Iconoclast imperial authority and its contested legacy: from the Arab siege (717/18) until the death of Michael III (867)
The thesis studies the first two iconoclast Byzantine emperors, Leo III (r. 717-41) and his son Constantine V (r. 741-75), and their highly-contested legacy. It first revisits the evidence for the reigns of Leo III and Constantine V, their policies and ideology, highlighting the aspects that made them powerful models of imperial authority and dynastic longevity that continued to be followed and imitated by successive emperors well into the ninth century, and those that contributed to their overall popularity among the Constantinopolitan citizens. The evidence suggests that the imperial authority, which had crumbled over the decades prior to Leo’s ascension, began recovering in the wake of the successful defense of Constantinople during the second Arab siege in 717-718. The Byzantine imperial authority then reached new heights during Constantine’s long reign, which allowed for the record of his and his father’s achievements to become deeply embedded in social memory of the capital. In the minds of the many, these emperors’ political and military success and their relative longevity in the office were interpreted as signs of divine grace, leading to the conclusion that their iconoclastic theological position must also be correct. The last chapter of the thesis traces the legacy of Leo and Constantine through historiography, hagiography, and material culture. It becomes clear that they remained popular figures, and the memory of their success came to the fore in the context of a protracted crisis of legitimacy exacerbated by a series of humiliating defeats suffered by the Bulgarians in the early ninth century (806-13). This period saw a competition of memory between partisans of iconoclasm and their iconophile opponents, yet, the more vicious polemic against Leo and Constantine that began emerging in this period shows no signs of early circulation, suggesting that it did not have the time and space to manifest itself inside the capital publicly. Moreover, the positive memory of the Isaurian rulers received the second wind from the top of the state with the revival of iconoclasm in 815 and remained relatively intact in Constantinople at least until the death of the last iconoclast emperor Theophilos (829-42). Further evidence of public discourse in the early years after Theophilos’ death reveals notable silence about any emperor, and it is argued that the extraordinary case of public humiliation of Constantine V’s remains (c. 866-7) was the earliest public condemnation of an iconoclast ruler.