Leo III was hailed as a giant from the age of Justinian, a heavensent savior of the empire, but his reign would show just how psychologically scarring the Arab invasions had been for the empire. Byzantium’s losses had been horrendous. Less than a century before, it had been the dominant power of the Mediterranean, stretching from Spain to the Black Sea, the proud and confident repository of Christian culture and civilization. The divine order of heaven had been mirrored here on earth, with an all-powerful emperor enforcing the Lord’s justice. Then, in the blink of an eye, everything had changed. A bewildering enemy had erupted from the desert sands and carried all before them. Two-thirds of the empire’s territories had vanished in the flood, and half its population had disappeared. Arab raiders plundered the remaining countryside, and the cities were mere shells of what they had been in happier times. Whole populations fled the uncertainty of urban life and retreated to the more defensible safety of mountaintops, islands, or otherwise inaccessible places. Refugees impoverished and ruined by Muslim attacks roamed Constantinople’s streets, and prosperity dried up. The once-powerful empire had shrunk to Asia Minor, and was now poorer, less populated, and far weaker than the neighboring caliphate.

The Byzantine world was left deeply traumatized. The armies of a false prophet had clashed with the Christian empire whose ruler was the sword arm of God, and yet it was the banner of Christ that had fallen back. In only eight years, the Muslims had conquered three of the five great patriarchates of the Christian Church—Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem—and neither prayers, nor icons, nor steel had been able to stop them. An arrogant caliph had seized Christendom’s holiest city and built the Dome of the Rock, boasting that Islam had superseded Christianity. Using Byzantine craftsmen to decorate the structure, he added an inscription declaring that Jesus was only a prophet, concluding with an ominous warning for Christians to “refrain” from saying otherwise. The Byzantines responded by putting an image of Christ on their coins—in part to regain God’s favor and in part to annoy the Arabs, who widely used them—but still the imperial armies suffered defeat after defeat. To an empire which had itself been Christianized by the convincing argument of victory at the Milvian Bridge, such calamities shook the very foundations of their belief. Why, the bewildered citizens asked themselves, had God allowed such a disaster to happen?

The answer seemed plain enough to Leo III. Christ had withdrawn his hand of protection, and the culprit seemed to be the sacred icons held in such high regard by so many citizens of the empire. Designed as worship aids for the faithful, the veneration of icons had grown to the point where the line between honor and outright worship was blurred. Icons stood in for godparents at baptisms and were offered prayers to intercede for the faithful. People in the streets gave thanks to an icon of the Virgin Mary for their recent deliverance from the Muslims, and most icons were treated with a reverence uncomfortably close to the old pagan worship of idols. What had started as a tool to peel back the veil between the mortal and divine now seemed to have crossed into a clear violation of the second commandment. The biblical Israelites had angered God by bowing down to a golden calf, and now, like the chosen people wandering in the desert for forty years, the empire was being punished for the sin of idolatry.

The emperor’s sacred duty was to end the abuses that were obviously angering God, so in 725 Leo III ascended the pulpit of the Hagia Sophia and gave a rousing sermon to the packed church, thundering against the worst offenders. The Muslims, he said, with their strict prohibition of all images, had marched from victory to victory, while the Byzantines had been torn by heresy, angering God by praying to paint and wood for deliverance. Few in the congregation could disagree with the emperor’s words, and fewer still could argue with the assertion that something was dreadfully wrong with the empire. Leo, however, was just getting started. The time had come to take his reforms beyond mere words.

The main gate to the Great Palace was a magnificent bronze structure, originally built by Justinian after the Nika riots. A series of mosaics celebrating the triumphs of the great emperor and his general Belisarius decorated the interior of its central dome, and rising up directly above the doors was a magnificent golden icon of Christ that dwarfed everything around it. Facing the Hagia Sophia, and visible throughout the great central square, it was the most prominent icon in the city, and with its hand raised in a ubiquitous blessing, it served as a reminder of the duties of a righteous sovereign. To Leo, however, it was the very symbol of all the ills besetting the empire, and he ordered its immediate destruction.

The emperor may have had plenty of support for his sermons, but the sight of Christian soldiers deliberately vandalizing an image of Christ was taking it too far. A group of nearby women were so outraged that they lynched the officer in charge, and a full-scale riot was only prevented by a heavy show of steel from the palace. Riots swept through the countryside, and a pretender rose in Greece who proclaimed that he would hurl the impious emperor from his throne and restore icons to their proper place of veneration.

