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8-08-2015, 00:20

The empire restored and the reign of michael vii

These changes would in the long run work againstMichael VIII Palaiologos’ efforts to restore the Byzantine empire, but failure hardly seemed possible as the emperor took formal possession of Constantinople on 15 August 1261. Early successes suggested that the Byzantine empire would soon be returned to its pre-1204 boundaries.Michael VIII quickly obtained a foothold in the Peloponnese.William II of Villehardouin, prince of Achaia, had fallen into Byzantine hands, along with many of his barons, at the battle of Pelagonia in 1259.He now agreed to come to terms.He ceded toMichael the fortresses ofMonemvasia,Mistra andMaina (see below, p. 768). The recovery of the Greek lands beckoned. In 1264 Michael II Angelos Doukas, the ruler of Epiros, accepted the hegemony of the new emperor of Constantinople. Substantial gains had been made in the previous year at the expense of the Bulgarians. Philippopolis, gateway to the Balkans, was recovered together with the ports of the Black Sea coast.Michael VIII then secured control of theDobrudja, the region at the mouth of theDanube, where he established Turkish colonists. They had come over to Byzantium with the last Seljuq sultan of Rum, Kay-Kawos II, who had fled toMichael in April 1261. Even if it meant accepting baptism, the sultan found this preferable to remaining under the Mongol yoke. Such a spectacular defection gave Michael VIII reason to hope for further gains in Asia Minor. The recovery of Constantinople also put the Venetians on the defensive. They were driven from Constantinople and replaced by the Genoese, who were Byzantine allies. However, the Genoese in their turn were temporarily banned from the capital in 1264, as Michael VIII had no intention of allowing the Italians a dominant position in Constantinople. He built up the Byzantine fleet, which for the last time would be a major force in the waters of the Aegean.39 The tragedy ofMichael VIII Palaiologos’ reign was that he was never able to capitalise on these early successes. He failed to drive the Venetians from their Aegean bases in Crete and Euboea. The Franks of the Peloponnese stubbornly refused to cede any more territory to his armies. TheGreek rulers of Epiros and Thessaly threw off their Byzantine allegiance. Opposition to Byzantine rule was stiffened by the appearance of a new figure on the scene, Charles of Anjou, youngest brother of the French king Louis IX (1226–70). Charles’ victory at Benevento over Manfred of Hohenstaufen in 1266 established him as papally approved ruler of the kingdom of Sicily and heir to ambitions in the east. In 1267 he entered into separate treaties withWilliam II ofVillehardouin, prince of Achaia, and with Baldwin II, the dispossessed Latin emperor of Constantinople. He took the former under his protection, securing succession to the principality of Achaia for his son Philip through a dynastic marriage. He promised the Latin emperor that within seven years he would launch an expedition to recover Constantinople on his behalf. The petty rulers of the Balkans and Greek lands – orthodox and catholic alike – turned to him for support against the pretensions of Michael VIII. The Albanians seized the Byzantine base of Dyrrachium (Durr¨es), at the head of the EgnatianWay, and in February 1272 recognised Charles of Anjou as their king. Charles thus secured the key positions along the Albanian coast. It was a serious setback for Michael VIII. The Byzantine emperor sought to counter the Angevin threat in various ways. He strengthened the sea walls of Constantinople. The lesson of the Fourth Crusade was its vulnerability to an attack from the sea. Michael VIII therefore wooed Venice to prevent it from joining the Angevin camp. He finally induced the Venetians to make a treaty with Byzantium rather than with Charles of Anjou in 1268: the Venetians recovered control of their old quarter in Constantinople. However, Byzantium’s major diplomatic offensive was directed towards the papacy. Michael employed the age-old ploy of offering a reunion of the churches. The papacy was at first unconvinced of the sincerity or utility of the offer, but this changed in 1271 when Gregory X (1271–6) became pope. He was not interested in supporting Charles of Anjou’s designs on Constantinople. His purpose was instead to rescue the crusader states from theMamluk menace. An alliance with Byzantium might have its uses, but the pope insisted that it must be cemented by reunion on Rome’s terms. Essentially, this meant Byzantine