The Iconoclastic Period (711-843)
Although early signs of the Iconoclastic crisis appear during the rule of Philippicus (711-713), who was
also accused of monophysitic tendencies, the crisis came into prominence during the reign of Emperor Leo III
(717-741), called the Isaurian.
A look at a map of the late Roman empire shows that Constantinople was right at the heart of the Roman Empire. Approaching the city via the Sea of Marmara, one could see the city as it first rose above the water on its triangular peninsula. The city was protected on three sides by the sea of Marmara, the Bosporus and the Golden horn, a natural barrier which the historian Procopius tells us "surrounded the city like a garland". Later on the garrison of the city was to be made complete by the addition of a wall, erected by the Emperor Theodosius, which stretched along the land side of the city from the Golden Horn down to the Sea of Marmara. Being at the crossroads between the east and west of the Greco-Roman world, Constantinople was also in a strategic position both militarily and commercially. Militarily the New Rome was in a much better position to fight invasions on the Empire's eastern frontiers, as well as trouble on the Danube. Commercially it was in a position to control trade to and from the Euxine sea, Asia, Europe and the Mediterranean.
Leo III was originally the general of the Theme of Anatolikoi. With the support of his troops and of the
troops of the Theme of Armeniakoi, whose commander was Artavasdus, he overthrew in March 717 the weak
Emperor Theodosius III (715-717). The new Emperor entered Constantinople on March 25, 717. Six months later
the Arabs begun the blockade of the Imperial capital. Under the able command of the new Emperor the
garrison, vigorously assisted by the civilian population, fought back. Using the Greek Fire the Byzantine
navy succeded in destroying the Arab vessels. Meanwhile the Moslem land troops hit by the harsh winter of
717-718, exposed to the sorties of the garrison as well as to the attacks of the Bulgarian allies of the
Emperor, and finally hit by the plague, had to lift the blockade and withdraw, through Asia Minor, to Syria.
This of course was not the end of the Arab attacks. As a matter of fact an almost annual pattern of invasion
and counter-invasion was to be established along the border between Christianisty and Islam, in eastern Asia
Minor. However, until the appearance of the Ottomans, many centuries later, Constantinople was never to be
threatened again by a direct assault from the East.
In the world of the Eastern Roman Empire, the ancient love of philosophical speculation and disputation now transformed itself into passionate theological argumentation, popular throughout the Roman East. The Greek Orthodox Church treasured its vigorous tradition of democracy and the laity felt that theological questions concerned them directly. In some quarters, inevitably, discussion was not always well informed, but always zealous, and any new theological development immediately became a matter of public concern. In Constantinople as in every eastern city of the empire, one could hear lively theological talk in the streets and shops, as well as at dinner tables. In the Eastern Roman Empire, an absolute monarchy, theology in many ways came to absorb people's passions in much the same way that politics did in the classical world and in later societies.
With the immediate threat from Islam removed Leo III felt free to set in motion his religious project. In
the Eastern Roman Empire the veneration of the holy icons had become part of the daily religious rituals. In
some instances this veneration had acquired the character of a cult. To some Christians, among whom figured
the Emperor, as well as to members of the Imperial administration and to some clergymen, the custom of icon
worshipping and the excesses it led to, were not much different from pagan manifestations. Modern historians
believe that Leo III who originated from eastern Asia Minor, near the border with the Moslem world, had been
exposed to Moslem influences which forbade images and in particular the representation of the human form in
pictures. The exclusion of human forms in Islamic art dates from around the year 700. Indeed, in the Moslem
held territories, in the East, Caliph Yazid ordered in 723 the removal of icons from all Christian
With a new capital in Constantinople, the synthesis between Classical and Christian culture complete, and a new sense of unity and stability, the world of the Eastern Roman empire, was ready for another thousand years of life in the Middle ages. By the time the emperor Justinian came to power in Constantinople the old Hellenic and Roman sense of pride and the new Christian sense of mission conspired to urge upon the rulers of Constantinople a policy of re- conquest.
The Emperor might also have been similarly influenced in his opposition to the veneration of images by Judaism's opposition to it. It is also true that in the Byzantine Empire the most virulent opponents of the icons were active in Asia Minor, especially in Phrygia. Among the top clergymen who opposed the cult are cited the Bishop of Claudiopolis Thomas and the Bishop of Nacolea Constantine. Supported by these and other Iconoclastic clergymen the Emperor made public in 726 his opposition to the veneration of icons. Initially, in a series of speeches he attempted to convince his subjects that the custom was wrong. His speeches were soon followed by actions when a particularly important icon depicting Christ, was brought down by the troops in the neighbourhood of Chalcoprateia, which was situated in the commercial district of the capital.
