fell time and again until only the shell of her glory was left, but Constantinople endured. The barbarians sent armies against her so great they covered the plains like swarms of locusts, but they could not penetrate her defenses. Attila lived and died, and Alaric, whose sword weighed out the ransom of the weeping Romans, and lame Gaiseric, in whom Carthage at last had her revenge, and Theodoric the Ostrogoth, who wanted only to be Roman himself, and their trumpery ambitions died with them and turned to dust, while Constantinople endured and grew mighty. Even when disaster struck, as when the Emperor Valens died under the hoofs of the Visigothsâ horses at Adrianople, the City was invincible.
She was an idea, the City, an idea like Justinianâs, a perfect world order, a universal Christian empire; for a little while at least Justinian even recovered the old western provinces of Africa and Italy, and the Empire reached around the Middle Sea again. Then, because a eunuch took insult at a womanâs slight, the Lombards took back most of Italy. And the Arabs came.
The desert bred them, as if the grains of sand turned into warriors, and the hot blast of the wind drove them in a wild irresistible whirl across Africa and up through the Holy Lands, where an unfortunate dispute over a subtle matter of doctrine made the people ready for a new master, who possessed a clearer statement of what God had in mind. The Empire shrank like a puddle in the sun. Africa was lost again, and Egypt and Syria, the Arabs coming on and on, driven by their simple credo and their seemingly limitless numbers; they reached the shore and built ships, took Cyprus and Sicily, and then one day there they were, before Constantinople itself, expecting to have it all.
Some said the Virgin walked on the walls of the City during that siege, and by her motherly smile and the touch of her hand gave heart to the defenders; others, more practical, attributed the success of the defense to the new weapon, Greek fire, blown through hollow tubes onto the Arab ships, which then blazed on the water like the hecatombs of old. The Arabs failed. Came back again, fools, not knowing the will of God when they saw it (although they mouthed great speeches about the will of God), and were beaten again, and again and again, and each time as the baffled minions of catastrophe withdrew, the Empire grew a little stronger.
There was no peace. There was a balanceâthe Arabs struck, the Empire struck back, and where their strengths were equal, a boundary appeared, but as ever, with one enemy subdued, another appeared. From the north came the Bulgars, a great grunting people without even a true king, pushing down into Thrace and Illyria and Greece. Then the Emperor made a terrible mistake.
The EmperorâBasileus, he was called, in Greek, the Latin tongue having ceased to serve the Empire around the time of Justinianâwas equal to the apostles, but even Peter made mistakes; and in the face of the Arabs with their sublimely simple faith, the Emperor Leo the Isaurian was tempted irresistibly. He would simplify Christendom as well. He decreed that all idols and images of God and the saints were blasphemous and were to be destroyed.
Like a whirling maelstrom, the iconoclasm nearly pulled the whole Empire in after it. Perhaps there had been abuses of the images of saints âin the eastern provinces especially, where icons had often stood godparents at christeningsâbut the people loved them, and cleaved to them. Within a few years of the decrees of the iconoclasm, Constantinople had lost most of Greece and all that was left to it of Italy, and the rebelling populations of the Empire were making government impossible.
Yet the Emperor would not relent. Nor did his son Constantine yield to reason, but closed up the monasteries that were the champions of the icons, and seized their wealth, and the icons were broken or covered over with whitewash, so that the Church of