Leo III, the Isaurian

Leo III, the Isaurian
(c. 680-741)
   Byzantine emperor (r. 717-741) and founder of a dynasty whose religious policy caused great dissension in the empire. His policy, known as iconoclasm, contributed to a growing schism between the church in Rome and the church in the Byzantine Empire. The antagonism that existed between the popes and Leo III, who also increased the burden of taxation in Italy without improving his defense of the papacy against the Lombards, reinforced the tendency of the popes to look to western European leaders for protection. Indeed, Leo's iconoclastic policy drove Pope Gregory III to appeal to the Carolingian mayor of the palace, the power behind the throne in the kingdom of the Franks, for aid. The ongoing iconoclastic controversy after Leo's death attracted the attention of Charlemagne and his court scholars, especially Theodulf of Orléans.
   Leo took the throne in 717 in a bloody coup that eliminated the last of the Heraclian dynasty, which had been established a century earlier. Although he managed to take the throne, Leo was immediately faced with a great crisis-Muslim soldiers were besieging the great capital of the Eastern Empire, Constantinople. By a combination of luck, skill, and superior technology, including Greek fire, a type of napalm that destroyed the attackers' ships, Leo managed to save the city by 718. Over much of the next decade, Leo continued to expel Muslim invaders from Byzantine territory. Indeed, his efforts were critical to the long-term survival of the empire, which did not fall to the Muslims until 1453, and to the preservation of three distinct cultural regions around the medieval Mediterranean-a Latin Christian, a Greek Christian, and a Muslim region. For many of his subjects, however, Leo's efforts at defending the empire were only secondary to the more important efforts of the monks and priests of the realm. During the assault on Constantinople, the patriarch marched around the city walls bearing a religious image, or icon, of Mary, which many believed saved the city. Faith in the icon was something that Leo did not share, and the widespread belief in them may have offended the religious sensibilities of the emperor, who most likely recalled the Mosaic prohibition against graven images. Although Leo introduced a number of governmental, military, and administrative reforms that would greatly strengthen the empire, he is remembered mostly for the almost disastrous religious policy that arose out of his hostility to icon worship.
   Leo, either because of religious conviction or animosity toward the priests who promoted veneration of images, instituted a policy of iconoclasm in 727. The policy may have also been motivated by a terrible volcanic eruption in the Aegean Sea, which Leo interpreted as divine disfavor caused by the use of icons. Whatever his motive, Leo pronounced an imperial decree against the use of icons in the Byzantine church and also began to attack the monasteries. Leo was exercising what he thought was his divine right as emperor to intervene in religious matters, but the monks had traditionally criticized religious policy making by the emperors. His efforts were at first modest, but they became increasingly harsh, and as early as 730 there are records of the destruction of icons. Defenders of the use of icons, mostly monks, were harshly treated and sometimes martyred, which only hardened the determination of those opposed to the new policy. Leo's son and successor, Constantine V (r. 741-775), took an even harder line against icons. Ultimately, the iconoclastic policy was overturned, but not before contributing to increased tensions between the church in the east and the west.
   Leo's foray into religious policy making was not well received at Rome by Pope Gregory II or Gregory III. Whatever the merits of the policy were, and there alone Leo's actions would have received condemnation from Rome, the popes would have opposed Leo purely on the grounds of principle. It was not the responsibility of the emperor to determine matters of the faith; rather he was to protect the church and its ministers. In many ways, the emperors in Constantinople had failed to protect the church in Italy-a responsibility many centuries old by Leo's time. Moreover, not only did Leo fail to protect the pope and his church in Italy, especially from the Lombards who had been seeking to conquer the peninsula since 568, but he had increased the administrative demands on the popes and had significantly increased taxation in Italy. As a result, relations between Rome and Constantinople worsened to the point that Gregory III turned for help to the great rising power in the north, the Carolingian Franks and their leader Charles Martel, for aid against the Lombards. Charles needed his alliance with the Lombards and was unable to help, but an important precedent was set for both the Carolingians and the papacy. Over the next generation an alliance between the two was established, and a break between Rome and Constantinople occurred. Indeed, Leo's intervention in religious policy and reorganization of administration in Italy drove the popes into an alliance with the Carolingians, an alliance that contributed to the Carolingian usurpation of the royal power from the last of the Merovingian kings in 751.
   Thus Leo's iconoclastic policy continued to have repercussions into the late eighth and even early ninth century, long after the emperor's death. Moreover, it was the reaction against his policy of iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire that led to further troubles between Constantinople and the kingdom of the Franks. Although Leo's son Constantine V was an ardent iconoclast, his son, Leo IV (775-780), and his son's wife, Irene, were not. And it was Irene who overturned the policies of Constantine V and Leo the Isaurian. In 787, she and her son, the emperor Constantine VI, presided over the second Council of Nicaea, which restored the veneration of icons in the empire. Although the council received papal blessing and was attended by two representatives of the pope, Nicaea's decisions were not welcomed by the leader of the largest church in Europe. Representatives of Charlemagne's Frankish church were not invited to the council, and its decisions were repudiated by the Carolingian church. In the Caroline Books (Libri Carolini), Theodulf of Orléans, with the possible help of the great Anglo-Saxon scholar and missionary Alcuin of York, and working from a flawed copy of the decrees of the council, provided the official response of the Carolingian church to Irene's Council of Nicaea. Theodulf offered a sophisticated view of art in his work, even though it failed to accurately address the defense of images announced at Nicaea. Moreover, the controversy over icons begun by Leo continued to plague the Byzantine Empire into the ninth century. And in one of history's ironies, leaders of the Byzantine church sought advice from the court of Louis the Pious, the son of Charlemagne, whose representatives had not been invited to Nicaea.
   See also
 ♦ Davis, Raymond, trans. The Lives of the Eighth-Century Popes (Liber Pontificalis): The Ancient Biographies of Nine Popes from a.d. 715 to a.d. 817. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 1992.
 ♦ Herrin, Judith. The Formation of Christendom. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.
 ♦ Llewellyn, Peter. Rome in the Dark Ages. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1993.
 ♦ McKitterick, Rosamond. The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians. Longman: London, 1983.
 ♦ Obolensky, Dmitri. The Byzantine Commonwealth: Eastern Europe, 500-1543. New York: Praeger, 1971.
 ♦ Riché, Pierre. The Carolingians: A Family Who Forged Europe. Trans. Michael Idomir Allen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.
 ♦ Sullivan, Richard. Heirs of the Roman Empire. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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