UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Iconography of persuasion : re-evaluating Empress Irene in her numismatic context Inglot, Nicole Alina


Empress Irene (r. 780-802 CE) is a contentious figure in Byzantine history. On the one hand, she is well-known for the restoration of icon worship at the Council of Nicaea in 787; on the other hand, she is notorious for blinding her son, Constantine VI at Constantinople in 797. Most importantly, she became the first female emperor of Byzantium. The problem in understanding this figure is that the narratives about her have been built from biased, historical texts, such as that of Theophanes the Confessor writing in the early ninth century. This thesis seeks to shift the discussion from the literary to the material. Coins are an often-neglected form of primary evidence in Byzantine studies. I argue that coins and their iconography have the ability to make important claims about power in the Byzantine world. The data for this thesis comes from the well-established collection at the American Numismatic society and from the Rachel and David Herman Collection of Byzantine Coins at the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology, whose specimens I am the first to research and analyze since their donation in 2015. Through an in-depth analysis of the iconography employed on Irene’s coinage and the variations which occur across the gold and bronze denominations, I demonstrate clear evidence for imperial tailoring of these numismatic images in order to communicate degrees of authority to the varying audiences of coin users. This underutilized form of evidence offers a closer connection to the imperial perspective regarding a ruler’s authority. As such, the coins enable us to see an official view in which Irene gradually ascended to sole rule and represented as a traditional Byzantine emperor. The numismatic evidence presents an alternative picture of Irene, independent of the historiography.

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