Leo III,the Isaurian
Destined to be the leader who sustained the Byzantine Empire, Leo was born in Germanicia in northern Syria to a noble fami¬ ly. He moved with his family to Thrace, on the eastern side of the Sea of Marmara, where Europe and Asia come together.
As a young man, Leo assisted Byzantine emperor Justinian II in his attempt to recover the throne from a usurper. Not only was the Byzantine Empire divided internally, but it faced an enormous threat from the Arab forces that had recently conquered most of the Middle East, including Leo’s homeland in Syria.
Justinian rewarded Leo with the title of spartharius and sent him on a diplomatic mission to the Caucasus Mountains, but the mission was frustrating and accomplished lit¬ tle. Following the death ofJustinian II, Leo was made governor of the Anatolikonm province, the largest in Asia Minor (present- day Turkey).
Leo led the opposition to Theodosius III and was crowned emperor in his own right in A.D. 717. It was fortunate for the Byzantine Empire that its new leader had a military background, since the Arabs descended on the capital city, Constantinople, that very summer. The Arab leader,Maslama, brought an enormous fleet and army to the area and placed the city under siege.
The year-long siege (a.D. 717—718) was a fiercely fought contest. Leo battled back with the use of “Greek fire,’’ a combi¬ nation of sulfur and lime that set fire to enemy ships. Leo also employed his knowledge of the terrain and geography to outmaneuver and confuse his foes.
Still, the Arabs came close to victory, and only the severe winter of A.D. 717—718 pre¬ vented the fall of the city. When Maslama and his fleet departed in the summer, minus thou¬ sands of men and hundreds of ships, the Islamic armies lost their best chance to destroy the Byzantine Empire.
Leo celebrated the victory and kept his people busy building even stronger defenses around the city. He need not have worried; the Arabs did not return in his lifetime, and the future sieges of Constantinople would be carried out by Seljuk Turks and Ottoman Turks, not by Arabs.
Famous in his later years, Leo carried out a campaign against icon worship within the empire. He died in A.D. 741, confident that his victories had enabled the empire to with¬ stand many foes, both internal and external. The dynasty he founded lasted until A.D. 802. It has often been called the “Isaurian Dynasty,” but it should properly be called the Syrian dynasty.