Leo IV (775-780 A.D.)

Leo IV is often considered primarily as an appendage of his redoubtable wife and successor Irene, from whose point of view all our historical sources are written — this is due partly to the brevity of his reign, as well as to the fact that it was very much in the interests of his widow to rewrite history in her own favour.  Leo was the son and heir of the committed iconoclast emperor Constantine V, who married three times: by his first wife, Irene the Khazar,[[1]]  he had one son, Leo, in January 750; his second marriage was childless; and his third marriage, to Eudocia, produced five sons and a daughter.[[2]]  Leo was crowned co-emperor by his father in 751, and in December 769 married Irene, a member of the Sarandapechys family from Athens, in the chapel of St Stephen in the Daphne palace adjoining the Great Palace. Their only son Constantine (named after his grandfather) was born on 14 January 771.   The choice of Irene as an imperial bride is surprising, both because her family was not particularly prominent and because of the reverence for icons which she later displayed. Nevertheless, even in the family of Constantine V, discreet iconophilism and devotion to certain saints and monastic institutions, seems to have been expected of imperial women: certainly Constantine’s third wife Eudocia patronised the monastery of St Anthusa of Mantineon. It is also possible, as suggested by Cedrenus below, that Irene may have been expected by her father-in-law prior to her marriage to swear an oath that she would not publicly reverence icons.

On Constantine V’s death in August 775 Leo IV succeeded to the throne at the age of twenty-five years.[[3]] He crowned his five-year old son Constantine not long after his accession, on Easter Sunday, 14 April 776.  On Good Friday Leo had imposed an oath on the army, senate, tagmata (the elite regiments stationed in Constantinople) and people ‘by the holy and life-giving Cross’ that they would accept no other emperor but himself and his son the young emperor Constantine and their descendants. Perhaps to reassure his five younger half-brothers that they were not entirely to be side-lined, on the next day, Holy Saturday, he appointed his youngest brother Eudocimus to the rank of nobilissimus, and his brothers were then associated with him in the crowning of the young Constantine on Holy Sunday. Despite this, his actions sparked off a conspiracy in May focused round the second eldest of his brothers, the Caesar Nicephorus: Nicephorus was to be the centre of opposition to Irene’s regime on a number of occasions. Leo easily put down the conspiracy, which included a number of persons in the imperial service, and showed leniency to those involved by having them scourged and tonsured and banishing them to the Cherson and the Klimata under guard.[[4]]

It was only to be expected that Leo would continue his father’s iconoclast and anti-monastic policies, which were so popular with sections of the army and particularly the tagmata. Leo, however, appears to have taken a far more moderate stance on religious issues than Constantine V, though still supporting iconoclasm, and Theophanes speaks of him using his father’s money to win favour with the people and the notables and as initially appearing to be pious and ‘a friend of the Holy Mother of God and of the monks’. He began by appointing some monks as bishops and removing the disabilities imposed on monasteries by his father: in this he seems to have been following a policy of promoting iconoclast monasteries which would be subordinate to the ecclesiastical hierarchy. In 780, when the ‘Slav eunuch’ Patriarch Nicetas died, Leo appointed Paul of Cyprus to the patriarchate. Paul is depicted by Theophanes as having iconophile sympathies and only accepting the appointment under duress, though it is hardly likely that Leo would have chosen a patriarch hostile to his policies: Paul however, was more moderate than his predecessors. Nevertheless, shortly afterwards, Leo seems to have renewed the persecution of iconophiles which Constantine V had instituted in the 760s. In August, a number of prominent courtiers were arrested, scourged, tonsured and imprisoned; we are told that Theophanes the cubicularius and paracoimomenus died under the treatment.[[5]] Cedrenus, a later source, records that Irene was involved and that Leo had found two icons in her possession:

‘In the mid-week of Lent he [Leo IV] found under [literally ‘in’] the pillow of his wife Irene two icons. Having beheld them and made an investigation, he discovered that the papias of the palace and some others of the primicerii had brought them. He subjected them to many tortures and punishments. As for his wife Irene, he rebuked her severely and set her at naught, saying, “Was this what you swore to my father the Emperor upon the fearsome and pure mysteries of our faith?” She affirmed that she had not seen them [the icons]. He spurned her and had no more marital relations with her.’[[6]]

