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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Vasilief, A History of the Byzantine Empire

The Iconoclastic epoch (717-867)

Religious controversies and the first period of Iconoclasm 


Icon of the Christ and New Testament Reader
Page 2

Scholars have turned their attention first of all to the question of the causes for the movement against images, which lasted with some intervals for over one hundred years with very serious consequences to the Empire. Some students of this period have seen in the policy of the iconoclastic emperors religious causes, while others have believed that the causes were chiefly political. It was thought that Leo III determined to destroy images because he hoped that this measure would remove one of the chief obstacles to a closer relationship of the Christians with the Jews and Muhammedans, who disapproved of icons. He is credited with believing that a closer religious kinship with these two denominations would facilitate their subjugation to the Empire.

A very thorough study of the iconoclastic period has been made by the well-known Greek historian, Paparrigopoulo, whose biased views with regard to the Ecloga have been pointed out. According to him it is incorrect to apply the term iconoclastic to this epoch because it does not fully define the period. His belief is that parallel with the religious reform which condemned images, prohibited relics, reduced the number of monasteries, and yet left the basic dogmas of the Christian faith intact, there was also a social and political reform. It was the intention of the iconoclastic emperors to take public education out of the hands of the clergy. These rulers acted, not from personal or dynastic whims, but on the basis of mature and extended deliberations, with a clear understanding of the needs of society and the demands of public opinion. They were supported by the most enlightened element of society, by the majority of the high clergy, and by the army. The final failure of the iconoclastic reforms should be attributed to the fact that there were still many people devotedly attached to the old faith, and hence extremely antagonistic to the new reforms. This group included chiefly the common people, women, and the enormous number of monks. Leo III was apparently unable to educate the people in the new spirit. Such, in brief, are the views of Paparrigopoulo with regard to this epoch; but there is no doubt that he exaggerated when he regarded the reform activities of the emperors of the eighth century as a remarkable attempt at a social, political, and religious revolution. Still, he was the first scholar to point out the complexity and importance of the iconoclastic period, thus inducing others to pay closer attention to it.

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