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Isaurian Dynasty (717-866)

Leo III the Isaurian, Arab siege of Constantinople, Iconoclasm, Constantine V, Leo IV, Constantine VI, Empress Irene

Leo III (r.717-741)

The leader to emerge after the anarchy following the death of Justinian II was Leo the Isaurian, one of the few military officers who had made a great reputation amid the fearful disasters of the last ten years.

Leo was a general of the " Anatolic " theme, the province

which included the old Cappadocia and Lycaonia. After

inducing the Saracens, more by craft than force, to

raise the siege of Amorium, Leo disowned his

allegiance to the incapable Theodosius and marched

toward the Bosphorus.

The unfortunate emperor, who had not coveted the

throne he occupied, nor much desired to retain it,

allowed his army to risk one engagement with the

troops of Leo. When it was beaten he summoned

the Patriarch, the Senate, and the chief officers of the

court, pointed out to them that a great Saracen

invasion was impending, that civil war had begun,

and that he himself did not wish to remain responsible

for the conduct of affairs. With his consent the

assembly resolved to offer the crown to Leo, who

formally accepted it early in the spring of 717.

Theodosius retired unharmed to Ephesus .

Leo Crowned Emperor

By dethroning Theodosius III. on the very eve of

the great Saracen invasion, Leo the Isaurian took

upon himself the gravest of responsibilities. With a

demoralized army, which of late had been more

accustomed to revolt than to fight, a depleted treasury,

and a disorganized civil service, he had to face an

attack even more dangerous than that which Con-

stantine IV. had beaten off thirty years before.

Constantine too, the fourth of a race of hereditary

rulers, had a secure throne and a loyal army, while

Leo was a mere adventurer who had seized the

crown only a few months before he was put to the

The reigning Caliph was now Suleiman, the seventh

of the house of the Ommeyades. He had strained

all the resources of his wide empire to provide a fleet

and army adequate to the great enterprise which he

had taken in hand. The chief command of the

expedition was given to his brother Moslemah, who

led an army of eighty thousand men from Tarsus

across the centre of Asia Minor, and marched on



the Hellespont, taking the strong city of Pergamus

on his way. Meanwhile a fleet of eighteen hundred

sail under the vizier Suleiman, namesake of his

master the Caliph, sailed from Syria for the Aegean,

carrying a force no less than that which marched by

land. Fleet and army met at Abydos on the Helles-

pont without mishap, for Leo had drawn back all his

resources, naval and military, to guard his capital.

In August, 717, only five months after his coronation,

the Isaurian saw the vessels of the Saracens sailing

up the Propontis, while their army had crossed into

Thrace and was approaching the city from the

western side. Moslemah caused his troops to build

a line of circumvallation from the sea to the Golden

Horn, cutting Constantinople off from all communi-

cation with Thrace, while Suleiman blocked the

southern exit of the Bosphorus, and tried to close it

on the northern side also, so as to prevent any

supplies coming by water from the Euxine. Leo,

however, sallied forth from the Golden Horn with his

galleys and fire-vessels bearing the dreaded Greek

fire, and did so much harm to the detachment of

Saracen ships which had gone northward up the

strait, that the blockade was never properly established

on that side.

The Saracens relied more on starving out the city

than on taking it by storm : they had come provided

with everything necessary for a blockade of many

months, and sat down as if intending to remain before

the walls for an indefinite time. But Constantinople

had been provisioned on an even more lavish scale ;

each family had been bidden to lay in a stock of corn


For no less a period than two years, and famine

appeared in the camp of the besiegers long ere it was

felt in the houses of the besieged. Nor had Mos-

lemah and Suleiman reckoned with the climate.

Hard winters occasionally occur by the Black Sea, as

the troops learnt to their cost in the Crimean War.

But the Saracens were served ev^en worse by the

winter of 717-18, when the frost never ceased for

twelve weeks. Leo might have boasted, like Czar

Nicholas, that December, January, and February were

his best generals — for these months wrought fearful

havoc in the Saracen host. The lightly clad

Orientals could not stand the weather, and died off

like flies of dysentery and cold. The vizier Suleiman

was among those who perished. Meanwhile the

Byzantines suffered little, being covered by roofs all

the winter.