recognition of papal supremacy. It was a price that, in the circumstances, Michael VIII thought worth paying. In 1274 he despatched a Byzantine delegation to Lyons where a council of the church was gathering.Without any serious debate of the issuesMichael accepted a reunion on papal terms. He cited as a precedent for his actions the negotiations with the papacy initiated by John III Vatatzes.40 These had produced little, if any, protest, perhaps because they were never brought to a conclusion. But Michael’s unionist policies would earn him the hatred of all sections of Byzantine society. Why were people so unwilling to accept his reassurance that almost nothing worthwhile had been conceded? Why did the orthodox church refuse to approach the question of union in a spirit of oikonomia?41 The answers to these questions reveal that it was not only Charles of Anjou’s ambitions that thwartedMichael VIII’s plans to restore the Byzantine empire. Michael’s unionist policy confirmed the tyrannical nature of his rule. His usurpation of the throne was not easily forgotten. On ChristmasDay 1261 he had had the legitimate heir to the imperial throne, John IV Laskaris, blinded and exiled to a fortress on the Sea of Marmara. Patriarch Arsenios protested. He was responsible for protecting the rights of John Laskaris, which the usurper had solemnly sworn before God to uphold. The patriarch therefore excommunicatedMichael. It took three years before the emperor could rid himself of Arsenios, but his dismissal only produced a schism within the orthodox church, weakening the authority of subsequent patriarchs. Arsenios gave his support to an uprising around Nicaea in favour of John Laskaris.Michael VIII may have suppressed it with some ease, but thereafter he found the Anatolian provinces increasingly alienated from Constantinopolitan rule. The historian George Pachymeres singled this out as the underlying cause of their subsequent fall to renewed Turkish pressure.42 Michael VIII’s unionist policy reinforced the growing distrust of his rule. He refused to listen to the reasonable objections of Patriarch Joseph I. As soon as it became clear that the emperor intended to do the pope’s bidding, the patriarch retired to a monastery rather than be party to the reunion of the churches. This produced another schism within the orthodox church, when Michael VIII pressed ahead with his designs. Efforts to win support for the union were crude and largely counterproductive. The story goes that when the members of the Byzantine delegation to Lyons returned to Constantinople they were greeted with cries of ‘You have become Franks!’43 It catches a sense of betrayal that spread throughout Byzantine society. This was confirmed by the harsh way in which Michael VIII and his new patriarch, John Bekkos (1275–82), implemented the union. In 1276 the patriarch convened a council which not only confirmed the union, but placed all who opposed it under ban of excommunication. The next year the emperor and his son publicly swore to recognise the supremacy of the papacy and read out a profession of faith that included the Roman addition of the filioque. Michael’s opponents seized on his unionist policy to justify their actions. The Greek rulers of Epiros and Thessaly used it as a pretext for refusing to submit to his authority. John of Thessaly held an anti-unionist council in 1275/6 which attracted many ofMichael’s opponents within the church. This was blatant exploitation of the unionist issue for political ends. Less easy to explain is the opposition to church union of some ofMichael VIII’s closest relatives and political associates. Even his favourite sister, the nun Eulogia, turned against him and fled to Bulgaria. Such was the hostility to the union within the imperial family that Michael was compelled to imprison many of his relatives. The papal emissary was taken down to see them languishing in the dungeons of the Great Palace.Michael hoped that their misery would convince the papacy of his sincerity over the union. This opposition from within the imperial family was prompted in the first place by concern for orthodoxy, which was being needlessly compromised by the emperor; but it ran deeper than this. Michael VIII was seen to be using the unionist issue as a way of imposing his arbitrary power over Byzantine church and society. Like all Byzantine emperors, Michael was faced by the conundrum of imperial authority. In theory, he wielded absolute power; in practice, it was limited by obligations to the church and the ruling class, and to society at large.Michael came to power as the leader of