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Leo the Isaurian

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

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is the name which is commonly given in history to LEO III or FLAVIUS LEO ISAURUS, emperor of Constantinople from the year 718 to 741, a man remarkable on many accounts, but who, from his connection with the great contest about image-worship in the Christian Church, became one of the most prominent historical names among the emperors of the East.

1. Early History. He was born in or on the borders of the rude province of Isauria, and his original name was Conon. He emigrated with his father, a wealthy farmer or grazier of that country, to Thrace. Young Conon obtained the place of spatharius, or broadswordsman, in the army of Justinian II, and soon, by his military talents, excited the jealousy of the emperor, as he drew the eyes of the people, and especially of the soldiers, towards him as one fitted to command, and competent even for the empire. He was sent forward, therefore, with a few troops, against the Alani, and then abandoned by the emperor without succor, in the hope that he would be cut off and destroyed, but from this critical position Leo extricated himself with consummate dexterity and courage. Anastasius II (A.D. 713- 716) gave him the supreme command of the troops in Asia, which was exposed to the terrible onslaughts of the Arab or Saracen hordes, by whom it had already been half overrun and conquered. This command was still in his hands when Theodosius III, at the beginning of 716, rose against Anastasius, deposed him, and seated himself upon the throne. Leo, being summoned to acknowledge Theodosius, at once denounced hirm as a usurper, and attacked him under pretext of restoring the rightful sovereign to the throne, but probably with the design of seizing for himself the imperial dignity. He secured the support of the principal leaders in the army, reached the imperial troops before they could be gathered in sufficient force to resist him, and slew them. At Nicomedia he met the son of Theodosius, whom he defeated and captured. He next marched direct upon Constantinople, and Theodosius, seeing no hope of resistance, quietly resigned his scepter in Mkarch, 718, and retired into a convent, while the vacant throne was forthwith occupied by Leo himself, by the suffrages of the troops.

2. Imperial History. No sooner was Leo arrayed in the purple than the caliph Soleiman, together with the noted Moslima, appeared before Constantinople with an immense and enthusiastic army, supported by a powerful fleet, determined to retrieve their sullied fame. The city was invested by sea and land, and its capture was considered certain; but the indefatigable energy, military skill, and fearless courage of Leo, aided by the new invention of the Greek fire, saved the capital from falling, five centuries before its time, into the hands of the Moslems. The superstitious people ascribed their deliverance to the constant interposition of the Virgin, in which they gave the greatest possible praise to the genius of Leo. This third (Gibbon calls it the second) siege of Constantinople by the Saracens lasted precisely two years (Gibbon calls it thirteen months) from the 15th of August, 718. On the 15th of August, 720, the caliph (now Omar, who had succeeded Soleiman shortly after the commencement of the siege) was compelled to raise the siege, losing in a storm the greater part of the remnants of his third fleet before reaching the harbors of Syria and Egypt. So close had been the investment of the city, so enormous the preparations, and so loud the boasts of the Saracens, that in the provinces Constantinople was given up as lost, notwithstanding all the splendid victories of Leo, for the very news of those victories had been intercepted by the vigilant blockade of the besiegers. The whole empire was in consternation, and in the West the rumor was credited that the caliph had actually ascended the throne of Byzantium. Accordingly, Sergius, governor of Sicily, took measures to make himself independent, and to secure the crown for himself in case of complete success; but Leo immediately dispatched a small force to Sicily, which soon crushed the rebellion. The deposed monarch Anastasius, also, was tempted to plot the recovery of the throne, and in the attempt lost his life. In spite of his defeats before Constantinople, Omar continued the war for twenty years; and though, in 726, he captured Caesarea in Cappadocia, and Neo-Caesarea in Pontus, yet Leo maintained an acknowledged superiority. The great work of ecclesiastical reform occupied the attention of the empire, without any considerable interruption from the infidels, until the year 734. What belongs to this chapter of domestic history, though it includes elements and facts of political and military significance, is reserved for the next head. During the last seven years of Leo's reign (from 734) falls the protracted life-struggle with the Saracens. The caliph Hesham instigated the Syrians to support an adventurer who pretended to be the son of Justinian II, and who, under the protection of the caliph, entered Jerusalem arrayed in the imperial purple. This proved a mere farce. But something more serious happened when, in 739, the Arab general Soleiman invaded the empire with an army of 90,000 men, distributed into three bodies. The first entered Cappadocia, and ravaged it with fire and sword; the second, commanded by Malek and Batak, penetrated into Phrvgia; the third, utnder Soleiman, covered the rear. Leo was actually taken by surprise; but he soon assembled an army and defeated the second body, in Phrygia, in a pitched battle, and obliged Soleiman to withdraw hastily into Syria. The Saracens had, in the mean time, been routed in their invasion of Europe by Charles Martel in 732, and the progress of their conquests seemed now for some time to be checked both in the East and in the West. The remaining great event of Leo's reign was the terrible earthquake of October, 740, which caused great calamities throughout the empire.

