Archive for June, 2011

Was Leo III’s reign good or bad for Byzantium?

Jun 25 2011 Published by under Iconoclasm,Leo III

Jack asks if Leo III was beneficial or detrimental to the Byzantine Empire.

If you ask five historians this question you may very well get five different answers- Leo is a complicated figure.  I’ve changed my mind about him several times, but have gradually come to feel that he was a beneficial ruler.  Here’s why.

Leo was born in Syria (but grew up on the Black Sea Coast of Bulgaria) and cut his teeth on the eastern frontier.  This gave him a knowledge of the Arab mind that stood him in good stead when he became emperor.  When he arrived in Constantinople in 717 Byzantium was in a terrible predicament.  Heraclius’ dynasty had petered out with the bloody Justinian II, the Arabs were already on their way with a massive fleet and land army to exterminate the empire, and the current occupant of the throne (Theodosius III) was an overwhelmed tax collector who had been crowned against his will.  (When Leo arrived, Theodosius was more than happy abdicate and become the bishop of Ephesus)  A month after Leo’s coronation a gigantic Muslim army was pounding at the gates.  Things looked bleak but Leo somehow kept up morale and outmaneuvered the Arabs at every turn.  Within months they were suffering from inadequate sanitation and freezing temperatures.  After they were appropriately demoralized Leo sent in the fireships against the enemy navy and- in what is surely one of the most brilliant unsung victories in history- managed to bamboozle the Bulgarians into attacking the Arab army for him.  Less than half of the Muslim infantry made it home and the grand fleet lost all but 5 ships.  Had there been a less capable man on the throne (Theodosius III for instance), Constantinople probably would have fallen in the eighth century and Islam would have had a free run at an undeveloped and divided Europe.

That’s the part of the legacy that most can agree is positive.  Offsetting that is Iconoclasm.  In 726 Leo came to the conclusion that the Byzantine love of icons had strayed into idolatry and he ordered the city’s most prominent icon to be torn down.  That unleashed two centuries or so of controversy that was among the most destructive in the empire’s history.

So why conclude that his reign was on balance beneficial?

Because I think it’s unfair to blame Leo for everything that came after him.  And by the true iconoclast’s standards, it’s doubtful that he was really even one of them.  The use of icons had gone overboard- they stood in for godparents at baptisms and most people agreed that it could stand to be ratcheted down a notch or two.  There was also a popular belief that Arab victories in Asia (and the terrible earthquake of 726) were due to divine displeasure over idolatry.  Leo gave a sermon in the Hagia Sophia to that effect and it was greeted with rousing applause.  I don’t think he ever intended to say that icons were inherently bad- he promulgated a revision to the law code in 726 that didn’t even mention them- and contemporary Muslim and Armenian sources don’t number him among the iconoclasts.

His most controversial action was to rip down the famous icon above the imperial palace, but this can be explained in two ways.  First, just before the Arab army had been routed the Patriarch had processed around the city walls bearing an icon of Mary and the subsequent victory was credited to divine intervention.  Leo’s own efforts were downplayed and it’s quite possible that he was a tad peeved.  Secondly (and more importantly), he replaced the icon with a simple cross and the inscription “I drive out the enemies and kill the barbarians.”  I think this was an attempt to resurrect the cross as a victorious symbol.  Leo’s main argument was always that the Arabs were winning because the Byzantines had abandoned their true faith.  What better way to get back to basics than by fighting under the same symbol that had led Constantine and Heraclius to such incredible victories?  This was not so much a strike against the idea of icons as it was a re-branding.  There is no evidence to suggest he ever persecuted those who disagreed with him on the issue, and in fact he (ironically) tried to promote religious unity his entire reign.  He was always a moderate and for most of his reign he had popular opinion on his side- hardly the divisive figure later writers tried to make him.  His son Constantine V, on the other hand, took the whole thing to an extreme.  He really did have a theological axe to grind against icons and suppressed them with a single-minded fervor that crossed into obsession.

It’s been all too easy for most historians to throw Leo under the bus as the guy who started all the trouble.  Somehow it seems a bit ungrateful to blame him for his successors’ fanaticism…

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What was Byzantine Athens like?

Jun 15 2011 Published by under Athens

Justin asks how Athens fared during the Byzantine period.

To put it bluntly, Constantinople’s gain was every other prestigious city’s loss.  Constantine and his immediate successors looted Athens of much of its impressive works of art, including the famous statue of Athena that graced the Parthenon.  This, combined with an exodus of talent (the action was clearly in Constantinople) reduced the city to a shell of itself.  The deathblow, however, was Justinian’s closing of the Academy which ended its one remaining attraction as a university town.  In 580 invading Slavs burned the lower city and (in a demonstration of how little importance was now attached to the place) it took the empire a decade to rebuild.