The act almost provoked a popular revolt when the amassed crowds killed on the spot the officer who had brought down the icon. That first incident was followed by a revolt of the troops of the Theme of Hellas. During that short lived uprising the issue of the Iconoclastic activities of the Imperial government was brought to the fore. It became evident from the beginning that the European provinces were against the new religious policies which the Emperor was attempting to introduce. Leo's attempts to win the Patriarch and the Pope also failed. On the line of battle which was now being drawn John of Damascus, one of the greatest theologians of the eastern Church, offered his authority. He composed three sermons in the monastery of Saint Sabas, in which he refuted the Iconoclastic argument that venerating the holy icons was akin to paganism. On the contrary, he said, the icon is a symbol and an intermediary between the faithfull and the Saint depicted on it.
Despite the stiffening opposition Leo decided to act. In January 730, following the deposition of the Patriarch who refused to adopt the new religious policies, the Emperor promulgated an edict ordering the destruction of all holy icons. The Imperial edict had deep consequences for the Byzantine Empire. Besides the divisions in society brought about by it, it also hurt relations with Rome. The new Pope, Gregory III, condemned in a Council the Iconoclastic policies of the Emperor. The latter, to punish Rome, wrested from the Pope's jurisdiction and ceded to the patriarchate of Constantinople the Greek provinces of southern Italy as well as Sicily and the Prefecture of Illyricum.
When Leo III died in 741 his son Constantine V (741-775), who was named by his father co-emperor at the age of two in 720, sat on the throne of the Roman Emperors. However, the beginnings of his reign were not favourable. In order to preserve his throne from usurpation he was forced to fight against his father's close collaborator and former General of the Theme of the Armeniakoi Artavasdus. To attract popular support Artavasdus counted on his Iconophile positions as well as on the support of Iconophile elements in the Church and in the administration. Furthermore, he enjoyed the support of Patriarch Anastasius, who had previously supported Leo III's Iconoclastic policies and had now switched allegiance.
The struggle between Constantine V and the pretender was long and hard, but in May 743 the Emperor inflicted at Sardis a crushing defeat on the army of Artavasdus. Next, the Imperial troops marched towards Constantinople, which Constantine had not seen since he left in early 742 to campaign in eastern Asia Minor against the Arabs. On November 2, 743, he entered the capital where he launched his troops against those of his enemies who had not had time to escape. Among those who were arrested and then punished were Artavasdus and his two sons. Constantine humiliated Anastasius by parading him, in public, on an ass and then putting him back on his Patriarchal throne.
Secure on the Imperial throne Constantine V could now launch his army against the Arabs. In command of his troops he invaded in 746 northern Syria. In 747 the Byzantine navy defeated, near Cyprus, a Moslem fleet. In 752 the Imperial armies invaded south-eastern Armenia and Mesopotamia where they captured Theodosiopolis and Melitene. However, the Emperor was distracted from his eastern campaigns by the Bulgarian threat against Thrace. In 756 the Bulgarians began raiding Thrace and ravaging the areas north-west of Constantinople. The events forced the Emperor to devote himself, exclusively, to the dangerous situation developing in south-eastern Europe. Until the end of his life he led nine campaigns against the Bulgarians. Finally, in the battle at Anchialos, on June 30, 763, the Bulgarian army was caught in a pincer movement by the Imperial troops and was annihilated.
The victory was celebrated in Constantinople with a triumph reminiscent of the old Roman traditions. However, Constantine could not rest and in 773 had to undertake a new campaign against the northern enemy of the Empire. With Bulgaria emerging as the most important challenger of the Empire in south-eastern Europe, peace between the two opponents was proving elusive. Constantine continued campaigning. It was during one of those campaigns that the exhausted old Emperor died in his tent, on September 14, 775.
While fighting went on in the East, against the Arabs and after 756 in Thrace against the Bulgarians, the Lombards attacked, in 751, and captured Ravenna, the capital of the northern Italian Imperial territories, the Exarchate of Ravenna. The loss of Ravenna was a serious blow to Byzantine presence north of Rome: it was eliminated. Exposed to the Lombard threat the Pope - Stephen II - sought protection elsewhere, which he found soon in the person of the King of the Franks Pepin. The two men met beyond the Alps on January 6, 754, and the King promissed his help, now desperately needed. On the Frankish side the historic meeting meant the official recognition of their power and authority over vast areas of Western Europe. Less than half a century later Charles the Great would be crowned Emperor in old Saint Peter's.