3. The Iconoclastic Controversy. In this business Leo would seem to have begun of his own motion, and almost single-handed. No party of any account against image-worship existed in the Church, but he believed that by taking the side of iconoclasm he could hasten the conversion of the Jews and Mohammedans, and though at first very cautious, he finally, after some nine or ten years of his reign, issued his edict prohibiting the worship of all images, whether statues or pictures, of Christ, the Virgin, or the saints. Christendom was astounded by this sudden proscription of its then common religious usages. (See ICONOCLASM).

Leo, in fact, found arrayed against him not only the bigoted and exasperated monastics, but the superstitious masses of the people of the East and West, and almost all the clergy, with all the bishops, excepting Claudius, bishop of Nacolia in Phrygia, and Theodosius, metropolitan of Ephesus, and perhaps two or three more. Even Germanus, bishop of Constantinople, joined with Gregory II of Rome in the universal outcry against the emperor's attempt, and thus, almost for the first time, the bishops of the two Romes were (like Pilate and Herod) united in one common cause. Whether provoked by the violence, and unreasonableness. and rebellious spirit of the opposition, or prompted by a growing zeal for the purity of religion, or by the obstinacy of personal pride and arbitrary power, or guided by considerations of presumed policy, or from whatever motives, the emperor soon after issued a second edict far more stringent and decisive. It commanded the total destruction of all images (or statues intended for worship) and the effacement of all pictures by whitewashing the walls of the churches. The image-worshippers were maddened. The officer who attempted, in Constantinople, to execute the edict upon a statue of Christ renowned for its miracles, was assaulted by the women and beaten to death with clubs. The emperor sent an armed guard to suppress the tumult, and a frightful massacre was the consequence. Leo was regarded as no better than a Saracen. Even his successes against the common foe were ingeniously turned against him. A certain Cosmas was proclaimed emperor in Leo's stead, a fleet was armed, and Constantinople itself was menaced; but the fleet was destroyed by the Greek fire. The insurrection was suppressed, the leaders either fell or were executed along with the usurper. A second revolt at Constantinople was not suppressed till after much bloodshed. Everywhere in the empire the monks were busy instigating and fomenting rebellion. Germanus, bishop of Constantinople, already an octogenarian, as he could not conscientiously aid in the execution of the imperial decree, quietly retired, or suffered himself to be removed from his see.

Not quite so peaceful was the position pope Gregory II of Rome assumed. Following the bent of his own superstitious character, he seized the opportunity when the emperor had his hands full with seditious tumults and disturbances at home, and, confidently relying upon the support of the ignorant, and monk- ridden, and half-Christianized population of the West, dispatched to the emperor two most arrogant and insolent letters, and condemned in unmeasured terms his war upon images as a war upon the Christian religion itself. The emperor ordered the exarch of Ravenna to march upon Rome; but the pope, by the aid of the Lombards, compelled him to retire, and he had enough to do to maintain himself even at home. In fact, he was reduced to live in one quarter of Ravenna as a sort of captive; and finally Gregory III, the successor of Gregory II, in 731 held a council at Rome in which the Iconoclasts were anathematized. The emperor hereupon sent a formidable expedition against Italy, with special orders to reduce Ravenna. The expedition, however, failed, and Ravenna, with the Exarchate, fell into the hands of the Lombards, and thus Italy and the pope became practically independent of the Eastern empire. Leo now only sought the accomplishment of one object, viz., the detachment of Greece, Illyria, and Macedonia from the spiritual authority of the popes, and he consequently annexed them to that of the patriarchs of Constantinople, and this created the real effective cause of the final schism of the Latin and Greek churches (734). The pope henceforth never submitted to the emperor, nor did he ever recover the lost portions of his patriarchate. Meantime, from the East, another voice joined in the fray-John of Damascus. He issued his culminations against the emperor securely from under the protection of the caliphs, who were more pleased with the attacks upon Leo than scandalized by the defense of image worship. (See JOHN OF DAMASCUS). It was in the midst of this wild and protracted controversy that Leo died of dropsy in 741, and left to his son the accomplishment of a task which he had hoped he would himself effect.

As to the controversy itself, one of the strongest points ever made against the position of Leo is that he attacked the fine arts, and sought to destroy and abolish all the beauty and ornamentation of the Christian edifices. On this ground an earnest appeal has been made against him, and against all opponents of image worship. in the interests of esthetics. Even Neander seems quite to take sides with Gregory against the barbarian emperor in this point of view. But, in the first place, it is by no means historically certain that Leo proceeded to any such lengths, or with any such motives, in his iconoclasm. He proposed simply to destroy objects of worship. He made no war upon beauty or art. If, in accomplishing his purpose, in the face of the furious opposition he met with, he was carried further, it was not strange, especially considering his education, the great difficulty of making nice distinctions in such cases and under such circumstances, and the known propensity of human nature to run to extremes in the heat of controversy and conflict. Many of the holiest and most orthodox of the early fathers would have proscribed all classical learning, lest with it the classical paganism should be imbibed. But, in fact, neither Gregory nor the monks defended the use of images on esthetic grounds, and if they had they would have compromised their whole cause. It was not at all the beauty of the statue, but the sacred object represented, which gave it its meaning and value. Churches might be made as beautiful and decorated as highly as possible without the people's adoring or bowing down to the church, or its altar, or its ornaments.

