The empire under the Palaeologi: 1261–1453
The empire in exile at Nicaea had become a manageable and almost self-sufficient unit, with a thriving economy based on agriculture and, latterly, on trade with the Seljuqs. It had no navy but the land frontiers in Anatolia, policed by well-paid troops, were stronger than they had been since the 12th century. By stretching the frontiers into Europe the empire had not dissipated its strength; for the possession of Thessalonica balanced that of Nicaea.
When the seat of government was moved from Nicaea to Constantinople, that balance was upset, the economy was reoriented, and the defense system in Anatolia began to break down. Constantinople was still the New Jerusalem for the Byzantines. To leave it in foreign hands was unthinkable. But after the dismemberment of the empire by the Fourth Crusade, the city was no longer the focal point of an integrated structure. It was more like an immense city-state in the midst of a number of more or less independent provinces.
Much of Greece and the islands remained in French or Italian hands. The Byzantine rulers of Epirus and Thessaly, like the emperors in Trebizond, refused to recognize Michael VIII as emperor. His treatment of the Lascarid heir of Nicaea, for which the patriarch Arsenius excommunicated him, appalled many of his own subjects and provoked what was known as the Arsenite schism in the Byzantine Church. Many in Anatolia, loyal to the memory of the Lascarid emperors who had enriched and protected them, condemned Michael VIII as a usurper.
The remnants of the Byzantine Empire in 1265.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Michael VIII
The new dynasty was thus founded in an atmosphere of dissension, but its founder was determined that it should succeed. He took measures for the rehabilitation, repopulation, and defense of Constantinople. He stimulated a revival of trade by granting privileges to Italian merchants.
The Genoese, who had agreed to lend him ships for the recovery of the city from their Venetian rivals, were especially favoured; and soon they had built their own commercial colony at Galata opposite Constantinople, and cornered most of what had long been a Venetian monopoly. Inevitably, this led to a conflict between Genoa and Venice, of which the Byzantines were the main victims. Some territory was taken back from the Latins, notably in the Morea and the Greek islands. But little was added to the imperial revenue; and Michael VIII’s campaigns there and against Epirus and Thessaly ate up the resources that had been accumulated by the emperors at Nicaea.
The dominating influence on Byzantine policy for most of Michael’s reign was the threat of reconquest by the Western powers. Charles of Anjou, the brother of the French king Louis IX, displaced Manfred of Sicily and inherited his title in 1266; he then organized a coalition of all parties interested in reestablishing the Latin empire, posing as the pope’s champion to lead a Crusade against the schismatic Greeks. Michael VIII countered this threat by offering to submit the Church of Constantinople to the see of Rome, thereby inviting the pope’s protection and removing the only moral pretext for a repetition of the Fourth Crusade.
The offer to reunite the churches had been made as a diplomatic ploy to previous popes by previous emperors, but never in such compelling circumstances. Pope Gregory X accepted it at its face value, and at the second Council of Lyon in 1274 a Byzantine delegation professed obedience to the Holy See in the name of their emperor.
Michael’s policy, sincere or not, was violently opposed by most of his people, and he had to persecute and imprison large numbers of them in order to persuade the papacy that the union of the churches was being implemented. Later popes were not convinced by the pretense. In 1281 Charles I (Charles of Anjou) invaded the empire. His army was beaten back in Albania, but he at once prepared a new invasion by sea, supported by Venice, Serbia, Bulgaria, and the separatist rulers of northern Greece. His plans, however, were wrecked in 1282 by a rebellion in Sicily called the Sicilian Vespers and by the intervention of Peter III of Aragon, which the Byzantines encouraged.
Michael VIII died at the end of the same year. He had saved his empire from its most persistent enemy, but he died condemned by his church and people as a heretic and a traitor.
Whatever sins he may have committed in the eyes of the Eastern Orthodox Church, it is true that Michael VIII, by concentrating on the danger from the West, neglected, if he did not betray, the eastern provinces where he had come to power. Frontier defense troops in Anatolia were withdrawn to Europe or neglected, and bands of Turkish raiders, driven westward by the upheaval of the Mongol invasion, began to penetrate into Byzantine territory.
Like the Seljuqs in the 11th century, the new arrivals found little organized opposition. Some of the local Byzantines even collaborated with them out of their own antipathy to the Emperor in Constantinople. By about 1280 the Turks were plundering the fertile valleys of western Anatolia, cutting communications between the Greek cities, and their emirs were beginning to carve out small principalities. Michael VIII’s network of diplomacy covered the Mongols of Iran and the Golden Horde in Russia, as well as the Mamlūks of Egypt.
But diplomacy was ineffective against Muslim Ghazis (warriors inspired by the ideal of holy war); by the time the threat from Italy was removed in 1282, it was almost too late to save Byzantine Anatolia.
Nor was it possible to raise armies to fight in Europe and Asia simultaneously. The native recruitment fostered by the Comnenian emperors had fallen off since 1261. Estates held in pronoia had become hereditary possessions of their landlords, who ignored or were relieved of the obligation to render military service to the government. The knights of the Fourth Crusade had found many familiar elements of feudalism in the social structure of the Byzantine provinces. By the end of the 13th century the development had gone much further. The officers of the Byzantine army were still mostly drawn from the native aristocracy. But the troops were hired, and the cost of maintaining a large army in Europe, added to the lavish subsidies that Michael VIII paid to his friends and allies, crippled the economy.