Michael VIII Palaiologos (1261–1282)

Michael VIII Palaiologos (1261–1282)

Michael Palaiologos rose out of the power vacuum left behind by the early death of Theodore II Laskaris in 1258. Michael became co–emperor with Theodore's son, John IV in 1259, eventually blinding and deposing the ten–year–old boy in 1261. From the beginning of his reign Michael planned the recovery of Constantinople, but when the time came it owed little to Michael or his plans. One of his generals, Alexios Strategopoulos, happened to be near Constantinople, and on discovering that the garrison was absent he quickly seized the city on 15th July 1261. Michael moved the capital back to Constantinople and began the long work of securing his empire and rebuilding the ruined city. Michael spent vast amounts of money trying to restore Constantinople after half a century of neglect under the Latin emperors. He built new churches and monasteries, and strengthened the city's walls.

Michael's realm was beset on all sides by enemies. In the Balkans the remaining crusaders tried to resist the Byzantine advance. In alliance with the Epirotes and the King of Sicily, they fought the emperor's brother John Palaiologos at Pelagonia in 1259. John defeated the crusaders, and captured many of their leaders. The resulting peace treaty brought Byzantium a quarter of the Morea. In the Aegean, Michael's new fleet managed to recover most of the islands. Michael is often criticized for neglecting the Asian heartland of his empire, but during his reign the Turks were quiet. The greatest threat to Michael's restored Byzantium came from Charles of Anjou, the brother of Louis IX of France. At the behest of the papacy Charles had conquered the Kingdom of Sicily from its German king. Charles then began creating a Mediterranean empire for himself with territories in Albania, Greece, and for a time in Tunisia. One of Charles's projects was to revive the Norman claim to the Balkan provinces of Byzantium. In preparation Charles formed an anti–Byzantine alliance that included the pope, the former Latin emperor, the Prince of Achaea, the Epirotes, Serbia, and Bulgaria. To counter these alliances Michael tried to buy off the pope with the promise of Church union, and allied with Hungary, Egypt, and the Mongols. Michael also agreed to the union of the Churches under papal leadership, removing one important supporter for Charles's enterprise. Sadly for Michael, a new pope decided he was still a schismatic Greek, and Charles's invasion was on again. At this point Michael allied with Peter III of Aragon, who agreed to attack Sicily. To aid this attack Michael sent money to the island to encourage a rebellion against Charles. In 1282, at the sound of the bells summoning people to Vespers, Sicily rose in revolt against its French rulers, and the army that was ready to sail for Constantinople had to turn around and defend Charles's kingdom. Eventually Charles lost Sicily to Aragon and his entire Mediterranean empire crumbled.

Michael struggled in his relationship with the Church. Initially supportive of Michael, the patriarch Arsenios Autoreianos excommunicated the emperor for blinding John IV. Michael eventually forced Arsenios to abdicate, but this only resulted in causing a schism within the Church that would last well into the reign of Michael's successor. in 1274 at the Council of Lyons Michael formally accepted Church union. In practice this meant that he acknowledged the supremacy of the pope within the Church, as well as the doctrines of the filioque and Purgatory. In the end, the Orthodox world refused to accept the decisions of the council and Michael was denied a Christian burial when he died in 1282.

Michael's seal depicts the now standard image of the standing Christ on the obverse and the emperor wearing a crown and chlamys and holding a labarum and an akakia on the reverse. Michael is identified by his family name, Palaiologos.

 
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