The First Iconoclasts


In the long night of superstition the Christians had wandered far away from the simplicity of the Gospel: nor was it easy for them to discern the clue, and tread back the mazes of the labyrinth. The worship of images was inseparably blended, at least to a pious fancy, with the Cross, the Virgin, the saints and their relics; the holy ground was involved in a cloud of miracles and visions; and the nerves of the mind, curiosity and scepticism, were benumbed by the habits of obedience and belief.


The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chap. XLIX

It was fortunate that Justinian II, during the days when he was still an effective ruler, had done so much to strengthen, both economically and militarily, the heartland of the Empire; because in Constantinople itself morale was now dangerously low. Less fortunate was the fact that his successor Philippicus Bardanes quickly proved himself a hopeless hedonist, who spent vast sums on his own amusement and, in his serious moments, seemed interested only in reviving the old theological disputes for which, over the years, the Byzantines had already paid so heavy a price. His innermost convictions probably tended towards monophysitism -that most inflammatory of heresies which, wisely, he did not attempt to revive. He did, however, make a determined effort to reimpose the monothelite compromise, even going so far as to issue an imperial edict on his own authority rejecting the decisions of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, which had condemned the doctrine only thirty years before. At the same time he ordered the removal of a picture in the imperial palace representing the Council in session, together with an inscribed plaque commemorating the event on the Milion Gate.

When the news of all this reached Rome, Pope Constantine - already horrified by the fate of his friend Justinian and implacably hostile to his successor - flew into a fury. The formal letter that Philippicus had addressed to him, notifying him of his accession in terms which struck the Pope as profoundly heretical, he rejected out of hand - replying with a decree of his own in which he made it an offence to stamp the new Emperor's portrait on coins, to refer to his reign in the dating of documents, or even to include his name in Church prayers. Finally, in obvious retaliation for the removal of the offending picture, he gave orders that a whole series of similar paintings - not just of the Sixth Council but of all the other five as well - should be specially painted for the walls of St Peter's.

In a more peaceful age, an Emperor might have been allowed to indulge himself in the quintessentially Byzantine combination of sensual pleasure and Christological speculation to his heart's content, leaving his subjects to get on with their own lives. Not, however, in 712; for the murder of Justinian had given the Bulgar King Tervel just the opportunity he needed. On the pretext that he was honour-bound to avenge his former friend, he now invaded the Empire for the second time and advanced once again to the walls of Constantinople, leaving a trail of devastation behind him. Perhaps because he trusted his Bulgar ally, Justinian had paid little heed to his Thracian defences, and his successor had cared for them even less. If the invaders were to be driven back, the Emperor had no choice but to summon additional troops from the Opsikian Theme across the Marmara.

Inescapable as it may have been, the decision proved his undoing. The Opsikians were notoriously self-willed, and felt no instinctive loyalty to an Armenian upstart who, having reached the throne by methods to say the least questionable, now seemed disposed to treat it like a plaything. They laid their plans with care; then, on Whit Saturday, 3 June 713, soon after the Emperor had settled down to a noon-day siesta after an agreeable morning spent banqueting with friends, a group of soldiers burst into his bed-chamber, seized him and hurried him away to the Hippodrome. There, in the changing room of the Green charioteers, his eyes were put out. He had reigned just nineteen months.

After the success of their coup, the Opsikians might have been expected to proclaim one of their own number the new Basileus. In some way, however, they were prevented from doing so; and the choice of the Senate and people fell on a certain Artemius, who had been Chief Secretary to the former Emperor. It may have been this background that persuaded him to choose for his imperial title the name of another former civil servant who had risen to the supreme power: on the following day, Whit Sunday, he was crowned by the Patriarch in St Sophia as the Emperor Anastasius II.

Anastasius was a far abler ruler than his predecessor, and deserved to last a good deal longer than he did. He began, very sensibly, by rescinding Philippicus's monothelitist edict and restoring the memorials of the Sixth Ecumenical Council to their rightful places; then he settled down to the problem of imperial defence. Thanks to the Opsikian troops, the Bulgars had retreated back into their homeland; it was now the Arabs who were, once again, on the march - and who, as the Emperor's spies ominously reported, were preparing another full-scale attack on Constantinople. Anastasius at once began major operations on the Land Walls, repairing and reinforcing them where necessary. The state granaries were filled to bursting point, and every citizen was ordered to lay in enough food to last him and his family for three years; meanwhile the Byzantine shipyards were working harder than ever before. If the attack came, the Empire would not be caught unprepared.

