Since the Comneni, the attitude of the eastern Emperor towards the union had greatly changed. Under the Comneni, especially in the epoch of Manuel, the emperor had sought for union not only under pressure of the external Turkish danger but also in the hope, already merely an illusion, that with the aid of the pope he might gain supreme power over the West, i.e. restore the former Roman Empire. This aspiration clashed with the similar aspiration of the popes to attain supreme temporal power over the West, so that no union took place.
The first Palaeologus, in his negotiations for union, had much more modest pretensions. He had in mind not the expansion of the Byzantine Empire in the West, but its defense, with the help of the pope, against the West in the person of the powerful and menacing Charles of Anjou. The papal curia met his proposals favorably, realizing that the ecclesiastical submission of Byzantium to Rome would bring about a political submission also even if the Sicilian danger were averted. But the possibility of such an increase of the temporal power of the pope met with definite resistance from western European rulers. In his turn, on his way to the reconciliation with the Roman church, the eastern Emperor met with stubborn opposition among the Greek clergy who, in an overwhelming majority, remained faithful to Greek Orthodoxy. The historian Norden said that Pope Gregory X influenced the King of Sicily with spiritual reasons, Palaeologus his prelates with political arguments.
One of the prominent representatives of the Greek church, the future patriarch John Beccus (Veccus), a wise man, master of eloquence and science, according to Gregoras, had been opposed to union and was therefore imprisoned. During his confinement he became a partisan of the union and an active supporter of the Emperor in his project of reconciliation with Rome, an event of great importance for Michael's aim. The council was held in 1274 in the French city of Lyons. Michael sent a solemn embassy headed by the former patriarch Germanus and the historian George Acropolitas, the grand logothete and the Emperor's friend.
It was intended that Thomas Aquinas, the most famous representative of medieval Catholic scholarship, should take the leading part at the council on behalf of Rome, but he died on his way to Lyons. His place was taken by the no less brilliant Cardinal Bonaventura. A Mongol bishop also attended the council. The author of the Vita of Saint Bonaventura, Petrus Galesinius (Pietro Galesino) in the sixteenth century, and some other writers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries asserted that at the invitation of the pope Emperor Michael Palaeologus himself went to Lyons to attend the council. But this error was caught and refuted by Leo Allatius in the seventeenth century.
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