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The Volcanic Eruption That Divided Europe in 726 AD

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Nea Kamini in the Aegean Sea

My photo from the cliff-tops of Thera, the largest island in Santorini's ring of islands which are all that's left of a larger island destroyed in 1600 BC. In the middle of the ring is Nea Kameni, the growing volcano that first appeared in 197 BC.

My photo from the cliff-tops of Thera, the largest island in Santorini's ring of islands which are all that's left of a larger island destroyed in 1600 BC. In the middle of the ring is Nea Kameni, the growing volcano that first appeared in 197 BC.

Menace of the Mediterranean

I've long been fascinated by Santorini Volcano off the coast of Greece. I've written other articles on its major Bronze Age eruption that may have planted the seeds of the Atlantis myth. Scientists have learned a great deal about that prehistoric disaster, when ash fall and tsunamis battered the eastern Mediterranean. Santorini exploded much like Krakatoa — but in an even larger eruption — leaving a ring of islands like beads of a broken necklace. This "big bang" captured my attention as a teenager, but lately, I've begun to wonder: what has happened to Santorini since then?

When I visited Santorini in 2005, I gazed out from its shattered peaks to the deep, vast circular lagoon created by that ancient cataclysm. The waters are blue and peaceful. Yet a dark, low, evil-looking island lies at the heart of the harbor, like a shadow the sun cannot banish. Locals call it Nea Kameni, the "new burnt island." It is an infant volcano rising like a phoenix from the ashes of the old, like Anak Krakatoa, "Son of Krakatoa," rising out of the ruins of Krakatoa Volcano that exploded in 1883.

Recently, I have been studying the history of Nea Kameni, this new volcano which first broke the surface in 197 BC. Every one of its eruptions has a story to tell, but the one that fascinates me most is a 726 AD eruption that shaped the history of the Catholic Church, Christian Europe, and to some extent the conflicts in the Middle East still troubling us today.

Video below: "Anak Kratatoa" has rebuilt faster than Nea Kameni, so it is taller, but it is the same kind of volcano as Nea Kameni. Video of eruptions from 2010. Nea Kameni last erupted like this in 1950.

Anak Krakatoa: A Young Volcano in Action

The Volcano That Shook Christendom

In 726 AD, things were going badly in Europe. Repeated waves of plague had ravaged its population. The Roman empire had fallen in the west. Europe was then ruled by petty kingdoms of Goths, Franks, and Lombards. Most had converted more or less to Christianity, but Christianity itself was still in flux. Doctrines were still being hammered out, and the Pope did not yet have ruling authority over bishops and patriarchs as he would later.

The eastern Roman Empire remained, with its capital of Constantinople (Byzantium), but it was under siege from the Umayyad dynasty, the powerful Muslim empire which had conquered Northern Africa and Asia Minor and begun its march into Europe through Spain. Emperor Leo III was trying to hold back the tide in the east.

Into all this chaos, unexpectedly, the long-dormant volcano of Santorini burst forth with the strongest eruption Europe had seen since the one in 1600 BC. The eruption apparently did not last long, but its impact was enormous -- not only physically. Ash fell in the Near East and Greece. Rafts of floating pumice (volcanic rock) clogged the entire Aegean Sea, piling up on islands and coastlines, choking off the Straits of Dardanelles which were Constantinople's lifeline to the Mediterranean and Europe. Tsunamis, ash, floating rocks that caused the seas to boil, a new island of fire arising in the midst of the sea which was the hub of the Roman Empire of those days: what could it mean?

Emperor Leo was deeply troubled by this divine portent. Clearly, God was terribly angry. But why?

Like many another political leader, Leo seized on a red herring which had nothing to do with the actual problem (e.g. Saddam's invisible WMDs which had no relation to Bin Ladin or Al Qaeda). Leo decided that Christianity's use of religious images was arousing God's wrath.

Iconoclasm and Christianity

Leo's reasoning, if one could call it that, was roughly as follows. A volcanic eruption meant God was angry. Meanwhile, apparently by God's will, Muslims had conquered large chunks of the Roman (and Christian) Empire. What about Muslims could be pleasing to God? Islam strictly prohibited all images of God or any living being as idolatry. Therefore, God must be angry at Christianity for using images, and favoring the Muslims because they did not.

