Gallery

Alleged iconoclasm and actual usurpation, now on the web

I meant to leap in quickly with another announcement about coins on the web, but then there was a need to write a Leeds paper and I really haven’t been able to get enough sleep lately and and… well, never mind. The short pause is over and here are some more coins. This time it is forty coins of the Emperor Leo III, the Isaurian, and one of his one-time buddy Artabasdos, whose name I find very difficult to spell.

Gold solidus of Emperor Leo III, struck at Constantinople between 717 and 720, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4506

Gold solidus of Emperor Leo III, struck at Constantinople between 717 and 720, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4506

Leo is a controversial figure, which is why Maria Vrij, who did the actual numismatic work behind this upload, identifying coins and tracing provenances and so on, is working on him, and in turn why she was doing the coins for me; many thanks to her. My part, merely laboriously to convert from an old non-relational database format designed for coins to a new relational one designed for things where one description makes more sense than obverse and reverse, and… yes, well, I can put it down, I can. Back to Leo. He is controversial because of being the emperor under whom the movement known as Iconoclasm, a prohibition of images of heavenly persons and objects, is supposed to have started. That may be true but there are big questions about the extent to which he himself started it or was unfriendly towards images, as opposed to being concerned that people might worship rather than merely venerate them. The detailed sources are largely later and there’s no sign in what remains of what he built or ordered made—of which there is very little—that he thought that images of holy persons were evil per se. But this is much debated, so I’m going to step lightly over it, observing only that, if the written sources for Leo’s reign are awkwardly late and therefore deformed by later disputes, the coins should be all the more vital as an exactly contemporary primary source for his rule and self-portrayal, and what they demonstrate seems mainly to be continuity and dynasticism, making them quite unhelpful for the Iconoclast case.1

Silver miliaresion of Emperors Leo III and his son Constantine V, struck at Constantinople between 720 and 741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4521

Silver miliaresion of Emperors Leo III and his son Constantine V, struck at Constantinople between 720 and 741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4521. And yes, look, there are no images of the human form here, but there were on the gold (above) and bronze (below), plus which, Leo was later remembered as having removed images of the Cross also, which makes it odd how it’s on his coins, no? But the Cross had been on the miliaresion since it was first struck, in the seventh century, so it doesn’t really mean anything except that Leo didn’t change things here.

Bronze forty-nummi coin of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V struck at Constantinople between 720 and 741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4534

Bronze forty-nummi coin of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V struck at Constantinople between 720 and 741 (the date on the coin being immobilised), Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4534. This was a change Leo did make, putting his son and heir on the coin with him, but that too was nothing that had not been done long before… This coin is much more fun, in fact, because of being overstruck onto an older one, of whose design traces can still be seen around the new one, especially a ghost head and patriarchal cross above the ‘M’ that signals the denomination on the reverse. Resource-saving, or just a really low-effort minting operation?

There are other things Leo was remembered for: he issued new law for the Roman Empire for the first time since Justinian had codified it all, and in 717-718 successfully defended Constantinople against everything the Caliphate could throw at it, among other deeds. But it’s for his Iconoclasm or lack of it that we will continue to know him today, because no-one comes to eighth-century Byzantium except via a course of study and since this is a controversy we’ll teach it…

Gold tremissis of Emperor Leo III struck at Constantinople, probably between 717 and 720, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4513

Gold tremissis of Emperor Leo III struck at Constantinople between 717 and 720, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4513

So instead, I just want to bring out a nice little irony in the fact that we put these two rulers’ uploads together.2 Leo first appears in the second reign of Justinian II, who used him as an undercover secret agent against the Caucasus-dwelling people known as the Alans. He came through that and a subsequent emperor, Anastasios II, put him in charge of the miltary in Anatolia, and so when Anastasios was deposed in 715, Leo refused to accept it, and his commander-next-door in Armenia, a chap called Artabasdos. Yup, that one. So Leo now marched on the capital, but predictably, once he had arrived there and forced Emperor Theodosios III to abdicate, he did not haul Anastasios out of the monastery but instead took power himself. In fact, he then had to quell a revolt in Sicily intended to restore Anastasios against him! Artabasdos remained a very senior commander in all of this, and Leo married his daughter Anna to him, so there was some sort of understanding between them at the very least.