But could the attack not be prevented altogether? Anastasius believed that it could, and early in 715 he decided to launch a pre-emptive strike against the Saracens, using Rhodes as a base for the operation. His chances of success looked excellent and, had he been allowed to proceed as he had planned, his subjects might have been spared much suffering. Alas, the Opsikian troops had developed a taste for rebellion. No sooner had they arrived in Rhodes than - barely two years after they had dethroned Philippicus - they turned on John, the General Logothete to whom Anastasius had given command of the expedition, and clubbed him to death. They then made their way to Constantinople, picking up en route an innocuous and inoffensive tax-gatherer named Theodosius whom, for reasons not entirely clear, they decided to proclaim Emperor. When Theodosius was informed of their intention he very sensibly fled into the mountains; but he was tracked down and forced at sword-point to accept - though still very reluctantly - an honour that was, to him, as undesirable as it was unexpected. Meanwhile the rebels had reached the capital where, after a few months of bitter strife, Anastasius was deposed in his turn and withdrew to a monastery in Thessalonica.

With the accession of Theodosius III, the Byzantines could look back on no less than six Emperors in the previous twenty years; five of their reigns had ended violently and the sixth was shortly to do so. Never since the foundation of Constantinople had there been so prolonged a period of restless anarchy. But salvation, although the people were not yet aware of it, was on the way; and it is to the future author of this salvation that we must now direct our attention. His name was Leo, and he is often known as 'the Isaurian'; in fact, he was almost certainly nothing of the sort.1 His simple peasant family had originated, so far as we can tell, in the old Roman town of Germanica, in the district of Commagene beyond the Taurus Mountains - the present city of Maras; later, as part of Justinian II's huge shifts of population, it had been resettled near Mesembria in Thrace.

From Leo's point of view, his new home could scarcely have been better chosen. Impelled, as he had been since early childhood, by a relentless determination to make his way in the world, he had ridden out to meet Justinian II when the Emperor was marching on Constantinople in 705 and, according to tradition, had offered him 500 sheep for the army; in return, he had been invited to join the imperial guard with the rank of spatharius. Before long his outstanding abilities (or, as some have less charitably suggested, his insufficiently concealed ambitions) persuaded Justinian to send him to the East on a delicate diplomatic mission among the various barbarian peoples and buffer-states in Syria and the Caucasus - principally the Alans, Abasgians and Armenians - sometimes inciting one against the other, sometimes cementing alliances between them in opposition to the Arabs. It was a task for which Leo was admirably suited, and for several years he performed it brilliantly. It therefore came as no surprise when, in 715, Anastasius appointed him Governor (strategos) of the Anatolikon, one of the largest and most important Themes in the Empire. He reached his new post just in time: early the following year two huge Saracen armies crossed the imperial border, one under the command of the Caliph's brother, Maslama, the other under a general named Suleiman; and the latter's first objective was the capital of the Anatolikon, the city of Amorium.2

What happened next is obscure. Theophanes produces a whole saga of picaresque incident, told with an abundance of detail suggesting that it may well be based on some lost diary written by Leo himself; unfortunately his account is so involved as to be largely incomprehensible. All that emerges with any degree of certainty is that Leo immediately entered into negotiations with the Arab leaders and that in consequence,

1.   The confusion arises from an ambiguous passage of Theophanes (p. 591). Any reader wishing to investigate more deeply must refer to the formidably learned article by K. Schenk, Kaiser Leons III, Walten im Innern, in Byzantinisbe Zeitscbrift, Vol. V (1896), p. I9&ff.

2.   Once one of the key strongholds of the Empire, Amorium is now reduced to a few ruined buildings and the remains of a defensive wall. It is as yet unexcavated. It stands on a site now known as Ergankale, just outside the village of Asarkoy, about fifty-five km south-west of Sivrihisar.

some time towards the end of 716, their armies retired once again behind the frontier. So bald a statement, on the other hand, raises more questions than it answers. How did Leo achieve such a remarkable result? What did he offer the Saracens in return for their withdrawal? Above all, perhaps, to what extent was there collusion between them? Our sources do not reveal; the most likely answer, however, is that Maslama and his colleague Suleiman tried to use Leo for their own ends, but were in fact outsmarted and used by him instead. They were already well aware that he was hostile to Theodosius and that he was generally expected, sooner or later, to seize the throne; and their intention was first to encourage his revolt and then, once he was safely established, to make him their puppet until such time as he could be obliged to surrender the whole Empire into the Caliph's hands. Theophanes records that Suleiman's forces, outside the walls of Amorium, were actually ordered to shout, 'Long Live the Emperor Leo!' and to encourage the city's defenders to take up the cry; and two separate Arab sources report that the strategos secretly promised to accept the generals as his paymasters and to do as they bade him.

So, very probably, he did — pointing out, however, that his path to the throne would be a good deal more difficult if he were seen to have Saracen support, and thereby persuading them to make their tactical retreat. There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that Leo ever had the slightest intention of betraying the Empire; his subsequent actions as Emperor are alone sufficient proof of that. But his profound understanding of Arab psychology and his easy fluency in Arabic - which, given his origins, may even have been his first language, with Greek only a later acquisition - enabled him to deceive and out-manoeuvre them at every turn.

