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SECTION II - part 4: REIGN OF LEO III. (THE ISAURIAN) A.D. 717-741 | Hellenismos.com


Posted March 17th, 2007 by webmaster




Even if we admit that the Greeks displayed considerable presumption in attacking the Isaurian emperor, still we must accept the fact a a proof of the populous condition of the cities and islands of Greece, and of the flourishing condition of their trade, at a period generally represented as one of wretchedness and poverty. Though the Peloponnese was filled with Slavonian emigrants, and the Greek peasantry were in many districts excluded from the cultivation of the land in the seats of their ancestors, nevertheless their cities then contained the mercantile wealth and influence, which passed some centuries later into the possession of Venice, Amalfi, Genoa and Pisa.
The opposition Leo encountered only confirmed him in his persuasion that i was indispensably necessary to increase the power of the central government in the provinces. As he was sincerely attached to the opinions of the Iconoclasts, he was led to connect his ecclesiastical reforms with his political measures, and to pursue both with additional zeal. In order to secure the active support of all the officers of the administration, and exclude all image-worshippers from power, he convoked an assembly, called a silention, consisting of the senators and the highest functionaries in the church and state. In this solemn manner it was decreed that images were to be removed from all the churches throughout the empire. In the capital the change met with no serious opposition. The population of Constantinople, at every period of its history, has consisted of a mixed multitude of different nations; nor has the majority ever been purely Greek for any great length of time. Nicetas, speaking of a time when the Byzantine empire was at the height of its power, and when the capital was more a Greek city than at any preceding or subsequent period, declares that its population was composed of various races. The cause of image worship was, however, generally the popular cause, and the Patriarch Germanos steadily resisted every change in the actual practice of the church until that change should be sanctioned by a general council.
The turn now given to the dispute put an end to the power of the Eastern emperors in central Italy. The Latin provinces of the Roman empire, even before their conquest by the barbarians, had sunk into deeper ignorance than the Eastern. Civilisation had penetrated farther into society among the Greeks, Armenians, and Syrians, than among the Italians, Gauls, and Spaniards. Italy was already dissatisfied with the Constantinopolitan domination, when Leo's fiscal and religious reforms roused local interests and national prejudices to unite in opposing his government. The Pope of Rome had long been regarded by orthodox Christians as the head of the church; even the Greeks admitted his right of inspection over the whole body of the clergy, in virtue of the superior dignity of the Roman see. From being the heads of the church, the popes became the defenders of the liberties of the people. In this character, as leaders of a lawful opposition to the tyranny of the imperial administration, they grew up to the possession of immense influence in the state. This power, having its basis in democratic feelings and energies, alarmed the emperors, and many attempts were made to circumscribe the papal authority. But the popes themselves did more to diminish their own influence than their enemies, for instead of remaining the protectors of the people, they aimed at making themselves their masters. Gregory II., who occupied the papal chair at the commencement of the contest with Leo, was a man of sound judgment, as well as an able and zealous priest. He availed himself of all the advantages of his position, as political chief of the Latin race, with prudence and moderation; nor did he neglect the power he derived from the circumstance that Rome was the fountain of religious instruction for all western Europe. Both his political and ecclesiastical position entitled him to make a direct opposition to any oppressive measure of the emperor of Constantinople, when the edicts of Leo III. concerning image-worship prompted him to commence the contest, which soon ended in separating central Italy from the Byzantine empire.
The possessions of thre Eastern emperors in Italy were still considerable. Venice, Rome, Ravenna, Naples, Bari, and Tarentum were all capitals of well-peopled and wealthy districts. The province embracing Venice and Rome was governed by an imperial viceroy or exarch who resided at Ravenna, and hence the Byzantine possessions in central Italy were called the Exarchate of Ravenna. Under the orders of the exarch, three governors or dukes commanded the troops in Ravenna, Rome and Venice. As the native militia enrolled to defend the province from the Lombards formed a considerable portion of the military force, the popular feelings of the Italians exercised some influence over the soldiery. The Constantinopolitan governor was generally disliked, on account of the fiscal rapacity of which he was the agent; and nothing but the dread of greater oppression on the part of the Lombards, whom the Italians had not the courage to encounter without the assistance of the Byzantine troops, preserved the people of central Italy in their allegiance. They hated the Greeks, but they feared the Lombards.
