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Gold solidus of Empress Irene


Diameter: 18.000 mm
Weight: 4.393 g

CM 1852-9-3-35

Coins and Medals

    Gold solidus of Empress Irene

    Byzantine, AD 797-802
    Minted in Constantinople (modern Istanbul, Turkey)

    Byzantium's first ruling empress

    Irene (reigned 797-802) holds a unique place in Byzantine history. She was the first woman to rule explicitly in her own name, calling herself basileus (emperor) on official documents. Her period of sole rule followed a much longer period when she dominated government as regent from 780 and then co-ruler with her son Constantine VI, last of the Isaurian dynasty of emperors. During this period Irene turned imperial policy away from the iconoclasm that had long been supported by the Isaurian dynasty. Tensions between mother and son culminated in Constantine's overthrow, blinding and resultant, probably accidental, death. This left Irene in sole control. In her own right she could not claim to be a member of the Isaurian dynasty into which she had married, a factor which affected her coinage. Through most of the eighth century the Isaurian emperors had depicted their predecessors on the backs of their gold coinage: in contrast, Irene had the same image of herself on both sides, with the title basilissa (empress). She wears the form of crown distinctive to empresses, with pyramidal decorations and decorative pendilia dangling beside her face.

    Irene's position led Pope Leo III to suggest that the imperial throne was vacant, justifying the coronation of Charlemagne as emperor in 800. A palace revolution in 802 sent her into retirement with relatively little trouble.

    W. Wroth, Catalogue of Imperial Byzantin (London, 1908)

    W. Treadgold, The Byzantine revival 780-842 (Stanford, 1988)

    P. Grierson, Byzantine coins (London, Methuen, 1982)


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