Leo III derived his cognomen from the district of Isauria in Cilicia; according to Theophanes he was born there of Armenian parentage. His father moved thence to Thrace, raised sheep, and sent 500 of them, with his son Leo in the bargain, as a present to the Emperor Justinian II. Leo became a guardsman of the palace, then commander of the Anatolian legions, finally, by the convincing suffrage of the army, emperor. He was a man of ambition, strong will, and patient perseverance; a general who repeatedly defeated Moslem forces greatly superior to his own; a statesman who gave the Empire the stability of just laws justly enforced, reformed taxation, reduced serfdom, extended peasant proprietorship, distributed lands, repopulated deserted regions, and constructively revised the laws. His only fault was autocracy.
Perhaps in his Asiatic youth he had imbibed from Moslems, Jews, Manicheans, Monophysites, and Paulicians a Stoic-Puritan conception of religion that condemned the addiction of popular Christianity to image worship, ceremonialism, and superstition. The Old Testament (Deut. iv, 15) had explicitly forbidden any “graven image of any figure, male or female, the likeness of any beast that is on the earth.” The early Church had frowned upon images as relics of paganism, and had looked with horror upon pagan sculptures purporting to represent the gods. But the triumph of Christianity under Constantine, and the influence of Greek surroundings, traditions, and statuary in Constantinople and the Hellenistic East, had softened this opposition. As the number of worshiped saints multiplied, a need arose for identifying and remembering them; pictures of them and of Mary were produced in great number; and in the case of Christ not only His imagined form but His cross became objects of reverence—even, for simple minds, magic talismans. A natural freedom of fancy among the people turned the holy relics, pictures, and statues into objects of adoration; people prostrated themselves before them, kissed them, burned candles and incense before them, crowned them with flowers, and sought miracles from their occult influence. In Greek Christianity especially, sacred images were every where—in churches, monasteries, houses and shops, even on furniture, trinkets, and clothes. Cities in danger from epidemic, famine, or war tended to rely upon the power of the relics they harbored, or on their patron saint, rather than on human enterprise. Fathers and councils of the Church repeatedly explained that the images were not deities, but only reminders thereof;4 the people did not care to make such distinctions.
Leo III was offended by these excesses of popular faith; it seemed to him that paganism was in this manner reconquering Christianity; and he felt keenly the satire directed by Moslems, Jews, and Christian sects against the superstitions of the orthodox multitude. To weaken the power of the monks over the people and the government, and win the support of Nestorians and Monophysites, he assembled a great council of bishops and senators, and with their consent he promulgated in 726 an edict requiring the complete removal of icons from the churches; representations of Christ and the Virgin were forbidden; and church murals were to be covered with plaster. Some of the higher clergy supported the edict; the lower clergy and the monks protested, the people revolted. Soldiers trying to enforce the law were attacked by worshipers horrified and infuriated by this desecration of the dearest symbols of their faith. In Greece and the Cyclades rebel forces proclaimed a rival emperor, and sent a fleet to capture the capital. Leo destroyed the fleet, and imprisoned the leaders of the opposition. In Italy, where pagan forms of worship had never died, the people were almost unanimous against the edict; Venice, Ravenna, and Rome drove out the Imperial officers; and a council of Western bishops summoned by Pope Gregory II anathematized the Iconoclasts—image breakers—without naming the Emperor. The patriarch of Constantinople joined the revolt, and sought by it to restore the independence of the Eastern Church from the state. Leo deposed him (730), but did him no violence; and the edict was so mildly enforced that when Leo died (741), most of the churches retained their frescoes and mosaics unharmed.
His son Constantine V (741-75) continued his policy, and received from hostile historians the genial epithet of Copronymus—“named from dung.” A council of Eastern bishops, called by him at Constantinople (754), condemned image worship as “abominable,” charged that through such worship “Satan had re-introduced idolatry,” denounced “the ignorant artist who with his unclean hands gives form to that which should be believed only by the heart,”5 and decreed that all images in the churches should be erased or destroyed. Constantine executed the decree without moderation or tact; imprisoned and tortured resisting monks; again eyes or tongues were torn out, noses were cut off; the patriarch was tortured and beheaded (767). Like Henry VIII, Constantine V closed monasteries and convents, confiscated their property, turned the buildings to secular uses, and bestowed monastic lands upon his favorites. At Ephesus the imperial governor, with the approval of the Emperor, assembled the monks and nuns of the province, and forced them to marry one another as an alternative to death.6 The persecution continued for five years (765-71).
Constantine exacted from his son Leo IV (775-80) an oath to continue the Iconoclastic policy; Leo did what he could despite his weak constitution. Dying, he named his ten-year-old son Constantine VI as emperor (780-97), and nominated his widow, the Empress Irene, as regent during the youth’s minority. She ruled with ability and without scruple. Sympathizing with the religious feelings of the people and her sex, she quietly ended the enforcement of the Iconoclast edicts; permitted the monks to return to their monasteries and their pulpits, and convened the prelates of Christendom in the Second Council of Nicaea (787), where 350 bishops, under the lead of papal legates, restored the veneration—not the worship—of sacred images as a legitimate expression of Christian piety and faith.
In 790 Constantine VI came of age. Finding his mother reluctant to surrender her power, he deposed and exiled her. Soon the amiable youth relented; he brought her back to court, and associated her with him in the imperial power (792). In 797 she had him imprisoned and blinded, and thereafter reigned under the title of emperor—not basilissa but basileus. For five years she administered the Empire with wisdom and finesse: lowered taxes, scattered largess among the poor, founded charitable institutions, and beautified the capital. The people applauded and loved her, but the army fretted at being ruled by a woman more capable than most men. In 802 the Iconoclasts revolted, deposed her, and made her treasurer Nicephorus emperor. She yielded quietly, and asked of him only a decent and safe retreat; he promised it, but banished her to Lesbos, and left her to earn a scanty living as a seamstress. Nine months later she died, with hardly a penny or a friend. The theologians forgave her crimes because of her piety, and the Church canonized her as a saint.