When Pope Innocent III was informed of the sacking of Constantinople, he understood at once the damage that had been done. Furiously excommunicating everyone who had taken part, he wondered aloud how the dream of church unity could ever now occur. How could the Greeks, he wrote to his legates, ever forgive their Catholic brothers, whose swords still dripped with Christian blood, and who had betrayed and violated their holiest shrines?* Eastern Christians, he concluded with good reason, now detested Latins more than dogs.
The new masters of Constantinople, meanwhile, seemed determined to increase the native resentment. In a hastily cleaned Hagia Sophia, where a few days before a prostitute had been mockingly perched on the patriarchal throne, a Latin emperor was crowned, and the feudal arrangements of the West were forced on the corpse of the Byzantine Empire. The various nobles were rewarded with large estates, and a patchwork of semi-independent kingdoms replaced the single authority of the emperor. A crusader knight seized Macedonia, calling himself the king of Thessaloniki, and another set himself up as the lord of Athens.* Not even in its most advanced decay had the Byzantine state been as powerless as the Latin one that took its place.
Remarkably enough, given the deplorable state of the capital, the vast majority of Byzantines in the countryside were reasonably well off. As the central authority of the emperors had weakened in the years before the Fourth Crusade, the towns and villages of Byzantium had flourished. Merchants of the West, the East, and the Islamic world converged in fairs held throughout the empire, where they displayed exotic wares from as far away as Russia, India, China, and Africa. The urban population boomed, and since the corrupt and paralyzed imperial government was unable to collect taxes, the wealth stayed in private hands. Emperors could no longer afford their lavish building programs as the treasury dried up, but private citizens could, and the cities became showpieces for personal fortunes. A new spirit of humanism was in the air, along with an intellectual curiosity. Byzantine art, which had been stylized for centuries, became suddenly more lifelike; writers began to depart from the cluttered, archaic styles of antiquity; and individual patrons of the arts sponsored vibrant local styles in the frescoes and mosaics of their villas. The spirit of Byzantium was flowering even as imperial fortunes declined, and not even the terrible trauma of the Fourth Crusade could dampen it for long.
Despite the resilience of its culture and economy, the empire’s power seemed irretrievably lost. Alexius Murtzuphlus had tried to organize a counteroffensive with his fellow emperor-in-exile Alexius III, but his idiotic colleague had betrayed him, and the crusaders had flung Murtzuphlus to his death from the top of the Theodosian column. In remote Trebizond on the shores of the Black Sea, the grandsons of Andronicus the Terrible declared themselves the rightful emperors; while at Epirus, the great-grandson of Alexius Comnenus claimed the same thing. The most powerful and important fragment of the empire, however, was centered at Nicaea, where the patriarch crowned Alexius III’s son-in-law Theodore Lascaris as emperor.
As refugees and wealth poured into the Nicene haven of the Orthodox faith and Byzantine culture, the crusader’s Latin Empire of Constantinople grew progressively weaker. Within a year, a Bulgarian army had effectively broken its power, destroying its army, capturing the impotent emperor, and allowing Theodore Lascaris to reconquer most of northwestern Asia Minor. Instead of confronting the obvious danger of Nicaea, however, successive Latin emperors concentrated on extracting wealth from the citizens of Constantinople, abandoning themselves to the pleasures of palace life.
Only the threat of the Seljuk Turks at their rear prevented the Nicaean emperors from further exploiting Latin weakness; but in 1242, a terrifying Mongol horde suddenly appeared, and the situation dramatically changed. Smashing the Turkish army sent against him, the Mongol khan forced the Seljuk sultan to become his vassal and extracted a promise of an annual tribute of horses, hunting dogs, and gold. The Mongol horde seemed poised to descend on Nicaea next, but it unexpectedly withdrew the next year, leaving the Seljuks crippled in his wake. To the relieved Byzantines, it seemed as if God had delivered them from certain destruction, and perhaps even given them a powerful new ally. Nestorian Christians who had been expelled from the Byzantine Empire had reached Mongolia in the seventh century, and though the khans had yet to embrace a major religion, several high-ranking Mongols—including the daughter-in-law of Genghis Khan—were Christian. In any case, whether they were well disposed to Christianity or not, the Mongols’ timely attack finally left Nicaea free to pursue its dream of recapturing Constantinople.
