Leo III, Byzantine Emperor who was one of us, and so was his dynasty of emperors
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Leo III, the Isaurian, Byzantine Emperor and his dynasty ruled the Byzantine Empire for nearly a century between 717 until 795 when Empress Euphrosyne was deposed and sent to the convent. They came from our ranks.

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Leo III, Byzantine Emperor (717 to 741)

Leo III was a devout Chalcedonian Christian. His contribution to Christendom is often ignored or goes unnoticed because of his Iconoclast, counter icon-veneration controversy. He was instrumental in stopping the advance of the Arabs in the East. Further, he delayed the infiltration of Islam into Eastern Europe until the onslaught of the Ottoman Seljuk Turks.

Leo III, so-called founder of the "Isaurian" dynasty, was not of Asia Minor but was born ca. 680 in Germanicia a.k.a. Marash near Aleppo in the northern corner of the eastern Mediterranean. His original name may have been Konon. According to the chronicles of Theophanes the Confessor, his family was forcefully resettled by Justinian II (685-695) in Mesembria, an ancient Greek town on the coast of Thrace near Bulgaria where he was raised.

Forceful Dispersion and Resettlement of Eastern Christians

Forceful resettlement of many Christians of the East was a result of a deal struck between the Byzantines and the Arabs. That happened because large numbers of the Christian zealots were removed and dispersed around the Byzantine Empire, away from the boarders between the Byzantine Empire and the Arabs. These Christians were originally supported by the Byzantines themselves but got scapegoated for politics. That was accomplished through an hefty payoff-agreement between the Emperor and the Umayyad Caliph. These Christians were what is known as the Jarjamites, the Maronites/Maradaites, Jacobites and others. They were a thorn in the side of the invading Arabs because they refused to convert to Islam and did not accept the Arab cause célèbre.

“Between 660-690, a militant movement appeared in the mountainous region extending from Amanus and northern Syria to the mountains of Galilee, with Lebanon as its stronghold. The Byzantines organized this movement to fight the Umayyad. It was formed of groups of warriors known as the ‘Jarajima’ (named after the city of ‘Jarjouma’ near Antioch. The Jarajima, also known as ‘Marada’ (‘Mardaites’, strong men) were ‘a ruthless generation, called after by kings to defend their property because they were well trained for wars’”

“In 677, the Byzantines waged war against the Umayyads to regain the territory they had lost, taking advantage of the internal conflicts among the Arabs particularly between Moawiya and Imam Ali. The Byzantine army gathered ‘a big group of the Jarajima among whom were Maronites from Syria and Lebanon’. The Byzantines were able to dominate the mountainous region stretching from the ‘Black Mountain’ overlooking ‘Assouaydia’ to Jerusalem. The Marada-Jarajima made of the Lebanese mountains their stronghold; they raided the Umayyad causing them extensive damage.

“Consequently, Moawiya, the Umayyad Caliph, was forced to sign a peace treaty with them and with the Byzantine emperor Constantine IV, by virtue of which he agreed to pay a ransom of 3000 golden dinars and fifty Arabian horses annually, and to set free 8000 Byzantine prisoners. This treaty endowed the Mardaites with more authority and power. When Justinian II became emperor of Byzantium (685-695), he wanted to regain Levant region from the Arabs. He mobilized large groups of the inhabitants of the northern borders and sent with them a division of the Byzantine army. This army was able, with the support of the Jarajima, to conquer Syria, Lebanon, northern Palestine and the Golan region.

“The Mardaites formed with the Maronites a strong army. The merging of the natives (the Maronites) with the non natives (the Mardaites) was accelerated because they shared the same language (Syriac), the same Chalcedonian faith which distinguished the Maronites, and the same objectives of defending their land against the expansion of the Umayyad. The historian Ibn al-Qilai talks about ‘the Maronites and their prince who lived in Baskinta” The Maronites lived in Mount Lebanon where they spread their authority on the mountains and neighboring coasts. They were loyal to the Roman Church and to their Patriarch.’

