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7-08-2015, 20:49

An impenetrably dark age?

The so-called Byzantine iconoclast period is a ‘dark age’ whose obscurity is only randomly illuminated by the fewremaining sources, and even these are difficult to interpret. Apart from in Italy, no archives have been preserved. The contemporary sources comprise two chronicles – that of Theophanes the Confessor, covering the period up to 813, and the Breviarium of Patriarch Nikephoros, which stops at 769 – and an account of Leo V’s reign whose author is known as the ‘Scriptor incertus’. The only near-contemporary chronicle for the reigns of Michael II and Theophilos is that of George theMonk, probably completed in 846 and reworked in 871–2,1 with Theophanes Continuatus being the most important of the later chroniclers to cover this period. Other sources include the Acts of the second council of Nicaea (787); these contain several extracts from the ruling of the iconoclast council ofHieria (754), which they set out to refute. Further sources include a legal code called the Ecloga (741); the Farmer’s law (or Nomos georgikos) – though this is not dated with precision; the Taktikon Uspensky (842–3); the correspondence of the monk Theodore the Stoudite, and of Bishop Ignatios ofNicaea (known as Ignatios theDeacon) from the first half of the ninth century; numerous saints’ Lives; and the polemical anti-iconoclast literature.2 We can add to these sources others of Arab, Syriac, Armenian and Greek origin from the caliphate, as well as several inscriptions and numerous seals. This slightly simplified overview of the internal, written sources for the 150 years of iconoclasm reveals both the paucity of material, and how inadequate it is for understanding the profound transformation of the empire in this period – a transformation demonstrated by the fact that, from the 850s onwards, nothing was ‘as before’, even if it is difficult to date the reforms whose effects historians observe. This lack of source-material forces us either to project forwards, based on the situation in the seventh century, or backwards, from the state of affairs in the second half of the ninth, and the history of eighth-century Byzantium tends to be highly hypothetical, an overlapping of past and future, rendering the period itself virtually non-existent. As a result, while recognising that the period was one of profound institutional restructuring, historians are hesitant about gauging the continuity or discontin This period of history is further obscured by the shadowof religion, to the extent that it takes its name from imperial religious doctrine – iconoclasm – rather than from the Isaurian or Amorian dynasties. Thus our sources are not only sparse, they are also biased; with the exception of juridical or administrative documents, they were written by the iconoclasts’ enemies, the iconodules, and they are all of clerical or monastic origin. They paint a picture of a period in which religious questions obscure everything else, and the Isaurian emperors Leo III (717–41) and Constantine V (741–75), who initiated and championed iconoclasm, are subject to virtual damnatiomemoriae.4 No pro-Isaurian texts remain, apart from prescriptive ones, and our information about them is both minimal and hostile. All this conspires to make the eighth century not only an empty period, but also off-putting; nothing positive could possibly have happened then. Although Theodora’s defence of her husband Theophilos helped mitigate the damnatio memoriae imposed on the Amorian emperors Michael II (820–9) and Theophilos (829–42) because of their iconoclasm, nonetheless the sources – all written under their successors, theMacedonians – are highly critical of them simply for being predecessors of Basil I. This negative presentation has had a lasting effect on historical writing about the period, especially the eighth century; for example, archaeological finds from these dark centuries were, until recently, dated either to the seventh or the ninth century, exaggerating the dearth of sources for the intervening years.Most important of all, however, has been the presentation of the period’s historical narrative in terms of a history of the church: essentially the heretical emperors’ persecution of the church for venerating icons, and the valiant defence of the institution by monks and patriarchs. Modern historiography has tended not to question this presentation or the periodisation it imposes. ‘Iconoclasm’ (730–843) has been broken down into two periods, the first (730–87) mainly covering the Isaurian dynasty, and the second (815–43) the reigns of Leo V (813–20) and his Amorian successors, separated by an iconodulic interval which began with the second council of Nicaea in 787. Although this division should be questioned for imposing a religious frame of reference on a period characterised principally by a struggle for survival against enemies who threatened the empire’s very existence, it is nevertheless consistent with the course of events. Against the background of long-term structural reforms of domestic policy, one can indeed distinguish three different epochs: the first, under the great Isaurians Leo III and Constantine V, one of violence when the empire was saved from destruction; the second, under Irene and her successors, a time when the earlier period’s gains dwindled away and war loomed large; and finally, in the early ninth century, an era of returning prosperity, when the spectre of war receded. At the same time the empire’s geopolitical situation changed completely. Whereas at the end of the seventh century the empire could still, albeit with difficulty, lay claim to being universal, by the mid-ninth century it had become a Balkano-Mediterranean state. Even if throughout this period, those whom we call the Byzantines continued to call themselves Romans, others began calling them Greeks.

 

 

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