Leo III the Isaurian

Orfeas Katsoulis | Jan 4, 2023

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Leo III Isauricus (Germanicea, c. 675 - June 18, 741) was Basileus of the Romei (Emperor of the East) from March 25, 717 until his death. The appellation "Isauricus" alludes to his region of origin (however, the information is disputed, as set forth below).

Rise to power

Theophanes Confessor called him Isauricus, but Leo was born in Germanicea, which was in Syria, so other writers consider him rather of Syriac origin. Coming from a humble class family, under the early reign of Justinian II he was forced, because of that basileus' colonizing policy, to move to Thrace with his family. When, after being deposed a first time in 695, Justinian II tried to regain the throne (705), Leo decided to support him, contributing to his restoration. The emperor, grateful, appointed him spatharios. After demonstrating both his military and diplomatic skills in an expedition to the Caucasus, he was appointed strategos of the Anatolian thema by Anastasius II.

Leo decided to take advantage of the great power he had achieved (the Anatolian theme was one of the largest) to turn against the legitimate emperor (Theodosius III) and, after deposing him, become emperor. To have a better chance of succeeding in this venture, he allied himself with the strategist of the Armenic theme, Artavasdes: if he supported him, he would marry Leo's daughter and be appointed Kuropalates. After concluding this alliance, Leo invaded the Opsikion theme and took Nicomedia, where he took Theodosius III's son prisoner. Arriving near Chrysopolis, there he entered into negotiations with Theodosius III, who agreed to abdicate by ceding the throne to Leo and to retire to a monastery in Ephesus.

Entering Constantinople on March 25, 717, Leo III went to the Church of St. Sophia, where he was crowned basileus.


As soon as he was elected emperor, he had to face the threat of the Muslims, intent as never before on seizing the capital of the empire. In August 717 the Arab army and fleet (consisting of 120,000 men and 1,800 ships) were already at the walls of Constantinople, led by Maslama, the brother of Caliph Sulayman ibn Abd al-Malik. The emperor then decided to form an alliance with the Bulgarians, who, realizing the great threat the Muslims could pose to their state, agreed.

Thanks to Greek fire, the Arab fleet suffered heavy losses and was forced to retreat, while the imposing Theodosian walls withstood the continuous Arab assaults without any problems. The withdrawal of the Arab fleet allowed the capital to be regularly supplied with provisions, while the extraordinarily harsh winter of 717 claimed many victims among the Muslims, unaccustomed to those temperatures and already weakened by a famine and attacks by the Bulgarians, who had come to the rescue of the Byzantines.

The caliph tried to send reinforcements and provisions, ordering ships from Egypt and North Africa full of provisions to reach Constantinople. However, the Christian crew of the fleet betrayed the Arabs, switching sides to Byzantium, while the reinforcing army from Syria was defeated by the Byzantines. In short order the Muslims had to lift the siege (August 15, 718). The defeat was very heavy since, to the losses suffered during the unsuccessful siege, were added, on the return journey, those caused by a storm and a volcanic eruption.

Leo III, taking advantage of his success, counterattacked by seizing some border areas in the Caucasus, but in 720 these territories were again recaptured by the Arabs. In the meantime, however, having learned of the Arab siege of Constantinople, Sergius, protospatron and strategist of Sicily, had organized a revolt to detach Sicily from the empire, electing Emperor Basil, a native of Constantinople, renamed Tiberius. The usurpation did not last long: in fact, when the siege was over, Leo sent to Sicily the cartulary Paulus, whom he had promoted to patrician and strategus of Sicily, and when the latter entered Syracuse, Sergius, having no strength to resist him, sought refuge with the Lombards, while the population handed over the usurper Basil and the dignitaries who had supported him. Later many supporters of the usurper were beheaded or exiled; as for Sergius, upon a promise that he would not be punished, he returned to Sicily.

The following year the heir to the throne, the future emperor Constantine V, was born, nicknamed contemptuously "Copronymus" ("dung name") by his religious enemies because he is said to have defecated on the font during his baptism.

After the military victory he devoted himself to internal reforms of the state, which by then had descended into a kind of anarchy. In the meantime there was an attempt to retake the throne by the former emperor Artemius

Realizing that the excessive size of the themes made it easy for strategists to revolt and usurp the throne, he decided to fragment them into smaller themes. He divided the Anatolian theme into two, hiving off from it the western part, which received the name of the Thracian theme. Instead he kept the Opsian theme intact, committing a serious mistake: in fact, upon his death, his strategist Artavasdes attempted to usurp the throne from Constantine V. It was he (or perhaps Anastasius II) who also split the Carabisians' maritime theme in two.

