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Byzantium: Irene and Iconoclasm

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Byzantium: Overview | Constantine and the Founding of Constantinople | Justinian and the Nika Riots | Heraclius and the Persians | Irene and Iconoclasm | Constantine Porphyrogenitus | Basil the Bulgar-Slayer | Empress Zoe | Romanos Diogenes and the Loss of Anatolia | The Sack of Constantinople | Constantine XI and the Fall of Constantinople | The Walls of Constantinople | Hagia Sophia

The Byzantine Empire had a number of ruling Empresses as well as Emperors. One such was the Empress Irene, who put down the Iconoclastic Revolt. The story of the Iconoclastic Movement is interesting because it shows how important religion was to the Byzantines, and how they loved to debate theological concepts.

Irene is also interesting because she had her son's eyes gouged out, so that she could rule the Empire on her own.

Pictures of God

According to the Bible, God gave Moses many commandments. One of these1 was 'You shall not make for yourself an idol2 in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.' Different religions have interpreted this commandment in different ways. The Jews took it to mean that no images even of God himself were to be made. The Jewish 'Adonai' is an unseen god. The Muslims went a step further in banning all pictures of any sort; Muslim art developed along geometric lines for fear of depicting something in heaven, on earth or in the water below.

Christians took a much more relaxed view of this particular commandment. Pictures of God the Father and of Jesus Christ were OK. Worshipping these was not worshipping idols, as they represented God. Pictures of saints (holy Christians of the past who had died) were OK too, as long as you didn't worship them. But you could pray to them, asking the saint to plead with God on your behalf. So the Christian religion, both in Rome and in Constantinople, developed the habit of praying to many different saints and of having pictures of saints all over the churches. These holy pictures are known as 'icons'.

The Iconoclasts

A movement started within the Church which was opposed to the use of such icons. It developed in the East, probably because of close contact with both Jews and Muslims who disapproved of such pictures. Constantinople became a centre for this movement. The members were given the name 'iconoclasts' which literally means icon breakers. The iconoclasts thought that worship of pictures of saints amounted to the worship of idols and broke God's commandments. They also thought that a picture of God necessarily only captured the physical and not the spiritual and was therefore blasphemous.

Eventually the group included even the Emperor Leo III (ruled 717 - 741) in their number. But not everybody was an iconoclast - the monks living in monasteries in particular loved their saints and saw this new movement as an attempt to rob them of their religion. The bishops of Constantinople were about equally divided between the two factions.

The people took this issue very seriously indeed. Leo's first move in his bid to rid Byzantium of icons was to remove the giant picture of Jesus over the palace gate. He ordered a team of workmen to remove the picture; they were killed by an angry mob of women. Riots broke out all over the Empire. Leo was condemned by the Pope3 in Rome for the destruction of a holy picture, and also for presuming to exert his imperial authority on a spiritual matter.

Leo worked hard to rid the Empire of icons, and attacked the monasteries. Many monks fled westwards. He ordered the imprisonment of the Pope, but the soldiers he sent to take him were lost at sea. When Leo died in 741, the Empire was deeply divided over this issue.

Leo was succeeded by his son Constantine V, known to his enemies by the nickname Copronymous (literally, 'the shitter') because of a supposed incident at the baptismal font. Constantine was even more fanatically iconoclastic than his father. After only a year, his brother-in-law Artabasdus seized the throne and restored the sacred pictures, to popular acclaim. But Constantine made a comeback, blinded Artabasdus and all his children, and continued his crusade against the icons. Constantine was a great soldier and spent a lot of his time leading his armies against the Bulgar invaders. By the time he died in 775, fighting the Bulgars, the army was almost universally won over to the iconoclastic cause, as were most of those lands to the east of the city.

Constantine was succeeded by his son Leo IV, who was more moderate but did little to mend the rift between the two factions. Leo married the stunningly beautiful Irene, an Athenian who was herself very much in favour of icons. She is supposed to have secretly hidden icons all around the palace.

