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SECTION II - part 1: REIGN OF LEO III. (THE ISAURIAN) A.D. 717-741 | Hellenismos.com


Posted March 17th, 2007 by webmaster



Saracen war - Siege of Constantinople - Circumstances favourable to Leo's reforms - Fables concerning Leo - Military, financial, and legal reforms - Ecclesiastical policy - Rebellion in Greece - Papal opposition - Physical phenomena.

When Leo was raised to the throne, the empire was threatened with immediate ruin. Six emperors had been dethroned within the space of twenty years. Four perished by the hand of the public executioner,[2] one died in obscurity, after being deprived of sight,[3] and the other was only allowed to end his days peacefully in a monastery, because Leo felt the imperial sceptre firmly fixed in his own grasp.[4] Every army assembled to encounter the Saracens had broken out into rebellion. The Bulgarians and Sclavonians wasted Europe up top the walls of Constantinople; the Saracens ravaged the whole of Asia Minor to the shores of the Bosphorus.

Amorium was the principal city of the theme Anatolikon.[5] The Caliph Suleiman had sent his brother, Moslemah, with a numerous army, to complete the conquest of the Roman empire, which appeared to be an enterprise of no extraordinary difficulty, and Amorium was besieged by the Saracens. Leo, who commanded the Byzantine troops, required some time to concert the operations by which he hoped to raise the siege. To gain the necessary delay, he opened negotiations with the invaders, and, under the pretext of hastening the conclusion of the treaty, he visited the Saracens general engaged in the siege with an escort of only 500 horse. The Saracens were invited to suspend their attacks until the decision of Moslemah – who was at the head of another division of the Mohammedan army – could be known. In an interview which took place with the bishop and principal inhabitants of the Amorium, relating to the proferred terms, Leo contrived to exhort them to continue their defence, and assured them of speedy succour. The besiegers, nevertheless, pressed forward their approaches. Leo, after his interview with the Amorians, proposed that the Saracen general should accompany him to the headquarters of Moslemah. The Saracen readily agreed to an arrangement which would enable him to deliver so important a hostage to the commander-in-chief. The wary Isaurian, who well knew that he would be closely watched, had made his plan of escape. On reaching a narrow defile, from which a cross road led to the advanced posts of his own army, Leo suddenly drew his sabre and attacked the Saracens about his person; while his guards, who were prepared for the signal, easily opened a way through the two thousand hostile cavalry of the escort, and all reached the Byzantine camp in safety. Leo's subsequent military dispositions and diplomatic negotiations induced the enemy to raise the siege of Amorium, and the grateful inhabitants united with the army in saluting the Emperor of the Romans. But in his arrangements with Moslemah, he is accused by his enemies of having agreed to conditions which facilitated the further progress of the Mohammedans, in order to secure his own march to Constantinople. On this march he was met by the son of Theodosius III, whom he defeated. Theodosius resigned his crown, and retired into a monastery;[6] while Leo made his triumphal entry into the capital of the Golden Gate, and was crowned by the Patriarch in the church of St. Sophia on the 25th of March, 717.

The position of Leo continued to be one of extreme difficulty. The Caliph Suleiman, who had seen one private adventurer succeed the other in quick succession on the imperial throne, deemed the moment favourable for the final conquest of the Christians; and, reinforcing his brother's army, he ordered him to lay siege to Constantinople. The Saracen empire had now reached its greatest extent. From the banks of the Sihun and the Indus to the shores of the Atlantic in Mauretania and Spain, the orders of Suleiman were implicitly obeyed. The recent conquests of Spain in the West, and of Fergana, Cashgar, and Sind in the East, had animated the confidence of the Mohammedans to such a degree that no enterprise appeared difficult. The army Moslemah led against Constantinople was the best appointed that had ever attacked the Christians: it consisted of eighty thousand fighting men. The caliph announced his intention of taking the field in person with additional forces, should the capital of the Christians offer a protracted resistance to the arms of Islam. The whole expedition is said to have employed one hundred and eighty thousand; and the number does not appear to be greatly exaggerated, if it be supposed to include the sailors of the fleet, and the reinforcements which reached the camp before Constantinople.

Moslemah, after capturing Pergamus, marched to Abydos, where he was joined by the Saracen fleet. He then transported his army across the Hellespont, and, marching along the shore of the Propontis, invested Leo in his capital both by land and sea. The strong walls of Constantinople, the engines of defence with which Roman and Greek art had covered the ramparts, and the skill of the Byzantine engineers, rendered every attempt to carry the place by assault hopeless, so that the Saracens were compelled to trust to the effect of a strict blockade for gaining possession of the city. They surrounded their camp with a deep ditch, and strengthened it with a strong dyke. Moslemah then sent out large detachments to collect forage and destroy the provisions, which might otherwise find their way into the besieged city. The presence of an active enemy and a populous city required constant vigilance on the part of a great portion of his land forces.