Gregory II. sent Leo strong representations against his first edicts on the subject of image-worship, and after the silention he repeated these representations, and entered on a more decided course of opposition to the emperor's ecclesiastical reforms, being then convinced that there was no hope of Leo abandoning his heretical opinions. It seems that Italy, like the rest of the empire, had escaped in some degree from the oppressive burden of imperial taxation during the anarchy that preceded Leo's election. But the defeat of the Saracens before Constantinople had been followed by the establishment of the fiscal system. To overcome the opposition made to the financial and ecclesiastical reforms, the exarch Paul was ordered to march to Rome and support Marinus, the duke, who found himself unable to contend against the papal influence. The whole of central Italy burst into rebellion at this demonstration aginst its civil and religious interests. The exarch was compelled to shut himself up in Ravenna; for the cities of Italy, instead of obeying the imperial officers, elected magistrates of their own, on whom they conferred, in some cases, the title of duke. Assemblies were held, and the project of electing an emperor of the West was adopted; but the the unfortunate result of the rebellion of Greece damped the courage of the Italians; and though a rebel, named Tiberius Petasius, really assumed the purple in Tuscany, he was easily defeated and slain by Eutychius, who succeeded Paul as exarch of Ravenna. Luitprand, king of the Lombards, taking advantage of these dissensions, invaded the imperial territory, and gained possession of Ravenna; but Gregory, who saw the necessity of saving the country from the Lombards and from anarchy, wrote to Ursus, the duke of Venice, one of his warm partisans, and persuaded him to join Eutychius. The Lombards were defeated by the Byzantine troops, Ravenna was recovered, and Eutychius entered Rome with a victorious army. Though he excited the Italian cities to resist the imperial power, and approved of the measures they adopted for stopping the remittance of their taxes to Constantinople, he does not appear to have adopted any measures for declaring Rome independent. That he contemplated the possibility of events taking a turn that might ultimately lead him to throw off his allegiance to the Emperor Leo, is nevertheless evident, from one of his letters to that emperor, in which he boasts very significantly that the eyes of the West were fixed on his humility, and that if Leo attempted to injure the Pope, he would find the West ready to defend him, and even attack Constantinople. The allusion to the protection of the king of the Lombards and Charles Martel was certainly, in this case, a treasonable threat on the part of the Bishop of Rome to his sovereign. Besides this, Gregory II. excommunicated the exarch Paul, and all the enemies of image-worship who were acting under the orders of the emperor, pretending to avoid the guilt of treason by not expressly naming the Emperor Leo in his anathema. On the other hand, when we consider that Leo was striving to extend the bounds of the imperial authority in an arbitrary manner, and that his object was to sweep away every barrier against the excercise of despotism in the church and the state, we must ackowledge that the opposition of Gregory was founded in justice, and that he was entitled to defend the municipal institutions and local usages of Italy, and the constitution of the Romish church, even at the price of declaring himself a rebel.
The election of Gregory III. to the papal chair was confirmed by the Emperor Leo in the usual form; nor was that pope consecrated until the mandate from Constantinople reached Rome. This was the last time the emperors of the East were solicited to confirm the election of a pope. Meanwhile Leo steadily pursued his schemes of ecclesiastical reform, and the opposition to his measures gathered strength. Gregory III. assembled a council in Rome, at which the municipal authorities, whose power Leo was endeavouring to circumscribe, were present along with the nobles; and in this council the whole body of the Iconoclasts were excommunicated. Leo now felt that force alone could maintain Rome and its bishops in their allegiance. With his usual energy, he despatched an expedition under the command of Manes, the general of the Kibyrraiot theme, with orders to send the pope a prisoner to Constantinople, to be tried for his treasonable conduct. A storm in the Adriatic, the lukewarm conduct of the Greeks in the imperial service, and the courage of the people of Ravenna, whose municipal institutions enabled them to act in an organised manner, caused the complete overthrow of Manes. Leo revenged himself for this loss by confiscating all the estates of the papal see in the eastern provinces of his empire, and by separating the ecclesiastical government of southern Italy, Sicily, Greece, Illyria, and Macedonia, from the papal jurisdiction, and placing these countries under the immediate authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople.
