Early Life and Succession as Emperor
Leo V, also nicknamed as ‘the Armenian’ because of his ancestry, ruled as the Byzantine emperor from 813 to 820 AD. He is recorded on the Biblical Timeline with World History between 787 – 820 AD. The young Leo was born as a commoner and even grew up poor as well as illiterate in a military camp. His skills as a soldier did not go unnoticed by the Byzantine Emperor Michael I Rangabe. He later served as the second-in-command of the Anatolikon theme. Michael later promoted him to the rank of patrician. Later, he served as a high-ranking officer of the rebel Bardanes, alongside Thomas the Slav (Cappadocian) and Michael the Amorian (Phyrigian).
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A monk foretold his succession as Byzantine emperor during the last days of his predecessor, Michael I Rangabe. Michael was later ousted. He and his sons suffered the tragic fate of castration and exile which Leo himself led. It was said that Leo was initially unwilling to take on the role as emperor. His colleague, Michael the Amorian, threatened him with death if he did not enter Constantinople as emperor. He later rewarded Michael’s loyalty with promotion and wealth, while Thomas the Slav became the colonel of the foederati corps.
War with the Bulgars
The Bulgars who established their empire in the northwestern frontier were Byzantium’s longtime enemies and sometimes allies. The relationship between the two empires was not good during the time of Leo V. He inherited the conflict from the emperors who came before him. His first test against this formidable enemy was in 813 AD right after he was crowned as emperor. Krum, the Bulgar khan, decided to attack in the same year. So he sent his brother to besiege Adrianople while he and his troops continued on to Constantinople. He sacrificed men and animals outside the city, and proceeded to attack the neighborhood. These antics failed to impress nor horrify the inhabitants inside. Krum then offered to negotiate for peace in exchange for booty, but Leo saw this as the perfect opportunity to assassinate the khan.
Leo agreed to the negotiation the khan proposed and prepared a place near the shore where assassins were already positioned. The next day, Leo, Krum, and their men went down to the shore. Just as the negotiations started, Leo’s official sent the signal to the assassins to kill the khan. They succeeded in wounding him and killing his treasurer. He escaped and swore to avenge this treachery. The next day, the Bulgars attacked the suburbs around Constantinople and destroyed everything and everyone in their path. The khan also resettled the citizens of some Byzantine towns in his own territories to remind them of the emperor’s treachery.
The emperor had no choice but to negotiate for peace but Krum only rebuffed his effort. Leo decided to lead the attack against the Bulgars himself. The Byzantines won the first round, but when news that the Bulgars no longer had food reached him, Leo took advantage of the situation and led an ambush against them. Both the Bulgars and the Byzantines thought that Leo had abandoned his men, so the enemies thought that it would be a good time to attack the camp. They were thoroughly mistaken as the Byzantines annihilated them. Many Bulgar soldiers were imprisoned by the Byzantines, while Krum was temporarily humbled after this episode.
Revival of Iconoclasm
The monk Philomelion foretold Leo’s accession as emperor which was an event that he apparently never forgot. The emperor sent gifts to the monk to express his gratitude but Philomelion was dead by then. Another monk named Sabbatios had replaced him. When Leo’s representative arrived, he only saw Sabbatios who then took advantage of the opportunity to further the iconoclastic cause. The monk told Leo’s representative that the emperor was not worthy of his position because he venerated idols and warned him that the emperor would not stay in his position for long if he continued this.
This prophecy deeply troubled Leo. He confided to an officer named Theodotos Melissenos about this issue. The cunning Theodotos then told the emperor to consult a monk in Dagisthe about this matter. In truth, Theodotos had already contacted the monk and coached him to tell Leo the same things Sabbatios told the emperor’s representative. Through Theodotos, the monk in Dagisthe already knew that it was the emperor who approached him even though he was dressed like a commoner. He showed off his “prophetic gifts” to impress Leo. The emperor, apparently impressed with the monk’s “power” to know who he was even under disguise, followed the monk’s iconoclastic advise.
Leo V took a page from Leo III the Isaurian’s book and revived the harsh iconoclastic policy previously reversed (or toned-down) in the Second Council of Nicaea. His policy received mixed reactions from the Byzantines but the Patriarch Nicephorus refused to follow Leo’s command. He was exiled to the Marmara Island (Prokonessos). Leo replaced the deposed patriarch with the layman Theodotos Melissenos (Kassiteros) who then proclaimed those who venerated icons as heretics.
Fall of Leo V
Theophanes, the principal historian of this period in the Byzantine empire, did not have a positive view of Leo V. He described the emperor as increasingly cruel as the years passed. His zeal for iconoclasm and his fear of losing his throne led him to be extreme in his punishment of dissenters. Icon worshippers that his good administration and the stability of the empire he brought about during his reign were largely forgotten.
The last years of his reign were marred with the rebellion of his long-time friend and former kingmaker, Michael the Amorion. Leo had Michael tried on Christmas Day, 820. The man was sentenced to death by fire. Just as Michael the Amorion was being led to a furnace, Leo’s wife, the empress Theodosia, plead for him to postpone the execution as it was Christmas Day. Leo followed his wife and granted Michael a reprieve. This proved to be a fatal mistake as Michael later had the emperor assassinated as he attended a matins service. Michael had his assassins, who were disguised as monks, secure the church so that no one could get in and help Leo nor could he get out when they attacked. Leo fought them before they could successfully yet brutally kill him.
Picture By from the Middle Ages, unknown – en:Madrid Skylitzes, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15203759
Bradbury, Jim. The Routledge Companion to Medieval Warfare. London: Routledge, 2004.
Bury, J.B. A History of the Eastern Roman Empire: From the Fall of Irene to the Accession of Basil I (A.D. 802-867). London: Macmillan and, Limited, 1912.
Scylitzes, John. A Synopsis of Byzantine History, 811-1057. Translated by John Wortley. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Shepard, Jonathan, ed. The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
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