It was probably around this time that the Parthenon was converted into a church.  Roman emperors had started making pronouncements in the 4th century to convert all pagan buildings to Christian ones, but these edicts had been largely ignored in the backwater parts of the empire.  And Athens was by now a true backwater.  Its economy was almost purely agricultural with one or two ‘aristocratic‘ families hanging on, and for the next two centuries it was a sad, little village huddled around the Acropolis.  The low point was the early 7th century when Heraclius reorganized the empire along military lines.  Needing a capital for the province of Greece (Hellas), he bypassed Athens completely and chose Thebes- a move which would have appalled any ancient Greek who fought at the battle of Plataea.

But the 7th century also saw the city’s fortunes begin to recover.  A sign of this was that fact that Heraclius’ grandson Constans II (who knew his Herodotus) spent the winter of 662 there on his way to Sicily.  He was on the search for a new capital- the last Roman emperor to seriously consider moving back into the west.  (He was attracted by the virtual impregnability of the walled Acropolis)  There were also emerging signs of intellectual life.  Theodore of Tarsus (who would be Archbishop of Canterbury from 669-690) studied there, and Athens became a haven for monks fleeing Iconoclastic persecution (thanks to the availability of caves in nearby Mt. Penteli).  The late 8th and early 9th centuries saw two Athenian women (Irene and Theophano) become empresses- with one (Irene) even ruling as emperor.

By the end of the 9th century the population had expanded enough to make Athens a true city again.  The local bishop was promoted to Metropolitan, and the city was finally made the seat of the Theme (province) of Hellas.  (You can see a vestige of this period on the Acropolis today- one of the columns of the Parthenon has a carving recording the death of the strategos (governor) Leo in 848)  The next three centuries saw a sustained period of growth- the ‘golden age’ of Byzantine Athens.  A tzykanion field was installed (an aristocratic game related to polo), and Athenian merchants grew wealthy selling purple dye and soaps.  In 1018 Basil the Bulgar-Slayer visited specifically to visit the Parthenon church.  His presence (he may have cleared the ruins of the nearby Daphne monastery and begun to build the magnificent dome visible today) kicked off a rash of church building- most of the surviving Byzantine buildings (Church of the Holy Apostles in the Agora, Panaghia Kapnikarea, etc) date from this period.

The new wealth and prestige (and general isolation from the troubles besetting the rest of the empire) led to feelings of independence.  They rose against the central government of Michael IV in the 11th century and were brutally suppressed by an imperial army led by the Norse adventurer Harald Hardrada.  The city physically recovered quickly (a 12th century Arab traveler reported that it was well populated and surrounded by rich country), but couldn’t escape the wider Byzantine decline.  Roger II of Sicily sacked it in 1147, and the new governor sent in 1182 complained that it was filled with ‘uncivilized hordes whose boorish accents took 3 years to learn’.  In 1204 came the ultimate humiliation when it was seized by crusaders.  For the next 250 years it was ruled successively by the French, Catalans, and Florentines.  The Athenians referred to the period of French and Catalan domination as the ‘ultimate slavery’ and things got so bad that Greek had to be reintroduced in 1387.  The Byzantines never regained control.

As for the Parthenon, it weathered the ages gracefully.  The large statue of Athena was probably removed to Constantinople in the third century where it was set up in one of the public squares.  In 360 it was restored by Julian the Apostate in his quest to revive paganism and probably remained a temple for some time after Theodosius’ decree of 379 which made Christianity the sole legal religion of the empire.  As a church, the Parthenon attracted both famous pilgrims and the donation of relics.  Outside of Constantinople, it probably had the most impressive collection in the empire. (including a painting of Mary done by St. Luke which gave the church its name, and a copy of the gospels written on vellum by St. Helena)  The 13th century Italian sightseer Niccolo da Martoni left a breathless description- the magnificent marble carvings, glittering mosaics, massive columns, and the seemingly endless reliquaries.  He also repeats a story (smacking of that time honored tradition of local guide yarns) about the doors being made of the wood from the gates of Troy.

Interestingly enough, the Parthenon was a church for longer than it was a pagan temple, since it survived as such until the Turkish occupation of Athens in 1456.  As for the famous statue of Athena, that lasted almost as long.  It stood in Constantinople for almost a thousand years until 1204.  As the crusading army gathered outside the walls a superstitious mob converged on the square where it was kept.  Since the statue happened to be facing the West it was blamed for attracting these western barbarians and destroyed.

That of course, was only the beginning of the destruction.

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