Some months previously Leo had taken the precaution of obtaining the support of Artabasdus, Governor of the Armeniakon Theme, promising him in return the hand of his daughter in marriage and the rank of curopalates — one of the three highest in the Empire, usually reserved for members of the imperial family. Together, the two now marched on Constantinople. At Nicomedia they easily defeated a small army sent out against them under the command of Theodosius's son, taking him prisoner with his entire household. From there, knowing the defences of the capital to be virtually impregnable, Leo opened up negotiations with the Patriarch and Senate. They did not take much persuading. It was, they were well aware, only a matter of months before the Saracens renewed their offensive; if Constantinople were once again to be besieged, they were in little doubt as to whom they would rather have as their leader.

Early in 717 Theodosius, having received formal assurances that neither he nor his son would be harmed, abdicated the throne on to which he had been so unwillingly thrust and retired with relief to a monastery at Ephesus; meanwhile, on 25 March, the greatest Emperor since Heraclius entered the city in triumph by the Golden Gate and was crowned in St Sophia.

If we are right in our speculations, it may well have been in accordance with a carefully pre-arranged plan that, in the high summer of 717, Prince Maslama marched across Asia Minor. He captured Pergamum and pressed on to Abydos, whence he and his army crossed the Hellespont into Thrace; and on 15 August, with 80,000 men encamped around him, he stood before Constantinople. Just over a fortnight later, on 1 September, Suleiman entered the Marmara at the head of a fleet which the chroniclers estimate at 1,800 ships of war; and the blockade of the city began.

Leo III was ready - though not, perhaps, in quite the way that the Arab generals had expected. He had put to good account the five months that had elapsed since his coronation, pressing on with the various defence measures initiated by Anastasius and ensuring that his people had' all they needed to defend themselves against the worst that the Saracens could hurl against them. As the siege progressed, it came more and more to resemble its predecessors of the 670s, when for five years Constantine IV and his subjects had fought off the Saracen onslaught. In those days, however, the fighting had been limited to the summer months; now it continued throughout the winter - and that winter proved the cruellest that even the oldest citizens could remember, with the snow lying thick on the ground for over ten weeks. Inevitably it was the besiegers who suffered the most, unaccustomed as they were to the treacherous Constantinopolitan climate and having no protection against the elements but their flimsy tents - a more effective shield from the desert sun than against the icy winds of Thrace. Soon, too, the food ran out; in such conditions scavenging was impossible and, if Theophanes is to be believed, the desperate Arabs were reduced to eating their horses, donkeys and camels and, finally, cakes of dead men's flesh, mixed with their own excrement and baked in the camp ovens. Famine, as always, brought disease; with the hardness of the ground putting burial out of the question, hundreds of corpses were flung into the Marmara. Suleiman himself was among the victims. On the sea, meanwhile, Greek fire exacted a daily toll among the Saracen ships. There was a bad moment in the early spring when the defenders were horrified to see on the horizon a second armada, almost as immense as the first, arriving from Egypt; fortunately the majority of them proved to be manned by Christian galley-slaves, who deserted en masse at the first opportunity.

It was, however, a Bulgarian army that delivered the coup de grace. The Bulgars had no love for the Byzantines, but they preferred them to the infidel and were in any case determined that, if Constantinople were to be taken, it should fall into Bulgar rather than Arab hands. As spring turned to summer they marched down from the north, fell on the sick and demoralized Saracens and killed, we are told, 22,000 of them. Now at last Maslama decided that he and his men had had enough: early in August he gave the signal to withdraw. The land army - or what was left of it - dragged itself back to Syria without further mishap; but the remainder of the fleet, by now so damaged as to be dangerously un-seaworthy, was almost annihilated in a series of summer storms. Only five vessels returned safely to their home ports.

This time the Byzantine victory was decisive. Over the years to come - indeed, throughout Leo's reign - the Arabs would make countless raids and incursions into Anatolia; but never again would they put the very survival of the Empire in jeopardy - and never again would they lay siege to its capital. As for the Emperor himself, he had amply justified his bid for power. He had, moreover, made a considerably larger contribution to his subjects' deliverance than most of them ever knew. As near-contemporary Arab accounts make clear, he had been in touch with Maslama and Suleiman from the start, making them endless promises that he had no intention of keeping and offering them copious advice that he knew would prove disastrous. Eventually, of course, the two leaders realized that they had been duped, and Leo cheerfully admitted as much; but by then it was too late. Meanwhile the Emperor had had plenty of time in which to indulge his penchant for intrigue: there are good reasons to suspect that both the mass desertion of the galley-slaves and the perfectly-timed arrival of the Bulgar army were due, at least in part, to his machinations.

In just a dozen years - he cannot even now have been much over thirty - Leo had risen from the status of a simple Syrian peasant to that of Emperor of Byzantium; and in doing so he had almost certainly saved his Empire from destruction. And yet, strangely enough, his chief claim to fame rests on neither of these achievements. The greatest and most fateful step of his career had yet to be taken.

