Michael VIII Palaiologos

Michael VIII Palaiologos
Emperor and Autocrat of the Romans
Michael VIII Palaiologos (head).jpg
Painting of Michael VIII
Emperor of the Byzantine Empire
Reign15 August 1261 – 11 December 1282[note 1]
PredecessorBaldwin II (Latin Empire)
SuccessorAndronikos II Palaiologos
Co-Emperor of Nicaea
Reign1 January 1259 – 15 August 1261[note 2]
PredecessorJohn IV Laskaris
Empire of Nicaea
Died(1282-12-11)11 December 1282 (aged 58)
Pachomion, near Lysimachia, Byzantine Empire[1]
SpouseTheodora Palaiologina
IssueManuel Palaiologos
Irene Palaiologina
Andronikos II Palaiologos
Anna Palaiologina
Constantine Palaiologos
Theodora Palaiologina
Eudokia Palaiologina
Theodore Palaiologos
Euphrosyne Palaiologina
Maria Palaiologina
FatherAndronikos Doukas Komnenos Palaiologos
MotherTheodora Angelina Palaiologina

Michael VIII Palaiologos or Palaeologus (Greek: Μιχαὴλ Η΄ Παλαιολόγος, romanizedMikhaēl VIII Palaiologos; 1223 – 11 December 1282) reigned as the co-emperor of the Empire of Nicaea from 1259 to 1261, and as Byzantine Emperor from 1261 until his death. Michael VIII was the founder of the Palaiologan dynasty that would rule the Byzantine Empire until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. He recovered Constantinople from the Latin Empire in 1261 and transformed the Empire of Nicaea into a restored Byzantine Empire.[2]

His reign would see considerable recovery of Byzantine power, including the enlargement of the Byzantine army and navy. It would also include the reconstruction of the city of Constantinople, and the increase of its population.[3] He reestablished the University of Constantinople, which would lead to what is regarded as the Paliologian Renaissance during the 14th and 15th centuries.[3] It would also be at this time that the focus of the Byzantine military shifted to the Balkans, against the Bulgarians, leaving the Anatolian frontier neglected.[3] His successors would also not fix this issue, and the Byzantine civil war made this situation much worse, draining the empire's strength, economy, and resources. These internal conflicts lead to the permanent losses of important provinces such as Epirus to the Serbian Empire. Eventually, the consequences of these conflicts would allow for the Anatolian beyliks to rise in power, most notably the one of Osman, later called the Ottoman Empire. His successors would conquer more parts of the empire, until finally the city of Constantinople itself in 1453, under the leadership of Mehmed II.

Road to the throne

Michael VIII Palaiologos was the son of the megas domestikos Andronikos Palaiologos by Theodora Angelina Palaiologina, the granddaughter of Emperor Alexios III Angelos and Euphrosyne Doukaina Kamaterina. According to Deno John Geanakoplos, Michael's ancestry could be traced back to all three imperial houses that ruled the empire in the centuries before the capture of Constantinople in 1204 by the Fourth Crusade.[4] His mother does not appear to have played a significant role in his early life; at least for a time he was brought up by his elder sister Martha, the wife of megas domestikos Nikephoros Tarchaneiotes, although she was only ten years older than he.[5]

Michael rose to distinction at an early age, serving as the governor of the Thracian towns of Melnik and Serres under the command of his father Andronikos. However, in the autumn of 1253 Michael was accused before the Emperor John III Vatatzes of plotting against the throne. The only way Michael was allowed to prove his innocence was through trial by ordeal, holding a red-hot iron. When the Emperor ordered him to take hold of the red-hot metal, the young Michael answered (to use Geanakoplos' words) "with the astuteness that was to characterize his later career as Emperor": if the Metropolitan Phokas of Philadelphia, who evidently supported this proposal, could take the iron from the altar with his own hands and place it in Michael's, he would gladly receive it in faith that the truth would be revealed.[6]

Although Michael avoided punishment, and afterwards was married to the Emperor's granddaughter and appointed megas konostaulos of the Latin mercenaries in the employment of the emperors of Nicaea, he was still mistrusted. Following the death of John Vatatzes, Michael crossed the Sangarios River with a few close friends and took service with the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum. From late 1256 to 1258 he served as commander of the Christian mercenaries fighting for Sultan Kaykaus II; in that later year the Emperor Theodore II Doukas Laskaris recalled Michael, and after both exchanged oaths of loyalty and guarantees of safety, Michael returned to the service of the Emperor.[7]

A few days after the death of Emperor Theodore Laskaris in 1258, Michael Palaiologos instigated a coup against the influential bureaucrat George Mouzalon, seizing from him the guardianship of the eight-year-old Emperor John IV Doukas Laskaris. Michael was invested with the titles of megas doux and, in November 1258, of despotēs. On 1 January 1259 Michael VIII Palaiologos was proclaimed co-emperor at Nymphaion.[8]