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SECTION II - part 3: REIGN OF LEO III. (THE ISAURIAN) A.D. 717-741 | Hellenismos.com


Posted March 17th, 2007 by webmaster



The influence of the provincial spirit on the legislation of the empire is strongly marked in the history of jurisprudence during Leo's reign. The anarchy which had long interrupted the official communications between the provinces and the capital lent an increased authority to local usages, and threw obstacles in the way of the regular administration of justice, according to the strict letter of the voluminous laws of Justinian. The consequence was, that various local abridgments of the law were used as guide-books, both by lawyers and judges, in the provincial tribunals, where the great expense of procuring a copy of the Justinianean collection prevented its use. Leo published a Greek manual of law, which by its official sanction became the primary authority in all the courts of the empire. This imperial abridgment is called the Ecloga: it affords some evidence concerning the state of society and the classes of the people for which it was prepared. Little notice is taken of the rights of the agriculturists; the various modes of acquiring property and constituting servitudes are omitted. The Ecloga has been censured for its imperfections by Basil I., the founder of a legislative dynasty, who speaks of it as an insult to the earlier legislators; yet the orthodox lawgiver, while he pretended to reject every act of the heretical Isaurian, servilely imitated all his political plans. The brevity and precision of Leo's Ecloga were highly appreciated both by the courts of law and the people, in spite of the heterodox opinions of its promulgator. It so judiciously supplied a want long felt by a large portion of society, that neither the attempt of Basil I. to supplant it by a new official manual, nor the publication of the great code of the Basilika in Greek, deprived it of value among the jurisconsults of the Byzantine empire.

The legislative labours of Leo were not circumscribed to the publication of the Ecloga. He seems to have sanctioned various minor codes, by which the regulations in use relating to military, agricultural, and maritime law were reduced into systematic order. The collections which are attached to the copies of the Ecloga, under the heads of military, agricultural and Rhodian laws, cannot, however, be considered as official acts of his reign; still, they are supposed to afford us a correct idea of the originals he published. Some abstract of the provisions contained in the Roman legislation on military affairs, was rendered necessary by the practice of maintaining corps of foreign mercenaries in the capital. A military code was likewise rendered necessary, in consequence of the changes that took place in the old system, as the Asiatic provinces were gradually cleared of the invading bands of Saracens. The agricultural laws appear to be a tolerably exact copy of the enactment of Leo. The work bears the impress of the condition of society in his time, and it is not surprising that the title which perpetuated the merits and the memory of the heterodox Leo was suppressed by orthodox bigotry. The maritime laws are extremely interesting, from affording a picture of the state of commercial legislation in the eighth century, at the time when commerce and law saved the Roman empire. The exact date of the collection we possess is not ascertained. That Leo protected commerce, we may infer from its reviving under his government; whether he promulgated a code to sanction or enforce his reforms, or whether the task was completed by one of his successors, is doubtful.

The whole policy of Leo's reign has been estimated by his ecclesiastical reforms. These have been severely judged by all historians, and they appear to have encountered a violent opposition from a large portion of his subjects. The general dissatisfaction has preserved sufficient authentic information to allow of a candid examination of the merits and errors of his policy. Theophanes considers the aversion of Leo to the adoration of images as originating in an impious attachment to the unitarianism of the Arabs. His own pages, however, refute some of his calumnies, for he records that Leo persecuted the unitarianism of the Jews, and the tendency to it in the Montanists. Indeed, all those who differed from the most orthodox acknowledgment of the Trinity, received very little Christian charity at the hands of the Isaurians, who placed the cross on the reverse of many of his gold, silver and copper coins, and over the gates of his palace, as a symbol for universal adoration. In his Iconoclast opinions, Leo is merely a type of the more enlightened laymen of his age. A strong reaction against the superstitions introduced into the Christian religion by the increasing ignorance of the people, pervaded the educated classes, who were anxious to put a stop to what might be considered a revival of the ideas and feelings of paganism. The Asiatic Christians, who were brought into frequent collision with the followers of Mahomet, Zoroaster, and Moses, were compelled to observe that the worship of the common people among themselves was sensual, when compared with the devotion of the infidels. The worship oif God was neglected, and his service transferred to some human symbol. The favourite saint was usually one whose faults were found to bear some analogy to the vices of his worshipper, and thus pardon was supposed to be obtained for sin on easier terms than accords with Divine justice, and vice was consequently rendered more prevalent. The clergy had yielded to the popular ignorance; the walls of churches were covered with pictures which were reported to have wrought miraculous cures; their shrines were enriched by paintings not made with hands: Acheiropoieta. Nothing can better prove the extent to which superstition had contaminated religion than the assertion of the Patriarch Germanos, that miracles were daily wrought by the image of Christ and the saints, and that balsam distilled from the painted hand of an image of the Virgin Mary.