Through careful diplomacy and military displays, Nicaea slowly built up the pressure on the tottering Latin Empire. By now the crusader kingdom had virtually shrunk down to Constantinople itself, and the capital lived under a perpetual shadow of gloom, with its deserted streets and dilapidated palaces. Its humiliated emperor Baldwin II was so impoverished that he’d been obliged to sell off the lead from the roof of the imperial palace—which was now in a tumbledown state of advanced decay—and in his desperate search for money had even begun to pawn the few relics that had survived the sack. By 1259, when a dashing young general named Michael Palaeologus was crowned in Nicaea, Baldwin was barely clinging on to power, and few doubted the general would recover the city. The only question was when.
Nicaea was not without its own turmoil. The thirty-four-year-old Michael Palaeologus had come to power only after the regent was brutally hacked to death during the funeral service of his predecessor, but by the time Michael was crowned on Christmas day, his empire was infinitely more powerful and vibrant than its Latin counterpart. In the summer of 1261, Michael neutralized the threat of the Venetian navy by signing a treaty with their archrivals Genoa, and sent his Caesar, Alexius Strategopoulos, to see how strong Constantinople’s defenses were. When the Caesar arrived outside the city in July with eight hundred men, some farmers immediately informed him that the Latin garrison—along with the Venetian navy—was away attacking an island in the Bosporus. Hardly believing his luck, Strategopoulos hid until nightfall in a monastery near the Pege Gate, easily escaping detection by the laconic defenders. Upon discovering a small, unlocked postern gate nearby, the Caesar sent through a handful of men who quietly overpowered the guards and opened the main gate. On the morning of July 25, 1261, the Nicaean army poured into the city, shouting at the top of their lungs and beating their swords against their shields. Emperor Baldwin II was so terrified by the noise that he left the crown jewels behind, fleeing to the palace of the Bucoleon, where he was somehow able to find a Venetian ship and make good his escape. Within hours, it was all over. The Venetian quarter was burned to the ground, and the returning Venetian navy was too busy rescuing its loved ones to fight back.
For the Latins inside the city, there was no thought of resistance, only of panicked flight. Scattering in all directions, they hid in churches, disguised themselves as monks, and even leaped into the sewers to avoid detection. When they cautiously emerged, however, they found that there had been no massacre. The Byzantines had come home not to plunder but to live. The bedraggled Latins hurried quietly down to the harbors and boarded the returning Venetian ships, glad that Byzantines had shown more restraint in victory than their own crusading predecessors.
The incredible news reached Michael Palaeologus where he was asleep in his tent, nearly two hundred miles away. Refusing to believe that his forces had captured the city until he had seen Baldwin’s discarded scepter, Michael hurried to take possession of the capital that he had long dreamed of but never seen. On August 15, 1261, he solemnly entered through the Golden Gate and walked to the Hagia Sophia, where he was crowned as Michael VIII. After fifty-seven years in exile, the Byzantine Empire had come home.
The city that Michael VIII triumphantly entered was a pale shadow of its former self. Charred and blackened houses stood abandoned on every corner, still sagging and in ruin from the sack more than five decades before. Its churches were despoiled and dilapidated, its palaces decayed, and its treasures dispersed. The formidable Theodosian walls were badly in need of repair, the imperial harbor was completely unprotected, and the surrounding countryside was devastated. Its weary citizens had little hope for relief from a throne that had seen—from Irene in 780 to Alexius Murtzuphlus in 1204—half of its occupants overthrown. Worst of all, however, the old unity of the Byzantine world had vanished—the splinters of the empire in Trebizond and Epirus remained stubbornly independent, sapping the already diminished strength of Byzantium. The only hope of salvation seemed to be from the West, but the Fourth Crusade had severely ruptured western relations.
If anyone had a chance of repairing the damage, however, it was Michael VIII. Not yet forty, he was energetic and vibrant, hiding a fierce intelligence behind a convivial smile. Boasting an impressive imperial lineage of no fewer than eleven emperors and three dynasties among his ancestors, he was well connected, able, and smarter than anyone else around him. His first task was to restore the city’s shattered morale, and he did so with a whirlwind of construction, repairing walls and rebuilding churches. In the upper gallery of the Hagia Sophia, the emperor commissioned a stunning mosaic of Christ flanked by Mary and John the Baptist—perhaps the finest piece of art that Byzantium ever produced. A massive chain was stretched across the imperial harbor to protect it from enemy vessels, and the moats around the land walls were cleared. Knowing the value of propaganda, the emperor designed a new flag and sent it fluttering from every parapet and tower in the city. Though the eagle had been the symbol of the Roman Empire since Gaius Marius had chosen it thirteen hundred years before, most banners before Michael bore either Constantine’s cross or the Chi-Rho—the first two Greek letters of Christ’s name. Now the emperor added a great golden eagle, double-headed with two crowns—one for the interim capital of Nicaea and one for Constantinople. Those who saw it could swell with pride and remind themselves that Byzantium had been a mighty empire embracing two continents, looking both east and west. Perhaps under the dashing Michael VIII it would be so again. The imperial enemies were scattered and disunited, and an immediate offensive just might catch them on their heels.
