As empress consort to Leo IV of Byzantium, then dowager empress, then empress regnant, Irene of Athens would set financial policy in the western terminus of the fabled Silk Road for three decades. Other than blinding and thus killing her son Constantine, her role in promoting and expanding the silk industry is perhaps her greatest accomplishment. She also had a new gold solidus (coin) minted with her likeness to stabilize the empire’s economy, and established trade alliances with the Carolingian and the Roman papal state. While she had no great need for wealth herself (she was an empress after all), she certainly helped make others in Byzantium quite rich.
Irene was born c. 752 to the influential Sarantapechos family of Athens (hence the moniker); she was brought to Constantinople by Emperor Constantine V and married to his son Leo in 768. In January 771 Irene gave birth to a son, the goal of all queens and empresses of the time. When Leo died in 780, she became regent for her nine-year-old son. She spent the next two decades putting down plots (including her own son) against the throne and her autocratic ways. Until her death in 803, she ruled unchallenged.
Even as it grew rich off the silk trade from China, Byzantium sought to establish its own domestic production and thus cut out greedy middlemen. Even as wife to Leo, Irene of Athens saw the enormous economic benefit in silk production to feed the demand in Europe; and like the Chinese, she saw the value in insuring that the industry was controlled by the imperial family. So she had the Eleutherios (silk-weaving workshops) built where production could be closely monitored. It worked, for thanks to Irene, the Byzantine crown would profit mightily by offering an alternative to expensive Chinese silk for seven centuries.