Besides, it is not probable that the images or the pictures of Leo's time were any very admirable specimens of esthetic achievement; and, if they had been, it is not likely that they would have attracted the reverence of the vulgar so much as they did. Artistic perfection tends rather to distract and dissipate than to intensify the religious reverence for images. With the development of Grecian art Grecian idolatry lost its hold. It is a remarkable fact that the ugliest, and most misshapen, and hideous idols among the heathen have secured the widest and intensest devotion; and among the Christians, it has been some winking or bleeding statue, rudely imitating the human form, and not some Sistine Madonna, that has bent the knees of adoring multitudes. The image whose toe is now devoutly kissed by the faithful at St. Peter's, in Rome, is not remarkable for its esthetic claims. If Leo was a barbarian, Gregory was hardly less so, as is evident from the letters of the latter to his emperor. The ignorance of the pope is almost as remarkable as his impudence. He expressly and repeatedly confounds the pious Hezekiah, who destroyed the brazen serpent, with his pious ancestor Uzziah, and under this last name pronounces him a self-willed violator of the priests of God. He apparently confounded them both with Ahaz, who was the grandson of the one and the father of the other. It is true, he professes to quote the passage from the emperor's edict, but it is plain from internal evidence that, in the terms in which he gives it, it could not have been in that edict; and if it had been, he did not know enough to correct the blunder. It is said that Leo was cruel in the execution of his decree. It may be so.

He was a soldier, a Byzantine emperor, and lived in the 8th century. But if the monks, and the pope; and the priests, and the populace, which they controlled, had not violently resisted the imperial decree, there would have been no cruelty. It is said that Leo acted arbitrarily, as if he had been the master of the minds and consciences of men, to make and unmake their religion for them. This is too true, and this was his mistake; but all his predecessors, with Constantine the Great, had made the same mistake. It was a Byzantine tradition. It was the theory of the age. Protestantism, with the same creed in regard to images, has proceeded upon a different theory, and has succeeded. It is said that the Church, in her general councils, has decided against Leo. If so, it was not till after, in his son's reign, a council styling itself oecumenical, and regularly convoked as such, consisting of no less than 348 bishops, had unanimously decided in his favor. It is said that, at all events, the question has been historically settled against Leo in the subsequent history of the Church: that iconoclasm was crushed and brought to naught in the East and in the West, and images achieved a complete triumph. Iconoclasm was indeed crushed by the unnatural and murderous monster Irene, whose character will hardly be regarded as superior to that of Leo. In fact, far as images are distinguished from pictures, iconoclasm has thus far triumphed in the East; and in the West it was not until after the earnest and manly resistance of Charlemagne and the Council of Frankfort that the image-worshipping pope and priests finally, or rather for a time, carried their point.

4. Character of Leo. Almost all we know of Leo comes to us through his enemies his prejudiced, bigoted, unprincipled, deadly enemies. Some of the most odious acts alleged against him, as the burning of the great library at Constantinople, are purely their malignant inventions. His motives are seen only through their jaundiced or infuriated eyes. His very words come to us, for the most part, only through their garbled versions; yet, with all their zeal, they have not been able so to distort, or blacken, or hide his true lineaments, but that he still stands out to an impartial observer one of the ablest, purest, manliest, and most respectable sovereigns that ever occupied the Constantinopolitan throne. His rapid rise from obscurity to the pinnacle of power, his firm and successful administration amid foreign assaults and domestic plots, and his resolute prosecution of the reformation of the Church, all indicate a wise and provident policy, great vigor, and decision of will. His early military life may have rendered him cruel and obstinate, but did not taint the purity of his manners. He was in many respects, and particularly in a certain rugged and straightforward honesty and strength of purpose, just the man needed for the times. How much better and wiser he was than he appears we cannot say, but there is every reason to believe that a full and fair view of his history, if it could now be unearthed from the monkish rubbish, and rottenness, and filth that have overwhelmed it, would present him in a vastly more favorable light than that in which he has been left to stand. (D. B. G.)

5. Literature. See Henke in Ersch u. Gruber, Allgemeine Encyklopä die, sect. 2, vol. 16 (1839), 119 sq.; Smith, Dict. Greek and Roman Biog. vol. 2, s.v.; Marsden, Hist. Christian Churches and Sects, 2:153; Milman, Hist. Latin Christianity, 2:305 sq.; Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 5:10 sq.; Reichel, See of Rome in the Middle Ages, p. 46 sq.; Leckey, Hist. of Morals, 2:282; Foulkes, Christendom's Divisions, vol. 1 and 2; Hefele, Conciliengesch. (Freib. 1855); English transl. History of Councils (Lond. 1872, 8vo), vol. 1; Baxmann, Politik der Pä pste (Elbfeld, 1868), vol. 1; Hergenruther, Photius (Regensb. 1867), vol. 1; and the references in the article ICONOCLASM.

Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Leo the Isaurian'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​l/leo-the-isaurian.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.
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