At the head of his small, battle-hardened army, Michael VIII had soon pushed back a marauding Bulgarian army and forced the Byzantine despot of Epirus to submit to the empire. By 1265, he had conquered most of the Peloponnese from its Latin overlords and even managed to clear the Turks out of the Meander valley. The next year, however, a new player appeared on the international stage, and everything was thrown into confusion.
The Norman Kingdom of Sicily had dominated Italian politics for a long time, but by 1266 its energy was exhausted. Pope Urban IV, wanting a friendlier hand at its helm, invited Charles of Anjou, the younger brother of King Louis IX of France, to seize the kingdom. If the pope wanted a neutral power to his south, however, he could hardly have made a worse choice. Charles was cruel and grasping, and after beheading his sixteen-year-old opponent in a public square, he immediately began planning to enlarge his domains. His schemes were given an unexpected boost when Baldwin II, the exiled and rather pathetic Latin emperor of Constantinople, offered to give him the Peloponnese in exchange for help regaining the throne. The delighted Sicilian king immediately began levying heavy taxes to support the war effort and searching for allies, forming an anti-Byzantine league with Venice.
Knowing his small army and decrepit navy would stand no chance against his united enemies, Michael VIII turned to diplomacy, adroitly managing to keep them at bay. Venice was bought off with greater trading privileges within the empire, and a few letters hastily written to King Louis persuaded the French king to restrain his headstrong younger brother. For the moment, the voracious Charles was forced to sit on his hands, but the French king died in 1270, and Charles gleefully invaded. Sicilian arms were irresistible, but once again Michael VIII outthought his opponent. Writing to the pope, the emperor cleverly dangled the promise of a union of the churches before the pontiff’s eyes in exchange for bringing Charles to heel.
The ploy worked and Charles was recalled, but Michael was playing a dangerous game. He was well aware that his subjects would never accept domination by the hated Roman church, and he couldn’t keep stalling the pope indefinitely. For three years, the emperor smoothly dodged the papal representatives; but by 1274, Pope Gregory X got tired of waiting and sent an ultimatum to Constantinople—either implement the union immediately or face the consequences. There was little that Michael VIII could do. Asking only that eastern practices be left alone, he submitted his church to the authority of the pope.
The firestorm in Constantinople was both unsurprising and immediate. The patriarch angrily refused to ratify the hated document, and most of Michael’s subjects felt bitterly betrayed. The emperor had not only dangerously weakened his throne, but he had also handed the Orthodox powers of Serbia and Bulgaria the perfect bit of propaganda. Each could now invade imperial territory at will and claim to be fighting for tradition and truth. Any such invasion, Michael well knew, would receive dangerous support from his outraged subjects. But he had removed the justification of papal support from any future attack by Charles, and that for Michael VIII was worth the price of popular unrest. In any case, he didn’t intend to sit idly by while his enemies pounced. When Bulgaria invaded, trying to exploit the weakness, Michael simply invited the Mongol Golden Horde into Bulgaria. The Mongol advance crippled the kingdom, dealing Bulgaria a blow from which it never recovered.
Charles of Anjou had been seriously checked, but he wasn’t beaten yet. If his grand alliance had foundered on Byzantine treachery, then it must be more solidly rebuilt. Venice was easily seduced. She was always looking to her own advantage, and the rights Michael VIII had granted to Genoa were cutting deeply into her profits. A victory for Charles would mean the banishment of the Genoese upstarts—an irresistible attraction for the Lion of Saint Mark’s. The only thing restraining Charles was papal displeasure, but the resourceful king overcame even this seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Pope Gregory X died in 1276, and through steady interference and intimidation Charles managed to have a French cardinal elected pope who hated the Byzantines almost as much as he did.* In 1281, the French pope sent a letter to the stunned Byzantine emperor informing him that he had been excommunicated on the grounds of his subjects’ continued resistance to Catholicism. The emperor could hardly believe the news. He had sacrificed his popularity and invited charges of impiety and betrayal for nothing. Now Venice and Sicily were firmly allied against him, and they would sail under the papal blessing. Not even the Fourth Crusade had such support.