Ever since the dawn of history, when man first became a religious animal and almost simultaneously - give or take a millennium or two - made his first clumsy attempts at adorning the walls of his cave, he has had to face one fundamental question; is art the ally of religion, or its most insidious enemy? Primitive societies often tended to take the easy way out by equating the two, first creating a fetish for themselves and then worshipping it; with the advent of theological speculation, however, and the idea of a universal deity unfettered to a piece of wood or stone, something better was required: and it thus became more and more essential to establish whether or not the visual depiction of the godhead was possible and, if so, whether it should be permitted.

Speaking in necessarily general terms of the world's great religions, it could be said that Judaism and - later - Islam set their faces resolutely against such practices, while the Hindus and the Buddhists saw no objection. As for Christianity, it has never quite made up its mind. For most of its history and among most of its adherents, pictorial or sculptural representations of Jesus Christ and even (though less frequently) God the Father have been enthusiastically encouraged, to the incalculable benefit of the artistic heritage of the world. In certain places and periods, however - England under the Commonwealth being an obvious example - opinion has swung sharply in the opposite direction; and never has such a reversal wrought more havoc, or caused more repercussions through the length and breadth of Christendom, than that which was instigated by Leo III - and was later to be carried on with even greater vigour by his son Constantine.

The sudden appearance of iconoclasm - the word means, literally, 'the smashing of icons' - on the Byzantine religious scene has often been explained by the proximity of the world of Islam, to which the very idea of a representation of the human form, whether religious or secular, was abhorrent; and it would be hard indeed to argue that Leo, with his Syrian background, was not to some extent at any rate influenced by Islamic beliefs and practices. On the other hand it should also be remembered that this new and revolutionary doctrine was in fact an obvious corollary to the monophysite belief: if we accept only the divine nature of Christ - which is by definition impossible to depict - and reject the human, we cannot logically approve of a two- or three-dimensional portrayal of him as a human being. It was therefore not surprising that most of the support for the new movement should come from the eastern provinces of the Empire, in which monophysitism had always been more prevalent and which had always been influenced by

oriental mystical philosophy, rather than from the more down-to-earth, materialistic West.

None the less, the iconoclasts had a strong case. Ever since the beginning of the century the cult of icons had been growing steadily more uncontrolled, to the point where holy images were openly worshipped in their own right and occasionally even served as godparents at baptisms. It was thus as a protest against what they considered flagrant idolatry that a number of bishops in Asia Minor had adopted an iconoclast manifesto and were now intent on spreading their ideas more widely through the Empire.

Leo himself, despite his Syrian background, had given no early indication of similar tendencies: indeed, on several occasions during the recent siege he had made full use of one of Constantinople's most popular wonder-working icons, the Virgin Hodegetria ('She who shows the Way'), having it paraded up and down the city walls to give his men courage and to strike fear among the besiegers. On the other hand he had made no protest - as he had had every reason to do - when in 723 the Caliph Yazid, having been cured of a serious illness by a Jewish necromancer from Tiberias, was persuaded by the said necromancer to issue an edict ordering the immediate destruction of all Christian pictures in churches, markets or private houses throughout his dominions; and there is some evidence to suggest that the same eminence grise had subsequently appeared in Constantinople and put similar pressure on the Emperor. In 725 the iconoclast bishops certainly did so. It seems, therefore, that Leo's change of heart was far from spontaneous; rather was it the result of a combination of Muslim and Jewish influences, together with others — perhaps the strongest of all - exerted by a number of his own Christian subjects. In the same year he went so far as to preach a series of sermons in which he pointed out some of the more flagrant excesses of the iconodules - as the image-worshippers were called - which he held to be in open disobedience of the Law of Moses as laid down in the Second Commandment. Then, in 726, he decided to set an example.

He could hardly have chosen a more striking one. Facing eastwards towards St Sophia across the broad open space of the Augusteum was the principal gateway to the imperial palace, known as the Chalke. Destroyed by the mob during the Nika riots, it had been rebuilt by Justinian and was now a magnificent edifice in its own right. Procopius tells us2

1.   The details are uncertain, since the text of Yazid's edict has not survived; but there is no doubt of the wholesale destruction that followed.

2.   Buildings, i, 10.

that it was a tall, vaulted building with a central dome, the interior revetted with slabs of polychrome marble above which ran a cycle of dazzling mosaics representing the victories of Justinian and Belisarius and the capture of various cities of Italy and Libya. In the centre were full-length mosaic portraits of the Emperor and Theodora - presumably very much on the same lines as those in the still surviving Church of S. Vitale in Ravenna - with the Kings of the Goths and the Vandals standing bound before them and the Senate ranged solemnly to each side. The walls were lined with statues, some antique, some of former Emperors; outside, above the great bronze doors that gave the building its name, there rose a vast golden icon of Christ.

It was this tremendous icon - perhaps the largest and most prominent in the whole city - that Leo selected as the first to be destroyed. The popular reaction was immediate: the officer in charge of the demolition party was set upon by a group of outraged women and killed on the spot. As the news of the desecration spread, more demonstrations followed. Widespread mutinies were reported in the Aegean fleet, and others among the army in Thrace. Whatever the Eastern bishops might say, the Emperor's European subjects - inheritors as they were of the old Graeco-Roman tradition - had left their sovereign in no doubt of their own feelings. To them, iconoclasm meant nothing less than wilful sacrilege. They loved and revered their images, and they were prepared to fight for them.