“When Abdel Malek bin Marwan became Caliph in 685, the Marada [Mardaites] Maronites renewed their attacks from the Lebanese mountain against the Umayyad with an army of more than 30,000 men.

The Umayyad Caliph and Justinian II then signed a treaty in which the Byzantine Emperor pledged to remove the Mardaites from Lebanon. This treachery dealt the Maronites and Christianity in the East a severe blow and deepened the Maronite resentment against the Byzantine Empire.’”

Source: Khoury Harb, Antoine. The Maronites History and Constants (p. 66, 68, 72)

It is highly unlikely that anyone can precisely determine from which Christian group Leo III came from; however, conventional wisdom seems to indicate that he must have come from the Maronites, Maradaites, Jarjamites or Jacobites (or a mix of them). The conclusion is based on the fact that his family was one of the many Christian families that were forcefully resettled in Thrace and elsewhere by Justinian II, as testified to by the chronicles of Theophanes the Confessor. However, in retrospect, the differences between the said Christian groups are sometimes blurry. Nevertheless, his having become a Byzantine Emperor automatically makes him a Melkite, in the technical meaning of the word.

In 705, when Emperor Justinian II was advancing on Constantinople from Bulgaria, Leo entered into his service along with an army of 15,000 horsemen provided by Tervel khan of Bulgaria. Consequently, upon Justinian’s victory, he sent Leo on a diplomatic mission to Lazica in Georgia to setup an alliance against the Umayyad Caliph Al-Walid I. Leo attracted his sovereign's attention during his second regime (705-711). When insecure Anastasius II (713-715) came to power, he appointed Leo to the post of general or governor of the military tenured district of Anatolia. Rivalries between troop units of the various districts escalated into rebellions and instability that encouraging Leo's own ambitions.

When Anastasius was deposed, Theodosius III (715-717) was chosen as a successor. Leo, Patricius and Artavasdus of Armenia (who also came from Marash, near Aleppo and who became his son-in-law) refused to recognize the legitimacy of Theodosius and joined forces to overthrow him. After capturing his son in Nicomedia, Theodosius took the advice of Patriarch Germanus and the senate and abdicated. Both deposed father and freed son subsequently entered the clergy and Theodosius became bishop of Ephesus. Leo acceded to the throne and entered Constantinople, where he was crowned emperor on March 25, 717 as Leo III. His wife Maria was crowned empress in 718. By his wife Maria, Leo III had four known children:

  • Anna, who married Artavasdus
  • Constantine V, who succeeded as emperor
  • Irene
  • Kosmo

Originally promising the succession to Artavasdus, Leo secured a dynastic line of his own when his son, Constantine was born in 718. Leo made him co-emperor in 720, guaranteeing this family succession. In 733, Leo married Constantine to a princess of the Khazars, thereby winning them as valuable allies against the Arabs in the Caucasus. Leo shared command and authority with Constantine V in his last years, so that power passed directly to his son when he died on June 18, 741, having reigned more than 24 years.

Military Achievements

Leo IIIThough a usurper, Leo III proved to be the right man for the times. The Arabs under their Umayyad rulers had again taken the offensive, having failed in earlier efforts to overrun the "Empire of the Christians" and to take its great capital. From 695 on, exploiting the chaos after the collapse of the Byzantine Heraclian regime, the Arab armies plunged deep into Asia Minor and threatened Constantinople directly in the Second Arab siege of Constantinople. They massed a force of 80,000 men and a massive fleet to the Bosphorus. The Umayyad Arabs forces were sent by Caliph Suleiman Ibn Abed al-Malik and served under Maslama. With only the briefest time for preparations, Leo faced a full-scale siege, on August 15, 717. Leo's leadership was brilliant.