Fortunately for Leo, his victories had earned him enough respect in the army that he was able to crush the rebels easily; but in the West, he wasn’t so fortunate. Shielded from the blows of Arab invasions by the empire, western Europe viewed the whole icon controversy with bewildered horror. Proud of their artistic heritage, they saw no reason to suddenly conclude that painting and sculpture were impediments to faith. The pope in particular was annoyed that the emperor had interfered in matters of doctrine and threw his support behind the outraged population of Italy. The imperial governor of Ravenna was killed as cities throughout the peninsula threw off the Byzantine yoke, and they would have elected another emperor if the pope hadn’t balked at the thought of imperial retribution.*

With such a firestorm erupting around him from the destruction of a single icon, Leo could have been expected to pull back from his inflammatory position, but he was firmly convinced that he was right and refused to back down. Issuing a decree condemning images, he ordered all holy icons and relics to be immediately destroyed. Setting the example himself, he seized reliquaries, vestments, and church plate throughout the city and destroyed them publicly. When the pope wrote to him, acidly commenting that he should leave church doctrine to those actually qualified to compose it, Leo sent two warships to arrest him. They foundered at sea, sparing the church from the spectacle of the arrest of its most auspicious bishop, but tensions continued to escalate when the pope retaliated by excommunicating anyone who destroyed an icon.

The pope’s words had little effect in the East, where thousands of images were smashed or torn apart; but for every one destroyed, there seemed to be a dozen more that escaped. Nearly every household had its share of icons, from simple wooden carvings to more elaborate ones of enamel or etched metal, and these wouldn’t be given up easily. Leo, however, was nothing if not thorough, and his soldiers moved through the city, confiscating icons and painting over the mosaics that adorned church walls. The monasteries tried to resist, especially the powerful Saint John of Studius within the city walls, but there was little they could do. Hundreds of monks fled with their precious icons to the wilds of Cappadocia, where they carved secret churches into the soft rock and waited for popular opinion to sweep their cruel emperor from power.

It was hard, however, for popular opinion to argue with results. Leo had driven the Arabs away from the walls of Constantinople, and when he smashed another Muslim army in 740, it seemed (as Leo himself claimed) that God was pleased and had vindicated the emperor’s purge of the idol worshippers. This argument was dented somewhat the next year, when an earthquake—always an ominous sign—rocked the capital, but Leo was already dying, and in the early summer he expired of dropsy, leaving the issue to his son.

He had saved Byzantium from conquest by the Muslims, and he had been the first emperor in half a century to die in his bed, but the empire he left behind was dangerously divided. The iconoclastic controversy (literally, the “smashing of icons”) that he had unleashed would rage for the better part of a century and force Christianity to come to terms with a question it had always seen in shades of gray: Where exactly was the line between veneration and idolatry? Did mortal depictions of the divine illuminate faith, by allowing previous generations to speak of their belief, or pollute it, by setting up graven images? For a moment, the fate of Western art hung in the balance.

There was some hope that Leo III’s son, Constantine V, would resolve the matter, but he proved even more inflammatory than his father. Steeped in the hatred of icons since birth, he emerged as the most ferocious iconoclast ever to sit on the Byzantine throne. In his view, the church was festering with idol worship, and he demanded that the entire clergy take an oath not to venerate icons. So firm was he in the belief that Christ alone was deserving of worship that the very mention of titles like “saint” or “holy”—even as an expletive—would send him into fits of rage. His hatred of monks who resisted was such that he would on occasion smear their beards with oil and set them on fire. When the patriarch objected to the harsh treatment and refused to take the oath, the emperor had him whipped and incarcerated, then humiliated the man by parading him around the Hippodrome on the back of a mangy donkey. Declaring war on the powerful monasteries in the empire, he forced monks and nuns to marry, confiscated church property, and lodged imperial troops in monastic houses.

The emperor employed theologians to press his case, but he was a highly educated man who was also perfectly capable of defending his beliefs himself. He would often point out that the great fourth-century saint Basil of Caesarea had condemned the veneration of images, when he had written that the worship of a likeness of the emperor was just as bad as worshipping the emperor* Constantine V, however, wanted more than old quotes to bolster his claims; he wanted official sanction for his war against icons. Church opinion was hopelessly split over the issue and not likely to support the extremist emperor, but there was more than one way to force the issue. Invoking a great council of the entire church, Constantine V packed it with his supporters and refused to let any dissenting opinion be represented. Not surprisingly, the council handed down a ringing endorsement of the emperor’s position. Icons, relics, and prayers to the saints were all forms of idolatry and therefore condemned. Even the emperor’s most savage purges could now claim the trappings of ecclesiastical support, and public executions took on a momentum of their own. Those who refused to embrace iconoclasm were beaten, mutilated, and even stoned in the streets, all with the tacit encouragement of the throne.