Leo saw that he must advance with caution. Once he had dealt with the mutineers, he decided to give tempers time to cool. Unfortunately, they did nothing of the kind. In 727, his Italian subjects in the Exarchate of Ravenna rose in revolt, backed to the hilt by Pope Gregory who, quite apart from his natural feelings of revulsion at the destruction of the holy images, deeply resented the Emperor's presumption in arrogating to himself the supreme authority in matters of doctrine. The Exarch was murdered, his provincial governors put ignominiously to flight. Meanwhile the rebellious garrisons, all recruited locally, chose their own commanders and asserted their independence.1

These upheavals, it should be noted, were the consequence not of any imperial decree but of a single action by the Emperor: the destruction

1 In the communities along the shore of the Venetian lagoon, their choice fell on a certain Ursus, or Orso, from Heraclea, who was placed at the head of the former provincial administration and given the title of Dux. At that moment the Republic of Venice was born; and that title, transformed by the rough Venetian dialect into Doge, was to be passed down through 117 successors and over more than a thousand years until the Republic's end in 1797-

of the icon over the doors of the Chalke. Once aware of the fury that he had aroused, Leo might have been expected to call a halt for fear of sparking off a full-scale civil war; but his resolution never wavered. For three years he tried unsuccessfully to negotiate with the Church leaders, both in the East and in the West, who opposed him; then, in 730 -having first taken the precaution of dismissing the iconodule Patriarch Germanus and replacing him with a weakly acquiescent cleric named Anastasius - he finally issued his one and only edict against the images.

The die was cast. All holy pictures were to be destroyed forthwith. Those who failed to obey would be subject to arrest and punishment; those who continued to cherish their images could expect relentless persecution. In the East, the blow fell most heavily on the monasteries, many of which possessed superb collections of ancient icons - to say nothing of vast quantities of holy relics, now similarly condemned. Hundreds of monks fled secretly to Greece and Italy, taking with them such of the smaller and more precious treasures as could safely be concealed beneath their robes. Others sought refuge in the deserts of Cappadocia, whose contorted outcrops of soft and friable volcanic tufa had, already for the best part of a hundred years, offered troglodytic sanctuary for other Christian communities threatened by the advancing Saracen. Meanwhile in the West Pope Gregory, seeing that an open breach could no longer be postponed, issued a public condemnation of iconoclasm and followed it up with two letters to Leo, setting out the orthodox view on images and suggesting that the Emperor leave the task of defining Christian dogma to those best qualified to perform it.

Leo's first reaction was to deal with Gregory in much the same way as Constans II had dealt with Pope Martin; but the ships sent to arrest the Pontiff foundered in the Adriatic, and before anything further could be done Gregory himself was dead. His successor and namesake took an equally determined line. Still further incensed by the Emperor's confiscation, early in 731, of the annual incomes from the Churches of Sicily and Calabria he summoned a synod in November which decreed excommunication for all who laid impious hands on sacred objects of any kind. Leo retaliated by transferring the Sicilian and Calabrian bishoprics, together with a considerable number of others throughout the Balkan peninsula, from the see of Rome to that of Constantinople. Henceforth the already strained relations between the Eastern and Western Churches were marked by a still more unconcealed hostility, which was to continue with only brief intermissions for more than three centuries until the final schism.

Of the last decade of Leo's reign we know little. The 730s were a relatively quiet time for Byzantium: apart from the regular Saracen raids in Anatolia which had become an accepted fact of life, they were probably to a large extent taken up with the consequences of the iconoclast decree, its further implementation and the pursuit and chastisement of those who elected to defy it. Quiet as they may have been, however, those years were certainly not happy. Leo III, like Heraclius before him, had saved the Western world; but whereas Heraclius had striven to put an end to religious strife, Leo seems almost deliberately to have encouraged it. When he died, on 18 June 741, he left behind him an Empire which, though finally secure against its Arab enemies, was more deeply and desperately divided than ever in its history.

Constantine V, his son and successor, was the last man to reunite it. Known during his own lifetime and to posterity by the unattractive nickname of Copronymus - a sobriquet acquired, Theophanes assures us, as a result of an unfortunate and embarrassing accident at his baptism -he had been crowned co-Emperor by his father in 720 at the age of two; and from an early age he had been closely associated with Leo in his iconoclast policy. It was almost certainly for this reason that his much older brother-in-law Artabasdus - Leo's principal ally in his bid for power, whom he had rewarded with the hand of his daughter Anna - in 742 launched a surprise attack on the young Emperor while he was marching eastwards on a campaign against the Saracens, soundly defeated him and, hurrying to the capital, proclaimed himself Basileus in his stead. He then immediately ordered the restoration of the icons - people were astonished at the quantity of holy images said to have been destroyed that suddenly reappeared safe and sound, just as they were at the number of former iconoclasts who now revealed that they had been secret iconodules all along - and for sixteen months Constantinople looked itself again, its churches and public buildings once more aglitter with gold.