Irene and Constantine

Leo IV was not destined to rule Byzantium for long. In 780, at the age of only 31, he died suddenly of a fever. His son, Constantine VI was only ten years old, so his widow Irene took control of the Empire, ruling as Regent in the name of her son. Officially, mother and son ruled jointly. Irene was at liberty to re-introduce the worship of pictures, but she did so slowly, replacing a bishop here, a general there. She even declared war on the Saracens, so that the mainly iconoclastic army would be removed from the city. Eventually in 787, she called an Ecumenical Council of bishops from all over the Christian world, and iconoclasm was declared a heresy. The worship of icons was to be replaced with their 'veneration', a subtle distinction which avoided the accusation of breaking God's commandments.

As Constantine grew, he naturally resented his mother's control of the Empire, when he should by rights be sole emperor. Perhaps as a result of this, he became an iconoclast himself. At the age of 20, he was involved in a plot to overthrow her. The plot was discovered and foiled, but Irene was so incensed that she demanded that the army should swear an oath of allegiance to her personally. This caused a mutiny in the army, particularly in the east, resulting in Constantine being declared sole emperor.

Unfortunately, Constantine found that he wasn't capable of ruling on his own. After only two years, he asked his mother to join him again. This really annoyed the iconoclasts who had supported him against her. They now withdrew their support and he was on his own against the powerful Irene.

Out Vile Jelly!

Irene finally decided that having an iconoclast as a son was too much of a risk. There could be a revolt at any time, so he had to go. On her orders, a band of soldiers seized him one day as he was riding through the city. He was brought to the palace, where his eyes were gouged out in such a brutal manner that he died. Irene was finally in sole command of the Empire.

The gouging out of the eyes of a deposed emperor became quite a common occurrence in the Empire. If done correctly, it rendered your opponent blind and therefore unable to rule, but left him alive and capable of living the rest of his life in a monastery. The perpetrator of the crime therefore did not have a murder on his or her conscience. In this case, though, Irene does not appear to have intended that her son would live.

The Holy Roman Empire

Irene was not popular in the city as a result of her murder of her own son to secure the throne. Nobody disputed her right to rule, though. The same could not be true in the West. The Western countries now felt that for the first time since the founding of the Roman Empire, Europe was without an Emperor. An up-and-coming ruler called Charles the Great (Charlemagne) had united large parts of France, Germany and Italy. The Pope declared him to be Holy Roman Emperor, in other words, Roman Emperor with approval from the Church.

The Byzantines were outraged. They were the Roman Empire, as far as they were concerned, and having introduced Christianity to Europe, were appointed by God. This was sacrilege!

Charlemagne decided that Europe could be united if he were to marry Irene. The Western Holy Roman Empire and the Eastern Byzantine Empire could unite to make one pan-European Empire. Irene was amenable - perhaps she knew her people no longer trusted her; a powerful husband could keep her in her position as Empress.

It did the opposite. The Byzantines were not prepared to allow such a union. In 802, the officials of the city assembled in the Hippodrome where they officially deposed Irene. She was exiled to the island of Lesbos, where she died a year later.

The State of the Empire

With Irene gone from the throne, the Empire was in an uncertain state. There was now a new Empire in Western Europe to contend with. Although iconoclasm was officially outlawed, there was still a lot of it about, and once more the throne of Emperor was up for grabs. There was also increasing pressure on the lands of the Empire both from the Saracens in the southeast and the Bulgars in the northwest.

1Protestants count this as the 2nd Commandment. Roman Catholics consider it as part of the 1st Commandment.2Or possibly 'image'.3The Christian church recognised five rulers: the Patriarchs of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. The Western Church considered the Pope, who was the Patriarch of Rome, to be the absolute ruler of the church. The Eastern church, on the other hand, considered him to be 'first among equals', that is, slightly more important than the other patriarchs.

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