(c) 2000 Chris Connell
Leo III, founder of the so-called “Isaurian” dynasty, was not of Asia Minor provenance as the faulty epithet “the Isaurian” suggests, but was born in Germanicia, North Syria, circa 685. His original name may have been, as Gero suggests, Konon. According to Theophanes, his family was removed by Justinian to Mesembria, on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, where he was raised. Patricius and strategos of the Anatolican theme, he refused to acknowledge Theodosius III’s claim to the imperial throne, and joined forces with Artabasdos, general of the Armeniakon theme and possibly also of Germanician origin, to force Theodosius to step down from the throne. After Leo’s capture of Theodosius’ son in Nicomedia, and subsequent abdication, Leo acceded to the throne on 25 March 717. His wife Maria was crowned empress in 718.
Leo’s first military challenge as emperor was to repel the Arab forces under Maslama, who had led an expedition into Asia Minor at the end of 715, and proceeded to besiege Constantinople in 717. Leo III was aided in his defeat of the combined forces of the Arab army, led by Malsama, and the navy led by Sulayman, by the help of the Bulgarian khan Tervel. Following the example of Patriarch Sergius (610-638) who had carried an icon of Mary around the city walls during the Avar siege of Constantinople in 626, Patriarch Germanus faced the Arab siege with the power of an icon of the Theotokos. Miraculously, the city was saved, though Leo’s role in the affair is played down by iconophile sources. Together with the territorial losses suffered by the empire during his early reign, the devastating underwater earthquake at Thera and Therasia in 726 was interpreted by Leo as a sign of divine displeasure, and as a warning to turn back to the “real protector of the empire in its full greatness”, i.e. Christ. It was at around this time, either in 726 or 730 – the sources are divided as to whether the ruling patriarch was Germanus or his successor Anastasius – that he replaced the relief of Christ on the Chalke Gate at the entrance to the imperial palace with a cross bearing the inscription “I drive out the enemies and kill the barbarians.”
Scholarly opinion is divided as to whether Leo III deserves to be called “the first Iconoclast emperor”. Paul Speck demurs, attributing Leo’s actions in replacing the image of Christ on the Chalke gate with an image of the cross to his desire, not to demote holy pictures, but to resurrect the symbol under which Constantine the Great and Heraclius conquered, or re-conquered, great areas for the Byzantine Empire, now sadly reduced by Germanic, Slav and Arab incursions. There is no mention of icons in the Ecloga, the law code promulgated by him in March 726 which constituted an important revision of the Justinian code. Leo’s actions in Italy in the mid-720s seem to have more to do with punishing tax evasion than imposing the destruction of icons. Although the author of the Life of Pope Gregory II in the Liber Pontificalis is keen to lay the blame on Leo’s iconoclast actions, he acknowledges that resistance to the imposition of an increased tax on all land, including that belonging to the church, also motivated papal opposition to Leo. Leo’s intention was to “shore up his rule in Italy and make Italy contribute more to the cost of its own defence” against the Arab threat (Davis, infra, 10 n. 2). The transfer of the dioceses of Sicily, Calabria and Illyricum from papal to Byzantine jurisdiction was also a source of conflict with the bishop of Rome, though this may have occurred later, during the reign of Constantine V. There is indeed evidence for iconoclasm among certain bishops in Asia Minor, notably Constantine of Nakoleia, prior to 726, when Leo seems to have promulgated an imperial edict, but there is no proof of contact between Leo and these iconoclast reformers, or of any influence by them on his later policies, just as there is no evidence of Jewish or Muslim influence. The correspondence between Leo and Caliph Umar II (717-720) on the merits of Islam versus Christianity is recorded only in two letters of dubious authenticity. It is noteworthy that he was not known as an iconoclast in contemporary Muslim and Armenian sources.
Likewise the deposition of Germanus on 7 or 17 January 730 may have had nothing to do with the patriarch’s iconophile leanings, but with imperial policy in Italy. The imperial Silentium that was issued at the same gathering, ordering destruction of icons of the saints, seems to be incontrovertible evidence, but there is no conclusive evidence for iconophile martyrdom under Leo.
Leo’s actions were dictated by an overriding concern for the unity of the empire, which was under threat from the Arabs, against whom he joined forces with the Khazars and the Georgians: the victory against Arab forces led by Sayyid al-Battal at Akroinon (a Phrygian city of the Anatolikon theme) in 740 proved decisive in halting the Umayyad advance in Asia Minor. He also created at least two new maritime themes for the security of the empire, namely the Thrakesion and the Kibyrrhaiotai in Asia Minor. His affiliation with iconoclasm aside, his adherence as emperor to Chalcedonian “orthodoxy” cannot be questioned, even though he was probably raised as a non-Chalcedonian. He sought religious uniformity in the empire even at the cost of forced conversion of dissident Jews and Montanists.
His reign lasted 24 years, 2 months and 25 days, until his death on 18 June 741, when he was succeeded by his son Constantine V.
M. V. Anastos, ‘Leo III’s Edict Against the Images in the Year 726-727 and Italo-Byzantine Relations between 726 and 730’, Byzantinische Forschungen 3 (1968), 5-41.
R. Davis, The Lives of the Eighth-Century Popes (Liber Pontificalis) (Liverpool, 1992), ‘Life of Gregory II’, Introduction and notes, 1-16.
S. Gero, Byzantine Iconoclasm during the reign of Leo III, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium 41 (Louvain, 1973).
J. Gouillard, ‘Aux origines de l’iconoclasme: le témoinage de Grégoire II’, Travaux et mémoires (Centre de recherche d’histoire et de civilisation byzantines) 3 (1968), 243-307.
Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium: s.v. “Leo III” (Paul Hollingsworth)
P. Speck, ‘Byzantium: Cultural Suicide?’, Byzantium in the Ninth Century: Dead or Alive?, ed. L. Brubaker (Ashgate, 1998), 73-84, esp. 78-79.