Late Byzantine Period (1204-1453)

Aleksandar Jovanović

Loss and Recovery under Ioannes III Vatatzes and Michael VIII Palaiologos

In April 1204, the Romans of Constantinople experienced arguably the greatest trauma in the empire’s history: the city was sacked by the crusaders. Granted, the sack happened due to a family feud over who should rule the empire, but the consequences of the conquest were dire. The empire’s elites fled the capital and established themselves in the independent states in Epiros and Asia Minor. The state in Asia Minor, known to us as the Empire of Nicaea, ended up reclaiming the title of the Roman Empire, while the city of Constantinople and many European provinces remained under the control of the crusaders.

The 13th century was marked by this trauma of loss, as well as extensive efforts by several emperors to re-establish the governing apparatus in exile and to reconquer many lost territories. Two emperors were particularly successful in these endeavours: Ioannes III Vatatzes managed to enrich the treasury and revive the state administration while conquering territories in the Balkans. Vatatzes’ son, Theodoros II, continued the legacy of his father, but due to premature death left the state in the hands of his minor son. The minor son was soon pushed aside by a major nobleman and official of the empire who became known as Michael VIII Palaiologos, under whose reign the city of Constantinople was reconquered in 1261.

The period of exile left us with accounts from the provinces that testify to the emperor’s care for the people of the empire even after the loss of Constantinople. Thus, we see that the connection between imperial legitimacy and the public consensus remained unchanged in the period following 1204. In the first excerpt potentially written by Theodoros Skoutariotes, we read about the emperor Ioannes III in action, taking care of the people’s needs in their exiled empire. Following the laudatory account by Skoutariotes, we move to an autobiographical account of Michael VIII Palaiologos, who like Augustus, had the text inscribed on his monastery of Saint Demetrios in Constantinople so that it was accessible to the public. Lastly, we look at the means Michael VIII used to win the goodwill of the people, the senators, and the high clergy of the church to support his elevation to the imperial throne at the expense of the child-emperor Ioannes IV.

Theodoros Skoutariotes on Imperial Duties to the People

[A Dialogue between Theodoros I Laskaris and a Simpleton]

[A naïve citizen] was walking down the street of the Nicene megalopolis, and to those who happened to be there he joyfully exclaimed: “very soon a good emperor will show up.”  The word of this chatter came to the emperor’s attention and this foreteller was swiftly brought before the ruler. Presented with questions, he admitted to say those words he was accused of an the emperor asked: “And what of me? Do I not look like a good emperor to you?” and the man said: “and what have you ever given to me so that I would think of you as good?” To this the emperor said: “do I not give myself to you on a daily basis fighting to the death for you and your compatriots?” but the man responded back at him: “so does the sun shine and thus provides us with warmth and light, but we are not thankful to it; since it fulfills the job it is supposed to do. And you do what you are behoved to do, toiling and labouring, as you say, for the sake of your compatriots.” The emperor then asked the man: “if I give you a gift, would I be good then?” to which the simpleton responded, “but of course.”

[On Ioannes III’s deeds]

Who could even count all the things provided under his rule for each city, not just the big and famous ones, but also for those that were, and fairly so, not called cities but fortifications because of their smallness and invisibility, both in the land of the East and in the West. For their [the cities’] protection and security, fortifications were built around the buildings, thus there was a tower on top of a tower. […] And in big cities the men who were blacksmiths were making weapons for a salary. So many bows, so many arrows, and all the other weapons that the workers produced yearly, were stockpiled in the communal storages and the number [of the weapons] surpassed [the needed amount], so that the defenders [of a city] had no need for anything else. He also set up villages to import fruits from them and storage them into the granaries, that is the horrea, in numbers of thousands and tens of thousands medimni of not just barley and wheat but also other grains that where needed. […]

In the Lydian city of Magnesia, where the lion share of the treasury was located, was there anything that one could wish for from the things we men might use, that is not found [in it] and does not belongs to the realm of enjoyment, and [I do] not [mean] only the goods that are found in our lands, but also all those that are from around the world, I refer to Egypt, India and other places?

