Thursday, June 30, 2016

Challenges of being a Mom and Dad: Roman Emperor Augustus and Empress Irene

Mother’s month is gone and Dad’s month as well. That made me think that being a parent is always a challenge, even among the most powerful. Ironically, while many men and women have sought power in order to create their dynasties, history does not lack examples of successful men who failed at being good parents. There are the obvious cases of Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great who did not live long enough to provide for the safety of their children, while emperors Trajan and Hadrian did not leave descendants. Revered emperors such as Marcus Aurelius and Septimius Severus were followed by their reviled offspring, Commodus and Caracalla.

Yet perhaps most surprising of all is that Augustus, first Roman Emperor and perhaps the most powerful man in European history, was also a failed parent. Augustus only biological child was his daughter Julia. Being forced into an unhappy marriage with Augustus’ stepson Tiberius, she was found later to be guilty of adultery and treason, being accused of plotting with her lovers against her husband’s own life. Among ancient writers Julia is almost universally remembered for her flagrant and promiscuous conduct and even prostitution behavior, although some of the worst tales are likely to be exaggerations of her actions. Her father Augustus loved her deeply, admired her wit and indulged her, hesitating for some time to accuse her. Reluctant to execute her, Augustus decided on Julia's exile, in harsh conditions. She was confined on the small island of Pandateria, with no men in sight, forbidden even to drink wine and only allowed the visitors approved by her father. Suetonius reports that Augustus would remark "If only I had never married, or had died childless". Historian Macrobius, however, writes that Julia was loved by the roman people due to her gentleness and generosity. Unfortunately, perhaps due to male sexism, the sex scandals give a reputation as negative to historical characters as the murderous behavior of power hungry men.

Perhaps even more surprising is the case of byzantine Empress Irene, the first woman to be an official empress of the Roman Empire which at the time was limited to its eastern half. Her real story is even more bizarre and full of cruelty than the fictional Cersei’s life in Game of Thrones!

Irene became Empress Regent after the death of her imperial husband, being responsible for the care of her son, the official emperor Constantine VI. As Constantine approached maturity he began to grow restless under Irene’s influence. Her son Constantine VI was proclaimed as the sole ruler. Once in control of the state, Constantine proved incapable of sound governance. His army was defeated by the Arabs and Bulgarians. A movement developed in favor of his uncle Nikephoros. Constantine had his uncle's eyes put out and the tongues of his father's four other half-brothers cut off. Constantine blinded his Armenian general Alexios Mosele and then cruelly repressed the revolt of his supporters. He then divorced his wife Maria of Amnia, who had failed to provide him with a male heir, and married his mistress Theodote, an unpopular and illegal act.  On 19 April 797 Constantine was captured, blinded, and imprisoned by the supporters of his mother, who had organized a conspiracy, leaving Irene to be crowned as first Empress regnant of Constantinople.

As a sole ruler Irene restored the adoration of icons in the Byzantine Empire. In 800 Pope Leo III crowned the Carolygian king Charlemagne as Roman Emperor. Irene had previously failed to make a marriage between her son and Charlemagne’s daughter. Relations between the two empires remained difficult. Irene is said to have endeavoured a marriage alliance between herself and Charlemagne, but according to Theophanes the Confessor, who alone mentions it, the scheme was frustrated by Aetios, one of her favourites.

In the end Irene’s grasp for power did not last and her end was an unfortunate one. A conspiracy of noblemen deposed Irene in 802, exiling her to Lesbos, where she was forced to support herself by spinning wool. She died the following year.

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