Meanwhile at Constantinople the Emperor was busy with the implementation of his Iconoclastic policies. Thus, in February 754 a Council, filled by the Emperor with Iconoclastic clergymen, began its deliberations in the Imperial palace of Hiereia, situated on the Asiatic shore of the Bosphorus. Rome and the eastern Patriarchates refused to send delegates. Anastasius, humiliated, died in 753.
The line of thought of the participants corresponded with the Emperor's which held that the veneration of the holy icons had gone beyond the notion of symbolism, as held by the leading Iconophiles. It had instead reached the level of accepting consubstantiality between the object - the icon - and the worshipped Saint or even Christ. Concerning the depiction of the Saviour in human form the Emperor and the Council held that the practice went even beyond the accepted double nature of Christ and gave instead emphasis to His human form. The veneration of icons was not only akin to paganism but it was also a heresy. While the Council upheld the dogma of the consubstantiality of the two natures of Jesus it emphasised its opposition to the depiction of His figure. Furthermore, the depiction of all Saints in icons was rejected and forbidden. The Council ended its sessions near the end of August 754. The Emperor undertook the implementation of its resolutions.
It was now an internal war. The two camps fought each other fanatically. The number of icons destroyed remains unknown. In some instances factional fighting erupted within the capital. To break the backbone of the Iconophile party the Emperor ordered the execution of many leading personalities, including administrators and top army men. Riot succeeded riot and the Emperor was cursed by his ecclesiastic opponents and the residents of the powerful monasteries, both in the capital and in the provinces. The monks led the fight against him and during its course many gave their lives. In response the government closed down many monasteries and attempted to destroy the economic basis of the great religious institutions by confiscating their property. While the Emperor proceeded by decreeing the abolition of the icon cult of the Saints and of the Virgin, thousands of monks fled to southern Italy. Hated and cursed by his religious opponents, feared by his enemies, Constantine V passed away and on the throne of the Roman Emperors sat his son Leo IV (775-780).
The new Emperor was a mild young man who, while espousing the iconoclastic ideas of his strong father, hated the excesses to which his predecessor's policies had led the State. His brief reign is not remarkable in military or political terms. However, he was married to a remarkable woman: Irene, the Athenian, an Iconophile. When Leo IV died in September 780, his son Constantine VI, aged 10, crowned co-emperor by his late father, became Emperor under the regency of his mother Irene. The young Emperor's mother had a goal: restore the veneration of icons. However, Irene was conscious of the fact that the task was a difficult one.
Iconoclasm was well entrenched in the high echellons of the State, including the Church administration and the armed forces. Any attempt to overthrow the official ideology would be a dangerous one. She delayed her action until the Summer of 786. Then, with the help of the new Patriarch Tarasius, who was her former secretary, she convened a Council in the Church of the Holy Apostles at Constantinople. It was a vain and failed attempt. The soldiers who served in the city garrison's regiments, faithfull to the late Constantine V's Iconoclastic policies, entered by force of arms the Church and dispersed violently the assembled Iconophile clergymen. Without reacting to the affront Irene bade for time. The next year she dispatched the Iconoclastic regiments to eastern Asia Minor to fight the Moslems. In the Fall of 787 she held quietly at Nicea, in north-western Asia Minor, an Ecclesiastic Council. It is known in Church History as the Seventh Ecumenical Council. The assembled clergymen treated the attending Iconoclastic clergymen, who were willing to repent, with extreme tolerance. The Council reaffirmed the official dogmas of the Church and in October 787 condemned as heresy the Iconoclastic positions. The icons were back.
Meanwhile Irene had no intention of giving up her authority. Her son had reached adulthood and inevitably attempted to push aside his mother when he realised that she did not intend to resign her authority. In the Spring of 790 she beat an attempt to overthrow her and she proceeded immediately with her plans. The troops which garrisonned the capital took an oath of allegiance to Irene. At the same time it was accepted that her name was to be mentionned in all official functions before her son's. However her acts provoqued strong opposition in Asia Minor, where the troops of the Themes were largely still under the spell of Iconoclasm. During the revolt Constantine VI was proclaimed sole Emperor.
Despite the setback Irene persisted with her plans. Indeed, the young Emperor a weak and cruel man, an incompetent commander of troops and a man affraid of responsabilty, allowed his mother in January, 792, to resume her leading role in the administration of the Empire. Unable to profit from the support of the anti-Irene faction in the capital and in the provinces, the young Emperor turned against his formed allies and began eliminating them. Isolated, hated by all and also accused by the Church for having committed adultery, he was now accused from all sides. It was only a question of time before he fell. Indeed, his own mother removed him from the throne by ordering his blinding on August 15, 797. He was only 27 years old.