When next spring came round Moslemah would

have had to raise the siege if he had not been heavily

reinforced both by sea and land. A fleet of reserve

arrived from Egypt, and a large army came up from

Tarsus and occupied the Asiatic shores of the Bos-


But Leo did not despair, and took the offensive in

the summer. His fire-ships stole out and burnt the

Egyptian squadron as it lay at anchor. A body of

troops landing on the Bithynian coast, surprised and

cut to pieces the Saracen army which watched the

other side of the strait. Soon, too, famine began to

assail the enemy ; their stores of provisions were now

giving out, and they had harried the neighbourhood so

fiercely that no more food could be got from near at


hand, while if they sent foraging parties too far from

their h'nes they were cut off by the peasantry. At last

Moslemah suffered a disaster which compelled him to

abandon his task. The Bulgarians came down over

the Balkans, and routed the covering army which

observed Adrianople and protected the siege on the

western side. No less than twenty thousand Sara-

cens fell, by the testimony of the Arab historians

themselves, and the survivors were so cowed that

Moslemah gave the order to retire. The fleet ferried

the land army back into Asia, and both forces started

homeward. Moslemah got back to Tarsus with only

thirty thousand men at his back, out of more than

a hundred thousand who had started with him or

come to him as reinforcements. The fleet fared even

worse : it was caught by a tempest in the Aegean, and

so fearfully shattered that it is said that only five

vessels out of the whole Armada got back to Syria


Thus ended the last great endeavour of the Saracen

to destroy Constantinople. The task was never

essayed again, though for three hundred and fifty

years more wars were constantly breaking out

between the Emperor and the Caliph. In the future

they were always to be border struggles, not des-

perate attenrxpts to strike at the heart of the empire,

and conquer Europe for Islam. To Leo, far more i

than to his contemporary the Frank Charles Martel,'

is the delivery of Christendom from the Moslem

danger to be attributed. Charles turned back a

plundering horde sent out from an outlying province

of the Caliphate. Leo repulsed the grand-army of

the Saracens, raised from the whole of their eastern

realms, and commanded by the brother of their

monarch. Such a defeat was well calculated to

impress on their fatalistic minds the idea that Con-

stantinople was not destined by providence to fall

into their hands. They were by this time far removed

from the frantic fanaticism which had inspired their

grandfathers, and the crushing disaster they had now

sustained deterred them from any repetition of the

attempt. Life and power had grown so pleasant to

them that martyrdom was no longer an " end in

itself" ; they preferred, if checked, to live and fight

another day.

Leo was, however, by no means entirely freed from

the Saracens by his victory of 718. At several epochs

in the latter part of his reign he was troubled by

invasions "of his border provinces. None of them,

however, were really dangerous, and after a victory

won over the main army of the raiders in 739 at

Acroinon in Phrygia, Asia Minor was finally freed

from their presence.



The Icon Controversy - Christian History Made Easy
Mohammad, Smashers and Kissers and Empress Irene may sound like the name of a band. However, each played a role in how the church arrived at a decision about the place of icons in worship.

Dr. Timothy Paul Jones takes you through the most important events in Christian history from the time of the apostles to today. He brings to life the fascinating people and events that shaped our world. This isn't dry names and dates. It's full of dramatic stories told with a touch of humor. This series, based on Dr. Jones's popular award-winning book Christian History Made Easy, ties in spiritual lessons believers can glean by looking at the past, and shows how God was still working in his church despite all the ups and downs.


