The Isaurian Emperors of East Rome

“The birthplace of the so-called ‘Isaurian’ rulers is not certainly known, though northern Syria appears most probable. Their Asiatic origin is generally admitted, and many aspects of their policy, which, owing to the meagre and hostile character of the sources, has been much debated, seem to display an alien challenge to the Graeco-Roman traditions of the Empire. Of the military services of the Isaurian Emperors there can be no doubt; even their bitterest opponents gratefully remembered them as saviours of the commonwealth in its direst need.


The contraction of the frontiers of East Rome had brought with it a straitening of her financial resources, a slowing-down of her commercial activities, and a narrowing of her intellectual and spiritual life. Under the stress of constant warfare, art and letters had declined, and the seventh century is perhaps the most barren period in the history of Byzantine civilization. The resulting paucity of records has left many gaps in our knowledge. Fuller information would reveal the transformation of the Empire, and the heroic efforts which must have been necessary to adapt it to the new and perilous conditions brought about by the invasions. It was these efforts which formed the foundation of the Isaurian successes.

From the standpoint of European history Leo III’s most important work was accomplished in the first year of his reign, when he repulsed the Arab forces from the walls of the capital. Even Charles Martel’s great victory of Poitiers in 732 was less decisive, for Byzantium had met the full force of the Umayyad Empire at the gateway of Europe. With the succession of the Abbasid dynasty in 750, after a period of internal strife, the centre of Muslim power moved eastward to Bagdad, and Asia’s threat to the Bosphorus was not renewed for many centuries. Constantine V was able to recover Cyprus in 746 and to push back the Anatolian frontier to the eastern boundary of Asia Minor. For the fortunes of the Roman Empire Leo’s initial success is comparable with that of Heraclius, who overcame the Avars and Persians in the hour of their greatest strength. But the Bulgarians, who had replaced the Avars in the Danube region, found themselves on this occasion in the pay of Byzantium, and such was the military prowess of the Isaurian rulers that it was not until the close of the eighth century that Bulgaria began to present a real problem.

The administrative policy of Leo and Constantine appears to have followed approved methods of safeguarding the central power, and to have included an extension of the theme-system which their predecessors had instituted for the defence of the threatened provinces. The publication of the Ecloga, a new legal code modifying the law in the direction of greater ‘humanity’, was a more radical measure. Philanthropia was a traditional duty of Rome’s sovereigns towards their subjects, but the new code signified a departure from the spirit of Roman law, especially in the sphere of private morals and family life, and an attempt to apply Christian standards in these relations. It is a proof of the latent strength of the legacy left by pagan Rome that, despite the renewed influence of the Church, a reversion to the old principles took place later under the Macedonian regime.


Most revolutionary of all, in Byzantine eyes, were the Iconoclastic decrees. The campaign opened in 726, when Leo III issued the first edict against images, which in the Greek Church was directed specifically against the icons. Under Constantine V the struggle became more embittered, and in 765 a fierce persecution was set on foot. In 787 the Empress Irene, an Athenian by birth, succeeded in reestablishing the cult of images, but an Iconoclast reaction under three Emperors of Asiatic origin (813—42) renewed, though with more limited scope, the measures ot Leo and Constantine. In 843 the images were finally restored.

The Iconoclast movement can be treated neither in isolation from the secular reforms, nor as subordinate to them. In its later stages the attack was directed primarily against the power and influence of the monasteries, as being the strongholds of the cult of images; and the monks retaliated by boldly challenging the Emperor’s constitutional supremacy in Church affairs. But the lsaurians were neither rationalist anti-clericals nor dogmatic innovators. The use of images had not been favoured by the Early Church, and puritan tendencies had appeared sporadically in the fourth and sixth centuries. Asia Minor was their particular centre at this time, and Jewish or Muslim hostility in these parts to a religious use of an art of representation may not have been without effect, as the abusive epithet ‘Saracen-minded’, hurled at Leo III by his opponents, possibly indicates. Christological issues were deeply involved on either side, and it must always be emphasized that for the Byzantines the question was primarily a theological one. Popular feeling and the immense power of tradition were ultimately the deciding factors. The triumph of the icon-defenders was a victory for popular religion and popular ways of thought. The defeat, on the other hand, of the movement towards a separation between the spheres of State and Church reflected no less accurately the Byzantine conviction of the indissolubility of civil and religious government.

The reign of Irene, first as regent, and later as Empress after the deposition and blinding of her son, appears at first sight to be merely an interlude between two periods of Iconoclasm. Actually, however, the Second Council of Nicaea (787), which temporarily restored the images, formulated the theory of icon-worship with such success that the improved organization and tactics of the monastic party finally won the day.

The Isaurian house had ended with the death of Irene.”

(Source: The book “Byzantium – An introduction to East Roman civilization“,  Edited by Norman H. Baynes and H. St. L. B. Moss)


NovoScriptorium: Some brief comments/conclusions

Graeco-Roman traditions appear to have been very strong among the population in the East.

The Isaurians acted at the Empire’s best interests as if they were ‘true Romans’.

The Isaurian Emperors defeated the first Jihad, when the Muslim military power had been at its peak, thus averting a rather certain ‘islamization’ of the European populations that would follow an Islamic victory at Constantinople.

The example of Bulgaria in the text shows that the great military strength of a State does avert its enemies and candidate enemies from hostile actions against it. Of course, a State cannot always control how things will turn out. In the case of East Rome there have been times, like the ‘Isaurian’ or the ‘Heraclian’ times, that external factors imposed -even radical- changes. When a State is forced to oppose -very often, strong- enemies in every one of its frontiers, then, necessity becomes the Law. Many measures taken in periods of emergency de-facto became status-quo for the years to follow.

Christianity brought/cultivated Philanthropia and Humanism in East Rome at very high levels of expression, of which, the most important was the creation of various philanthropic foundations and, definetly, the Xenones – the first Hospitals.

Someone who is not an Orthodox Christian cannot really understand how important the Iconoclastic movement was back then. And what great theological problems it creates. This is not an analysis for our ‘Historical Research’ section though.

The eastern Roman provinces appear over time to have had a tendency to adopt/support heretical christian beliefs.

The epithet ‘Saracen minded’ appointed to Leo indicates possible muslim influence in his thinking. It is surely attempted to distinguish him from the ‘Roman culture’ that generates ‘Roman minded’ people. A cultural war between Romanity and Islam is probably implied here.

East Rome had a woman ruler -Empress Irene here- at times when nowhere in the World something like that could be possibly socially ‘accepted’. And Irene was not the first woman to become Empress in the East.

Research-Selection-Comments for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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