Translation from the original source: Aleksandar Jovanović

Michael VIII Palaiologos on His Actions

1. “Lord my God, I will glorify thee.” Now is the fitting time for my majesty to recite the sublime words of Isaiah: “Lord my God, I will sing hymns to thy name, for thou hast done wonderful things for me” (Is. 25:1). You have magnified your mercy toward your servant and you have been lavish with your compassion. Lord, is there even one of those things which your merciful heart had done for me that does not surpass the very notion of miracle? Right from my birth you honor me with your own hands. You create me from nothing, and you create me according to your image and likeness. Together with my soul you place within me reason and intelligence, capable of finding the noblest things and of guiding me toward knowledge of you. You honor me with free will and you order me to rule over all creatures on earth. You fashioned me, a man that is, as a sovereign nature truly in imitation of you, the only God and lord. But these benefactions are common to the entire race. Everyone partakes of them. Every human being is well aware of these and professes gratitude for these gifts and gives praise to the creator.

But to list what I in a special manner, apart from the others, have received from your providence, one could more easily count the grains of sand by the sea and the drops of rain than draw up such a list. For some men may boast of an illustrious family or wealth. Others may be admired because they have sired valiant sons, others because of their influence with emperors. Others have been outstanding because of their military leadership and trophies of battle. While some have been privileged to possess one of these qualities, others have sometimes possessed several. But [as] for me, why should I not speak the truth, for it is known to all? In talking of these matters I am not simply bragging about myself or being proud or ostentatious. I am not boasting as a man usually does, but I am doing it in the Lord so as not to hide in silence the great deeds of God. On the contrary I shall relate them fully not to praise myself but to glorify the creator. But for me God has heaped together all those things which individually would have made a person illustrious.

2. Let me begin straightaway with my parents. My father can trace his family to ancestors who were related by marriage to emperors and empresses, whereas my mother traces hers directly to emperors. From far back then God established our illustrious family and laid the foundations for my present rule. For the moment I pass over my maternal and clearly imperial ancestry. Concern- ing my father’s side, the Palaiologos family, investigation shows that their ancient noble repute only increased with time, and that the fathers continuously handed on to their sons a greater repute than they had received. As to how the members of the family placed the prosperity to be found here below second to their concern about living in a manner pleasing to God which would lead them to inherit the life hidden in Him [God], we shall refer [the reader] to the discourses and books composed by the learned. For these give an account not only of their dignities and honors, the great influence they had with rulers, and how they accumulated vast riches, no less than of their combat in wartime, their generalship, and their valor, but they also inform us of their erection of religious houses, holy convents and monasteries, their donation of property, their aid to the poor, their concern for the infirm, and their protection of the indigent of all sorts, and all their pious deeds which bore fruit before God. By proclaiming the donor of these, at the same time they purchased goods in heaven in exchange for ephemeral and perishable ones.

3. This good reputation as well as the piety, which increased greatly, as mentioned, with the contributions of each succeeding generation, were inherited by the megas doux my grandfather and the megas domestikos my father. Even if their abundant hope in God and their love [of him], as well as their prominence, their glory, and their unswerving constancy in all circumstances cannot be read about in books, there may still be many people alive who have seen these with their own eyes, while many have also heard about them from witnesses. Thus, our account of them is not without corroboration, and what we say is by no means wide of the mark. It is not right, moreover, to make up stories on such subjects, because we have recalled them in recognition of the benefactions of God to us in the past and up to the present, and not because of some conceit or the need to triumph or show off.

4. Now that I have given an account of this great and noble heritage, how much I have enriched it—this is your gift, Lord God, from your goodness and not from me—indeed how much I have enriched it the very facts proclaim. Before I had completely outgrown my infancy my uncle, the revered emperor John [III Doukas Vatatzes (1222–54)], introduced me to the palace. He had me carefully raised and instructed as though I were his own son. He was anxious that I should be well educated in all subjects and endeavors, and he seemed more loving than a father in my regard. If indeed I derived profit from being initiated by that great spirit and proved myself a worthy disciple of that master, let others judge. As for myself, from adolescence as soon as I was capable I was called to bear arms. I was judged suited for command by the emperor himself, not to mention that I was selected over those who had followed such a career for many years. I was indeed assigned to command and found myself posted to the West. With God’s help I overcame the hostile forces arrayed against us, overcoming no less the expectations of the emperor who had sent me. There was nothing that did not deserve to be recounted, and at that time the emperor listened with pleasure to reports of my achievements. Then, as though through multiplying proofs of love and desirous of attaching me to himself by all sorts of ties, he became my father-in-law by betrothing to me his own niece whom he loved as his daughter.6 She in turn became the mother of my children, the mother of emperors.