Gold solidus of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V struck at Syracuse between 720 and 741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4578

Gold solidus of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V struck at Syracuse between 720 and 741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4578. Here, I suppose, you could argue that Leo had in fact replaced the canonical image of the Cross with one of his son, but since they’re both holding Crosses, again in perfectly traditional style, it’s a difficult case to make that that was for theological reasons!

That may explain what happened at the end of Leo’s long reign, by which time he had had another child, and indeed crowned him co-emperor in 720 as Constantine V. By 741 Constantine was fully grown and so when his father died he succeeded fairly naturally. But Artabasdos seems not to have liked this, and when Constantine went on campaign in 742 Artabasdos seized control in the capital and raised those bits of the army loyal to him to keep Constantine out. Artabasdos followed this by proclaiming himself and his son Nikephoros emperors, and his wife, Constantine’s sister, empress. There followed a year or so of fighting which Constantine ultimately won, and he duly had both his uncle-in-law and his nephew executed. Noblesse oblige, huh? I don’t know what happened to Anna.

Silver miliaresion of Emperors Artabasdos and Nikephoros struck at Constantinople in 742 or 743, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4544

Silver miliaresion of Emperors Artabasdos and Nikephoros struck at Constantinople in 742 or 743, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4544. This image has the obverse and reverse transposed, sorry. There’s an argument about which they should be, in fact, but maybe that’s too much for a caption…

Artabasdos doesn’t seem to have issued any bronze coin: there is only gold and silver known for him, and not that much of that. This adds to the impression that precious-metal coin and small change were for very different things in the Byzantine Empire, and forms part of the reassessment of the coinage in the Byzantine economy that we probably still need.3 But it’s also a reminder that the machinery of this immense government didn’t rely on any given ruler to make it go; if you held Constantinople, you could get bits of metal out into the world that proclaimed you as emperor to anyone who knew how to read them. And again, with Artabasdos as with Justinian II, we see that although people did this, doing it didn’t necessarily keep you in that position.

Some maybe-interesting searches:

And by mint:

And finally:

How long do you have to rule after taking power by force for history not to call you a usurper? Longer than Artabasdos, anyway, even if maybe less long than Leo… More soon, anyway; till then, back to the backlog!


This post was written with the aid of Pray for a Good Harvest by Das Ludicroix, which I haven’t played for far too long but is still the oddest thing they recorded.

1. See on all this Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconcoclast Era, c. 650-850: a history (Cambridge 2011), pp. 69-155, which sets a very high evidential standard of proof but certainly has enough to find wanting.

2. I’m here basically following Walter E. Kaegi Jr, “Leo III”, in Encyclopædia Britannica Online, http://www.britannica.com/biography/Leo-III, last modified 19th May 2014 as of 2nd July 2015, but more detail is to be found in Brubaker & Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, pp. 70-79.

3. Despite the existence of Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coinage (London 1902), Michael Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985, repr. 2009) and Cécile Morrisson, “Byzantine money: its production and circulation” in Angeliki Laiou (ed.), The Economic History of Byzantium from the seventh through the fifteenth century, Dumbarton Oaks Studies 39 (Washington DC 2002), 3 vols, online here, III, pp. 909-966. In fact, at least partly because of Hendy…

8 responses to “Alleged iconoclasm and actual usurpation, now on the web

  1. In Yorksheer, “Artabastos, lad?” is a rude enquiry.

  2. While it’s true that there’s no contemporary evidence of Leo III being an Iconoclast, it is also interesting (and perhaps suggestive in view of ‘time-buddy’ Artabasdos’s connection) that at least two Anatolian bishops (Thomas of Klaudioupolis & Constantine of Nakoleia) were known for their Iconoclastic activities as early as 720s-730s. Though these were west Anatolian, and not east Anatolian, as was the Armenian Artabasdos. (I’m relying on Chris Wickham’s account for this)

    • Oh yes! I mean, I’m going really only on skim-reading of Brubaker and Haldon here, but they do not by any means deny that such views were being aired and acted upon in Leo III’s reign, only that enforcing them was not his policy or something he can be shown to have cared about much. And Chris Wickham will have cleared his version with Leslie Brubaker so I think we can quote it in safety :-)

  3. Pingback: Images in metal of the alleged image-smashers | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  4. Pingback: Parting Shots: two Michaels and a Leo | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  5. Pingback: The quiet return of the ruler of all | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  6. Pingback: Minute details of minting in Constantinople | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s