Never mind that Christianity had been using images of Jesus Christ, Mary, the apostles and symbols like the lion and lamb since the church's foundation. Emperor Leo ordered the image of Christ to be removed from the gates of his palace. He passed edicts banning religious icons and ordering existing ones to be destroyed. (Icono-clast = "break-images"). He tackled the problem of "graven images" with all the fervor of American Prohibitionists in 1919. It was easier to deal with legislating morality than the Umayyad Empire on his doorstep, after all.

The result of Emperor Leo's edicts was immediate: rebellion! Germanos the Patriarch of Constantinople resigned, and Greece revolted against the emperor. Instead of fighting Arabs, Leo was forced to lead the fleet against Greece, still reeling from Santorini's eruption. Pope Gregory II convened a council of bishops which declared Leo's iconoclasm a heresy, and they excommunicated him. Leo retaliated by declaring the Papal See subject to the Patriarch of Constantinople. When Gregory refused, Leo ordered a fleet against Rome (the fleet sank). Meanwhile, the Frankish barbarians of France and Germany were using the chaos to conquer and expand their power, and the Lombard Kings were conquering more of Italy. The Umayyad Arabs were pushing farther into Spain and threatening to overrun Europe from the west.

Emperor Leo, incensed against the Pope, would not send aid to defend Europe (in fact, he had enough threats closer to home that he probably could not, but now he would not). Estranged from the imperial might of Constantinople, Pope Gregory had to call upon Charles Martel, the Frankish king, to fight back the Muslims and hem them in Spain.

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Where I Learn About Santorini's 726 Eruption

The Long-Term Impact of Iconoclasm

Charles Martel's grandson Charlemagne was anointed Emperor of the so-called "Holy Roman Empire" by Pope Gregory's successor, confusingly named Pope Leo III. By this act Pope Leo declared that Constantinople's Roman Empire was not Christian, not the heir to the old Roman empire; the good and righteous (and anti-iconoclast) Charlemagne was the legitimate Roman emperor. Pope Leo was also saying that the Pope had power over emperors, not the other way around, a direct rebuttal of Emperor Leo's attempts to dictate Christian doctrine.

The lines of political and religious power had been drawn for medieval Europe, with an irrevocable divide between East and West. The old Roman empire and what became the Eastern Orthodox Church were estranged and would sink separately deeper into a Dark Age, while Islam secured its footholds in the Holy Land, northern Africa, and (for several hundred years) Spain.

All because Emperor Leo had reacted to a uniquely horrific disaster with an illogical and disproportionate response. His high-handed campaign triggered massive political, social, and religious polarization that did far more damage than the volcanic eruption, leaving his empire and his allies vulnerable to a real and greater threat.

Sounds familiar somehow, doesn't it? History, like volcanic eruptions, really does repeat itself, although never in quite the same way.


Ellen (author) from California on September 09, 2014:

Thanks for the reference. Obviously, I was drawing heavily on Friedrich's research, since my own historical knowledge begins to peter out before the end of the Roman empire (I have an MA in classical studies). I'll take a look at Wickham and see what he has to say.

Rick on September 09, 2014:

Premise of your article is wrong according to Chris Wickham (inheritance of Rome p. 269)

Ellen (author) from California on August 14, 2012:

Yep. To be fair, after-the-fact "discoveries" of charter documents are a fairly commonplace practice in the ancient and medieval world. ("Oh, look, I found an ancient book buried under the cornerstone of the senate that tells us how laws were set up in Ye Golden Age, so now I can push through this reform that coincidentally matches what our revered ancestors did...")

jsasson from Florida on August 14, 2012:

Very interesting. You may have heard of the Donation of Constantine, an obvious forgery of Constantine from the 300s, miraculously found by Leo that gives the Pope authority over kings, wear purple, have an army, live in a palace etc. Interesting how geology and palte the tectonics played into all this.

Danette Watt from Illinois on April 06, 2012:

Very interesting hub and I love that photo you took and posted at the top. Beautiful.

Barnsey from Happy Hunting Grounds on March 06, 2012:

Great Hub! Love all the crunchy stuff! You really straightened out the order of events for me here, appreciate it!

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