• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Leo III: Double Agent or Saviour of the Romans?



“The Power of God’s words… shall never pass away.”

Leo III, Ecloga [1]


In 705, the noseless Justinian II returned to Constantinople and triumphed over his enemies. Fortunately for the mob, the usurpers sported the convenient names Leontius and Apsimar (meaning they were able to spin chants – based on Psalm XCI which encouraged folk to trample upon adders, lions, dragons etc. – and foist them upon the imposters in ingenious slicks of wordplay).

The enthusiasm didn’t last long. Not only had the emperor failed to launch the apocalyptic counterattack that would wipe the Arabs and their faith from the map, it quickly became clear that power was more a tool of retribution than rule. And so in 711 another popular revolt swept him away. In fact, his son Tiberius was “slaughtered like a sheep.”[2] The line of Heraklios had ended.


This heralded more – not less – chaos. In six years three emperors followed one another. Philippikos annoyed everybody with his monothelitism (which was meant to form an abstract compromise, not something anybody actually believed in) and proved unable to deal with the Bulgarian threat. Murdered by the top brass of the Opsikion theme, they in turn were blinded by the Armenian protasekretis Artemius who was raised to power as Anastasios II. Eventually he was shunted aside by the Anatolian troops who’d once supported him and Theodosios III (a customs officer) was raised to the purple.


At first calm appeared to have been restored. The Ephesian emperor placated the Bulgarian threat and the caliph al-Walid died. But a centennial wrath stirred in Damascus. Almost a hundred lunar years had passed since the emigration of Mohammad to Medina and the need to fulfil the hadiths (that concerned the submission of the Christian citadel) intensified. It was in this spirit that the new caliph, Sulayman, launched the biggest campaign to conquer Constantinople.


Sadly, much of what occurred next is a bit of a historical black hole, or at least contains turbulence. It seems the Muslims attempted a ploy in which they landed at Amorion and declared its general, Konon, an “emperor.” He was quickly given a more Greek sounding name (Leo) – the same trick Bardanes had pulled off as “Philippikos” – meaning “lion” in both Greek and Latin.[3] Where his real origin lay is wreathed in obscurity. Some reports claim Isauria, others Syria. He is often supposed to be have been fluent in both Greek and Arabic and had connections with the border-city of Germanikeia (Marash). Indeed, the main crossover between Theophanes’ account of his early career (in the Chronographia) and the Arabic accounts (cf. Kitab al-Uyun) is that nobody trusted a word that fell from his mouth.


Much of the confusion lies in identifying who exactly buttered Leo’s bread. While he may have initially been patronised by the emperor, he also appears to have played double agent for the caliph. His links to the latter were probably the result of a connection he formed with an Umayyad general who (rather mysteriously) stayed with him in Amorion.[4] Rather astonishingly it’s still unknown whether Leo marched on Bithynia (and took the son of Theodosios III hostage, forcing the emperor’s abdication) with a Muslim army at his back or not. Either way, he entered Constantinople on the day of the Annunciation, 717.

The Arabs seem to have been under the impression that Leo III would play gatekeeper for them, opening the doors of the Roman capital when their fleet appeared on the Bosporus. But if he had ever truly played double agent, the emperor changed his mind. Instead he bolted the imperial city shut and sent forth the fire-ships, insisting that those who “waged war upon Christ” would suffer. True to his word, God came to the aid of its beleaguered flock. First, a particularly severe winter struck; second, Christians in the Arab fleet mutinied; third, the Bulgarians picked them off. Finally, the caliph died.[5]

This defeat was so catastrophic that the Muslims felt compelled to fabricate events. According to their account, the general Maslama won a victory and was received in the capital, taking charge of the foundation of the first mosque in Constantinople.[6] The Romans were similarly schizophrenic. Thanks to the fervour of the iconodules, they converted their victory into a mystery granted by the Virgin rather than the leadership of the “impious” Leo, a man the Patriarch Germanos would slur as a potential forerunner of the Antichrist.[7]



In short, the Romans became so wrapped up in theology (Leo’s future iconoclasm will frame him as “Arab-mastered”, “Arab-advised” or “Arab-minded” in Byzantine historiography) that it’s wiser to retreat to Armenian and Monophysite sources. These tended to frame Leo as the saviour of the Roman state – the Ps. Methodian emperor par excellence – in a New Rome that was now hallowed as a New Jerusalem. What Heraklios was to Jerusalem (in his blitzkrieg and restoration of the True Cross), Leo was to the New Jerusalem. One source even had the emperor sink the Muslim fleet by touching the sea with the Cross.[8]


By this time, imperial Christianity has become a slightly different animal: the Christian Empire. The emperor has become less the head of the Roman republic than Christ’s sword and shield. It is therefore no real surprise that Heraklios and Leo are the main two rulers who are supposed to have decreed that the Jews be forcibly baptised – a rather shocking break from convention.[9]

For Arabs, too, the game appears to have changed after the failure of 717-18. While the Romans rediscovered the apocalyptic spine of their martyrs, the Arabs appear to have lost theirs. Tabari is interesting because he elaborates a scene in which Leo and the Arabs discuss relations. The admission that “Before we used to fight one another because of faith… but now we fight for prestige” is a startling one and suggests cynicism had begun to seep into the Islamic mind, a fact perhaps proven by the dialled-down razzias.[10]


[1] Ecloga, ed. Burgmann (1983) I. 11-20.

[2] Theophanes, Chronographia, AM 6203

[3] S. Gero, Byzantine Iconoclasm during the Reign of Leo III (1973) 13-24.

[4] R. Holyand, Theophilus of Edessa’s Chronicle (2011) 209-15.

[5] Theophanes, Chronographia, AM 6209.

[6] Al-Muqaddasi, Ahsan al-Taqasim III:147. The only truth in this was that a mosque was built (near the praetorium) for prisoners of war. Indeed, Leo’s Ecloga was the first imperial source to acknowledge Islam, which it called the “Arab” faith.

[7] Theophanes, Chronographia, AM 6209, 6211.

[8] S. Gero, Byzantine Iconoclasm during the Reign of Leo III, 36-48.

[9] R. Hoyland, Theophilus of Edessa’s Chronicle 221.

[10] Tabari, Tarikh II:1315.

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