a saint. We have no records that would enable us to draw a portrait of Irene's mind, but we know that she was the most worldly of women, and that love of power was a fundamental trait of her character. When her son Constantine was old enough to assume the reins of government, she was reluctant to retire into the background, and a struggle for power ensued, which ended ultimately in the victory of the mother. The son, deprived of his eyesight, was rendered incapable of reigning (A.D. 797), and Irene enjoyed for five years undivided sovran power, not as a regent, but in her own right.
Extreme measures of ambition which, if adopted by heretics, they would execrate as crimes, are easily pardoned or overlooked by monks in the case of a monarch who believes rightly. But even in the narrative of the prejudiced monk, who is our informant, we can see that he himself disapproved of the behaviour of the "most pious" Irene, and, what is more important, that the public sympathy was with her son. Her conduct of the government did not secure her the respect which her previous actions had forfeited. She was under the alternating influence of two favourite eunuchs,1 whose intrigues against each other divided the court. After the death of Stauracius, his rival Aetius enjoyed the supreme control of the Empress and the Empire. He may have been a capable man; but his position was precarious, his power was resented by the other ministers of state, and, in such circumstances, the policy of the Empire could not be efficiently carried on. He united in his own hands the commands of two of the Asiatic Themes, the Opsikian and the Anatolic, and he made his brother Leo stratêgos of both Macedonia and Thrace. By the control of the troops of these provinces he hoped to compass his scheme of raising Leo to the Imperial throne.
We can hardly doubt that the political object of mitigating
1 ἐπιστήθιοι ὄντες τῆς βασιλείας, Theoph. A.M. 6290.
2 We may describe his position as that of first minister-an unofficial position expressed by παραδυναστεύων (a word which occurs in Thucydides,
ii. 97, of Odrysian nobles who had influence with the king). In the tenth and eleventh centuries the παραδυναστεύων regularly appears in the reigns of weak emperors.