He arranged to make peace with the Slavic peoples and reorganized his armed forces. Thanks to all this he could more easily repel subsequent attempts by the Saracens to invade the empire in 726 and 739.

During his reign he introduced numerous tax reforms, transformed serfs into a class of small landowners, and introduced new rules of navigation and family law, not without raising much criticism from nobles and high clergy. He banned the worship of sacred images by two separate edicts in 726 and 730, and in 726 he promulgated a code of laws, the Ecloga, a selection of the most important rules of private and criminal law in force.

The Ecloga, while drawing on Roman law and in particular Justinian's Code, made some substantial changes such as an expansion of women's and children's rights, the discouragement of divorce and the prohibition of abortion, and the introduction of bodily mutilation (cutting off noses, hands, etc.) as punishments. It was designed to bring Byzantine law up to date with the situation at the time, which had changed since Justinian, but also to make the laws more accessible since Justinian's books were too extensive and difficult to consult.

According to iconodule sources, Leo III began to wonder whether the calamities afflicting the empire were not due to divine wrath and consequently sought to ingratiate himself with the Lord by imposing baptism on Jews. It is likely that the emperor was sincerely inspired by a religious sentiment that prompted him to try to rebuild the spiritual unity of the empire, but one of the major obstacles to the realization of that project was the fact that Christianity allowed image worship, which was excluded for Jews. Noting that these early laws had not been enough to stop calamities (including an eruption in the Aegean Sea), the emperor began to believe that the Lord was angry with the Byzantines because they worshipped religious icons, which was contrary to the Law of Moses. Opposition to religious images had already become quite widespread in the eastern regions, influenced by their proximity to the Muslims, who forbade the worship of icons. According to Theophanes, the Emperor was persuaded to adopt his iconoclastic policy (destruction of icons) by one Bezér, a Christian who, enslaved by the Mususlmans, repudiated the Christian faith in order to switch to that of his masters, and who, once freed and moved to Byzantium, managed to induce the Emperor into heresy.

In 726, under pressure from the iconoclastic bishops of Asia Minor and following a tidal wave that convinced him even more of the correctness of his theory of divine wrath, Leo III began to campaign against religious images, believing that such a move would solve the main problem of converting Jews, but without assessing the extent of the serious uproar such a decision caused among the Christian population.

Initially he tried to preach to the people the need to destroy images; later he decided to destroy a religious icon depicting Christ from the palace gate, sparking a revolt both in the capital and in the Helladic theme. The army of Ellas sent a fleet to Constantinople to depose Leo and place their chosen usurper, one Cosmas, on the throne. However, during a battle with the imperial fleet (which took place on April 18, 727), the rebel fleet was destroyed by Greek fire and the usurper, captured, was sentenced to be beheaded. Meanwhile in Asia Minor, the Arabs besieged Nicaea but failed to conquer it, according to Theophanes, through the intercession of the Lord. The Arabs then retreated with rich spoils.

As for relations with the highest religious authorities, the Emperor moved cautiously, trying to convince the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Pope to accept iconoclasm. But such attempts had no effect: in fact, both were opposed to it, and when, perhaps in 727, Pope Gregory II was ordered to ban religious icons, he strenuously opposed it, gaining the support of most of the Byzantine troops in the Exarchate, who turned against imperial authority. The people of Byzantine Italy also considered appointing a usurper and sending a fleet to Constantinople to depose the Emperor they said was heretical, but the Pope opposed this, partly because he hoped the Emperor would come to his senses and partly because he counted on the Emperor's help in repelling the Lombards.

Byzantine troops loyal to the emperor attempted to depose the pope and assassinate him, but all their attempts had no effect because of the opposition of the Roman troops who supported the pope. An uprising also broke out in Ravenna, in the course of which the exarch Paul was killed: in an attempt to avenge the exarch, a fleet was sent by the Byzantines to Ravenna, which, however, failed in its intent, suffering instead a complete rout. Eutychius was appointed exarch, but due to the lack of support from the army, he was unable to establish iconoclasm in Italy and also failed in his attempt to assassinate the Pope. Trying to take advantage of the chaos the exarchate was in because of the emperor's iconoclastic policy, the Lombards led by their king Liutprand invaded Byzantine territory, conquering many cities in the exarchate and pentapolis.

With the edict of 730 Leo ordered the destruction of all religious icons. At the same time he convened a silentium (an assembly) to which he imposed the promulgation of the edict. Faced with the insubordination of Patriarch Germanus, who was opposed to iconoclasm and refused to promulgate the edict unless an ecumenical council was first convened, Leo dismissed him and placed in his place a patriarch loyal to him, a certain Anastasius. The decree was again rejected by the Church of Rome, and the new Pope Gregory III in November 731 convened a special synod to condemn his behavior.