an aristocratic faction. He ensured that the chief offices of state went to his close relatives. He also widened his basis of support through a series of shrewd marriages that linked his family to other great houses.45 At first, his style of government was conciliatory. At the same time as donations to the army and monasteries, he clamped down on the dishonesty and oppression of provincial governors and military commanders. He improved the quality of justice by setting up a court of appeal, the sekr¯eton, and abolished the use of the ordeal by hot iron which had become an instrument of arbitrary government. He showed exaggerated respect for the church and patriarch.46 This changed once Michael became master of Constantinople. He employed the western notion of the ‘law of conquest’ to justify a more autocratic approach to government. He claimed that, since he had conquered Constantinople, it belonged to him exclusively, and he used this as a pretext to threaten opponents of the union with confiscation of their property, if they did not comply with his wishes. He was, after all, the ‘new Constantine’.47 He became increasingly remote from his natural basis of support. He made use of western adventurers, such as Benedetto Zaccaria, who received the alum concession at Phokaia near Smyrna.48 He also relied heavily on trusted bureaucrats, such as the grand logothete George Akropolites, who was a leader of the Byzantine delegation to Lyons. The humiliating concessions made by Michael VIII to the papacy brought little concrete advantage. This only increased distrust of the emperor. The papacy, for its part, continued to have doubts aboutMichael’s sincerity, so much so that in 1281 PopeMartin IV (1281–5) had him excommunicated. This was at Charles of Anjou’s behest, and provided him with the justification he needed for a new assault on Byzantium. This time Charles was able to win over Venice to his cause. Unionist diplomacy had apparently left Byzantium stranded. The Byzantine armies were able to stem the Angevin advance down the Egnatian Way with a victory at Berat in 1281. But salvation came from an unexpected quarter: on 30 March 1282 the inhabitants of Palermo rose up against their hated Angevin rulers. This was the famous revolt of the SicilianVespers.49With Sicily in revolt, Charles had to abandon his plans for an expedition against Constantinople. Michael VIII saw himself as the saviour of his people. In the autobiographies that he wrote at the end of his life he took sole credit for throwing back the Angevins in Albania and for organising the Sicilian Vespers.50 He was unable to comprehend his unpopularity; had he not restored the seat of church and empire to Constantinople? This could not be denied, but few would have accepted his other claim: to have ruled according to the best traditions of his family and the imperial office. It seemed much more like a betrayal. It comes as no surprise that, whenMichael VIII Palaiologos died on 11 December 1282 in a small Thracian village, the orthodox church refused him a proper burial.51 UnderMichael VIIIByzantium was for the very last time a major force on the world stage.His diplomatic contacts stretched from Aragon and France in the west to the Ilkhans of Persia in the east; from the Golden Horde on the Caspian to the Mamluks of Egypt.52 But his efforts left Byzantium exhausted and virtually bankrupt. His legacy was one of schism, poverty and rapid decline.He was a victim of the profound changes which occurred during the period of exile. The defence of orthodoxy against the Latins gave the Byzantine identity an anti-Latin twist. Any compromise with the Latins over dogma was seen as an act of betrayal. Michael VIII was even more vulnerable to accusations of this kind because of the way Laskarid propaganda instilled the notion of the emperor as the servant of his church and people. Political power had become more diffuse. The different regions of the old Byzantine empire developed separate identities and interests. At best, the emperor of Constantinople could expect to exercise a degree of indirect authority. These problems existed before 1204, but Constantinople had – albeit with increasing difficulty – the prestige and resources to hold the empire together. The city that Michael VIII Palaiologos recovered was but a husk. It had been wasted by the years of Latin rule. He made great efforts to restore his new capital, but it was expensive and time-consuming.53 Constantinople no longer dominated. 1204 had destroyed the myth of Byzantine invulnerability.

 

 

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