It is possible that Irene may have been a focus for iconophile sympathisers and she was perhaps deliberately trying to fill the palace with iconophile supporters, hence this crack-down, which shows Leo as a committed iconoclast trying to clean up his palace and court by ridding them of unacceptable and ‘unorthodox’ religious practices. The papias — in this case Jacob, who was also a protospatharius[[7]] — was a eunuch in charge of the palace buildings and keys, and thus all access to the palace; the primicerii here referred to appear to have been eunuch courtiers, who would of course have been able to associate freely with the empress. Prior to this relationship between Leo and Irene appear to have been good: at least, in 776/7 he married her cousin to Telerig, the Bulgarian ruler, who had taken refuge in Constantinople and was made a patrician and baptised in the Orthodox religion.[[8]]

Little is known about Leo’s other activities as ruler, although he sent an army 100,000 strong against the Arabs in northern Syria under the command of the committed iconoclast general Michael Lachanodracon in 778. His strategy in Asia Minor against the Arabs has been seen both as successful and as primarily defensive — securing Byzantine-held fortresses and hindering Arab raiding parties, while avoiding direct conflict.[[9]] The multi-theme expedition of 778 besieged Germanicia — though Theophanes (a biased source) claims that the Arabs bribed Lachanodracon to withdraw — and achieved some success against an Arab army in an engagement in which 5 emirs and 2,000 Arabs were said to have fallen: the generals were awarded a triumph for this victory. The expedition was also involved in capturing heretical Syrian Jacobites who were then resettled in Thrace.[[10]]   As Lachanodracon was one of Constantine V’s more trusted ministers, and a notorious persecutor of monks,[[11]] it is clear that Leo had no reservations about employing iconoclasts in top army positions. This defensive policy continued to be successful in 779, when a large Arab army advanced to Dorylaeum (while a further success was again achieved by Michael Lachanodracon against an Arab raiding party in 780):

‘the emperor ordered the strategoi [generals] not to fight an open war, but to make the forts secure by stationing garrisons of soldiers in them. He appointed high-ranking officers at each fort and instructed them to take each 3,000 chosen men and to follow the Arabs so as to prevent them from spreading out on pillaging raids, while burning in advance the horses’ pasture and whatever other supplies were to be found. After the Arabs had remained fifteen days at Dorylaion, they ran short of necessities and their horses were hungry and many of them perished. Turning back, they besieged Amorion for one day. But finding it fortified and well-armed, they withdrew without achieving any success.’[[12]]

Leo also continued Constantine’s development of the tagmata (the guard regiments in Constantinople) as an elite force in the field. In 776, shortly after his accession, he transferred a number of soldiers from theme armies into the tagmata, which caused army unrest — officers of the theme armies marched with their troops on Constantinople and were only pacified with difficulty.[[13]] Leo’s death of a fever on 8 September 780, while campaigning against the Bulgarians, allowed Irene to reverse his policies at the earliest possible opportunity. The rumour was current — perhaps put about by Irene or her supporters — that Leo had died of an illness contracted after taking and wearing the jewelled crown from the Great Church of St Sophia, which had been dedicated there by Maurice or Heraclius:

‘On 8 September of the 4th indiction Constantine’s son Leo died in the following manner. Being inordinately addicted to precious stones, he became enamoured of the crown of the Great Church, which he took and wore on his head. His head developed carbuncles and, seized by a violent fever, he died after a reign of 5 years less 6 days.’[[14]]

Whether Irene deliberately had this story circulated or not, it implies an attempt to smear her husband’s memory, which her triumphant return of the crown in full imperial procession on Christmas Day 780 would have emphasised.[[15]] Leo was buried, with other members of the imperial family including his father, in the church of the Holy Apostles.[[16]]


George Cedrenus, Compendium Historiarum, ed. I. Bekker, 2 vols, Bonn: CSHB, 1838-9.

Leo Grammaticus, Leonis Grammatici Chronographia, ed. I. Bekker, Bonn: CSHB, 1842.

Nikephoros, Patriarch of Constantinople, Short History, ed. & tr. C. Mango, Washington DC: CFHB, 1990.