Careful preparations and the stubborn resistance put up by Leo wore out the invaders. The Arab forces were defeated thanks to Bulgarian reinforcements that arrived to aid the Byzantines. Leo was allied with the Bulgarians but the chronicler Theophanes the Confessor was uncertain if they were still serving under Tervel or his eventual successor Kormesiy of Bulgaria. The siege had lasted 12 months. As with the previous Arab siege, under Constantine IV 40 years before, the combination of strong fortifications, excellent organization, and the fearsome secret weapon known as "Greek fire" gave the Byzantines success. This great triumph against the final tide of the Arab offensive saved not only the Byzantine Empire but all of Eastern Europe, and perhaps more beyond, from Moslem conquest. Unable to continue the siege in the face of the Bulgarian onslaught and lack of successes, the Arabs were forced withdrew in disarray in August 718.and abandoned their ambitions on Constantinople in August, 718. Suleiman himself had died the previous year and his successor Omar II would not attempt another siege.

The Arabs' menace to the empire did not end altogether; during the 720s and 730s they resumed their offensive into Asia Minor. Leo devoted further efforts against them, and in 740 he won a great victory at Akroinon which further crippled the Arabs' position, enabling his son and successor to take the offensive against them. Not only was the capital freed from danger, but the safety of Asia Minor, the empire's greatest source of manpower and revenue, was secured. Further, Leo advanced the system of the themes (administrative divisions of the empire) to a significant extent. He reconsolidated the system by dividing the original themes into smaller units and reorganizing them; he had learned from his own success how easy it was for a commander of a large territory to seize the throne.

Leo's Greatest Controversy, the Iconoclasm

Iconoclasm (Eikonoklasmos or Εικονοκλασία, "Image-breaking -- εικόνα- διάλειμμα") is the name of the heresy of opposition to the religious use of images and veneration of pictures and statues symbolizing sacred figures in the Christian Church.

Before going into details about the iconoclastic movement that started with Leo III, it is important to mention that during the Arab siege of Constantinople in 717, the patriarch attempted to protect the city through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Following the example of Patriarch Sergius (610-638) who had carried an icon of the Virgin around the city walls during the Avar siege of Constantinople in 626, Patriarch Germanus faced the Arab siege with the power of an icon of her, the Theotókos (Θεοτόκος -- God bearer -- Mother of God). Miraculously, the city was saved, though Leo's role in the affair is played down by iconophile sources.

Despite his military successes, the empire suffered territorial losses during Leo's early reign, as well as, a devastating underwater earthquake at Thera and Therasia in 726. These were interpreted by him as a sign of divine displeasure, and as a warning to turn back to the "real protector of the empire in its full greatness," i.e. Christ. It was at around this time, either in 726 or 730 -- the sources are divided as to whether the ruling patriarch was Germanus or his successor Anastasius -- that he replaced the relief of Christ on the Chalke Gate at the entrance to the imperial palace with a cross bearing the inscription "I drive out the enemies and kill the barbarians." He is reported to have done that to resurrect the symbol under which Constantine the Great and Heraclius conquered, or re-conquered, great areas for the Byzantine Empire which was at that point in time sadly reduced by Germanic, Slav and Arab incursions.

The prohibition of devotion to icons seems to have received some support from official aristocratic circles and some heretical clergy. Though the movement may have been aimed indirectly at the centers of icon support, the monasteries, a genuine religious and theological concern cannot be overlooked. Influences of Islam, Judaism, and even some Christian heresies have been suggested as affecting the movement, but it may also reflect a puritanical reaction to the Greek philosophical rationalization of physical representation of the Divine.

There is no proof that Leo's objection to icon veneration was due to his desire to convert Muslims and Jews who abhorred devotion to holy images. However, in 726 he issued an edict against that. It ordered the images to be placed higher in the churches that it might be impossible for the people to kiss them. However, this deeply rooted form of devotion infuriated the ninety-year old Patriarch Germanus of Constantinople, and was opposed by the people and the monks. The uproar went so far as to prompt a certain Cosmas to take advantage of a popular rising in the Cyclades islands, and had himself proclaimed emperor. He went with a fleet against Constantinople but Leo crushed his advance and had him executed.

