Sunday, December 29, 2019

The Last Great Byzantine Emperor: Michael VIII

Michael VIII Gave the Empire One Last, Glorious Moment

Michael VIII
Michael VIII Palaiologos (Unknown artist, miniature from the manuscript of Pachymeres' Historia, 14th century. Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek).

My candidate for the last great Byzantine Emperor would be Michael VIII Palaiologos, who lived from 1223 - 1282. In addition to being one of the longer-lasting emperors, Michael VIII was the last Byzantine Emperor to really affect matters beyond the Empire’s borders. In fact, Michael VIII greatly expanded the Empire and was the last Emperor to do that. The reign of Michael VIII was of great interest to Europeans because it marked the true end of the period of successful Crusades in the East. He began a dynasty that lasted until the end of the Empire and was the longest-lasting in Byzantine history.
Michael VIII coronation
Michael VIII Palaiologos coronation in 1261 by the artist Rosen Toshev.

Michael VIII, often simply called the Emperor of Nicaea in western sources once he took over in 1259, restored the Empire of Nicaea to its true inheritance. It was one of the rump states leftover from the dismemberment of the Byzantine Empire in 1204, into a restored Byzantine Empire. He did this by reconquering Constantinople from the Latins and focusing on rebuilding the army and navy. His general, Alexius Strategopulos, easily entered Constantinople and overthrew the last Latin Emperor, Baldwin II, 25 July 1261. Having great generals is a mark of a great emperor. Michael VIII also restored the University of Constantinople, which played a big role in the artistic renaissance that flourished in the 13th century up until the empire’s demise in 1453. This became one of the empire’s most lasting legacies.

The Sicilian Vespers of Michael VIII
The Sicilian Vespers Rebellion (I Vespri Siciliani) by Erulo Eroli, 1890. Showcased for the first time at the National Expo in Palermo (1891), it depicts the Easter Monday rebellion of 1282 in which the people fought against the rule of Angevin Charles I.

You’ve probably heard of the “Sicilian Vespers.” This was an incident in which Michael VIII arranged for the inhabitants of Sicily to launch an uprising against Charles of Anjou, who was planning on invading and perhaps conquering the Byzantine Empire in a sort of pseudo-Crusade. Beginning on 30 March 1282, it led to the deaths of about 13,000 people who were killed by the local inhabitants. The role of Michael VIII in the Sicilian Vespers is controversial and disputed. However, Michael VIII was spreading his gold around the Mediterranean to stir up revolts elsewhere (Crete) that furthered his interests, so the Sicilian Vespers was his modus operandi. As Michael VIII himself wrote shortly before his own death:
Should I dare to claim that I was God's instrument to bring freedom to the Sicilians, then I should only be stating the truth.
So, Michael VIII did claim credit for the Sicilian Vespers, and sometimes you have to pat yourself on the back because nobody else will. Later Emperors didn’t influence events in places as far away as Sicily at all and were focused instead solely on survival. Michael VIII was like the Justinian of the late Empire.

Michael VIII's restored empire in 1263
While the Byzantine Empire was vastly reduced from its former magnificence by 1263, Michael VIII joined its two halves together again and gave it a chance for survival. His reign allowed Byzantium to end in some sort of dignity.

Lots of writers focus on Michael VIII’s faults, such as that he focused too much on the West as opposed to the East and so forth. However, he did amazing things for only one reign. His “faults” could have been rectified had he lived (or had a better heir). And that brings us to the big worst aspect of Michael VIII's reign - his successor. As with many other great Byzantine leaders such as Basil II, Michael VIII was followed by a nonentity. How much fault can be ascribed to Michael for that is debatable, but it led to the unwinding of much that he had accomplished.
Andronicus II
Michael VIII's successor, Andronicus II, didn't lose Constantinople, but he lost just about everything else that Michael VIII had achieved (Fresco in Iera Moni Ioannou Prodromou, depicting the emperor Andronicos Palaiologos presenting the monastery some privileges (near Serres, Greece)).

Unfortunately, the typical Byzantine pattern asserted itself with Michael VIII: an amazing emperor like Michael VIII was almost always followed by real dullards who squandered their opportunities. Weak emperors at regular intervals were the real reason the Byzantine Empire dwindled and disappeared. In this case, it was Andronicus II, a total nonentity who presided over the empire’s erosion for over 40 years and whose every move was ineffective or downright counterproductive.

Michael VIII
Michael VIII was one of the last of the true warrior emperors - or at least the successful ones.

In sum, Michael VIII took a fragmented and basically dying empire, reunited it, and made it into a power player in the Mediterranean for the last time. That is indisputable. Reading about Michael VIII’s reign is completely different than reading about anyone who followed him and most who preceded him, though there were some exciting and inspirational figures both before and later as well (though not many, as a group the Byzantine Emperors were very lame).


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