From this time, A.D. 733, the city of Rome enjoyed political independence under the guidance and protection of the popes; but the officers of the Byzantine emperors were allowed to reside in the city, justice was publicly administered by Byzantine judges, and the supremacy of the Eastern Empire was still recognised. So completely, however, had Gregory III. thrown off his allegiance, that he entered into negotiations with Charles Martel, in order to induce that powerful prince to take an active part in the affairs of Italy. The pope was now a much more powerful personage than the Exarch of Ravenna, for the cities of central Italy, which had assumed the control of their local government, instructed the conduct of their external political relations to the care of Gregory, who thus held the balance of power between the Eastern emperor and the Lombard king. In the year 742, while Constantine V., the son of Leo, was engaged with a civil war, the Lombards were on the eve of conquering Ravenna, but Pope Zacharias threw the whole of the Latin influence into the Byzantine scale, and enabled the exarch to maintain his position until the year 751, when Astolph, king of the Lombards, captured Ravenna. The exarch retired to Naples, and the authority of the Byzantine emperors in central Italy ended.
The physical history of our globe is so intimately connected with the condition of its inhabitants, that it is well to record those remarkable variations from the ordinary course of nature which strongly affected the minds of contemporaries. the influence of famine and pestilence, during the tenth and eleventh centuries, in accelerating the extinction of slavery, has been pointed out by several recent writers on the subject, though that effect was not observed by the people who lived at the time. The importance of the late famine in Ireland, as a political cause, must be felt by any one who attempts to trace the origin of that course of social improvement on which the Irish seem about to enter. The severity of the winter of 717 aided Leo in defeating the Saracens at Constantinople. In the year 726, a terrific irruption of the dormant submarine volcano at the island of Thera (Santorin) in the Archipelago, was regarded by the bigoted image-worshippers as a manifestation of divine wrath against Leo's reforms. For several days the sea between Thera and Therasia boiled up with great violence, vomiting forth flames, and enveloping the neighbouring islands in clouds of vapour and smoke. The flames were followed by showers of dust and pumice-stone, which covered the surface of the sea, and were carried by the waves to the shores of Asia Minor and Macedonia. At last a new island rose out of the sea, and gradually extended itself until it joined the older rocky islet called Hieron.
In the year 740, a terrible earthquake destroyed great part of the walls of Constantinople. The statue of Arcadius, on the Theodosian column in Xerolophon, and the statue of Theodosius over the golden gate, were both thrown down. Churches, monasteries, and private buildings were ruined: the walls of many cities in Thrace and Bithynia, particularly Nicomedia, Praenetus, and Nicea, were so injured as to require immediate restoration. This great earthquake caused the imposition of the tax already alluded to, termed the dikeration.
Leo has been accused as a persecutor of learning. It is by no means impossible that his Asiatic eduacation and puritanical opinions rendered him hostile to the legendary literature and ecclesiastical art then cultivated by the Greeks; but the circumstance usually brought forward in support of his barbarism is one of the calumnies invented by his enemies, and re-echoed by orthodox bigotry. He is said to have ordered a library consisting of 33,000 volumes, in the, in the neighbourhood of St. Sophia's, to be burned, and the professors of the university to be thrown into the flames. A valuable collection of books seems to have fallen accidentally a prey to the flames during his reign, and neither his liberality nor the public spirit of the Greeks induced them to display any activity in replacing the loss.
Leo III. died in the year 741. He had crowned his son Constantine emperor in the year 720, and married him to Irene, the daughter of the Khan of the Khazars, in 733.