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Early Life and Military Career

Emperor Leo III was born in the city of Germanicea in the kingdom of Commagene (present-day southern Turkey) sometime around 685 AD. His original name was Konon, and he grew up in Thrace after his parents were resettled there from their native homeland in the Mount Taurus region. He entered military service under Justinian II and rapidly rose through the ranks over the years. Leo was familiar with the Muslim threat when he was sent to the regions of Lazica and Alania (in modern Georgia) to lead the defense against the Umayyad invasion under Caliph Al-Walid I. Leo III is recorded on the Bible Timeline Chart with World History around 741 AD.

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He became the strategos (general) of the Anatolic theme (province) during the reign of Emperor Anastasios II between 713 AD and 715 AD. Anastasios abdicated in favor of Theodosius III in 715 after a two-year stint as the Byzantine emperor. Leo III conspired with the Armenian general Artabasdos in a coup against Theodosius. From the start, the former emperor was only compelled to fulfill the role of Byzantine ruler. Theodosius was just happy to enter a monastery after the success of Leo’s coup. In return for his support, Leo had his daughter marry Artabasdos and promoted him as the commander of the Opsikion theme.

Second Siege of Constantinople

Emperor Leo III started his reign on the 25th of May in 717 AD. He had no time to waste as the Umayyad navy threatened Constantinople with another invasion (the first siege of Constantinople in 674 AD ended in failure in 678 AD). Leo only had months to prepare the Byzantine navy and army for the invasion before the enemy fleet, led by caliph Sulayman, sailed to the Sea of Marmara. By the time Sulayman’s fleet arrived in the Sea of Marmara on the first of September in 717, an Umayyad army composed of 80,000 men marched from the Middle East to Asia Minor to help them take Constantinople.

“19th-century Italian painting, The Iconoclasts”

The Byzantines first used the “Greek fire” during the First Siege of Constantinople. They used the flamethrower once again during the second Umayyad invasion. It was effective; the result was a massive loss of ships and men on the Umayyad side. Leo was also a good strategist. He removed the chain that guarded the Golden Horn so that the enemy would think that he intended to lure them inside and trap them. The ruse worked, and it forced the enemy ships to sail away to a nearby inlet to take refuge.

The descent of a harsh winter in 717 AD lessened the chances of success of the Umayyad navy and army who were not used to the bitter cold. Admiral Sulayman fell sick and died in the same year; he was then hastily replaced by another admiral from Egypt who brought with him a shipment of additional men, food, and weapons. Among those who came with the new navy were Egyptian Christians who jumped ship the moment they arrived near Constantinople and switched sides to Leo III. They passed on information to the Byzantine emperor who used this to raid the Egyptian ships for food and weapons.

The Byzantines called on their Bulgar allies during the last few months of the siege in 718 AD, and together they attacked the enemy which resulted in a loss of about 20,000 on the Muslim side. The new Umayyad caliph Umar II saw that it was useless to continue the siege and agreed to sign a peace treaty with Leo III. He then recalled his men from the Sea of Marmara on August 15, 718 AD. Only five ships returned to the shores of the Levant after a storm destroyed them on the way. Many were also destroyed by a volcano eruption in the Aegean or captured by the Byzantines.

The Muslim army continued to harass the Byzantines on land in the years that followed. They took Cappadocia and besieged Nicaea in 724 AD. Leo faced a bigger Muslim invasion during the last years of his reign as emperor when a 90,000-strong Muslim army invaded much of Asia Minor and took their Byzantine captives to Syria. The emperor, with his son Constantine and their troops, later drove them back to the Levant.

Rebellions and Iconoclasm

Rebellions hounded Emperor Leo in the early years of his reign, with the first one led by a man named Artemius on the island of Sicily. The rebellion happened during the Second Siege of Constantinople, but Leo sent troops to Sicily to quash the revolt when he had a small break from the naval battles with the Muslims. The former Emperor Anastasios II also decided to return to Constantinople and rallied his allies in 719 AD to seize the throne. But the Bulgars who joined his cause abandoned Anastasios during an important battle. He was captured by Leo who later had him executed.

Emperor Leo’s greatest challenge was the prohibition he imposed on the worship of idols after the Second Siege of Constantinople. During the siege, Patriarch Germanos paraded an icon of the Virgin Mary and Child Jesus around the city which made the people believe that it was the icon that helped lift the invasion. Insulted that he was not properly credited as the one who led the successful defense of the city, Leo promptly had the icons all over the Byzantine Empire removed or destroyed. The eruption of the underwater volcano near the island of Thera (which he took as a sign of God’s wrath) and the Muslims’ prohibition of the worship of idols also pushed him to issue this edict.

The first “victim” of Leo’s iconoclasm was the icon of Christ that decorated the Bronze Gate (Chalke) of the Great Palace in Constantinople. He ordered the soldiers to remove it from its usual place. This enraged the crowd that gathered in front of the palace, and a riot subsequently flared up in the city that resulted in the death of one soldier. The members of the mob that committed the riot were arrested and fined. Leo ordered more icons all over the empire to be removed and destroyed. He had a falling out with Pope Gregory II over this issue which resulted in his excommunication; in addition, the edict was not received very well and rejected as blasphemy in many parts of his own empire.


Leo was one of the most energetic Byzantine emperors who ruled during a very chaotic period. His army was one of the most disciplined and effective during the early Middle Ages. During his reign, he reformed the justice system and released a handbook called Ecloga which was a summary of laws issued by the former emperors. The book was published in 740 AD and covered diverse topics such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, maritime laws, and agriculture. He did not expand the empire, but he did keep what remained of the Byzantine territories intact during his reign.

He had four children by his wife Maria and one of them, Constantine, succeeded him as emperor. Leo reigned for a total of twenty-four years and died on June 18, 741 AD after an illness.

Picture By Domenico Morelli, Public Domain,
Bury, J. B. A History of the Later Roman Empire, from Arcadius to Irene (395 A.D. to 800 A.D.). London: Macmillan and, 1889. Accessed August 8, 2016. III.
Treadgold, Warren. A History of the Byzantine State and Society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997.
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