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Leo IV : The Khazar

Leo IV, known as “the Khazar” due to his maternal ancestry, reigned as Byzantine emperor from 775 to 780 AD. His short but significant reign bridged a critical period in Byzantine history, marking a transition between the fierce iconoclasm of his father, Constantine V, and the eventual restoration of icons under his wife, Irene of Athens.

Early Life and Ascension:

Born in 750 AD, Leo was the son of Constantine V and his first wife, Tzitzak, who was Khazar royalty. He was elevated to co-emperor in 751 at a young age, receiving the title of Caesar. In 768, he married Irene, a noblewoman known for her intelligence and piety. When Constantine V died in 775 while campaigning against the Bulgars, Leo, at the age of 25, ascended to the throne.

Military Campaigns:

Facing external threats from both the Arabs in the east and the Bulgars in the north, Leo IV pursued a more defensive military strategy than his father. He successfully exploited internal conflicts among the Bulgars, granting asylum to the Bulgar khan Telerig and marrying him to a relative of Irene. This diplomatic move temporarily pacified the Bulgars. Against the Arabs, Leo launched three campaigns, achieving mixed results. Though he suffered setbacks, he also scored victories, preventing significant Arab incursions into Byzantine territory.

Religious Policy:

While upholding his father’s official adherence to Iconoclasm, the policy that opposed the veneration of religious images, Leo IV adopted a more moderate approach. He ceased active persecution of iconophiles and reportedly allowed veneration within the imperial palace. This shift in policy signaled a potential future change in the religious landscape of the empire.

Domestic Affairs:

Internally, Leo IV focused on stabilizing the empire’s finances and administration. He undertook fiscal reforms to bolster the treasury and strengthened regional governance. He also actively participated in religious debates, advocating for a middle ground between iconoclasts and iconophiles.

Death and Legacy:

Leo IV’s reign was cut short when he died of unknown causes in 780 AD at the young age of 30. His successor was his son, Constantine VI, who initially ruled under the regency of Irene. Though his reign was brief, Leo IV’s significance lies in his role as a transitional figure. He paved the way for the eventual restoration of icons under Irene, marking a major turning point in the religious history of the Byzantine Empire.


  • The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • A History of the Byzantine State and Civilization, Alexander A. Vasiliev, University of Wisconsin Press, 1958.
  • Leo IV the Khazar, Kazhdan Alexander (Ed.), The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, Oxford University Press, 1991.


Leo IV’s reign, though short, left a lasting impact on the Byzantine Empire. His moderate approach to Iconoclasm laid the groundwork for the future restoration of icons. His diplomatic maneuvers secured temporary peace on the frontiers, and his administrative reforms strengthened the empire’s internal stability. Though often overshadowed by his wife, Irene, Leo IV played a crucial role in bridging the eras of fierce iconoclasm and the eventual triumph of iconophile practices in the Byzantine world.

Note: The sources listed above provide further details and insights into Leo IV and are recommended for those seeking a more comprehensive understanding

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