Constantine V was able to prosecute his personal war so ferociously because he—like his father—had the great advantage of being militarily successful and therefore popular. Even the appearance of the plague—the last recorded appearance of the black death in Constantinople until the fourteenth century—couldn’t disrupt his success. In nine brilliant campaigns, Constantine V shattered the Bulgars, restoring some control over the impoverished Balkans. Taking advantage of the overextended and internally divided Muslims, the emperor chased them from Asia Minor, even managing to restore some semblance of control over the island of Cyprus.*

The unexpected victories were certainly welcome, but even Constantine’s most vehement supporters nervously watched the damage that his religious policies were wreaking. Hopelessly split between those who loved icons and those who wanted to destroy them, Byzantium was deeply unsure of itself and breaking apart at the seams. Even worse, Constantine’s ferocious war on icons estranged the West at the very moment that Byzantine power depended on loyalty. Abandoned by an emperor who considered him a heretic, the pope could only watch as the Lombards annihilated the imperial government at Ravenna. Byzantine power was reduced to a last bastion in the heel of Italy, and even that seemed vulnerable. After nearly eight centuries, the Caesars had finally been expelled from their ancient capital; never again would a soldier of the Roman Empire set foot in the Eternal City. Casting around for a new protector to shield him from the Lombards, the pope found the perfect candidate in the Frankish king Pépin the Short. Answering the call, Pépin swept into Italy, destroyed the Lombards, and turned over control of what would become the Papal States to the pope. Constantinople was humiliated by the developments, but worse to the empire than the loss of territory was the spiritual damage.

In Constantine V, the empire at last had a strong, capable emperor on the throne, and if not for his zealotry might have been poised on the edge of a spectacular recovery. As the heir of Constantine the Great, he was in theory the temporal leader of Christendom. Every citizen of the old empire of Rome—even those buried by the shifting barbarian kingdoms of the West—owed him their allegiance and, at least in principle, had always recognized his authority. Political realities may have forced them to acknowledge local petty kings, but there was only one God in heaven and only one emperor on earth. For those in the lost lands that had fallen in the Muslim conquests, the situation was even clearer. The majority of the population was Christian, and they dreamed and prophesied of a time when the emperor would return and deliver them from their bondage. So devoted were they to Constantinople that the Arabs called them the “emperor’s church” and lived in fear of a mass uprising. All that was needed was a strong figure who could deliver the counterstroke and satisfy their deep longing to return to an empire that shared the true faith.

But instead of seizing the opportunity, Constantine V threw it away. His harsh persecution cut off Asia Minor from the larger Christian community beyond the imperial borders.* Those in the East turned away, disgusted by an empire that had seemingly lost its mind, while those in the West began to question the imperial claims to universal authority. They didn’t yet dare to claim equality with Constantinople, but that day was fast approaching. The chance of a united Christendom, sheltered under a restored empire, slipped away forever. In their anger at icons, Constantine and his father had destroyed their own spiritual claims. Nothing would ever be quite the same again.

* On the Venetian lagoon, the horrified citizens rebelled and appointed a local leader as dux, or doge, and the Venetian Republic—both an ally and an inveterate enemy of the empire—was born.

*Western Europe went through its own version of iconoclasm during the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. In defense of their destruction of images, the more extreme Protestants quoted the same church fathers that their Byzantine predecessors had.

*The Greek island had seesawed from Christian to Muslim control since the late seventh century, and Constantine forced the Arabs to recognize joint custody with the empire. This arrangement—oddly foreshadowing the situation today—was eventually resolved in the empire’s favor, and Cyprus remained in Byzantine hands until Richard the Lion-Hearted conquered it at the end of the twelfth century.

The last remaining part of which is still with us today as Vatican City.

*Christians in the Muslim-occupied lands of the East vehemently opposed the iconoclasts, and it’s fortunate that they did. Some of the most beautiful icons that survived the controversy came from Coptic monasteries that were located safely beyond the borders of the empire in the eighth century.

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