As a countermove, the Byzantine emperor first decided to send a fleet to Italy to suppress any resistance in the peninsula, but this sank. He then confiscated the landed property of the Roman Church in Sicily and Calabria, damaging it economically; he also decided to bring Greece and southern Italy under the aegis of the Patriarch of Constantinople. These measures had little effect, and the exarch still could not enforce the iconoclastic decree in Italy; rather, he tried to pursue a conciliatory policy with the Pontiff. Byzantine Italy was increasingly in trouble: in an unknown year (perhaps 732) Ravenna temporarily fell into Lombard hands, and only with the help of Venice was the exarch able to return to the capital of the exarchate. In 739

Leo III meanwhile reinforced his alliance with the Cazars to use them against the Arabs: to this end he married his son Constantine to one of the Cazarian khan's daughters, Irene (733). In 740 he achieved a victory over the Arabs near Akroinos, a success that temporarily ended the annual incursions of the Infidels and was attributed by the emperor to divine favor after the establishment of iconoclasm. In contrast, an earthquake that damaged Constantinople and its environs in the same year was interpreted by icon supporters as a sign of divine wrath for the iconoclastic policy. The following year the emperor died of dropsy, also interpreted by his opponents as divine punishment.

He was succeeded on the throne by his son Constantine V.

Leo III managed to repel the Arab siege of Constantinople in 717-718, saving the Empire from capitulation and stopping the Islamic advance toward Europe from the East, as Charles Martel would stop the Muslim advance from the West in 732 at Poitiers. Nevertheless, because of iconoclasm, the victory achieved over the Arabs was passed over in silence, and Leo III was demonized, though to a lesser extent than his son, by iconodic chroniclers.

Byzantine chronicles, written by iconodules and thus biased chroniclers, grotesquely describe Leo III's humble origins in a way that discredits him:

In fact, the Isauric origin of Leo III has been recognized as an error by Theophanes the Confessor (or his copyists), and today it is believed that Leo was originally from Germanicea in Syria. It is possible that the chroniclers of the time, being hostile to Leo III's dynasty for the introduction of iconoclasm, transformed Leo from a Syrian to an Isauric in order to denigrate the origins of the entire dynasty (erroneously called "Isauric"), since the Isaurians were known for their coarseness and were considered almost "Barbarians."

According to iconodule sources Leo III was driven to follow an iconoclastic ecclesiastical policy by Jewish and Islamic influences. Suggesting Jewish involvement is the historian Zonara, who in his Epitome of Histories, narrates:

However, Zonara's story is also not credible due to chronological inconsistencies: according to Zonara, the Jewish soothsayers' meeting with Leo when "he was still a youth" and the prediction that he would become emperor occurred after Yazid's death, but this happened in 724 and Leo III was already emperor, as early as 717.

Theophanes Confessor, in his Chronicle, speaks instead of Islamic influences:

Theophanes then claims in the next sentence that Leo was also under the negative influence of the bishop of Nicoleia, Constantine, who was against the veneration of icons. It is difficult, however, to determine how much truth there is in these accounts, and the reasons why iconoclasm was introduced: according to several scholars, "there is no evidence of contact between Leo and these iconoclastic reformers, or of any influence from them in his late policy, just as there is no evidence of Jewish or Arab influences." The authenticity of the correspondence between Leo and the Arab caliph Umar II regarding the merits of Islam is also doubtful.

According to Theophanes, a devastating tidal wave that occurred in 726 prompted Leo to start speaking out against image veneration, the emperor being persuaded that this natural disaster was due to divine wrath against the iconodules. From then on Theophanes and the other iconodule chroniclers began to describe Leo as a tyrant, reporting alleged persecutions against the image vulturers, who from 726 onward

Such chronicles, however, are not objective, and the destruction of the iconoclastic writings following the Council of Nicaea II in 787 does not allow for the opposing iconoclastic version of events, thus making it difficult to reconstruct the events of the time with objectivity.

