When Arab forces surrounded the Byzantine captial of Constantinople during the Second Siege starting in the summer of 717, the Christians there didn’t know if they would survive. This wasn’t the loose blockade of the first round. It was a precise, military affair, with land forces including many mounted troops and a large navy. The Umayyads meant to starve them into surrender, or starve their merchants of economy until they forced a surrender, tactics that worked for them as often as force. But the Byzantine incendiary weapon Greek fire destroyed the Arab navy, allowing Constantinople to resupply itself while the Arab land troops were isolated.
The winter of 717 was brutal. Famine and disease hit the Arab camps. The Byzantine navy stopped Arab multiple ships attempting to reach them and a ground resupply operation was seized in Asia Minor. The Bulgars were sometimes allies of Constantinople and sometimes enemies. In the spring of 718 they were allies, and attacked the Arab camps from the rear. 22-32,000 Arabs were cut down. The Muslims were forced to give up their siege. On their return voyage, natural disasters plagued them and killed many. To the Christians of Byzantium, it was a sign of God’s will. An old kind of Apocalypse theology was revived.
During the Persian Wars of the 600s, when Constantinople had withstood Sassanid assault, Christian missionaries and bishops had preached that Constantinople was the New Jerusalem: that Old Testament prophecies about a coming Apocalypse applied to them. God had forsaken the Jews for he was displeased with them, but he had saved the Christians for they were his new chosen people. It was the original Israeli substitution theology. Romans began to conceive of “Roman Christian” as a race of people in direct opposition to the Jews, set apart by God as a holy contrast. After the Arab loss in 718, this theology returned. Arabs were seen as pawns or agents of the Jews, the true enemies of Christ.
In 726 an underwater volcano erupted off the coast of modern Santorini in the Aegean Sea. This probably caused tsunamis, red tides, or other omens of the end times. Many Byzantines interpreted it as God’s wrath, for the sin of icon veneration. Emperor Leo III had a large image of Jesus removed from the Chalke Gate, and replaced with a simple cross. He didn’t check with any of the big churches or popes first though, he just did it. Veneration was a touchy issue, because it was tied up in Christ’s nature, Mary’s name, and whether Nestorianism was heresy or not. Pope Gregory III in Rome held two synods condemning Leo and upholding the veneration of images and the holiness of intercessory prayers. That is, prayers to Jesus, Mary, or a Saint, asking them to intercede with God on one’s behalf.
In 741, Leo III died, leaving Byzantine to his son Constantine V. Constantine was also a staunch iconoclast (icon breaker). Constantine gathered the Council of Hereria in 754 to settle the matter, calling paintings of saints sinful, but the clergy gathered were not the heads of their churches. Contemporary sources accuse Constantine of harassment campaigns against monasteries, and with the martyrdom killing of St. Stephen. Because monasteries were exempt from both performing military service and paying taxes, many historians suppose Constantine had more practical reasons for trying to gain the obedience of the monks than his position on icons.
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Olster, David M. (1994). Roman Defeat, Christian Response, and Literary Construction of the Jew. University of Pennsylvania Press.
L. Brubaker and J. Haldon. “Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, c. 680-850” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001