An Iconoclast paints over an image of Christ


If Leo the I saurian had died on the day on which

the army of the Caliph raised the siege of Constanti-

nople it would have been well for his reputation in

history. Unhappily for himself, though happily

enough for the East-Roman realm, he survived yet

twenty years to carry through a series of measures

which were in his eyes not less important than the

repulse of the Moslems from his capital. Historians

have given to the scheme of reform which he took in

hand the name of the Iconoclastic movement, because

of the opposition to the worship of images which

formed one of the most prominent features of his



The Rise of Charles Martel and Byzantine Iconoclasm, 718-731

For the last hundred years the empire had been

declining in culture and civilization ; literature and

art seemed likely to perish in the never-ending clash

of arms : the old-Roman jurisprudence was being

forgotten, the race of educated civil servants was

showing signs of extinction, the governors of pro-

vinces were now without exception rough soldiers,

 not members of that old bureaucracy whose Roman

traditions had so long kept the empire together. Not

least among the signs of a decaying civilization were

the gross superstitions which had grown up of late in

the religious world. Christianity had begun to be

permeated by those strange mediaeval fancies which

would have been as inexplicable to the old-Roman

mind of four centuries before as they are to the mind

of the nineteenth century. A rich crop of puerile

legends, rites, and observances had grown up of late

around the central truths of religion, unnoticed and

unguarded against by theologians, who devoted all

their energies to the barren Monothelite and Mono-

physite controversies.

Image-worship and relic-

worship in particular had developed with strange

rapidity, and assumed the shape of mere Fetishism.

Every ancient picture or statue was now announced

as both miraculously produced and endued with

miraculous powers. These wonder-working pictures

and statues were now adored as things in themselves

divine : the possession of one of themi made the

fortune of a church or monastery, and the tangible

object of worship seems to have been regarded with

quite as much respect as the saint whose memory it

recalled. The freaks to which image-worship led

were in some cases purely grotesque ; it was, for

example, not unusual to select a picture as the god-

father of a child in baptism, and to scrape off a little

of its paint and produce it at the ceremony to

represent the saint. Even patriarchs and bishops

ventured to assert that the hand of a celebrated

representation of the Virgin distilled fragrant balsam.

The success of the Emperor Heraclius in his Persian

campaign was ascribed by the vulgar not so much to

his military talent as to the fact that he carried with

him a small picture of the Virgin, which had fallen

from heaven !

All these vain beliefs, inculcated by the clergy and

eagerly believed by the mob, were repulsive to the

educated laymen of the higher classes. Their dislike

for vain superstitions was emphasized by the influence

of Mahometan ism. on their minds. For a hundred

years the inhabitants of the Asiatic provinces of the

empire had been in touch with a religion of which the

noblest feature was its emphati(denunciation of

idolatry under every shape and form. An East-

Roman, when taunted by his Moslem neighbour for

clinging to a faith which had grown corrupt and

idolatrous, could not but confess that there was too

much ground for the accusation, when he looked round

on the daily practice of his countrymen.

Hence there had grown up among the stronger

minds of the day a vigorous reaction against the pre-

vailing superstitions. It was more visible among the

laity than among the clergy, and far more widespread

in Asia than in Europe. In Leo the Isaurian this

tendency stood incarnate in its most militant form,

and he left the legacy of his enthusiasm to his de-

scendants. Seven years after the relief of Constanti-

nople he commenced his crusade against superstition.

The chief practices which he attacked were the worship

of images and the ascription of divine honours to

saints — more especially in the form of Mariolatry.

His son Constantine, more bold and drastic than his

father, endeavoured to suppress monasticism also, be-

cause he found the monks the most ardent defenders

of images ; but Leo's own measures went no further

than a determined attempt to put down image-



The struggle which he inaugurated began in A.D.

725, when he ordered the removal of all the images

in the capital. Rioting broke out at once, and the

officials who were taking down the great figure of

Christ Crucified, over the palace-gate, were torn to

pieces by a mob. The Emperor replied by a series of

executions, and carried out his policy all over the

empire by the aid of armed force.

The populace, headed by the monks, opposed a

bitter resistance to the Emperor's doings, more

especially in the European provinces. They set the

wildest rumours afloat concerning his intentions ; it

was currently reported that the Jews had bought

his consent to image-breaking, and that the Caliph

Yezid had secretly converted him to Mahometanism.

