It happened today - April 19, 2016
Yes, Empress. Not as in the sense of “wife of the Emperor” or basileus, though she was that to Leo IV until he died in 780 AD despite a theological rift over icons that evidently had marital repercussions. And when Leo died Irene became regent for their nine year old son Constantine.
This being Byzantium, events promptly took a turn too weird and vicious for a soap opera. After cozying up to then sidling away from Charlemagne, and facing a Sicilian revolt, managing a rapprochement with the Pope and fighting a war with the Franks, she naturally got into a power struggle with her son, who was proclaimed emperor and sole ruler by the army in 690.
Of course Irene pretended to be buddies with her son despite mutual hatred and suspicion. And of course she plotted his downfall and on April 19 of 697 her plots were ripe… or rotten. In Byzantine terms it’s hard to tell the difference. Anyway, she struck, and Constantine VI fled to his allies in the provinces, where of course conspirators seized him, dragged him back to Constantinople and mommy dearest welcomed him with open knives, or spoons or something. Anyway, she had his eyes gouged out.
He promptly died. Which evidently shocked people. I’m not quite sure why. I mean, if you’re willing to overthrow, blind and permanently imprison someone, how does doing it so cruelly or ineptly that they actually die strike people as remarkably careless or callous?
England’s “Bad king John” at one point evidently ordered his nephew Arthur to be blinded and castrated, perhaps intending to keep him alive just to watch him suffer, but after his jailer Hubert de Burgh refused to carry it out John merely slaughtered the lad in a drunken rage and dumped his body in the Seine. Mind you Arthur was captured while besieging his own granny at Mirebeau Castle; he may have been no better than his relatives, just unlucky. On the other hand Robert II “Curthose”, Duke of Normandy, was imprisoned by his own brother King Henry I of England for 28 years but evidently not, despite later tales, actually blinded. Indeed, he seems to have died of old age rather than boredom or irritation or, you know, some sort of business with the hot metal bits.
Constantine VI was not so lucky, in his choice of relatives or the surgery they performed. As for Irene, she spent five years as Empress before being deposed, exiled to Lesbos and left to support herself spinning wool, where she soon but evidently naturally died. And incidentally I was looking through the list of Byzantine Emperors to see if they had other women after this episode.
They did, although Zoe “the purple-born” reigned along with her three husbands, at least one of whom she murdered while another openly brought a mistress into the marriage. Like I said, a soap opera. And at least her nickname wasn’t as abusive as, say, Michael III “the Drunkard” or Constantine V “the Dung-named”. Even Justinian II “the slit-nosed” did better than that. They also had Leo VI “the Wise” and Basil II “the Bulgar-slayer” which I think was meant as a compliment. But I digress.
They also had Zoe’s younger sister Theodora. And they hated and schemed against one another. After that just men. Who hated and schemed against one another while Byzantium slowly and inexorably crumbled or, on occasion, was battered ferociously.
So yes, Irene was a pioneer in sitting on a throne previously only occupied by men. And proving that anything men can do, women can do too, whether they should or not. Probably if you’re thinking of erecting a statue to a woman pioneer, you should choose the first astronaut, cardiac surgeon, MP or something along those lines.