The new emperor, Michael II, was indeed able to establish a dynasty—the Amorian, or Phrygian—his son Theophilus (829–842) and his grandson Michael III (842–867) each occupying the throne in turn, but none would have forecast so happy a future during Michael II’s first years. Thomas the Slavonian, Michael’s former comrade in arms, gave himself out to be the unfortunate Constantine VI and secured his coronation at the hands of the Patriarch of Antioch. That was accomplished with the willing permission of the Muslim caliph under whose jurisdiction Antioch lay. Thomas thereupon marched to Constantinople at the head of a motley force of Caucasian peoples whose sole bonds were to be found in their devotion to iconodule doctrine and their hatred of Michael’s Iconoclasm. Assisted by Omortag and relying upon the defenses of Constantinople, Michael defeated his enemy, but the episode suggests the tensions beneath the surface of Byzantine society: the social malaise, the ethnic hostility, and the persisting discord created by Iconoclasm. All those may explain the weakness displayed throughout Theophilus’s reign, when a Muslim army defeated the emperor himself (838) as a prelude to the capture of the fortress of Amorium in Asia in Asia Minor. It may also explain the concurrent decline of Byzantine strength in the Mediterranean, manifest in the capture of Crete by the Arabs (826 or 827) and in the initiation of attacks upon Sicily that secured the island for the world of Islam. Iconoclasm certainly played its part in the further alienation of East from West, and a closer examination of its doctrines will suggest why this may have been.
The Iconoclastic controversy
Iconoclasts and iconodules agreed on one fundamental point: a Christian people could not prosper unless it assumed the right attitude toward the holy images, or icons. They disagreed, of course, on what that attitude should be. Each could discover supporting arguments in the writings of the early church, and it is essential to remember that the debate over images is as old as Christian art. The fundamentals of Iconoclasm were by no means an 8th-century discovery. The ablest defender of the iconodule position was, however, the 8th-century theologian St. John of Damascus. Drawing upon Neoplatonic doctrine, John suggested that the image was but a symbol, and the creation of the icon was justified, since, by virtue of the Incarnation, God had himself become human.
The iconoclasts responded by pointing to the express wording of the Second Commandment. The condemnation therein of idolatry seems to have weighed heavily with Leo III, who may have been influenced by Islam, a religion that strictly prohibited the use of religious images. The latter point is debatable, as is the contention that Iconoclasm was particularly an expression of sentiment to be found in the eastern themes of the empire. Syrian miaphysitism may also have influenced the ideas of Constantine V and, through him, the course of debate during the last half of the 8th century. The Syrian churches gave icons less prominence than did other non-Chalcedonian churches, in part because of the influence of and pressure from Islam but also because of different interpretations of the biblical warrant for making images of Jesus Christ. Still another consideration favoring Iconoclasm may be found in the intimate connection of iconoclastic doctrine with the emperor’s conception of his role as God’s vicegerent on earth. During the late 6th and 7th centuries, iconodule emperors had viewed themselves in a pietistic fashion, emphasizing their devotion and subservience to God. Constantine V, on the other hand, pride fully replaced the icons with imperial portraits and with representations of his own victories. Viewed in that light, Iconoclasm signaled a rebirth of imperial confidence; so deservedly great was Constantine’s reputation, and so dismal were the accomplishments of his successors, that a Leo V, for one, could easily believe that God favoured the iconoclastic battalions.