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7-08-2015, 20:54

Culture, purification and the drive against idolatry

The religious policy of the period has deliberately been left until last, to prevent it eclipsing all other aspects, as so often happens. In fact, the religious direction taken is hardly surprising, inspired as it was by the misfortune of the times and the need to save the empire. However, it has been completely distorted by the violence of the anti-iconoclast polemics, transforming a well-thought-out and sound decision into the deranged impulse of ignorant men inspired by Satan. Iconodule propaganda is now being subjected to closer scrutiny. One example is the allegation that the iconoclasts were lacking in education (amathia). Because the chroniclers Theophanes and Nikephoros maintain that classical culture was dead at the beginning of the eighth century – for which Theophanes holds Leo III directly responsible119 – and because polemical works accuse the iconoclasts of ignorance, it is generally considered that Byzantine society under the iconoclast emperors lost access to classical culture. This accusation is not altogether unfounded; with the disappearance or drastic contraction of towns, and the ruralisation of AsiaMinor and the Balkans, there must have been an equivalent reduction in the number of books. Even in Constantinople, books became rare. A work such as the Parastaseis, in which self-styled philosophers show their non-comprehension of the masterpieces of classical art surrounding them in the capital, proves that there was no great flourishing of classical culture in the eighth century.120 However, texts written in refined Greek started to emerge in the second half of the ninth century, presupposing continuity of literary studies during the eighth and ninth centuries, and there are several indications of such continuity. The saints’ Lives of the period attest a functioning elementary and secondary educational system, 121 and there were some deeply learned men of letters of the beginning of the ninth century, including George Choiroboskos, deacon of St Sophia, John the Grammarian, patriarch of Constantinople (837–43) and Leo the Mathematician. The Isaurians’ reputation for ignorance has been reinforced in a sort of vicious circle by the fact that, at first sight, no manuscript of a scholarly nature has survived from this period. The famous uncial manuscript of Ptolemy’s ‘HandyTables’ with its miniature of the zodiac was attributed to the ninth century until it was demonstrated that the astronomical calculations it contains could only have been done during the reign of Constantine V.122 The accusation of amathia brought against the iconoclasts must be considered in its ideological context. In characterising the iconoclasts as ignorant, the iconodules certainly wanted to accuse them of grammatical ignorance; but above all they wanted to accuse them of ignorance of divine truth and thus blindness to the reality of the Incarnation, which had made representation of Christ possible. It is unlikely that the appearance of minuscule – a highly important development for Greek letters – could have occurred in a world devoid of culture, and its replacement of uncial script might almost be compared to the invention of the printing press. Minuscule’s use of ligatures, accents and punctuation made it far quicker to write, easier to read and more economical in its use of paper and ink. Codicologists now date the use of minuscule in manuscripts to sometime around the 780s, in two distinct geographical areas: Constantinople and Palestine.123 The earliest extant minuscule manuscript with a precise date is the ‘Uspensky Gospels’, dated to 835 by a notice of the scribe Nicholas, a monk of the Constantinopolitan monastery of Stoudios.124 Exactly where minuscule writing originated remains unknown, but it is curious that the imperial palace has never been considered. The religious policy of the iconoclast emperors Leo III, Constantine V and Leo IV in the eighth century, and of Leo V,Michael II and Theophilos in the ninth, should be understood as just one aspect of their struggle to ensure the empire’s survival. Various explanations have been offered for Leo III’s sudden ban on venerating icons in 730. The apparent aniconism of the eastern part of the empire is one suggestion. This was Leo’s birthplace and seat of Bishops Constantine of Nakoleia and Thomas of Claudiopolis; according to Patriarch Germanos’ letters read out at the second council of Nicaea, these two bishops had forbidden veneration of icons in their sees even before 730. Another suggestion is the supposed influence of Islam and Judaism; early in the 720s Caliph Yazid II (720–24) issued an edict banning Christian images, and the iconoclasts invoked the Old Testament ban on pictorial representation (Exodus 20:4). But the argument of eastern aniconism does not stand up to scrutiny, and Jewish andMuslim influences were only indirect.125 The chroniclers do offer one plausible explanation for Leo III’s decision: that iconoclasm was triggered off by Leo’s false interpretation of the terrifying volcanic eruption at Thira in 726 as a manifestation of the wrath of God. He thought, wrongly they say, that God’s wrath had been caused by the idolatry of the empire’s subjects in venerating religious images.126 According to Theophanes, Leo launched a propaganda campaign in 725, and in the following year, the icon of Christ said to have been situated above the Great Palace’s bronze gate (Chalke) was reportedly destroyed.127 This culminated on 7 January 730 with Leo’s declaration against icons, during a silention in theHall of the Nineteen Couches. Patriarch Germanos refused to subscribe and was forced to resign, and opponents of the decisions taken at the silention, clerics and laymen alike, were persecuted.128 This explanation given by the chronicles is plausible enough. An emperor who considered himself divinely commanded to ‘tend the most Christian people’ in a manner pleasing to God, thereby obtaining military victories and domestic peace,129 would understandably be concerned by such violent and repeated manifestations of God’s wrath against his people. In the Bible, the reason why God abandons his people to the point where they are vanquished and led off to captivity in Babylon – a prospect anything but theoretical in Byzantium of the 720s – is none other than idolatry. Iconoclasm, in banning the veneration of religious images through such gestures and ritual as bowing down (proskyn¯esis), kissing (aspasmos), and the burning of lights and incense, is in fact nothing but a rejection of idolatry.130 In all probability, Leo III aimed to please the Almighty by choosing iconoclasm; by banning idolatry, he might induce God to stop granting victories to the enemy and avert the threat of defeat and captivity from his people. And this choice might be considered a good one, seeing that God’s wrath did in fact subside. The danger from the Arabs, and then from the Bulgars, abated and Isaurian propaganda was, according to Patriarch Nikephoros, able to ascribe these successes, as well as the longevity of the emperors, to iconoclasm. 