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8-08-2015, 00:30


In the course of the fourteenth century, Byzantine society underwent a series of major changes, in some ways similar to those in western Europe, in other ways quite different, and complicated by the presence of external threats that progressively led to the dissolution of the state and the conquest of its territory. While economic, social and cultural developments show considerable vitality, the weakness of the state, radically reducing its ability to provide order and security for its subjects, could not but influence the dynamic of other developments. Innovation, in practice more often than in theory, was not lacking; on the contrary, the responses to new conditions often present interesting if contradictory aspects. For political history, a new era begins not with the start of the century but rather with the recovery of Constantinople from the Latins by a small expeditionary force of Michael VIII Palaiologos (1258–82), emperor of Nicaea since 1258. This event, which occurred on 25 July 1261, had been long desired by the leaders of the major Greek splinter states, the emperors of Nicaea and the despots of Epiros, and it had certainly been prepared by Michael VIII.1 The restoration of a Byzantine emperor in the old capital of the empire had certain important consequences. For one thing, it displaced the rulers’ focus from Asia to Europe, as they had to deal with western claims. The papacy, Charles of Anjou, the house of Valois and the Venetians all became engaged in various efforts to retake Constantinople, so that there was hostility between Byzantium and at least one western power at almost any time between 1261 and 1314; in 1281, as in 1308, powerful coalitions were aligned against Byzantium. These were deflected, in Michael’s day, by masterful diplomacy as well as by a major concession on his part. This was the acceptance, by the Byzantine emperor, of ecclesiastical union with the church of Rome. TheUnion of Lyons (1274) (see also above, pp. 755–6) was undertaken to defuse the imminent danger of an attack by Charles of Anjou and his Balkan allies, and indeed the papacy forced Charles to abandon his plans for a time. When, in 1281, PopeMartin IV (1281–5) decided thatMichael VIII had not really implemented the union and gave full support to Charles of Anjou, Michael’s diplomacy again came into play; he negotiated with the king of Aragon and others, contributing significantly to the attack of Aragon on Sicily, occasioned by the Sicilian Vespers (see above, pp. 757–8).Diplomacy as well as good luck allowed his immediate successors also to survive the western threat. But even as contacts between Byzantines and westerners became closer, through the marriage alliances of the imperial house, through diplomatic negotiations and because of the presence of Italian merchants, the threat of a western offensive kept the emperor occupied in Europe. So also did the effort to create a compact state by recovering the European territories which had been lost at the time of the Fourth Crusade. The results for Asia Minor were disastrous. The most thoughtful historian of the times,George Pachymeres, had this situation in mind when he reported the words of the pr¯otasekr¯etis Kakos Senachereim who, upon learning of the reconquest of Constantinople, pulled at his beard in dismay and cried, ‘Oh, what things I hear! . . . What sins have we committed, that we should live to see such misfortunes? Let no one harbour any hopes, since the Romans hold the City again.’2 This, then, is a first contradiction of the Palaiologan state, from the beginning of the dynasty until about 1314. The recovery of Constantinople, considered a divine gift by Michael VIII,3 forced the empire into political, diplomatic and ideological positions which were often untenable. Anachronistic voices spoke of the universal emperor, and the first three Palaiologoi tried to restore the unity of the geographic space, by restoring at least the European frontiers of the Byzantine empire. But no shadow of universality remained, and geographic integration ran counter to long-term decentralising tendencies, evident in the late twelfth century and exacerbated by the Fourth Crusade. The westerners kept part of their possessions in the principality of Achaia (Morea) and the islands, while the Greek splinter states of the despotate of Epiros and Thessaly retained their independence. The empire of Trebizond was the other Greek splinter state, although its geographic remoteness did not involve it in the power struggles for the recovery of the old Byzantine empire. Non-Greek states, Serbia and Bulgaria, had also become independent, and Serbia in particular was to witness a great expansion in the course of the late thirteenth and the first half of the fourteenth century, aided by financial resources which became available through exploitation of the silver mines at Novo Brdo and elsewhere. Michael VIII tried to make reality conform to ideological imperatives. He fought against the principality of Achaia, rather successfully, and against the Venetians in the Aegean, and tried to reduce the independence of the despotate of Epiros. In Bulgaria, he scored successes with the recovery of some of the Greek-speaking cities of the Black Sea coast, important outlets for the grain which was necessary for the provisioning of Constantinople. At the same time, Michael continued the policy of alliance with the Mongols, first begun by the emperors of Nicaea. The alliance with the Ilkhans of Persia, especially Hulagu Khan (1258–65), was a defence against the Turks, and was continued by Andronikos II (1282–1328), who tried to seal it with a marriage alliance. Michael VIII also made a marriage alliance with the Mongols of the Golden Horde, marrying his illegitimate daughter Euphrosyne Palaiologina to Nogai Khan, as a defence against Bulgaria. This, coupled with an alliance between Michael and Baibars, the sultan of Egypt (1260–77), opened lines of communication between Egypt and the Crimea, from which the Egyptian sultans got their Cuman slave troops. A remote effect, intended or not, was to facilitate the Egyptian conquest of the last crusader outposts in the Holy Land.4 The successes of Michael VIII have given him a rather good press, as a consummate diplomat who managed to retain Constantinople against multiple threats, and to enlarge the possessions of his state. At the same time, the cost was heavy and long-term. The policy of union was bitterly contested at home, and was soon repudiated by his successor. Worst of all was the disaffection of AsiaMinor.Michael had reached the throne through deposing and blinding young John IV Laskaris (1258–61) (see above, p. 755), offspring of a dynasty which had been based in Asia Minor, and grandson of John III Vatatzes (1221–54), a much-loved emperor, whom the people of Asia Minor considered a saint. The Laskarid dynasty had followers in Asia Minor who were difficult to conciliate; so did the patriarch Arsenios, deposed in 1265 for having excommunicated Michael after the blinding of John Laskaris. The policies of the Laskarids, focused on the defence of Asia Minor, were not continued by Michael VIII; indeed forces were withdrawn from there to fight wars on European soil.5 The emperor did not even visit the province until the end of his reign. Asia Minor was neglected, heavily taxed and suffered from Turkish attacks. By the end of Michael’s reign, the sources speak of depopulation and impoverishment, calling the area beyond the Sangarios river a ‘Scythian desert’. The situation was to deteriorate rapidly after 1282.