Leo IV the Khazar

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Emperor Leo IV the Khazar was the emperor of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire from 780 to 785. He was an iconoclast following in the steps of his father, Constantine V who was a committed iconoclast. His reign, a short five years, was was over shadowed by his wife Irene of Athens, a strong iconodule, who after Leo’s death succeeded to power as regent for her son Constantine VI and as empress.


Leo was born in January 750 to Constantine V’s first wife, Irene the Khazar. He was crowned co-emperor by his father in 751. In December 769 he was married in the chapel of St Stephen in the Daphne palace to Irene of Athens, a member of the Sarandapechys family. Their only son, Constantine, was born on January 14, 771. The choice of Irene as the bride for Leo was to prove surprising as Irene displayed later a reverence for icons.

Leo succeeded to the throne at the age of twenty five after the death of his father, Constantine, in August 775 . He had his five year old son, Constantine VI, crowned as co-emperor on April 14, 776, a Pascha Sunday, after having the army, senate, and people swear that they would accept no other emperor than himself, his son, and their descendants. In spite of this action conspiracies erupted among Leo’s younger brothers. These Leo put down easily although the conspiring brothers would re-appear later in opposition to Irene’s regime.

During the early part of his reign Leo appeared to take a more moderate position than his father on suppression of veneration of icons and monasticism. When Patriarch Nicetas died in 780, Leo appointed as patriarch Paul of Cyprus who may have had a more moderate iconoclastic position than his predecessors. But, soon Leo appeared to renew the persecution of iconodules that his father had initiated in the 760s. When Leo found that his wife Irene had icons in her possession, he rebuked her then turning her aside no longer had marital relations with her. Many courtiers, iconophile sympathizers of Irene’s whom she may have brought to the palace, were arrested, imprisoned, and tortured, some who may have died. Relations between Leo and Irene before these renewed persecutions appeared to be fine.

Other than in military matters little is known of Leo’s civil activities as emperor. Militarily, he continued the primarily defensive and successful warfare in Asia Minor of his father against Arab forces.

Leo died on September 8, 780 while on a campaign against the Bulgarians. His death was described, possibly by Irene’s supporters, as having been the result of Leo’s addiction to precious stones, wherein he wore on his head the crown of the Great Church, which resulted in his being seized by a violent fever. His reign ended six days short of five years. Leo was buried with other members of the imperial family in the Church of the Holy Apostles.

The ascendency of Irene, his wife, brought on the scene a strong personality who after Leo’s death reversed the iconoclastic heresy that had appeared in the Byzantine imperial court. Irene’s fortitude resulted in the convening of the Seventh Ecumenical Council that formally recognized the veneration of images in the Orthodox Church.

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