5. Then I was again placed in command, and again there were battles. Once more God granted me victory and complete success. At that time I was entrusted with the war against the Latins for whom, to its misfortune, the queen of cities served as a fortress. From my camp on the Asiatic side opposite the city I can say that, with God as my ally, I drove them to the last extremities. On all sides I prevented them from landing, I repelled their assaults, and I cut off their vital supply lines. All this took place while that man [John III Doukas Vatatzes] was still alive. We advanced “from glory to glory” (II Cor. 3:18) and from great beginnings became ever greater, with God guiding us along the path of prosperity. But when the government of the Romans passed from him to his son [Theodore II Laskaris (1254–58)] our time came to be tested by the arrows of jealousy which have tested many others.

How did God deliver us at that time and how from such oppression did “He brought me out into a wide place” (Ps. 17 [18]:19)? To put it succinctly, he saved me [by sending me] to the Persians [Turks].8 There he took me by my right hand and gloriously added to what he had given me. Even now one can still hear them singing the praise of our battle line as it faced the Massagetai [Tatars], its morale as it charged into battle, and its great victory over warriors who were up to then regarded as invincible. This was achieved in the midst of Persian territory, not by us but by God working through us. After this, therefore, a vast number of delegations and letters were sent to us from the emperor, recalling us to our fatherland and to our family, who were also entreating us to return. This would please the emperor as nothing else I can think of, for he knew that while I was with the Persians in body, I was (I swear by God that this is true) with him and the Romans in spirit. This would also please the dignitaries and all of ours. But since my discourse has other goals, I think I should hasten to attend to them and leave these topics.

6. Thus we returned home. “Come hear and I will tell all ye that fear God what great things he has done for my soul” (Ps. 65 [66]:16). Then came the consummation of God’s many and great bene- factions; then came the conclusion of his interventions, the gold crown of the good things received from him. What transpired? After a short time the autocrator Theodore [II Laskaris] passed on, bringing his allotted span of life to a happy end. “Who shall tell the mighty acts of the Lord; who shall cause all thy praises to be heard?” (Ps. 105 [106]:2). I was raised up to be emperor of your people. The proof of this is clear and unambiguous. For it was not the many hands coming to assist me or their frightening weapons which elevated me above the heads of the Romans. It was not any highly persuasive speech delivered by me or by my supporters which fell upon the ears of the crowd, filled them with great hopes, and convinced them to entrust themselves to me. No, it was your right hand, Lord, which did this mighty deed. Your right hand raised me on high, and established me as lord of all. I did not persuade anyone, but was myself persuaded. I did not bring force to bear on anyone, but was myself forced.

7. This then is what happened up to the present, to select a few things from many as typical. Such have been the graces of God. There are many, I believe, who would like to write about subsequent events, but the very number of them should overcome their eagerness. For we accomplished mighty deeds in you our God, and it was you who reduced our enemies to naught. Just as I was beginning my reign I was victorious in Thessaly over those who had been in rebellion against Roman rule for many years and who had developed more hostility to our interests than had our natural enemies. Along with them I overcame their allies who were under the command of [William II Villehardouin (1246–78)] the prince of Achaia. Who were these allies? Germans, Sicilians, Italians, some who came from Apulia, others from Iapyges [Calabria] and Brindisi. There were also some from Boeotia, Euboea, and the Peloponnesos who joined them on campaign not so much in observance of their alliance as motivated by their own ambition to set themselves up as masters, so they intended, of the situation in the region. There was a large number of them, more than could be easily counted, and greater than their number was their strength. Even more [impressive] than these was their arrogance, their insolent and outrageous audacity, and more than these, their terrible hatred toward us. Trusting in you, my king and my God, I counterattacked and was victorious, and drove all of them together into bondage.