The superstitions of the people were increased, and the doctrines of Christianity were neglected. Pope Gregory II., in a letter to Leo, mentions the fact, that men expended their estates to have the sacred histories represented in paintings.

In a time of general reform, and in a government where ecclesiastics acted as administrative officials of the central authority, it was impossible for Leo to permit the church to remain quite independent in ecclesiastical affairs, unless he was prepared for the clergy assuming a gradual supremacy in the state. The clergy, being the only class in the administration of public affairs connected with the people by interest and feelings, was always sure of a powerful popular support. It appeared, therefore, necessary to the emperor to secure them as sincere instruments in carrying out all his reforms, otherwise there was some reason to fear that they might constitute themselves the leaders of the people in Greece and Asia, as they had already done at Rome, and control the imperial administration throughout the whole Eastern Empire, as completely as they did in the Byzantine possessions in central Italy.

Leo commenced his ecclesiastical reforms in the year 726, by an edict ordering all pictures in churches to be placed so high as to prevent the people fron kissing them, and prohibiting prostration before these symbols, or any act of public worship being addressed to them. Against this moderate edict of the emperor, the Patriarc Germanos and the Pope Gregory II. made strong representations. The opposition of interest which reigned between the church and the state impelled the two bodies to a contest for supremacy which it required centuries to decide, and both Germanos and Gregory were sincere supporters of image-worship. To the ablest writer of the time, – the celebrated John Damascenus, who dwelt under the protection of the caliph at Damascus, among Mohammedans and Jews, – this edict seemed to mark a relapse to Judaism, or a tendency to Islamism. He felt himself called upon to combat such feelings with all the eloquence and power of argument he possessed. The empire was thrown into a ferment; the lower clergy and the whole Greek nation declared in favour of image-worship. The professors of the university of Constantinople, an institution of a Greek character, likewise declared their opposition to the edict. Liberty of conscience was the watchward against the imperial authority. The Pope and the Patriarch denied the right of the civil power to interfere with the doctrines of the church; the monks everywhere echoed the words of John Damascenus, "It is not the business of the emperor to make laws for the church. Apostles preached the gospels; the welfare of the state is the monarch's care; pastors and teachers attend to that of the church." The despotic principles of Leo's administration, and the severe measures of centralisation which he enforced as the means of reorganising the public service, created many additional enemies to his government.

The rebellion of the inhabitants of Greece, which occurred in the year 727, seems to have originated in a dissatisfaction with the fiscal and administrative reforms of Leo, to which local circumstances, unnoticed by historians, gave peculiar violence, and which the edict against image-worship fanned into a flame. The unanimity of all classes, and the violence of the popular zeal in favour of their local privileges and superstitions, suggested the hope of dethroning Leo, and placing a Greek on the throne of Constatinople. A naval expedition, composed of the imperial fleet in the Cyclades, and attended by an army from the continent was fitted out to attack the capital. Agallianos, who commanded the imperial forces destined to watch the Slavonians settled in Greece, was placed at the head of the army destined to assail the conqueror of the Saracens. The name of the new emperor was Kosmas. In the month of April the Greek fleet appeared before Constantinople. It soon appeared that the Greeks, confiding in the goodness of their cause, had greatly overrated their own valour and strength, or strangely overlooked the resources of the Iconoclasts. Leo met the fleet as it approached his capital, and completely defeated it. Agallianos, with the spirit of a hero, when he saw the utter ruin of the enterprise, plunged fully armed into the sea rather than surrender. Kosmas was taken prisoner, with another leader, and immediately beheaded. Leo, however, treated the mass of the prisoners with mildness.