The Sacarcen fleet consisted of eighteen hundred vessels of war and transports. In order to form the blockade, it was divided into two squadrons: one was stationed on the Asiatic coast, in the ports of Eutropius[7] and Anthimus, to prevent supplies arriving from the Archipelago; the other occupied the bays in the European shore of the Bosphorus above the point of Galata, in order to cut off all communication with the balck sea and the cities of Cherson and Trebizond. The first naval engagement took place as the fleet was taking up its position within the Bosphorus. The current, rendered impetuous by a change of wind, threw the heavy ships and transports into confusion. The besieged directed some fireships against the crowded vessels, and succeeded in burning several, and driving others on shore under the walls of Constantinople. The Saracen admiral, Suleiman, confident in the number of his remaining ships of war, resolved to avenge his partial defeat by a complete victory. He placed one hundred chosen Arabs, in complete armour, in each of his best vessels, and, advancing to the walls of Constantinople, made a vigorous attempt to enter the place by assault, as it was enetered long after by Doge Dandolo. Leo was well prepared to repulse the attack, and, under his experienced guidance, the Arabs were completely defeated. A number of the Saracen ships were burned by the Greek fire which the besieged launched from their walls. After this defeat, Suleiman withdrew the European squadron of his fleet into the Sosthenian bay.

The catastrophe of Moslemah’s army, and the state of the caliphate during the reigns of Omar II. and Yesid II., relieved the empire from all immediate danger, and Leo was enabled to pursue his schemes for reorganising the army and defending his dominions against future invasions. The war was languidly carried on for some years, and the Saracens were gradually expelled from most of their conquests beyond Mount Taurus. In the year 726, Leo was embarrassed by seditions and rebellions, caused by his decrees against image worship. Hescham seized the opportunity, and sent two powerful armies to invade the empire. Caesarea was taken by Moslemah; while another army, under Moawyah, pushing forward, laid siege to Nicaea. Leo was well pleased to see the Saracens consume their resources in attacking a distant fortress; but though they were repulsed before Nicaea, they retreated without serious loss, carrying off immense plunder. The plundering excursions of the Arabs were frequently renewed by land and sea. In one of these expeditions, the celebrated Sid-al-Battal carried off an individual who was set up by the Saracens as a pretender to the Byzantine throne, under the pretext that he was Tiberius, the son of Justinian II. Two sons of the caliph appeared more than once at the head of the invading armies. In the year 739, the Saracen forces poured into Asia Minor in immense numbers, with all their early energy. Leo, who had taken the command of the Byzantine army, accompanied by his son Constantine, marched to meet Sid-al-Battal, whose great fame rendered him the most dangerous enemy. A battle took place at Acroïnon, in the Anatolic theme, in which the Saracens were totally defeated. The valiant Sid, the most renowned champion of Islamism, perished on the field; but the fame of his exploits has filled many volumes of Moslem romance, and furnished some of the tales that have adorned the memory of the Cid of Spain, three hundred years after the victory of Leo.
The Western Christians have robbed the Byzantine empire of its glory in every way. After this defeat the Saracen power ceased to be formidable to the empire, until the energy of the caliphate was revived by the vigorous administration of the Abassides.

Leo’s victories over the Mohammedans were an indispensable step to the establishment of his personal authority. But the easures of administrative wisdom which rendered his reign a new era in Roman istory, are its most important feature in the annals of the human race.
His military exploits were the result of ordinary virtues, and of talents common inevery age; but the ability to reform the internal government of an empire, inaccordance with the exigencies of society, can only be appreciated by those whohave made the causes and the progress of national revolutions the object oflong thought. The intellectual superiority of Leo may be estimated by theincompetence of sovereigns in the present century to meet new exigencies ofsociety. Leo judiciously availed himself of many circumstances that favouredhis reforms. The inherent vigour which is nourished by parochial and municipalresponsibilities, bound together the remnants of the free population in theeastern Roman empire, and operated powerfully in resisting foreign domination.The universal respect felt for the administration of justice, and the generaldefence paid to the ecclesiastical establishment, inspired the inhabitants withenergies wanting in the West. Civilisation was so generally diffused, that thenecessity of upholding the civil and ecclesiastical tribunals, and defendingthe channels of commercial intercourse, reunited a powerful body of the peoplein every province to the central administration, by the strongest ties of interest and feeling.

[1]The most complete work on the history of the Iconoclast period is that of Schlosser, Geschichte der Bilderstrmenden Kaiser, 1812. It is a work of learning and original research.

[2]Leontius, Tiberius III., (Apsimar.) Justinian II., Philippicus.

[3]Anastasius II.

[4]Theodosius III.

[5]Amorium was at the ruins called Hergan Kaleh - Hamilton, Researches in Asia Minor, i. 452. Leake's Tour in Asia Minor, 86.

[6]Theodosius ended his life at Ephesus, where he was buried in the church of St. Philip. He ordered that his tombstone should bear no inscription but the word UGEIA - "Health".

[7]Mundi Burnou.