A Privileged Source of Information


Youval Rotman


In 726 the Byzantine emperor, Leo III, ordered that an icon of Christ be removed from the main gate of the imperial palace in Constantinople (modern Istanbul), the capital of the Byzantine empire. This act provoked a violent reaction. The mob of Constantinople defended the image of Christ and lynched the poor soldier who had been sent to remove it. Four years later, in 730, the same Leo summoned an ecclesiastic council which condemned the veneration of icons anywhere in the Empire. These events initiated one of the most serious political crises the Byzantine empire had known. The foundation of Constantinople, ‘Constantine’s City’, the ‘New Rome’, in 330 on the site of the ancient Greek city of Byzantium on the Bosphorus, and the adoption of Christianity by the Roman emperor Constantine, marked the beginning of a process which transformed the Roman empire into what later became known as the Byzantine empire. That is, a medieval empire whose political and legal institutions were Roman, which had Christianity as its religion, and had Greek as its official language. The crisis brought about by Iconoclasm (icon smashing) which had begun in the early part of the 8th century lasted for over a hundred years. The veneration of icons was restored by two empresses: temporarily, in 787, by Irene, and definitively, on 11th March 843, by Theodora. This date marks the restoration of the icons and has been celebrated annually by the Orthodox Church ever since. During the hundred years or so of Iconoclasm, icons were destroyed obsessively by Byzantine officials, and defended fervently by other Byzantines, and by Byzantine monks in particular. The crisis provoked by Iconoclasm is described by the sources of the period in very emotional terms as a battle for the belief in the representation of the divine and for the freedom of human beings to access it. For this reason it stands out as the most emotional crisis the Empire ever underwent. How can we explain the political and religious outburst which exploded in reaction to Iconoclasm? This question is all the more important since the devotees of icons eventually prevailed. When the icons were definitively restored in 843, a long and violent battle had come to an end. The victory of the defenders of icons marked the end of this emotional ‘gust’ which had swept through the empire, and the beginning of a new period of political-religious stability. The magnitude of this crisis in Byzantine society should however be looked at in terms of the political earthquake which had taken place in the century prior to Iconoclasm, namely, the Arab conquests of the Byzantine Middle East. These not only completely transformed the geopolitical map of the Empire, but also dramatically changed the Byzantine political consciousness.


In 634, two years after Mohammad’s death and at the end of two years of civil war for the unification of Arabia, the Arabs started their great conquest of the Middle East. In less than ten years they had conquered Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Persia and Egypt (all former Byzantine territories). By 649, they had built a navy, had taken a hold in the Mediterranean and were launching continuous attacks against Byzantine-controlled areas in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) from both land and sea. They now seemed determined to conquer Constantinople. The two sieges they laid on the city, in 674-678 and again in 717-718, brought the Byzantines close to total defeat. When, in 718, the Byzantines succeeded in surviving the Arab siege, they literally ensured the continued existence of their state. Yet, this was no longer the Byzantine state they had known. The Byzantines, who thought of themselves as Roman, were used to controlling an Empire which spread over three continents. With the loss of most of their provinces in Asia and all of their provinces in Africa, they were now reduced to less than a third of their territories and were compelled to fight for their very existence. This was the most serious political crisis the Empire had known. The map of the Byzantine empire had been radically transformed; a true geopolitical earthquake had occurred. The Byzantine state had survived, but the Empire was gone. Moreover, Christianity itself was now on the defensive. The Arabs, who brought with them a new religion – Islam – were both a political and a religious enemy. Islam was not only a new monotheistic religion, it was also what gave the Arabs a common political identity. The first Caliphs who succeeded Mohammed made sure that all Arabs became Muslims, members of one Umma: a single community of believers. The Umma (‘the community’) was therefore at once a political, a religious and a national concept, without which an Islamic state would not have been formed. However, once an Islamic state had been created, it completely changed the relationship between the political and the religious spheres. The strength and greatness of Islam was its ability to combine the political and religious spheres, and to define itself politically in religious terms. Neither Judaism nor Christianity had such power. Judaism combined ethnic and religious entities, while Christianity offered only religious identity. Byzantium was indeed a Christian empire, but not all Christians were Byzantines. On the contrary, Christianity also existed beyond the Empire’s borders. At the beginning of the 8th century, the Byzantines found themselves having to defend both their state and their religion. Iconoclasm upset the balance between religious and political identities in the Byzantine empire. While in the Caliphate, the Caliph was a successor of Mohammed and as such was therefore also the religious authority, the Byzantine emperor had lost his religious credibility. The Byzantine patriarch who would not subscribe to the new religious policy of Leo III was forced to resign and was replaced. The same emperor who defeated the Arabs in 718, had come into power just a year before in a military coup d’état and this event itself had come after twenty years of political instability in Byzantium, during which time no less than seven emperors had deposed one another. All the Byzantine political symbols had collapsed one after the other. The advent of the Arabs caused a genuine crisis of identity for the Byzantines.


The Arabs’ national identity was formulated in religious terms and was made manifest in the Koran – the divine word of God. As a response to this challenge, the Byzantines needed to develop their own religious symbol of national identity. They found such a symbol in icons. The veneration of icons became increasingly popular in the Empire during the 5th–7th centuries. Icons were painted images of Christian saints, and above all of Christ and the Virgin, who represented the divine, and the icons were therefore worshipped as if they were themselves divine. Special impoprtance was given to icons which were believed not to have been made by the hand of man, relics preserving the image of Christ. One such was the Mandylion, the towel sent by Christ himself to King Abgar and bearing Christ’s image. Besides being venerated as religious objects, icons were also used politically. The sacred icons of Christ and the Virgin, for example, were displayed and venerated in times of war. Such was the case during the Arab siege of 717-718, when the icon of the Virgin was marched around the walls of Constantinople. It goes without saying that the Byzantine victory was attributed to the icon. Thus icons had succeeded where everything else had failed. Moreover, for the Christians who were now living under Islamic rule, and who had no Christian emperor or Christian state to turn to, the icons still symbolized their Christian identity. It is therefore clear why Iconoclasm was such an emotional gust: in the shattered world of the 7th-8th centuries icons proved to be the only point of reference to which the Byzantines could turn for their religious and political identity. It is a truism that in periods of political instability people turn to religion. This, however, can happen only if religion has a political role to play.