Leo the Khazar

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A crowded coin showing Leo the Khazar with his grandpa Leo the Iconoclast on the left and old dad Constantine V in the middle. Leo the Khazar ceding centre stage on his own coinage!

Byzantine Emperor Leo IV (born 750, died 780) is better known by his surname as Leo the Khazar. What is a 'Khazar'? I hear you say? Well, read on and find out. Leo was the son of Constantine V and succeeded his father as sole emperor when dad ran into some angry Bulgarians whilst out campaigning. Like his father and grandfather Leo the Iconoclast he supported the 'no religious icons' edict but seems to have been otherwise less bothered to zealously enforce it. Just as well as his wife Irene disapproved of breaking things. She was also apparently the best looking woman in the old Eastern Empire.

Co-emperor and background[edit]

Leo was born in 750 and became co-emperor with his father aged just one. He was named after his grandfather as Constantine V expected his son to follow him in breaking icons of Jesus and scrubbing mosaics of any decoration except pretty patterns. Leo's mother Tzitzak (which is where the Khazars come in) came from an area of Russia, just north of the Black Sea. She was a Khazar, a tribe of sophisticated Turkish nomads who had abandoned paganism and then chose to become Jews. Why Judaism rather than Christianity or Islam? No one quite knows, perhaps it was the dancing or the joys of unleavened bread.

Leo's mother died giving birth to her son and this surname 'the Khazar' was a snooty way the Byzantine elite denigrated Leo's status to suggest he wasn't 'a full Roman' (i.e. Greek, the Byzantines regarded themselves as the sons of Julius Caesar). Leo's father quickly found solace with a two further wives, the latter providing Leo with a clutch of unwanted siblings. The Byzantine empire's succession laws were never legally hereditary so there was always the chance Leo's father could 'put him aside' and choose someone else or a rival would rebel and claim the throne.

The Beauty Contest[edit]

Pick your own wife time.

When Leo was 18 his dad informed it was time to choose a wife. The Byzantines were often reluctant to 'marry out' if that involved hooking up with some animal skin nomad from the steppes or the unwashed Franks of Europe. Marrying a muslim princess was never seriously entertained so Constantine made the decision to hold a beauty contest for his son to choose a bride. The daughters of 'good families' were invited to Constantinople for a contest. Originally, the potential brides had to be supporters of the official Iconoclasm policy but this produced a very thin field. So the rules were changed. It was open to all comers but they had to promise to be a full fury image breaker when becoming empress.

It is said that in amongst the contestants, Leo quickly had the googly eyes for one woman only. Her name was Irene from Athens. She was literate, knew her theology (always a plus with the Byzantines) and wear a swimsuit if required. Leo chose Irene and then promptly collapsed into a severe coughing fit. This was an early sign that he had tuberculosis, brought on by an early addiction to heavy tar Khazar cigarettes.


Leo succeeded his father in 775. Despite some recent territorial loses in Italy, the Byzantine Empire looked to be in a strong position. Leo scored a great victory against the Abbasid caliphate and got a free-out-of-damnation card from the Orthodox. They hoped that Leo would abandon Iconoclasm but he kept to the same position, if just less dogmatic and persecutor-inclined than Constantine V.

Fast out of the stable!

A more immediate danger came from home. Leo's marriage to Irene had produced just one son known later as Constantine VI and it was no secret that his own health was not robust. This encouraged his half brother Nicephorus to claim his 'share' of the imperial family business. Since Nicephorus was also backed up by his four brothers, this looked like a credible threat. However Irene wanted her husband to defend their son's inheritance. When Leo learnt of the plot, he banished Nicephorus instead if execution or disfigurement. Irene was livid. If not an image breaker, she was no respecter of furniture and trashed the imperial bedchamber in anger. She said Leo was disgrace and resisted all further sexual activity with her husband unless he got tough. However, Leo then turned the tables on his wife when he discovered she had been taken secret sexual communion with monks opposed to the official policy. Perhaps marrying Irene was a mistake. Leo now considered a new beauty contest for him to select his next bride. He just had to find a good reason to repudiate Irene and take a new pick.


With Irene appearing to be on her way out, Leo suddenly died in 780 after drinking water 'the wrong way'. Unable to stop coughing, he stuck his head into a fountain and drowned. Irene was officially sad but later reasoned this was god's doing, allowing her the chance for a greater purpose in life. To restore the icons.

Preceded by:
Constantine V
Byzantine Emperor
Succeeded by:
Constantine VI