For more than a century after the accession of Leo III (717–741), a persisting theme in Byzantine history may be found in the attempts made by the emperors, often with wide popular support, to eliminate the veneration of icons, a practice that had earlier played a major part in creating the morale essential to survival. The sentiment had grown in intensity during the 7th century, and the Quinisext Council (Council in Trullo) of 692 had decreed that Christ should be represented in human form rather than, symbolically, as the lamb. The reigning emperor, Justinian II, had taken the unprecedented step of placing the image of Christ on his coinage while proclaiming himself the “slave of God.” Evidence of a reaction against such iconodule (or image venerating) doctrines and practices may be found early in the 8th century, but full-fledged Iconoclasm (or destruction of the images) emerged as an imperial policy only when Leo III issued his decrees of 730. Under his son, Constantine V (ruled 741–775), the iconoclastic movement intensified, taking the form of violent persecution of the monastic clergy, the foremost defenders of the iconodule position. The Council of Nicaea in 787 restored iconodule doctrine at the instigation of the empress Irene, but military reversals led Leo V to resurrect in 815 the iconoclastic policies associated with Constantine V, one of Byzantium’s most-successful generals. Not until 843 were the icons definitively restored to their places of worship and icon veneration solemnly proclaimed as Orthodox belief. Even that brief summary suggests that the emperor’s fortunes on the battlefield were of no small moment in determining his attitude toward the icons, those channels whence superhuman power descended to man. An account of the age of Iconoclasm opens appropriately, then, with its military history.
Almost immediately upon Leo’s accession, the empire’s fortunes improved markedly. With the aid of the Bulgars, he turned back the Muslim assault in 718 and, in the intervals of warfare during the next 20 years, addressed himself to the task of reorganizing and consolidating the themes in Asia Minor. Thanks to the assistance of the traditional allies, the Khazars, Leo’s reign concluded with a major victory, won again at the expense of the Arabs, at Acroenos (740). His successor, Constantine, had first to fight his way to the throne, suppressing a revolt of the Opsikion and Armeniakon themes launched by his brother-in-law Artavasdos.
During the next few years, internal disorder in the Muslim world played into Constantine’s
hands as the ʿAbbāsid house fought to seize the caliphate from the Umayyads. With his enemy thus weakened, Constantine won noteworthy victories in northern Syria, transferring the prisoners he had captured there to Thrace in preparation for the wars against the Bulgars that were to occupy him from 756 to 775. In no fewer than nine campaigns, he undermined Bulgar strength so thoroughly that the northern enemy seemed permanently weakened, if not crushed. Even the venom used by the iconodule chroniclers of Constantine’s reign cannot disguise the enormous popularity his victories won him.
In later centuries, the folk of Constantinople would stand by his tomb, seeking his aid against whatever enemy imperiled the city’s defenses.
Constantine’s weak successors
His successors all but let slip the gains won by the great iconoclast. Constantine’s son Leo IV died prematurely in 780, leaving to succeed him his 10-year-old son, Constantine VI, under the regency of the empress Irene. Not much can be said for Constantine, and Irene’s policies as regent and (after the deposition and blinding of her son at her orders) as sole ruler from 79 7 to 802 were all but disastrous. Her iconodule policies alienated many among the themal troops, who were still loyal to the memory of the great warrior emperor, Constantine V. In an effort to maintain her popularity among the monkish defenders of the icons and with the population of Constantinople, she rebated taxes to which those groups were subject, and she reduced the customs duties levied outside the port of Constantinople, at Abydos and Hieros. The consequent loss to the treasury weighed all the more severely, sinc e victories won by the Arabs in Asia Minor (781) and by the Bulgars (792) led both peoples to demand and receive tribute as the price of peace. A revolt of the higher palace officials led to Irene’s deposition in 802, and the so-called Isaurian dynasty of Leo III ended with her death, in exile, on the isle of Lesbos.
In the face of the Bulgar menace, none of the following three emperors succeeded in founding a dynasty. Nicephorus I (ruled 802–811), the able finance minister who succeeded Irene, reimposed the taxes that the empress had remitted and instituted other reforms that provide some insight into the financial administration of the empire during the early 9th century. In the tradition of Constantine V, Nicep horus strengthened the fortifications of Thrace by settling, in that theme, colonists from Asia Minor.
Taking arms himself, he led his troops against the new and vigorous Bulgar khan, Krum, only to meet defeat and death at the latter’s hands. His successor, Michael I Rhangabe (811–813), fared little better; internal dissensions broke up his army as it faced Krum near Adrianople, and the resulting defeat cost Michael his throne. In only one respect does he occupy an important place in the annals of the Byzantine Empire. Michael was the first emperor to bear a family name, and his use of the patronymic, Rhangabe, bears witness to the emergence of the great families, whose accumulation of landed properties would soon threaten the integrity of those smallholders upon whom the empire depended for its taxes and its military service. The name Rhangabe seems to be a Hellenized form of a Slav original (rokavu), and, if so, Michael’s ethnic origin and that of his successor, Leo V the Armenian (ruled 813–820), provide evidence enough of the degree to which Byzantium in the 9th century had become not only a melting-pot society but, further, a society in which even the highest office lay open to the man with the wits and stamina to seize it. Leo fell victim to assassination, but before his death events beyond his control had improved the empire’s situation. Krum died suddenly in 814 as he was preparing an attack upon Constantinople, and his son, Omortag, arranged a peace with the Byzantine Empire in order to protect the western frontiers of his Bulgar Empire against the pressures exerted by Frankish expansion under Charlemagne and his successors. Since the death of the fifth caliph, Hārūn ar-Rashīd, had resulted in civil war in the Muslim world, hostilities from that quarter ceased Leo used the breathing space to reconstruct those Thracian cities that the Bulgars had earlier destroyed. His work indicates the degree of gradual Byzantine penetration into the coastal fringes of the Balkan Peninsula, as does the number of themes organized in that same region during the early 9th century: those of Macedonia, Thessalonica, Dyrrhachium, Dalmatia, and the Strymon.