In a second edict of A.D. 730, Leo ordered all images to be removed from the churches. Now began a war against images by military force, which went to great excess in fanatical violence. Repeated popular tumults were quelled in blood. Only in Rome and North Italy did the powerful arm of the emperor make no impression.

In the Italian Peninsula, defiant Popes Gregory II and Gregory III on behalf of image-veneration led to a fierce campaign against the emperor. The former summoned councils in Rome to anathematize and excommunicate the iconoclasts in 730 and 732. Leo retaliated by transferring Southern Italy and Illyricum from the papal diocese to that of the Patriarch of Constantinople. The author of the Life of Pope Gregory II in the Liber Pontificalis is keen to lay the blame on Leo's iconoclast actions; he acknowledges that resistance to the imposition of an increased tax on all land, including that belonging to the church, also motivated papal opposition to Leo. Leo's intention was to strengthen his rule in Italy and make Italy contribute more to the cost of its own defense against the Arab threat (Davis, infra, 10 n. 2). The transfer of the dioceses of Sicily, Calabria and Illyricum from papal to Byzantine jurisdiction was also a source of conflict with the supreme pontiffs, though this may have occurred later, during the reign of Constantine V. Nevertheless, friction between pope and emperor only encouraged the papacy's drift into its epoch-making alliance with the Carolingian Franks. The struggle was accompanied by an armed outbreak in the Exarchate of Ravenna in 727, which Leo finally endeavored to subdue by means of a large fleet. But the destruction of the armament by a storm decided the issue against him. His South Italian subjects successfully defied his religious edicts, and the Exarchate of Ravenna became effectively detached from the empire, ending Byzantine sovereignty over Rome.

His son and successor Constantine V (718–75), had the worship of images condemned as idolatry.

Saint John of Damascus and The Theology Against Iconoclasm

The greatest dogmatist, theologian of this age and Father of the Church, Saint John of Damascus (Ιωάννης Δαμασκήνος) was safe in the Arab Caliph Abdul Malek's court where he served as protosymbulus (Προτοσυμμπuλuσ), or chief councilor. He was brought up at the court in Damascus, where his father was an official. He entered the fray against Leo, in defense of veneration of icons. Not only did he himself oppose the Byzantine monarch, but he also stirred the people to resistance. To the royal iconoclastic decrees, Saint John replied with vigor, and by the adoption of a simpler style brought the Christian side of the controversy within the grasp of the common people. Later, he emphasized what he had already said and warned the emperor to beware of the consequences of what he called an unlawful action.

John explained it like this: "Often, doubtless, when we have not the Lord's passion in mind and see the image of Christ's crucifixion, his saving passion is brought back to remembrance, and we fall down and worship not the material but that which is imaged: just as we do not worship the material of which the Gospels are made, nor the material of the Cross, but that which these typify."

Second, John drew support from the writings of the early fathers like Basil the Great, who wrote, "The honor paid to an icon is transferred to its prototype." That is, the actual icon was but a point of departure for the expressed devotion; the recipient was in the unseen world.

Third, John affirmed that, with the birth of the Son of God in the flesh, the depiction of Christ in paint and wood demonstrated faith in the Incarnation. Since the unseen God had become visible, there was no blasphemy in painting visible representations of Jesus or other historical figures. To paint an icon of him was, in fact, a profession of faith, deniable only by a heretic!

"I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter," he wrote. "I will not cease from honoring that matter which works for my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God."

Naturally, John's vigorous opposition to iconoclasts angered Leo. Unable to reach the writer with physical force, he endeavored to retaliate by strategy. Having secured an autograph letter written by John, he is said to have forged a letter, exactly similar in chirography. It was purported to have been written by John to the Emperor. In it he was claimed to have offered to betray into Leo's hands the city of Damascus. The letter was sent to the caliph. Notwithstanding his councilor's earnest avowal of innocence, the caliph accepted it as genuine and ordered that the hand that wrote it be severed at the wrist.