But Constantine was not beaten. He had sought refuge at Amorium, the scene of his father's early successes, where the garrison - composed as it was entirely of local Anatolians - was iconoclast to a man, and where he was given an enthusiastic welcome. From there it was a simple matter to raise further troops of similar persuasion, with whose help in 743 he defeated Artabasdus at the ancient Sardis (Sardes), in Lydia, and marched on to Constantinople, which surrendered to him on 2 November. Artabasdus and his two sons were publicly blinded in the Hippodrome, their chief supporters executed or subjected to various mutilations; meanwhile the trembling Patriarch Anastasius, who had predictably turned his coat and crowned the usurping Emperor, was first flogged, then stripped naked and, sitting backwards on a donkey, ignominiously paraded round the arena. After this humiliation - which had been accurately predicted by his predecessor Germanus fifteen years before - he was, to everyone's surprise, reinstated in his former office. Here was one of Constantine's subtler moves. He was always anxious to reduce the influence of the hierarchy, in order to concentrate as much power as possible in his own hands; and a thoroughly discredited Patriarch was just what he wanted.

The rebellion of Artabasdus had two significant results. The first was to inflame the Emperor's hatred of icon-worshippers to an almost pathological degree. Once restored to the throne, he intensified his persecution of all who displayed the slightest sign of religious superstition; the citizens of Constantinople, in particular, felt themselves to be in the grip of a new reign of terror. And yet, surprisingly perhaps, about Constantine himself there was nothing remotely austere, any more than there had been about his father. Except where the images were concerned, the iconoclasts were far from puritanical - less so, indeed, than many an image-loving Western churchman. In one of his letters to Leo, Pope Gregory had accused him of trying to console those who missed their old icons with 'harps, cymbals, flutes and other such trivialities'; and even in the visual arts secular subjects continued to be actively encouraged. A near-contemporary1 tells us, for example, that the mosaics portraying the life of Christ on the walls of the Church of St Mary in Blachernae were almost immediately replaced with others, just as fine, depicting landscapes with so many trees and birds and fruits as to make it look half-way between a provisions market and an aviary. More improbable still was the Patriarchal Palace, which was, we learn, richly embellished with representations of horse-races and scenes of the chase.

Constantine's own tastes, if our meagre (and, alas, exclusively iconodule) sources can be believed, bordered on the libertine. Shamelessly bisexual, he filled his court with exquisite young favourites; and although various accounts of unbridled orgies can probably be ascribed to the malicious tongues of his enemies, there was certainly plenty of music and dancing; the Emperor himself is said to have been an accomplished performer on the harp. None of this, however, should be taken to imply that he was not a fundamentally religious man. On the contrary, he had

1 The anonymous author of the Life of St Stephen the Younger, written in 808 on the basis of earlier information provided by Stephen, deacon of St Sophia.

pondered long and deeply over the doctrinal issues raised by his policies - during his life he wrote no less than thirteen theological treatises -and had drawn his own conclusions, which he made no attempt to conceal. What evidence we have makes it clear that he was at heart a monophysite: he abhorred the cult of the Virgin Mary and refused outright to allow her the title of Tbeotokos, Mother of God, since he held that she had given birth only to the physical body of Jesus Christ, in which his Spirit had been temporarily contained. For the worship of the saints - and worse still, their relics - he showed a still greater contempt, as he did for any form of intercessory prayer. Even the use of the prefix 'Saint' before a name would incur his wrath: St Peter could be referred to only as 'Peter the Apostle', St Mary's church as 'Mary's'. If a member of his court forgot himself so far as to invoke the name of a saint in some exasperated expletive, the Emperor would immediately reprimand him - not for the implied lack of respect for the saint in question, but because the title was undeserved.

The second consequence of Artabasdus's coup was to impress upon Constantine the full strength of the opposition to iconoclasm, especially in the capital. It convinced him that Leo's decree of 730 was by itself inadequate: what was required was a full Council of the Church. At the same time he knew, like his father before him, that to press on too fast might be fatal, since it could well provoke a revolution; and it was another twelve years before he felt strong enough to summon what he described as an Ecumenical Council to give its official approval to iconoclast doctrines. Meanwhile he prepared the way with care. Bishops whose views he considered unsound were quietly eased out of their sees, and imperial nominees appointed in their place; new dioceses were established and given to trustworthy supporters.