Theophanes, Chronicle, ed. C. de Boor, Leipzig: CSHB, 1883-85; English translation by C. Mango & R. Scott, with the assistance of G. Greatrex, The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor: Byzantine and Near Eastern History AD 284-813, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Alexander, P.J. (1977) ‘Religious Persecution and Resistance in the Byzantine Empire of the Eighth and Ninth Centuries: Methods and Justifications,’ Speculum, 52: 238-64.

Anastos, M.V. (1966) ‘Iconoclasm and Imperial Rule 717-842,’ in The Cambridge Medieval History, 4.1, ed. J.M. Hussey, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 61-104.

Kaegi, W.E. (1966) ‘The Byzantine Armies and Iconoclasm,’ Byzantinoslavica, 27: 48-70.

Kaegi, W.E. (1981) Byzantine Military Unrest 471-843. An Interpretation, Amsterdam: Hakkert.

Kazhdan, A.P. & A.-M. Talbot (1991/92), ‘Women and Iconoclasm,’ Byzantinische Zeitschrift, 84/85: 391-408.

Speck, P. Kaiser Konstantin IV, Munich 1978, 1: 53-103, 2: 423-92

Treadgold, W. ‘An Indirectly Preserved Source for the Reign of Leo IV,’ Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik, 34 (1984) 69-76.

Treadgold, W.T. (1982) The Byzantine State Finances in the Eighth and Ninth Centuries, New York: Columbia University Press.

Treadgold, W. (1988) The Byzantine Revival 780-842, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Whittow, Mark (1996) The Making of Orthodox Byzantium, 600-1025, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

[[1]]For her marriage, see Theophanes AM 6224 [AD 731/2]; her original name may have been Chichek.

[[2]]For Constantine V’s crowning of his third wife Eudocia as Augusta and his lavish patrimony for her five sons (50,000 lbs. of gold) and the ranks bestowed on them, see Theophanes AM 6260 [AD 767/8]; Cedrenus 2.18; Treadgold (1982) 67, (1988) 9.

[[3]]Theophanes AM 6261, 6262 [AD 768/9, 769/70]; Nicephorus 88; Leo Grammaticus 188, 190; Constantine Porphyrogennetos, de ceremoniis 1.41.

[[4]]Theophanes AM 6268 [AD 775/6].

[[5]]Theophanes AM 6268, 6272 [AD 775/6, 779/80]; Leo Gramm. 190-1; for Constantine V’s persecution, see Alexander (1977).

[[6]]Cedrenus 2.19-20; tr. Mango & Scott (1997) 626 n. 9. The chronicle of Symeon the Logothete tells us that Irene was persuaded to worship icons by Theophanes and three cubicularii and that Leo from now on had nothing to do with her: Leo Gramm. 192.

[[7]] Theophanes AM 6272 [AD 779/80].

[[8]]Theophanes AM 6269 [AD 776/7]: the emperor also ‘took him up from the holy font and bestowed upon him much honour and affection’.

[[9]]Theophanes AM 6271 [AD 778/9; Whittow (1996) 176-77.

[[10]]Theophanes AM 6270 [AD 777/8]; Michael the Syrian 3.2.

[[11]] Theophanes AM 6263 [AD 770/1].

[[12]] Theophanes AM 6272 [AD 779/80]; trans. Mango & Scott (1997) 624.

[[13]]Theophanes AM 6268 [AD 775/6]; J.P. Haldon, Byzantine Praetorians, Bonn, 1984, esp. pp. 164-82, 191-227.

[[14]]Theophanes AM 6272 [AD 779/80]; trans. Mango & Scott (1997) 625. Cedrenus 2.20 calls it the crown of Heraclius, Theophanes (AM 6093; AD 600/1) the crown given to Maurice on Easter day by Sophia and Constantina and dedicated by him in St Sophia.

[[15]]Theophanes AM 6273 [AD 781/1]; Leo Gramm. 193. See Treadgold (1988) 6 for the suggestion that Leo may not have died a natural death and that Irene and her supporters ‘probably connived at her husband’s murder’: Treadgold accepts Cedrenus’s version of events.

[[16]]Philip Grierson, ‘The Tombs and Obits of the Byzantine Emperors (337-1042),’ Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 16 (1962), 54.