The caliph, now convinced of John's innocence, would fain have reinstated him in his former office, but the Damascene had heard a call to a higher life, and with his foster-brother entered the monastery of St. Sabas, some eighteen miles south-east of Jerusalem.

In 754, the pseudo-Synod of Constantinople convened at the command of Constantine V, the successor of Leo, confirmed the principles of the Iconoclasts and anathematized by name those who had conspicuously opposed them. But the largest measure of the council's spleen was reserved for Saint John of Damascus. He was called a "cursed favorer of Saracens", a "traitorous worshipper of images", a "wronger of Jesus Christ", a "teacher of impiety", and a "bad interpreter of the Scriptures".

The accession of Empress Irene brought with it a change in policy, and the iconoclasts were condemned in turn. The Seventh General Council of Nicea (787) made ample amends for the insults of Saint John's enemies, and Theophanes, writing in 813, indicates that he was surnamed Chrysorrhoas (golden stream -- C'ρυσορ'ροασ) by his friends on account of his oratorical gifts. In the pontificate of Pope Leo XIII he was enrolled among the doctors of the Church. His feast is celebrated on 27 March in the West.

A second period of iconoclasm was inaugurated under imperial auspices in the first half of the 9th century; it ended with the final condemnation of iconoclasm at the Council of Orthodoxy, held in 843 under the patronage of Empress Theodora II.

In addition to its theological aspects, the iconoclastic movement seriously affected Byzantine art. Numerous icons from the early age of the Church were destroyed. However, Saint Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai was geographically isolated and autonomous. That saved countless treasures of iconography in it that would have been otherwise destroyed. It is now home to a famed collection of early icons.

Leo's Orthodoxy

His affiliation with iconoclasm aside, Leo's adherence to Chalcedonian orthodoxy cannot be questioned, even though he may have been raised as a non-Chalcedonian. He sought religious uniformity in the empire even at the cost of forced conversion of dissidents and Montanists.

Further, there is indeed evidence for iconoclasm among certain bishops in Asia Minor, notably Constantine of Nakoleia, prior to 726, when Leo seems to have promulgated his imperial edict. There is no proof of contact between Leo and these iconoclast reformers, or of any influence by them on his later policies, just as there is no evidence of Jewish or Muslim influence. Further, it is noteworthy that he was not known as an iconoclast in contemporary Muslim and Armenian sources.


Furthermore, the movement fomenting internal quarrels and splitting with the papacy, which began to abandon its Byzantine allegiance and seek alliance with the Franks. Despite its victory in the theological sphere, the Eastern Church was not successful in its challenge of imperial authority, even with John of Damascus's assertion that the emperor had no right to interfere in matters of faith. Both the introduction of iconoclasm and its condemnation at the councils of 787 and 843 were ultimately the result of imperial rather than ecclesiastical decisions, because the councils met only on imperial orders. Consequently, the authority of the emperor in both the spiritual and the secular spheres, and his control of the church, emerged from the controversy perceptibly strengthened.

Other Achievements

Having thus preserved the Empire from extinction, Leo proceeded to consolidate its administration, which in the previous years of anarchy had become completely disorganized. In 718 he suppressed a rebellion in Sicily and in 719 did the same on behalf of the deposed Emperor Anastasius II. Leo secured the Empire's frontiers by inviting Slavic settlers into the depopulated districts and by restoring the army to efficiency. His military efforts were supplemented by his alliances with the Khazars and the Georgians.

