Irene of Athens (Greek: Εἰρήνη ἡ Ἀθηναία; c. 752 – 9 August 803 AD), also known as Irene Sarantapechaina (Greek: Εἰρήνη Σαρανταπήχαινα), was Byzantine (Eastern Roman) empress from 797 to 802. Before that, Irene was empress consort from 775 to 780, and empress dowager and regent from 780 to 797. She is best known for ending Iconoclasm.
She was brought to Constantinople by Emperor Constantine V on 1 November 768 and was married to his son Leo IV on 17 December. Although she appears to have come from a noble family, there is no clear reason why she would have been chosen as Leo's bride, leading some scholars to speculate that she was selected in a bride-show, in which eligible young women were paraded before the bridegroom until one was finally selected.
On 14 January 771, Irene gave birth to a son, the future Constantine VI. When Constantine V died in September 775, Leo succeeded to the throne at the age of twenty-five years. Leo, though an iconoclast, pursued a policy of moderation towards iconodules, but his policies became much harsher in August 780, when a number of courtiers were punished for venerating icons. According to tradition, he discovered icons concealed among Irene's possessions and refused to share the marriage bed with her thereafter. Nevertheless, when Leo died on 8 September 780, Irene became regent for their nine-year-old son Constantine.
As Constantine approached maturity he began to grow restless under her autocratic sway. An attempt to free himself by force was met and crushed by the Empress, who demanded that the oath of fidelity should thenceforward be taken in her name alone. The discontent which this occasioned swelled in 790 into open resistance, and the soldiers, headed by the army of the Armeniacs, formally proclaimed Constantine VI as the sole ruler.
A hollow semblance of friendship was maintained between Constantine and Irene, whose title of empress was confirmed in 792; but the rival factions remained, and in 797 Irene, by cunning intrigues with the bishops and courtiers, organized a conspiracy on her own behalf. Constantine could only flee for aid to the provinces, but even there participants in the plot surrounded him. Seized by his attendants on the Asiatic shore of the Bosphorus, Constantine was carried back to the palace at Constantinople. His eyes were gouged out, and he died from his wounds several days later. A solar eclipse and darkness lasting 17 days were attributed to the horror of Heaven.
In 802 the patricians conspired against her and placed Nikephoros, the minister of finance (logothetēs tou genikou), on the throne. Irene was exiled to Lesbos and forced to support herself by spinning wool. She died the following year.
Although it is often asserted that, as monarch, Irene called herself "basileus" (βασιλεύς), 'emperor', rather than "basilissa" (βασίλισσα), 'empress', in fact there are only three instances where it is known that she used the title "basileus": two legal documents in which she signed herself as "Emperor of the Romans" and a gold coin of hers found in Sicily bearing the title of "basileus". In relation to the coin, the lettering is of poor quality and the attribution to Irene may be problematic. She used the title "basilissa" in all other documents, coins, and seals.