Byzantium under the Isaurians

The Byzantine Empire or Byzantium is the term conventionally used since the 19th century to describe the Greek-speaking Roman Empire of the Middle Ages, centered around its capital of Constantinople. As the direct continuation of the Roman Empire, Byzantium survived the fall of the Western Roman Empire during Late Antiquity, and continued to function until its conquest by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. During this time, many different imperial dynasties ruled over the empire; in the context of Byzantine history, the period c.717 - c.802 was under the Isaurian dynasty, after the Byzantine General Leo the Isaurian who seized power from Theodosius III, a tax-collector unwillingly brought to the throne.

Under the Isaurian dynasty, the Byzantine Empire stagnated; the cancer of the Empire, religious controversy surfaced once more when Iconclasm received Imperial backing. The resulting turmoil did not help the realm deal with the ever-present threat of the Arabs to the east and the Bulgars to the west. Rebellions resulting from the dissatisfaction of current Emperors took their toll on the Empire and much of the earlier achievements of the dynasty were negated in such ways.

At the end of the Isaurian dynasty in 802, the Byzantine Empire continued to fight the Arabs and the Bulgars for their very existence with matters made more complicated with the resurrection of the Western Roman Empire under Charlemagne.

Background: Non-Dynastic

After Justinian II's overthrow, the Byzantine Empire spiralled into another era of chaos matched only by Phocas' mishandling of the last Persian War. Philippicus Bardanes, the crimean renegade who seized the throne proved to be totally incompetent for rule. Rather than face the looming threat of the Bulgars or the Arabs, he intended to reignite the religious controversies by imposing the much hated Heraclian-monothelitism. When King Tervel of Bulgaria (who was an ally of Justinian II) invaded Thrace Bardanes had no choice but to summon the troops of the Opsician Theme to combat the Bulgars. Unfortunately for the Emperor, the troops had no loyalty whatsoever to him and after the ritual blinding he was replaced in June 713 by the chief secretary of the Emperor, Artemis.


Artemis was crowned as "Basileus" Anastasios II. Anastasios gave the Empire a brief taste of good leadership, improving the walls of the capital and filling the granaries of the capital to bursting point, in order that the newly reported Arab invasion be dealt with. Every citizen was told to gather enough food for three years for if the Arabs were to reach the straits it would undoubtedly be a lengthy siege.

However, Anastasios proved too good for the Empire; in an effort to avert the Arab siege of the Capital, Anastasios planned a pre-emptive strike against the invaders, using Rhodes as a base. However the Opsikion Thema once more revolted and Anastasios found himself in a Thessalonika monastery by 715.

Theodosius III

The Opsikion Thema chose Theodosius, an unwilling tax-collector to rule the Empire. The choice was hardly based upon his skills; when Leo the Isaurian, "strategos" of the Anatolikon Thema asked the Senate and the Patriarch for his support in becoming Basileus it took little persuading to obtain it.

Leo III the Isaurian

In all likelihood, Leo was not from the province of Isaura.

One of Leo's first moves to become emperor was to ensure the friendship of the "strategos" of the Armeniakon thema. This was easy enough when Leo promised his daughter's hand in marriage to the general. Thus with two of the Empire's most powerful body of troops Leo marched on to Nicomedia, easily defeating a small army headed by Theodosius' son. Though nothing more than an unwilling upstart, he resisted Leo's usurption until his safety was guaranteed and he allowed with his son into a monastery at Ephesus.

Arab siege of Constantinople

Leo had seized the Byzantine throne just in time; a few months after his entry in the capital on March 717, an Arab army between 80,000 [Norwich] and 120,000 [Mango] soldiers with some 1,800 ships arrived at the straits. Much preparation had been done before Leo's arrival; thus Leo could only ensure that his skills continued to oversee them. As an extra precaution, Leo enlisted the aid of the Bulgar Khan (although this may have been achieved by the previous Emperors) and the Bulgarians proved to be of great help during the siege. Naval engagements went the Byzantine way with heavy losses sustained on the burning Arab fleet, thanks to the mysterious Greek Fire. Unlike the first siege, the Arabs extended their operations into the winter, so determined where they to take the city. However, whilst Byzantine naval supremacy gave the defenders constant resupplyment, the attackers stood no chance against the cold of the winter; the death of their leader, Sulayman ibn Abd al-Malik, coupled with increasing losses and a nasty surprise Bulgarian counter-attack convinced the besiegers that Constantinople was a city too far.


Though Leo III is commonly praised by later historians as the saviour of Western Europe for holding the Arab advance, he suffered from numerous political and religious failures amounting to other domestic and foreign situations that did not end so favorably for Byzantium.

The Arabs continued to raid Anatolia; an abortive attempt to take back some land by Leo confirmed Arab supremacy in the eastern parts of Anatolia - the Caliphate was still far stronger than the Empire and Arab rule in the Middle East had long since been consolidated - any possible reconquest would require a determined effort .

A revolt by Anastasius II to reclaim the Byzantine throne (oddly enough with the help of the Opsikion Thema) was crushed but parts of southern Italy and Sardinia were lost to rebellion, the latter permanently so.


Leo's worst failure came in his arrogant perception that he was the highest authority in Church matters. Naturally he explained the numerous catastrophes befalling Byzantium due to divine anger. Seeing the icons and their venerators, the "Iconodules", as breaking God's commandment against Idol worship, Leo ordered the icons of the Byzantine church to be destroyed. Contrary to his self-righteous belief Leo found the Empire close to total rebellion - an attempt to pull down a golden icon of Jesus Christ at the Capital led to a riot whilst countless monks and other pious men were branded heretics for their passionate beliefs regarding their holy images. Monasteries suffered greatly and some monks undoubtedly escaped to the western parts of the Empire were Imperial rule was tenuous at best.

The Pope, a natural opponent to Imperial hegemony of Rome thoroughly opposed Leo's beliefs and he in turn branded such acts as Heresy. The schism between the two Patriarchates was further increased when the Byzantines transferred the Bishoprics of southern Italy and Sicily to Imperial control in retaliation to a Papal excommunication. Whatever happened - mutinies in the army, the navy, even rebellions did not stop Leo's mission to cleanse Byzantium of what he saw was the source of her terrible misfortunes. Rebellions throughout Byzantium occurred and in Ravenna, the Exarch was overthrown and the local militias, bearing little loyalty to the Empire in the first place chose their own commanders and consequently Imperial rule over what was left of Byzantine Italy became nonexistent.

It is likely that Leo's Anatolian background had given him a strong Monotheistic-Islamic opinion on the subject - Islam and Judaism forbids the portrayal of God or of the prophets and it cannot be said a religion loathed by the Greco-Romans would have no influence. Leo firmly believed in his Iconoclastic views, attributing his victory at Akroinon over the Arabs to his beliefs. Ironic, considering that an expeditionary force sent by Leo against the Pope found itself at the bottom of the Adriatic.


Despite the religious controversy initiated by Leo the Empire in c. 740 was secure against the Arabs. Leo died peacefully on 18 June 741, the first Emperor to do so since Constantine IV. That he lived long enough to hold on to the throne is a remarkable achievement in itself; that he had left it in a secure position is an added bonus. That the Empire was once again torn in a religious controversy almost certainly negated that bonus.


See also

* Byzantine Empire
* Byzantine iconoclasm
* Byzantium under the Heraclians
* Byzantium under the Macedonians
* Byzantium under the Komnenoi
* Byzantium under the Palaiologoi

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