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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Vasilief, A History of the Byzantine Empire

The Iconoclastic epoch (717-867)

The Isaurian or Syrian Dynasty 


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The son of Leo III, Constantine V Copronymus (741-75), married Irene, daughter of the Khagan of the Khazars (Chazars). He had by her a son, Leo IV, often called the Khazar (Chazar), who reigned from 775 to 780. Leo IV married a Greek girl from Athens, another Irene, who at his death became ruler of the Empire because her son, Constantine VI, proclaimed Emperor from 780 to 797, was a minor. Irene, a woman of great force and ambition, entered into a struggle for power with her son when he attained his majority, and was victorious; she dethroned and blinded her son, and became sole ruler of the Empire (797-802). She illustrates the problem of whether or not in the Byzantine Empire women could exercise sovereign power on the throne, i.e. be rulers of the Empire in the full meaning of the term. Since the time of the founding of the Empire wives of emperors had borne the title Augusta, and in case of the minority of their sons, had fulfilled the functions of imperial power, but always in the name of their sons. In the fifth century, Pulcheria, sister of Theodosius, had been at the head of the regency during the minority of her brother. Theodora, wife of Justinian the Great, had occupied an exceptional position of influence upon political affairs. But Theodora's political influence depended entirely upon the will of her husband, and the other women had all ruled in the name of a son or a brother. Irene is the first instance in Byzantine history of a woman ruling with full authority of supreme power. She was a true autocrat, ruling in her own right, and she represented an innovation which contradicted the secular traditions of the Empire. It is interesting to note that in official documents and decrees she was not called empress but Irene, the faithful emperor (basileus). Since it was the conception of the period that only an emperor, a man, could be the official lawgiver, it became necessary to adopt the fiction that Irene was an emperor. She was dethroned by the revolution of the year 802, initiated and led by one of the highest civil officials, Nicephorus, and she later died in exile. Nicephorus ascended the throne, and thus, with Irene's deposition, ended the Isaurian or Syrian dynasty. In the period from 717 to 802 the Byzantine Empire was ruled by a dynasty of eastern origin from Asia Minor or northern Syria, intermixed with Khazarian blood through the marriage of Constantine V

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