With the army under my command I then went and subjugated Akarnania, Aetolia, and the region about the gulf of Krisa. I also forced the one and the other Epiros to submit, and brought Illyria under my control. I advanced to Epidamnos [Durazzo], and then from another direction I attacked all of Phokike. I then ravaged the country of Levadia and moved against that of Kadmeia [Boeotia]. Our forces encamped in Attica and enjoyed themselves as though it were their own land. I passed through Megara and its strait. I coursed through the entire Peloponnesos, pillaging some areas and forcing the submission of others. The remnants of the tyrant’s rule in that land, those who had escaped battle and the Roman manacles, I convinced that they must of necessity prefer to fix their dwellings in the sea rather than on dry land.

I think it well to pass over the vast number of deeds effected at that time by the right hand of the most high [God] through us both in Greek lands and elsewhere. At that time in fact the Mysians [Bulgarians] in Europe tried to put us to the test, and so did the Scythians [Mongols]. The former found that we were allies, helpers, and to sum it up, saviors, whereas the latter found us to be the opposite as we defeated, scattered, and destroyed them. The Persians [Turks] also had some experience of us, for while our gaze was on the West, they decided not to keep the peace, but considered it a golden opportunity. What did they find? We destroyed them, took them captive, and made those evil men depart this life in an evil way. But there is no need to dwell on these topics. All those things must be put aside, and we must turn our attention to what came next and which it is impossible not to call to mind.

8. Constantinople, the citadel of the inhabited world, the imperial capital of the Romans, had, with the permission of God, come under the control of the Latins. By God’s gift it was returned to the Romans through us. All those who had previously attempted this, even though they made their attempts with noble enthusiasm and with faultless military skill, appeared to be shooting arrows straight up into the sky and to be attempting the impossible. All the peoples surrounding us, instead of being struck with astonishment at this and living in peace and realizing that this deed had not been accomplished by the hand of men but was a triumph of God’s great power, struck by envy set themselves in motion. We attacked the Persians in the region of Karia and the sources of the Maeander and the nearby region of Phrygia. Even if we refrained from utterly exterminating these upstarts, we reduced many of them to slavery to us. In the other direction, the Bulgarians, in return for having been saved by us acted in a senseless manner by granting the Massagetai (Tatars) passage, thus allowing them to overrun the part of Thrace under our rule. They rose up themselves to join in the attack, but not many days later we gave them back sevenfold.

We purged the sea of its pirates by sending our triremes into the Aegean, where they had not been seen for many years. In this manner we liberated the islands which had been tyrannized by the tyranny [of the pirates] and at the same time we made it safe for people to sail anywhere on the sea. We brought all of Euboea, which possessed large land and naval forces, over to our side, except for one very small area. We won a brilliant naval victory over a huge fleet of triremes from Euboea, leaving only one ship to bring back news of the defeat.

9. [Charles of Anjou (1266–82)] the king of Sicily who ruled over that part of the mainland opposite Sicily and who also ruled over Italy from Brindisi to Tuscany including Florence and as far as Liguria, had already made an attempt on Greek territory and had rendered assistance to the Latins in Euboea as well as to those in Thebes. He fought valiantly and without stint on behalf of the remnants of his race in the Peloponnesos, coming to their aid with a force one could not treat lightly, and dispatching his soldiers all over Greece. Twice and even three times we defeated his troops when they were all assembled together in Euboea on orders to concentrate their forces there for the purpose of recovering that place from us. Several times, moreover, we were victorious in the Peloponnesos against those who wanted to regain that land. One of our naval squadrons gained a victory over the rulers of Thebes and Euboea when they had assembled their armies together. Our men disembarked from the ships and engaged them in a cavalry battle, with the result that one of the rulers died and that the other one trying to escape did not, being led [instead] in chains before us.