Outside the Patriarchal see of Constantinople, however, the Emperor had comparatively little influence - a fact made the more unfortunate in that the Patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem had all declared themselves in favour of images. Rather than risk any overheated discussions, with the attendant possibility of the Council's findings turning out otherwise than he had intended, Constantine had therefore decided that no representatives from these sees - or, of course, from that of Rome — should receive invitations; and the relatively small assembly that gathered in the Palace of Hiera, on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus, on 10 February 754 had thus no conceivable right to the title of ‘Ecumenical' that it so presumptuously claimed. It consisted altogether of 338 prelates, meeting under the presidency of Bishop Theodosius of Ephesus, a son of the former Emperor Tiberius II - Patriarch Anastasius having succumbed to a particularly revolting disease the previous autumn1 and no suitable replacement for him having yet been found. For seven months they debated; but the results of their deliberations, as promulgated on 29 August in Constantinople, came as no surprise. Christ's nature, they unanimously declared, was aperigraptos - not circumscribable, and consequently not to be represented as circumscribed by the limits of a figure within a finite space. As to the images of the Virgin and saints, they smacked of heathen idolatry and were thus equally to be condemned.

These conclusions were, predictably, enshrined within countless pages of meticulous reasoning, backed up by much biblical and patristic quotation and any amount of pulverizing scholarship; but they were all that the Emperor needed. The order for the destruction of every holy image was reconfirmed, the leaders of the pro-icon party - who included the deposed Patriarch Germanus, together with the party's chief polemicist John of Damascus - excommunicated. And the persecutions continued with renewed vigour. Henceforth, however, there becomes apparent a gradual change of emphasis. The monasteries, as we have seen, had long been a target of the iconoclasts - but principally, in the early days of the movement, because of the quantity of icons and relics that they possessed. After the Council, the Emperor began persecuting them for their own sake, and with a fury that raises serious doubts as to his sanity. Referring to them as 'the unmentionables', he would fulminate with maniacal passion against their cupidity, corruption and general debauchery: there were, it seemed, no crimes of which they were not guilty, no depths of degradation to which they had not sunk. The most famous of his victims (since he is the subject of a still-extant biography) was Stephen, abbot of the monastery of St Auxentius in Bithynia, who became the chief focus of monkish resistance. Arrested on charges of every kind of vice - and, most serious of all, of persuading, under false pretences, numbers of innocent people to embrace the monastic life - he was first exiled, then imprisoned and finally, like his namesake the Protomartyr, stoned to death in the street.

But Stephen was only one of many hundreds - perhaps several thousands - of monks and nuns who in the last fifteen years of the reign of Constantine suffered ridicule, mutilation or death (and sometimes all three) in defence of their chosen way of life. In the Theme of Thracesion

1 A stoppage of the bowels, described by Theophanes as a cbordapsus, which caused him to vomit up their contents. His flock reflected on his undistinguished record as Patriarch and, as usual, drew their own conclusions.

— which was nowhere near Thrace, but comprised the central section of the Ionian coast and its hinterland - the local Governor assembled every monk and nun and commanded them all to marry at once or face transportation to Cyprus. This same official, Michael Lachanodrakon, is also said to have impregnated the beards of those monks who opposed him with a highly inflammable mixture of oil and wax, and then set fire to them; in their abandoned monasteries he committed whole libraries to the flames, sold the consecrated vessels of gold and silver and sent the proceeds to the Emperor - who replied with an effusive letter of thanks, describing him as a man after his own heart. Of what happened in the other Themes we have rather less information; but the story is unlikely to have been very different.

For atrocities of this kind there can obviously be no excuse; but it is only fair to observe that in the course of the seventh and eighth centuries the monasteries in the Empire had multiplied in both size and number to the point where they were beginning to cause the administration serious concern. Despite all the ambitious resettlement programmes of Justinian II and others, there remained huge areas of Asia Minor which were still desperately underpopulated; and the situation became graver still between 745 and 747, when an epidemic of bubonic plague removed perhaps a third of the inhabitants. For reasons both economic and military, more manpower was urgently needed - to till the soil, to defend the frontiers and, above all, to reproduce. Instead, more and more of the population, male and female, rich and poor, young and old, were opting for a life which was both sterile and unproductive and which, however beneficial it might be to their immortal souls, was utterly useless to the State. It was this dangerous tendency, every bit as much as religious superstition in the narrower sense, that Constantine was fighting during his later years; we are told that few thing* angered him more than when members of his court or, worse still, officers of the army announced their intention of retiring to some distant cloister when their work was done. Ultimately, however, he lost the battle. His draconian measures could not fail to be effective in the short term; but within a few years of his death the monasteries were as full and flourishing as before. Indeed, the problem that they presented was never completely solved. For all their undoubted contribution to the civilization of Byzantium, they were to continue to drain its life blood for another seven centuries, until the end came.

The reign of Constantine Copronymus is so overshadowed by the spectre of iconoclasm that his military achievements are all too often overlooked. He was by no means the natural soldier that his father had been; nervous and highly strung, he had a chronically weak constitution and suffered from periodic bouts of depression and ill health. Few Emperors, in short, seemed worse equipped, physically or temperamentally, for the rigours of military life. And yet, against all expectations, he proved a courageous fighter, a brilliant tactician and a superb leader of men; and, of all his subjects, it was probably his soldiers who loved him the most.