Though Leo's orthodoxy in matters doctrinal was

unquestioned, and though he had no objection to the

representation of the cross, as distinguished from the

crucifix, he was accused of a design to undermine the

foundations of Christianity. Arianism was the least

offensive fault laid to his account. The Emperor's

enemies did not confine themselves to passive resis-

tance to his crusade against images. Dangerous

revolts broke out in Greece and Italy, and were not

put down without much fighting. In Italy, indeed,

the imperial authority was shaken to its foundations,

and never thoroughly re-established. The Popes

consistently opposed the Iconoclastic movement, and

by their denunciation of it placed themselves at the

head of the anti-imperial party, nor did they shrink

from allying themselves with the Lombards, who

were now, as always, endeavouring to drive the East-

Roman garrisons from Ravenna and Naples.

The hatred which Leo provoked might have been

fatal to him had he not possessed the full confidence

of the army. But his great victory over the Saracens

had won him such popularity in the camp, that he

was able to "despise the wrath of the populace, and

carry out his schemes to their end. Beside insti-

tuting ecclesiastical reforms he was a busy worker in all

the various departments of the administration. He

published a new code of laws, the first since Justinian,

written in Greek instead of Latin, as the latter

language was now quite extinct in the Balkan

Peninsula. He reorganized the finances of the

empire, which had fallen into hopeless confusion in

the anarchy between 695 and 717. The army had

much of his care, but it was more especially in the

civil administration of the empire that he seems to

have left his mark. From Leo's day the gradual

process of decay which had been observable since the

time of Justinian seems to come to an end, and for

three hundred years the reorganized East-Roman

state developed a power and energy which appear

most surprising after the disasters of the unhappy

seventh century. Having once lived down the

Saracen danger, the empire reasserted its ancient

mastery in the East, until the coming of tb-s Turks in

the eleventh century. We should be glad to have

the details of Leo's reforms, but most unhappily the

monkish chroniclers who described his reign have

slurred over all his good deeds, in order to enlarge to

more effect on the iniquities of his crusade against

image- worship. The effects of his work are to be traced

mainly by noting the improved and well-ordered

state of the empire after his death, and comparing

it with the anarchy that had preceded his accession.

Leo died in 740, leaving the throne to his son,

Constantine V .

Constantine V

Constantine V., whom he had brought up to follow

in his own footsteps. The new emperor was a good

soldier and a capable man of business, but his main

interest in life centred in the struggle against image-

worship. Where Leo had chastised the adherents of

superstition with whips Constantine chastised them

with scorpions. He was a true persecutor, and

executed not only rioters and traitors, as his father

had done, but all prominent opponents of his policy

who provoked his wrath. Hence he incurred an

amount of hatred even greater than that which en-

compassed Leo , and his very name has been

handed down to history with the insulting byword

Copronymus tacked on to it.

Though strong and clever, Constantine was far

below his father in ability, and his reign was marked

by one or two disasters, though its general tenor was

successful enough. Two defeats in Bulgaria were

comparatively unimportant, but a noteworthy though

not a dangerous loss was suffered when Ravenna and

all the other East-Roman possessions in Central Italy

were captured by the Lombards in A.D. 750. At this

time Pope Stephen, when attacked by the same enemy,

sent for aid to Pipin the Frank, instead of calling on

the Emperor, and for the future the papacy was for all

practical purposes dependent on the Franks and not

on the empire. The loss of the distant exarchate of

Ravenna seemed a small thing, however, when placed

by the side of Constantfne's successes against the

Saracens, Slavs, and Bulgarians, all of whom he beat

back with great slaughter on the numerous occasions

when they invaded the empire.


But in the minds both of Constantine himself and

of his contemporaries, his deaHngs with things reHgious

were the main feature of his reign. He collected

a council of 338 bishops at Constantinople in 761,

at which image-worship was declared contrary to all

Christian doctrine, and after obtaining this condem-

nation, attacked it everywhere as a heresy and not

merely a superstition. In the following year, finding

the monks the strongest supporters of the images, he

commenced a crusade against monasticism. He first

forbade the reception of any novices, and shortly

afterwards begun to close monasteries wholesale. We

are told that he compelled many of their inmates to

marry by force of threats ; others were exiled to

Cyprus by the hundred ; not a few were flogged and

imprisoned, and a certain number of prominent men

were put to death. These unwise measures had the

natural effect : the monks were everywhere regarded

as martyrs, and the image-worship which they

supported grew more than ever popular with


Empress  Irene



While still in the full vigour of his persect

enthusiasm, Constantine Copronymus died in 775

leaving the throne to his son, Leo IV., an Iconoclast

like all his race, but one who imitated the milder

measures of his grandfather rather than the more

violent methods of his father. Leo was consumptive

and died young, after a reign of little more than four

years, in which nothing occurred of importance save

a great victory over the Saracens , crown

fell to his son, Constantine VL, a child of ten, while

the Empress"- Dowager Irene became sole regent, and

her name was associated with that of her son in all

acts of state.