With God as our ally we destroyed that king whom we mentioned [Charles of Anjou], as well as that force advancing toward the Illyrians with the intention not so much that they would engage large numbers in battle and would overcome all those they encountered, but that their forces were strong enough to gain a victory over ten times that number. But this army destroyed itself along the sea coast. Well inland in that region another much larger and more impressive army fell apart and was given over into our hands by God. The barbarian king grew more insane and intensified the war against us. All the hostility which a person might feel against another would be much less than that which he, outdoing his hostility, displayed against us. Although defeated at every en- counter, he did not give up, and the continual disasters only made him more quarrelsome. Each new army he sent was stronger than the one before it. Surely it was God who drove him on to the fatal blow.

The result was that he sent this very last army. Most impressive it was with a large number of elite fighting men, with no expense spared, with an abundance of horses, weapons, and all the equipment for war. This army, vaunting its obvious superiority, marched inland a day’s journey from the sea and began a siege of a city that was still Roman. A palisade was erected all around and the siege began. The king refused to lift the siege until God had taken his camp by siege and delivered it to us. That is what happened to his army.

As far as the rest of his forces were concerned, the Sicilians scorned them as though they did not exist. They boldly took up arms and freed themselves from slavery. If I were to say that their present freedom was brought about by God, and were to add that he brought it about by means of us, I would be saying only what confirms the truth. But if I were to list our other victories such as those we gained in Europe against the Triballians [Serbians], after having defeated the Bulgarians in Mysia, and in Asia against the Persians, defeated these peoples several times, my words would be transformed into a discourse much longer than the present one.

10. With the aid of the above, therefore, and with many others of the same sort God made my life a happy one. In addition he has granted me a gift of fine children, something which surpasses the prayers of all men. “Kings have come forth from me” (Gen. 17:6). Now, my God, I gaze upon my son who is emperor and upon his son also an emperor, seated upon my throne (cf. Ps. 131 [132]:11). The valor of the one has gained many victories, and he is concerned about the salvation of his people rather than his own life, which is indeed what I most desire, and he makes this the object of all his cares, study and labors. His son furnishes us with noble hopes that he will soon arrive at the same lofty goal.

11. There are so many proofs of the great mercy of God to me, and I owe them to the supplications of all my holy patrons, but especially to those of my great defender, I mean Demetrios [whose body] exudes scented oil. As an ambassador he is always, I am certain, presenting my case to God. I know too that from long ago and up to the present God has sent him as a shield to protect my life and the empire, and I have no doubt that he bestows his own favor on me. Of all the things I have done as emperor, particularly those which were truly imperial inasmuch as they affected the common good, there is not one in which when I called upon him to come he did not immediately give me the sensation of his actual presence and assistance. Because he has so often and in such significant ways come to our aid, we have continuously been mindful of him and have expressed our gratitude to the Martyr of Christ. But one thing was still lacking, and that was for us to transpose our good disposition into deeds and to express in a more substantial manner the great love we nourish in the depth of our heart for the divine Demetrios. In the same way as his acts of intercession, so should our thanksgiving when put into deeds “bear fruit for God” (Rom. 7:4). For what- ever one does out of reverence to his servants, that veneration obviously passes on to him.

12. Now then, in times long past the blessed George Palaiologos was preeminent because of his burning religious zeal and great love of God, as well as because of his intelligence, courage, and military experience which he displayed in the conflicts and wars of that period and which earned him abundant honors from the emperor and covered him with glory. He was the first to erect from its very foundations a venerable, holy house dedicated to this Martyr of Christ inside this imperial city. This [saint whose body] exudes scented oil appears to have been the ancestral patron of the house of the Palaiologoi. But the tyranny of the Latins, directly opposed to what he had built, razed it to the ground and reduced it to fine dust so one could barely make out a few faint traces of what it had once been. With the grace of God and the aid of the divine martyr Demetrios my majesty raised up again this building which had fallen and was lying there in ruins, and with a liberal and generous hand restored it to its former splendor. We also established a monastery and settled monks therein to [perform service] pleasing to God. We allocated property to them and sources for adding to their income so they could meet their expenses and provide for the rest of their bodily needs.