Byzantium’s only advantage was Michael VIII. In a brilliant bit of truly “byzantine” diplomacy, Michael reached out to Peter III of Aragon, urging him to invade Sicily. Peter was related to the dynasty that Charles of Anjou had evicted from power and considered Sicily his birthright. And thanks to vicious taxation and a copious amount of Byzantine gold, anti-French feeling on the island was at a fever pitch. Now, suggested Michael VIII, would be the perfect time for the Spanish savior to arrive.
Unaware of the storm that was gathering, Charles of Anjou left Sicily for the mainland of Italy to put the finishing touches on his army. In his absence, the island exploded. The revolt known to posterity as the Sicilian Vespers started innocuously enough on the outskirts of Palermo. As the bells of the church of Santo Spirito rang to call the faithful to Vespers on Easter Monday of 1282, an inebriated French soldier tried to seduce a Sicilian girl. To the outraged onlookers, it was the last straw. These boorish French had lorded it over them for long enough, growing fat off Sicilian labor. The enraged mob killed the offending soldier and fanned out through the streets of Palermo, venting nearly two decades of frustration on anyone with a drop of French blood. When the sun rose on Tuesday morning, there wasn’t a Frenchman left alive, and the electrifying news of the revolt sped throughout the island. By May, French resistance had collapsed, and by the end of August Peter III had landed and taken possession of Palermo. Charles of Anjou furiously put several Sicilian ports under siege, but he had abused his former subjects for too long, and they preferred death to his return. Though he spent the rest of his life trying to recover the island, he was never successful, and in 1285 he died, a broken man.
Michael VIII never lived to see the death of his great enemy. With the threat of western aggression gone, the despot of Epirus was once again asserting his independence, and the emperor was determined to bring him into line. The fifty-eight-year-old emperor again led his troops toward battle, but he had gotten no farther than Thrace when he fell seriously ill. Thinking as always of his responsibilities, the dying emperor proclaimed his son Andronicus II to be his successor, and expired quietly in the first days of December.
He had been among Byzantium’s greatest emperors, restoring its capital and dominating the politics of the Mediterranean. Without him, the empire would certainly have fallen to Charles of Anjou—or any number of watching enemies—and the Byzantine light would have been extinguished, its immense learning dispersed among a West not yet ready to receive it. Instead, Michael VIII had deftly outmaneuvered his enemies, founding in the process the longest-lasting dynasty in the history of the Roman Empire. Nearly two hundred years later, a member of his family would still be sitting on the throne of Byzantium, fighting the same battle of survival—albeit with much longer odds. Michael had done what he could to repair the imperial wreckage. He left behind valuable tools to continue the recovery: a small but disciplined army, a reasonably full treasury, and a refurbished navy. But for the savior of the empire, no gratitude awaited. Excommunicated by the pope, he died a heretic to the Catholic West and a traitor to the Orthodox East. His son buried him without ceremony or consecration in a simple, unmarked grave. Michael VIII’s affronted subjects, however, would all too soon have reason to miss him. If Byzantium looked strong at his death, it was only because his brilliance had made it so. Without a strong army or reliable allies, its power was now purely diplomatic, and it needed hands as skillful as Michael’s to guide it. Unfortunately for the empire, however, few of Michael’s successors would prove worthy of him.
*Exactly eight hundred years later, in 2004, Pope John Paul II apologized—though the Fourth Crusade was hardly the fault of the pontiff—to the patriarch of Constantinople when the latter paid a visit to the Vatican, expressing pain and disgust even at a distance of eight centuries.
*Virtually the only armed opposition came from a local brigand named Leo Sgurus. After four years of struggle Leo was trapped on top of the acropolis of Corinth, and, rather than surrender, he decided—in a scene worthy of Hollywood—to commit suicide by riding his horse over the side of the citadel.
*The pope is best known to posterity for his role in the life of a young Italian adventurer. On his election in 1271, Gregory received a letter from Kublai Khan asking for oil from a lamp in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The pontiff entrusted it to the young Marco Polo—whose lively account of the journey became one of the most famous books of the Middle Ages.