The Isaurian dynasty was destined to end in a

fearful and unnatural tragedy. The Empress Irene

was clever, domineering, and popular. The irrespon-

sible power of her office of regent filled her with

overweening ambition. She courted the favour of

the populace and clergy by stopping the persecution

of the image-worshippers, and filled all offices, civil

and military, with creatures of her own. For ten

years she ruled undisturbed, and grew so full of pride

and self-confidence that she looked forward with

dismay to the prospect of her son's attaining his

majority and claiming his inheritance. Even when

he had reached the age of manhood she kept him

still excluded from state affairs, and compelled him

to marry, against his will, a favourite of her own.

Constantine was neither precocious nor unfilial, but

in his twenty-second year he rebelled against his

mother's dictation, and took his place at the helm of

the state. Irene had actually striven to oppose him

by armed force, but he pardoned her, and after

secluding her for a short time, restored her to her

form'er dignity. The unnatural mother was far from

acquiescing in her son's elevation, and still dreamed

of reasserting herself She took advantage of the

evil repute which Constantine won by a disastrous

war with Bulgaria, and an unhappy quarrel with the

Church, on the question of his divorce from the wife

who had been forced upon him. More especially,

however, she relied on her popularity with the

multitude, which had been won by stopping the


persecution of the image-worshippers during her

regency, for Constantine had resumed the policy of

his ancestors and developed strong Iconoclastic

tendencies when he came to his own.

In 795 Irene imagined that things were ripe for

attacking her son, and conspirators, acting by her

orders, seized the young emperor, blinded him, and

immured him in a monastery before any of his

adherents were able to come to his aid. Thus ended

the rule of the Isauriaji dy nasty. Constantine himself,

however, survived many years as a blind monk, and

lived to see the ends of no less than five of his


The wicked Irene sat on her ill-gained throne for

some five troublous years, much vexed by rebellion

abroad and palace intrigues at home. It is astonish-

ing that her reign lasted so long, but it would seem

that her religious orthodoxy atoned in the eyes of

many of her subjects for the monstrous crime of her

usurpation. The end did not come till 802, when

Nicephorus, her grand treasurer, having gained over

some of the eunuchs and other courtiers about her

person, quietly seized her and immured her in a

monastery in the island of Chalke. No blow was

struck by any one in the cause of the wicked empress,

and Nicephorus quietly ascended the throne.

Though containing little that is memorable in

itself, the reign of Irene must be noted as the severing-

point of that connection between Rome and Constan-

tinople, which had endured since the first days of

empire. Pope Leo III. crowned

Karl, King of the Franks, as Roman Emperor, and

transferred to him the nominal allegiance which he

had hitherto paid to Constantinople. Since the

Italian rebellion in the time of Constantine Coprony-

mus, that allegiance had been a mere shadow, and the

papacy had been in reality under Frankish influence.

But it was not till 800 that the final breach took place.

Solidus of  Empress Irene 797 to 802

After the passing of the Moslem danger, the Byzantine government grew increasingly incompetent and rife with palace intrigues. The Empress Irene (797-802) gained the throne by blinding here own son, but she lost the throne in an insurrection which were becoming increasingly common. the worst of a long line of decadent rulers was Micheal III (842-867) "the drunkard" whose favorite was a Macedonian horse trainer named Basil. Basil eventually murdered Micheal and became emperor (867-886),founding the Macedonian Dynasty, which was to rule during the most brilliant period of Byzantine history







Heraclian Dynasty ( 610 - 711 )


Macedonian Dynasty (867-1081)