In the first decade of his reign, once Artabasdus had been dealt with, his principal adversaries were the Arabs, weakened as they were by a long and bitter civil war which enabled Byzantium at long last to take the initiative. In 746, Constantine invaded northern Syria and captured Germanicia, the home of his ancestors; the larger part of the population he resettled in Thrace, where a colony of Syrian monophysites survived well into the ninth century. The next year brought a major victory at sea, when an Arab fleet from Alexandria fell victim, as so many others had done before it, to the ravages of Greek fire. Other triumphs followed in Armenia and Mesopotamia; but then, in 750, the situation underwent a radical change. At the battle of the Greater Zab River, the army of the Caliph Marwan II was smashed by that of Abu al-Abbas al-Suffah, and the Omayyad dynasty of Damascus came to an end. The Caliphate passed to the Abbasids of Baghdad, who were more interested in the East - in Persia, Afghanistan and Transoxiana - than in Europe, Africa or Asia Minor; and the Emperor in Constantinople was able to turn his attention to other, more immediate dangers nearer home.

Notably the Bulgars. For some years their attitude towards the Empire had been growing increasingly threatening, and in 756 matters came to a head. The immediate cause of the trouble seems to have been the sudden influx of Syrians into Thrace after Constantine-'s expedition, and the still more unwelcome arrival of a colony of Armenians a year or two later. This had necessitated the building of several fortresses, which may well have been a technical violation of a treaty concluded between Theodosius III and Tervel in 716; in any event it provided the Bulgars with an excuse for a new invasion of imperial territory. Riding out at once at the head of his army, the Emperor had little difficulty in putting the invaders to flight; but he could not prevent their returning again and again in the years that followed, and henceforth successive Bulgar campaigns became a regular feature of Byzantine military life. Constantine himself was to lead no less than nine of them; and one, in 763, brought him the most glorious - though also the most hard-won victory of his career, when on 30 June, in a battle which raged from dawn to dusk on one of the longest days of the year, he utterly destroyed the invading army of King Teletz, subsequently celebrating his success with a triumphal entry into his capital and special games in the Hippodrome.

And even that was not the end. There was another important campaign in 773, and yet another in 775. But this, for Constantine, was the last. As he was marching northward to the frontier in the fierce heat of August, his legs grew so swollen and inflamed that they could no longer support him. He was carried on a litter back to Arcadiopolis and thence to the port of Selymbria where, shortly afterwards, a ship arrived to take him home to Constantinople. It was not a long journey, but he did not live to complete it. His condition suddenly worsened, and he died on 14 September. He was fifty-seven.

It was unfortunate - perhaps, for Byzantium, disastrous - that Constantine should never have spared for his Western dominions even a fraction of the care and attention he lavished on those of the East. Within a few years of his accession, Italy had found itself under heavy pressure from the advancing Lombards, who were already whittling away at Byzantine territory. At that time a well-directed expedition - which the Empire was quite capable of launching - might have saved the situation; but instead of showing the solidarity that was so desperately needed, Constantine deliberately antagonized the Pope, and with him the vast majority of his Italian flock, by his clumsy attempts to enforce icono-clasm. Somehow the Exarchate survived - though only just - the events of 727; but in 751Ravenna was finally captured by the Lombard King Aistulf, and the last imperial foothold in North Italy was lost, never to be regained. Rome, abandoned by the Emperor, was left naked to her enemies.

But not for long. Beyond the Alps to the west, a new and more benevolent power was rapidly rising to greatness. In the very year that Ravenna fell, the Frankish leader Pepin the Short had received papal approval for the deposition of the Merovingian King Childeric III -who had long been his puppet — and his own coronation. Pope Stephen II - to whom the Franks must have seemed considerably more desirable allies than the heretical and domineering Byzantines - thus felt himself in a strong position to seek assistance and personally set off for France where, at Ponthion, in 754, on the Feast of the Epiphany, he conferred upon Pepin the title of Patrician and anointed him, together with his two sons, Charles and Carloman, as King of the Franks. In return Pepin promised to transfer all those territories which the Lombards had captured from the Empire, not to their rightful sovereign but to the Pope.

He proved as good as his word. In response to a letter said to have been miraculously penned by St Peter himself, Frankish troops swept into Italy, bringing Aistulf to his knees; and in 756 Pepin forthwith proclaimed the Pope sole ruler of those lands formerly comprised by the imperial Exarchate, snaking across central Italy to embrace Ravenna, Perugia and Rome itself. His authority to do any such thing is, to say the least, doubtful. It was at one time suggested that he might have justified his action by the so-called Donation of Constantine, of which there will be more to say later; but recent evidence suggests that this shameless forgery was not concocted for another half-century. It remains true that the Papal States which he thus brought into being, however shaky their legal foundation, were to endure for over eleven centuries, providing a standing invitation to foreign adventurers up to and including Napoleon III, and constituting one of the principal obstacles to the realization of Italy's long-cherished dream of unity; while the Frankish alliance with the Pope was to lead, less than half a century later, to the establishment of the only Christian polity - apart from the Papacy itself - ever to put forward claims equal to those of Byzantium itself: the Holy Roman Empire.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!