Skip to Content
Today Open today 10–11 members | 11–5 public

Solidus (Coin) of Empress Irene

Gold coin featuring a frontal image of a figure wearing a crown, with strands of pearls hanging to her shoulders, holding crosses in each hand. Text around the border reads, "EIRINH BASILISSA," or "Empress Irene."
CC0 Public Domain Designation

Image actions

  • Gold coin featuring a frontal image of a figure wearing a crown, with strands of pearls hanging to her shoulders, holding crosses in each hand. Text around the border reads, "EIRINH BASILISSA," or "Empress Irene."




Byzantine; minted in Constantinople (now Istanbul)

About this artwork

Coins were the ideal way for Byzantine rulers to rapidly circulate their images throughout the empire and beyond, since they were used to pay for imported merchandise and foreign mercenaries. They could also be employed as powerful vehicles for propaganda, promoting messages of dynastic legitimacy and the divine
source of the emperor’s right to rule.

After Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine emperors adopted Christian themes and symbols, most notably the cross, to stand for both the religion and the political state. The previously ubiquitous profile portrait head of coins of the Roman Empire was replaced by frontal or full-body depictions. Christ dominated the iconography, and Greek titles and phrases came to replace the Latin ones.

Irene was one of only three female rulers to hold sole power in the 1,100-year-long history of the Byzantine Empire. This rare coin, minted during her reign, not surprisingly incorporates remarkable iconographical innovations, with every detail stressing her sole imperial authority. She is designated basilissa (empress) in the inscription, the first time this title is present in Byzantine coinage. Her image appears on both sides, representing the first imperial double portrait on a Byzantine coin. She wears a cross-surmounted crown with pendilia (pearl adornments that reach nearly to the shoulders) and a jewel-encrusted loros (a long imperial scarf) and holds in her hands the globus cruciger (cross-topped orb) and cross-topped staff—all signs of male imperial power and dominion over the Christian world.Irene left a notable mark on the male-dominated world of Byzantine politics. She came to power by blinding and exiling her son Constantine VI. Reversing her husband’s policies, she reinstituted icon veneration. Her reign also witnessed the first major challenge from the Christian West, when in the year 800 Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. Irene’s gender was a perceived justifi-cation for this action: a woman could not be a legitimate emperor. This watershed moment initiated a controversy between the rulers of Roman Catholic Europe and those of the Byzantine Empire about rightful claims to imperial authority. Unresolved, the controversy lasted until the end of the Byzantine Empire in 1453.


On View, Gallery 153


Arts of the Ancient Mediterranean and Byzantium




Solidus (Coin) of Empress Irene


Istanbul (Minted in)

Date  Dates are not always precisely known, but the Art Institute strives to present this information as consistently and legibly as possible. Dates may be represented as a range that spans decades, centuries, dynasties, or periods and may include qualifiers such as c. (circa) or BCE.

797 CE–802 CE




Eirene Basilissa ("Irene Empress")


Diam.: 2.2 cm (7/8 in.)

Credit Line

Gift of the Classical Art Society

Reference Number


IIIF Manifest  The International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) represents a set of open standards that enables rich access to digital media from libraries, archives, museums, and other cultural institutions around the world.

Learn more.

Extended information about this artwork

Object information is a work in progress and may be updated as new research findings emerge. To help improve this record, please email . Information about image downloads and licensing is available here.


Sign up for our enewsletter to receive updates.

Learn more

Image actions