Theodore's only son and successor, who was not quite eight years old, John IV (1258-61) could not, even with the help of the appointed regent, George Muzalon, master the complicated affairs of the Empire. At this time the crafty and ambitious Michael Palaeologus, John Vatatzes' relative, a restless intriguer and an infamous hypocrite, but an able officer, played a decisive role. Several times suspected of plots and treason by Vatatzes and Theodore II, and occupying, nevertheless, high offices, he had in times of danger successfully withdrawn and even fled for a time to the court of the Sultan of Iconium. Stormy times demanded a strong rule. Michael Palaeologus profited skillfully by circumstances and, in 1259, was crowned emperor.
The chief external danger to the Balkan possessions of the Empire of Nicaea arose from the Despot of Epirus, who succeeded in forming an alliance against the Empire consisting of the despot himself, the king of Sicily, Manfred, a relative of the despot and the natural son of Frederick II, and the prince of Achaia, William de Villehardouin. Michael Palaeologus gained some military success against the coalition, and the decisive battle was fought in 1259 in western Macedonia, in the plain of Pelagonia, near the city of Castoria. Turks, Cumans, and Slavs, as well as Greeks, fought in Michael's army. The battle of Pelagonia or Castoria ended in the complete defeat of the allies. The prince of Achaia was captured. The well-armed troops of the western knights fled before the light-armed Bithynian, Slavonic, and eastern troops. Perhaps it was the first time that Turks fought against Greeks on Greek soil, and on this occasion in Greek service. A contemporary, George Acropolita, gave this judgment of the event: Under imperial advice our troops have got so great a victory that the fame of it has passed over all the ends of the earth; of such victories the sun has seen but few. In his autobiography, which is preserved, Michael Palaeologus writes concerning this battle: Along with them (with the traitors to the Roman state, i.e., the Despot of Epirus and his associates) and their allies, who had as their leader the Prince of Achaia, whom have I vanquished? Alamans, Sicilians, and Italians who came from Apulia, the land of the Iapygians and Brundusium, from Bithynia, Euboea, and the Peloponnesus.
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