131 Furthermore, it was precisely the renunciation of iconoclasm that coincided with defeat and then, under Nikephoros andMichael I, military disaster; and its reinstatement by Leo V in 815 was followed a year later by victory over the Bulgars. Thus, iconoclasm could well be considered as the religious component of the overall strategy for the empire’s survival. It is difficult to assess the cult of images at the beginning of the eighth century and to determine whether the Isaurians’ charge of idolatry was justified. Scholarly opinion is divided, particularly as to when this cult arose.132 At the council of Hieria in 754, the Isaurian bishops maintained that worship of images became widespread after the sixth council in 680.133 This is possible, though it has not been proved. Whatwe knowof devotional practices would suggest that Leo III’s diagnosis was not exaggerated. At the second council of Nicaea in 787, the bishops cited a passage from the Miracles of Cosmas and Damian as an authority favouring icons and their cults: this tells of a woman who was cured by drinking the scrapings from a fresco representing the saints.134 And, in a letter to Louis the Pious (814–40) seeking to justify his attachment to iconoclasm, Michael II listed the practices he considered inadmissible: fragments of icons mixed in the eucharist, icons which served as altar tables, or as sponsors in baptism or monastic tonsure.135 The popularity of icons and their cult might also be explained by the misfortunes of the times. Icons were a refuge when daily life was disrupted and institutions no longer worked; they permitted a direct relationship with an intercessor, an individual devotion which did not need any church or clergy.136 This would explain why Leo III’s decision in 730 met with resistance – perhaps amplified by iconodule propaganda at the beginning of the ninth century, but still historically certain. Leo III overrode Patriarch Germanos’ opposition, replacing him with Anastasios, his synkellos, but then came up against the patriarchs of Rome and Jerusalem. John of Jerusalem, with the support of John Damascene, virulently opposed the imperial policy of iconoclasm and sent round a synodal decision hostile to the emperor’s proposition. This synodal decision, with later modifications, was transformed into a pamphlet entitled Adversus Constantinum Caballinum.137 For his part, Pope Gregory II (715–31) rejected the synodal decision of Anastasios and wrote Leo letters of reproach. The only version we have of these is one revised and corrected by later polemicists, who put into Leo’s mouth the famous saying: ‘I am emperor and priest.’138 Gregory’s successor, Gregory III (731–41), condemned iconoclasm in November 731 at a provincial council whose acts have been lost.139 There appears to have been no further debate on iconoclasm after this, even though Artabasdos authorised the cult of images while he held Constantinople.140 Constantine V finally decided to legitimise iconoclasm throughout the church by summoning a council; although this purported to be the seventh ecumenical council, it is generally known as the iconoclast council ofHieria. Judging by the quotations from his writings by Patriarch Nikephoros, collected under the title Peuseis, Constantine was himself a good theologian. He prepared the ground for the assembly with a public awareness campaign similar to that of his father before the silention of the Nineteen Couches. Constantine timed the council to coincide with the vacancy in the see of Constantinople following the death of Anastasios, assembling 338 bishops in the palace of Hieria on the eastern shore of the Bosporus from February to August 754.141 This council must have had a disciplinary aspect, for it issued numerous (non-extant) canons, but its main decision was to ban the making and venerating of religious images upon pain of punishment. The argument hinged on the portrayal of Christ: this was rejected on Christological grounds, since Christ (being God and man) could not be delimited in a material figure without falling into the error of Nestorianism or into the confusion of monophysitism.142 Unlike the decisions of the silention of the Nineteen Couches, the council of Hieria appears at first to have been accepted without demur. Iconoclasm became the orthodoxy of the empire, if not the oikoumen¯e. The papacy waited fifteen years before condemning the imperial policy of iconoclasm and the council of Hieria at the Lateran council of 769. It was an internal crisis in the empire that brought Constantine V to violent action in the summer of 766, when a plot against him was thwarted. In fact the trouble began in November 765 with the execution of the monk Stephen the Younger, a friend of the conspirators. Stephen’s execution was followed by the persecution of officials and a compulsory oath for all imperial subjects, abjuring veneration of saints’ images. The climax came in August 766, when ceremonies of ridicule were organised in the Hippodrome – on 21 August against the monks, and four days later against the conspirators. Finally, there was a purge of those in positions of command. New strat¯egoi, faithful to the emperor and his doctrines, were named to the themes of the Anatolikoi and Thrakesioi. Patriarch Constantine, suspected of complicity in the plot, was replaced by Niketas on 16 November 766, before undergoing cruel and humiliating punishment almost a year later in October 767. The strat¯egos of the Thrakesioi, Michael Lachanodrakon, conducted a virulent campaign against both icons and monks in his theme, burning the former and forcing the latter to discard their monastic habits. Betrayal by the men he had trusted led the emperor to harden his policy. The persecution he launched against the monks was peculiar, aimed not at making them iconoclasts – which they had been since 754, like all imperial subjects – but at making them renounce their monastic state and take up clerical, civil or military positions. However, not all were affected, for Leo IV later named monks to the highest episcopal sees.