Irene is the first woman Roman Emperor. In her official acts she is designated as Emperor, instead of Empress. Assisted by faithfull collaborators she established and maintained her rule until 802, when she was overthrown by a Palace revolt. Because of her Iconophile positions she counted many supporters among the large numbers of monks who lived in the monastic communities established in the capital as well as in the provinces. She also relieved from their tax burden the producing classes of Constantinople. At the same time she reduced the import and export duties merchants had to pay. Of course this policy deprived the State of a number of important revenue sources. Externally, the Empire did not fare well in its struggle against the Moslems in eastern Asia Minor.
The Imperial troops suffered a series of defeats forcing the government to buy peace. However, the military efforts to subdue the Slavic tribes which had penetrated the Greek peninsula brought happier results. Stavrakios, an able commander, conducted in 783 a successful campaign in the region of Thessalonica and further south forcing the local Slavs to recognize Imperial authority.
Irene's reign is marked by a major political event which contributed to the ideological distancing between eastern and western Europe. Indeed, following lenghthy negociations and preparations Pope Leo III crowned Emperor in Rome, in old Saint Peter's, on Christmas day of 800, the King of Franks Charles. It was said that neither wanted to create a second Roman Empire. It was maintained that the Imperial throne was vacant, the Roman Emperor Constantin VI had been overthrown by his mother who was now seating on the throne of the Roman Emperors. Charles also refrained from calling himself Roman Emperor.
In the hierarchy of states there was but one Empire. Of that, both Charles and the Pope were fully aware and it seems that Charles, who was initially reluctant, was eventually convinced to accept his coronation by the Pope. Constantinople refused to recognize the fact and denounced it. It is also known that in 802, in order to reach a compromise, Charles and the Pope dispatched to Constantinople ambassadors who brought a marriage proposal between Charles and Irene. The ambassadors' message said that that was the best way for the two parts of the Roman Empire to become again united. Whatever the merits of the proposition it was now too late. Indeed, in October 802 Irene was forced to abdicate. She was succeeded by a competent top bureaucrat (the "logoqevth" tou genikouv) Nicephorus I (802-811).
Among the new Emperor's early tasks were included the elimination of Irene's largesses and exemptions enjoyed by the numerous monastic institutions. He attempted to improve the financial picture of the state by bringing back the duties and taxes abolished by the previous ruler. In his attempts to improve the defense capabilities of the state he supported financially the farmer-soldiers of the army of the Themes and promoted also the creation of strong naval units by providing the population of the coastal areas, especially along the coast of south-western Asia Minor, with incentives and lands similar in nature to the estates held by the farmer-soldiers of the Themes. This policy constituted a further development of the institution of the maritime Themes, whose raison-d'etre was to furnish the crews and the units of the Byzantine navy.
Nicephorus I was successful in his efforts to impose Imperial authority on the Slavic tribes which had penetrated the Greek peninsula. Indeed, the Slavic revolt of 805 in the Peloponnese, during which the city of Patras was threatened, was put down by the Imperial army and the Greek population which attributed the victory on the intervention of Saint Andrew, the protector of Patras. This victory signified also the permanent establishment of Imperial authority in the southern regions of the Greek peninsula. In the northern regions of the Greek peninsula Thessalonica and the other Greek cities became an irresistible economic and cultural pole of attraction to the neighbouring Slavic tribes. The latter were steadily being drawn by and into the Byzantine Ecumene.
Imperial authority in south-eastern Europe around the beginning of the 9th century is clearly indicated by the existence of Themes and the creation of new ones. To the old Themes of Thrace and Hellas was added in the 8th century the Theme of Macedonia, covering also Western Thrace, Peloponese also became a Theme, followed by Cephalonia. Thessalonica and Dyrrachium with their surrounding regions became Themes early in the 9th century. The Greek peninsula and the islands were now well protected by the Empire.
Next, Nicephorus I decided to deal with the Bulgarian problem. Indeed, the Empire was seriously threatened in the north. The new Bulgarian Khan Krum wrought havoc in the Imperial line of defenses when he captured the fortress of Sardica, in the Spring of 809. The road into the heart of Thrace and its wealthy cities was open. The Imperial counter-offensive was launched almost immediately. In command of the troops the Emperor invaded Bulgaria. In the Spring of 811 the Byzantine army captured Pliska, the Bulgarian capital. Krum's offers for peace were rejected by Nicephorus. The war continued. Then disaster struck. On July 26, 811, the Imperial army was caught by the Bulgarian troops in the mountain passes and was annihilated almost to a man. The Emperor was also killed. His head was separated from the body and the skull became Krum's favorite drinking cup during banquets.
Professor of Classical and Byzantine Studies, and Chairman of Hellenic Studies Center at Dawson College, Montreal, and Lecturer at the Department of History at Universite de Montreal, Quebec, Canada.