Some recent studies have even downplayed the struggles against images that occurred under Leo III's reign or his involvement in the controversy, arguing that Leo III would not have proclaimed an edict on religious matters, but merely promulgated a political law that would have prohibited squabbling over religious matters, forcing both factions (for or against images) to silence pending an ecumenical council. According to Haldon and Brubaker, there are no reliable sources to show that Leo III actually promulgated an edict ordering the removal of sacred images: This would seem to be belied by the testimony of a Western pilgrim who visited Constantinople and Nicaea in 727-729 without noting, in the writings in which he recalls the trip, any mass persecution or removal of images, thus contradicting the iconodule sources; even the letter of Patriarch Germanus to Thomas of Claudopolis, dated after the supposed edict of 730, does not make the slightest mention of imperial persecution; it is possible that the Emperor had some images removed, probably from the most prominent places, but there is no evidence that the removal was systematic; nor do the coins minted by the Emperor give evidence of iconoclasm. It also seems strange that John Damascene, in a sermon dated around 750 where he lists heretical emperors, did not include Leo III in the list, which seems to belie the actual promulgation of an edict. The aforementioned scholars have also questioned whether Leo really destroyed the Chalke in 726, i.e., the image on the gateway depicting the face of Christ, replacing it with a cross, considering it to be on a par with a historical forgery. And in any case, according to Speck, the replacement of Christ's face with a cross could also be motivated by reasons other than iconoclasm such as "bringing back the symbol under which Constantine the Great and Heraclius conquered, or reconquered, vast territories for the Byzantine Empire, now sadly diminished by Germanic, Slavic and Arab incursions." Haldon and Brubaker also questioned the reliability of the Liber Pontificalis and argued, as did other scholars in the past, that the uprisings in Italy, as in the Hellas, would be due more to increased tax burdens than to alleged persecution of iconodules. The dismissal of Patriarch German I could also be due to reasons other than his opposition to iconoclasm. Moreover, it seems strange that contemporary Arab and Armenian sources, when speaking of Leo III, make not a single mention of his iconoclastic policy. Haldon concludes by arguing that:

It is possible that later historians, hostile especially to Constantine V, who supported iconoclasm with much more zeal than his father, subsequently vilified all those who had had some contact with Constantine V Copronymus and supported him, starting with his father Leo III, who in the struggle against images may have been moderate, if not almost extraneous.

The figure of Leo has recently been reevaluated. Already Edward Gibbon, despite being very critical of the Byzantines, wrote about him, "Leo III brought to that dangerous dignity, held fast to it in spite of the envy of his equals, the discontent of a terrible faction, and the assaults of domestic and foreign enemies. Even the Catholics, though they exclaim against his innovations in matters of religion, are forced to agree, that he began them with moderation, and brought them to a firm end, and in their silence respected his wise administration, and his pure customs."

Primary sources

Secondary sources


  1. Leo III the Isaurian
  2. Leone III Isaurico
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Teofane, AM 6209.
  4. Il est appelé « Konon » ou « Konon l'Isaurien » dans les Parastaseis suntomoi chronikai (Brèves notices historiques), un document datant du VIIIe siècle.
  5. Léon II est dit « Isaurien » par le chroniqueur Théophane, « Syrien » par presque tous les autres historiens.
  6. Cf. Matth. 5:29-30 : « Si ton œil droit est pour toi une occasion de chute, arrache-le et jette-le loin de toi [...] Si ta main droite est pour toi une occasion de chute, coupe-la et jette-la loin de toi » ; également Marc 9:43-48.
  7. Michel Kaplan, La chrétienté byzantine du début du VIIe siècle au milieu du IXe siècle, Éditions SEDES, 1997, p. 47.
  8. La prétendue destruction en 726 d'une image du Christ qui aurait orné la Chalkè est une invention postérieure, comme l'a montré de façon décisive l'historienne Marie-France Auzépy ; voir M. Kaplan, op. cit., p. 50-51.
  9. Παπαρρηγόπουλος Ιστορία του Ελληνικού Έθνους, Βιβλίον Δέκατον, κεφ. Β΄, παράγρ. τελευταία: Διότι οι εχθροί αυτού προ πάντων ισχυρίζοντο ότι πατρίδα είχε την Ισαυρίαν...κ.λ.
  10. Γλύκατζη-Αρβελέρ, Ελένη (2009). Γιατί το Βυζάντιο. Αθήνα: Ελληνικά Γράμματα. σελ. 35. ISBN 978-960-19-0326-2.
  11. Norwich, σ. 364
  12. Παπαρρηγόπουλος, Ιστορία του Ελληνικού Έθνους, Βιβλίον Ι΄κεφ. Β΄ παρ. 2 και κεφ. Γ΄, παρ. τελευταία
  13. Γλύκατζη-Ahrweiler, σ. 30, Norwich, σ. 356.
  14. Léōn III o Ísauros // AlKindi (онлайн-каталог Доминиканского института востоковедения)
  15. Leóne III (imperatore bizantino) // sapere.it (итал.)
  16. Успенский Ф. И. История Византийской империи. — М.: Астрель, 2001. — Т. 2. — С. 235. — 624 с. — ISBN 5-17-011750-7.
  17. … исаврийское происхождение Льва подтверждается как традицией, так и эпитетом «исавра», сросшимся с его именем[3]
  18. Gregorii II Epistola XIII ad Leonem Isaurum Imperatorem (PL, t. LXXXIX, col. 521: «imperator sum et sacerdos»)

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