What we accomplished was most praiseworthy for two reasons. We satisfied our love for the Martyr by glorifying God, which after all was what had motivated my majesty in the first place. The second result was that we renewed the memory of the blessed founder, our ancestor, which men had already consigned to oblivion. To add a third, my majesty established this new monastery which would permit many to come together in it to lead a religious life which would be most pleasing to God; the number of those praying for us would increase, and in return our reward and recompense would be the greater. For if a person who gives even a glass of cold water does not lose his reward, according to the truthful words of my God and Savior (Matt. 10:42), then by providing those who love the ascetical way of life with the opportunity of doing something pleas- ing to God and by so arranging matters that they might more conveniently attain their chosen goal, how shall this go unrewarded by him who said that the whole world is not worth as much as one soul (cf. Matt. 16:26). For these reasons, therefore, my majesty has built up again this shrine to God and to his martyr Demetrios. By the intercession of this gloriously triumphant saint may it become a veritable paradise, filled with monks who, like magnificent, ever blooming plants, every day produce in great abundance the fruit of virtue, to the glory of the one God, to the glory of the great Martyr whose name it is privileged to bear, and for the expiation of my many failings, for it should be no surprise that I too have sinned inasmuch as I am human and thus of a quickly changing or fluctuating nature.

Georgios Pachymeres on Michael VIII Palaiologos’ Tactics to Win Over the People, the Senate, and the Church to Support His Taking of the Imperial Office

The best to rule is the one who comes through virtue and by proving that he is the best [to rule]. This benefits the masses since those who are appointed to rule accept the reason for which they have been elected. Just as we do not choose the doctor capable of rendering health from illness on the basis of fortune or birth, so too if we chose the man who must hold the tiller on the basis of birth, then we have placed a pirate, rather than a captain, in charge of the ship. And it is likely that the one who most needs to be pure and well educated, so that he may rule well, will be totally impure, since from his birth he is surrounded with imperial luxuries and soft living, and besieged by flatterers, while truth is banished, and the evillest things are presented as the best. […]

[Michael VIII Palaiologos] promised to rectify many things: to elevate the ranking of the Church, to honour the priests in greater measure; to promote to a higher rank in state administration those who were worthy; to accept fair judgements and to appoint those who would judge impartially, of whom by far the most important was Michael Kakos, also called Senachereim, who was well educated in both logic and laws; he would grant him the office of protasekretis, which had been left vacant in a long while, and would be willing to give him subordinates, so that he could judge remaining impartial and uncorrupted. Furthermore, he would honour education as well as those engaged in scholarship more than anybody else; he would unconditionally show love to the soldiers and their pronoiai, and if they fell in battle, or if they died, these [pronoiai] would pass down to their children, even if their wives were only pregnant; he would not even speak of introducing unjust levies; there would be no room for slander, the duels would end, as well as the ordeal by iron, since the most terrible danger would be impended if somebody would put the ordeal by iron in practice. The affairs of the polity would be maintained free of any fear in peace so that the rich who had great fortunes would demonstrate their wealth and gain glory without any angst.

[…] While the child [Ioannes IV] was not paying attention, being engaged in childish games, the man who was now reigning made speeches frequently on that day and afterwards, to endear himself to the masses, throwing silver coins at them with both hands; they gathered them and allegedly praised their benefactor, losing interest in the child and his affairs, without knowing what level of evil they had reached: for the plot of one emperor against the other had already begun.

Translation from the original source: Aleksandar Jovanović

Questions for Consideration

  1. In Skoutariotes’ short story about a simpleton and emperor Theodoros I Laskaris, how is the simpleton described? How does he speak to the emperor? What do we learn about the people’s expectations of the imperial office holder?
  2. How does Skoutariotes depict Ioannes III as a good emperor? What is the focus of his argument and what does this tell us about the expectations the people had of their emperors?
  3. How does Michael VIII describe his reign? How does he justify his rise to the throne and what roles are ascribed to the people and God?
  4. What methods did Michael VIII employ in order to win over different socio-economics groups in the empire to support his imperial takeover? What do these methods tell us about the importance of a general public consensus in the later history of the empire?


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The Ancient and Medieval World Copyright © by Aleksandar Jovanović is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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