A number of new institutional codifications marked his reign. By far the most important of these is his Eklogá, where there is no mention of icons, the law code promulgated by him in March 726 which constituted an important revision of the Justinian code. Issued in 726, this is a digest of essentials from Justinian I's old Corpus juris civilis, the cornerstone of which was set by scholars of Berytus (Beirut) School of Law, such as Papinian, Ulpian, and Dorotheus, but now in Greek, the empire's functional language. This code demonstrated the continuing evolution of Roman law in the East, amalgamated with new Christian and Oriental elements. Leo's work is therefore a bridge between the legal landmarks of Justinian's age and the mature Byzantine codifications of the late 9th century.

In his Eklogá, Leo undertook a set of civil reforms including the abolition of the system of prepaying taxes which had weighed heavily upon the wealthier proprietors, the elevation of the serfs into a class of free tenants and the remodeling of family and of maritime law. He also created at least two new maritime themes for the security of the empire, namely the Thrakesion and the Kibyrrhaiotai in Asia Minor.

Discord with Islam

There is a persistent tradition in the Eastern Christian Churches, often referred to by Oriental Christians even at the present day, to the effect that early in the VIIIth century there was an exchange of letters on the question of the respective merits of Christianity and Islam, between the Umayyad Caliph Omar II (717‑720) and the Emperor. The Emperor gloriously refuted the claims of Islam. If this is so, it will represent one of the earliest documents in the Muslim‑Christian Controversy.

Theophanes wrote that the second year of the Caliphate of Omar, (Chronographia, ed. de Boor, 1898, 1, 899.) -- the year when there was a great earthquake in Syria -- he made great efforts to have the Christians of his realm accept Islam. Eastern Christian writers often speak of Omar's severity with the Christians. He legislated to ease the position of those who were willing to become Muslims, and to increase the disabilities of those who were unwilling to accept Islam. For more information on the status of Christians under Arab rule, please refer to the Shattered Christian Minorities in the Middle East in this site.

Leo III, the Isaurian's Dynasty
Leo III 685 - 741
Constantine V 718 - 775
Artavasdus ? - 743
Leo IV 750 - 780
Constantine VI 771–797
Euphrosyne (Empress) 790 - 836


  1. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VIII. Published 1910. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York
  2. Christianity Today, Christian History & Biography of Saint John of Damascus. www.christianitytoday.com
  3. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. www.metmuseum.org
  4. Michael Syrus XI, 19 (pp. 455, 456
  5. M. V. Anastos, 'Leo III's Edict against the Images in the Year 726-727 and Italo-Byzantine Relations between 726 and 730', Byzantinische Forschungen 3 (1968), 5-41.
  6. Khoury Harb, Antoine. The Maronites History and Constants (p. 66, 68, 72)
  7. R. Davis, The Lives of the Eighth-Century Popes (Liber Pontificalis) (Liverpool, 1992), 'Life of Gregory II', Introduction and notes, 1-16.
  8. S. Gero, Byzantine Iconoclasm during the reign of Leo III, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium 41 (Louvain, 1973).
  9. J. Gouillard, 'Aux origines de l'iconoclasme: le témoinage de Grégoire II', Travaux et mémoires (Centre de recherche d'histoire et de civilisation byzantines) 3 (1968), 243-307.
  10. Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium: s.v. "Leo III" (Paul Hollingsworth)
  11. P. Speck, 'Byzantium: Cultural Suicide?', Byzantium in the Ninth Century: Dead or Alive?, ed. L. Brubaker (Ashgate, 1998), 73-84, esp. 78-79.
  12. Funk & Wagnalls® New Encyclopedia.
  13. Ghevond's Text Of The Correspondence Between Omar II And Leo III, Arthur Jeffery Columbia Univerity
  14. Bronwen Neil, Leo III (717-741) Australian Catholic University
  15. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Columbia University Press.
  16. The Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 4, 2 pts. (2d ed., 1966-1967).
  17. George Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State (1957; 2d ed. 1969);
  18. J. B. Bury, A History of the Later Roman Empire: Arcadius to Irene (2 vols., 1889);
  19. Edward James Martin, A History of the Iconoclastic Controversy (1930).

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