Byzantine Empire - C. W. C. Oman

The Iconoclasts

(A. D. 720-802.)

If Leo the Isaurian had died on the day on which the army of the Caliph raised the siege of Constantinople 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 action.

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 provinces 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 Monophysite 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 them 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 godfather 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!

[Illustration] from The Byzantine Empire by C. W. C. Oman


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 Mahometanism, 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 emphatic 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 prevailing 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 descendants. Seven years after the relief of Constantinople 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, because 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-worship.

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 resistance 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 instituting 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 the 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.

[Illustration] from The Byzantine Empire by C. W. C. Oman


Leo died in 740, leaving the throne to his son, 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 centered 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 encompassed Leo III., 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 Constantine'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 dealings with things religious 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 condemnation, 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 masses.

While still in the full vigour of his persecuting 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 in 776. His crown fell to his son, Constantine VI., 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 irresponsible 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 former 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 797 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 Isaurian dynasty. Constantine himself, however, survived many years as a blind monk, and lived to see the ends of no less than five of his successors.

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 astonishing 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 anyone in the cause of the wicked empress, and Nicephorus quietly ascended the throne.

[Illustration] from The Byzantine Empire by C. W. C. Oman


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 Constantinople, which had endured since the first days of empire. In the year 800 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 Copronymus, 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. The Iconoclastic controversy had prepared the way for it, while the fact that a woman sat on the imperial throne served as a good excuse for the Pope's action. Leo declared that a female reign was an anomaly and an abomination, and took upon himself the onus of ending it, so far as Italy was concerned, by creating a new emperor of the West. There was, of course, no legality in the act, and Karl the Great was in no real sense the successor of Honorius and Romulus Augustulus, but he ruled a group of kingdoms which embraced the larger half of the old Western Empire, and formed a fair equipoise to the realm now ruled by Irene. From 800, then, onward we have once more a West-Roman empire in existence as well as the East-Roman, and it will be convenient for many purposes to use the adjective Byzantine instead of the adjective Roman, when we are dealing with the remaining history of the realm that centered at Constantinople.