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John III Vatatzes

Author(s) : Banev Guentcho (12/16/2002)
Translation : Koutras Nikolaos

For citation: Banev Guentcho, "John III Vatatzes",
Encyclopaedia of the Hellenic World, Asia Minor
URL: <http://www.ehw.gr/l.aspx?id=9275>

Ιωάννης Γ΄ Βατάτζης (2/6/2007 v.1) John III Vatatzes (2/15/2006 v.1) 

1. Biography

John III Doukas Vatatzes was born in 1192 in Didymoteicho. His father, Basil Doukas Vatatzes, had held the office of domestikos of the East. His mother Angelina was daughter of Isaac, the son of Constantine Angelos and of Theodora Komnene, the daughter of Alexius I Komnenos. The Vatatzes were a great military family of Thrace; they had representatives in the senate and were related to other eminent families, like the Doukes, the Angeloi and the Laskarids.1 Following the capture of Constantinople in 1204, John Doukas Vatatzes went to Nymphaeum, which Theodore I Laskaris (1207/8-1222) had chosen as the seat of the Byzantine Empire of Nicaea. Thanks to the intercession of an uncle of his who was a priest in the palace and an associate of the emperor, John Vatatzes entered in the emperor’s service. The emperor appreciated his talents and his moral fibre, and conferred upon him the title of protovestiarios. In 1212, the emperor wedded him to his first-born daughter Irene, and as he had no other adult heirs, he designated Vatatzes as his successor. In January 1222, after Theodore’s death, John Vatatzes was crowned emperor by the patriarch Manuel I Charitopoulos. His wife, the cultured Irene, gave birth to only one son, the heir Theodore (II Lascaris), in 1222; she died in 1241.2 In 1244 Vatatzes married again, to the daughter of the German emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen, Constance II.3 In 1253, following a campaign against the ruler of Epirus, Michael II, the emperor's health, (he suffered from epilespsy) deteriorated. He died on November 3rd 1254 in Nymphaeum and was buried in the monastery of Christ Savior (of Sosandra) close to Magnesia, in the wider area of Smyrna.4

2. External policy

As regards his external policy, John III Vatatzes generally continued his predecessor's work, the main aim being the recapture of Constantinople and the restoration of the Byzantine Empire. His main rivals were the Despotate of Epirus, the Bulgarian tsar Ivan Asen II, the Latin Empire of Constantinople, the Sultanate of Rum and the Empire of Trebizond. His ascension to the throne signalled the end of Nicaea’s political cooperation with the Latins, a policy pursued by his predecessor, Theodore I Lascaris. He faced the rebellion of Theodore's brothers, Alexios and Isaac Laskaris, who attempted to depose him, supported by the Latins of Constantinople. This rebellion aigainst him turned out in advantage of the emperor and his dominion. In the context of the military operations conducted between 1222 and 1225 he managed to almost completely oust the Latins from Asia Minor. In 1224, in a battle given in Poimanenon, the Latins were defeated, while the pretenders to the throne were arrested. In the peace treaty that ensued, the Latins were left with only the outskirts of Nicomedia and the coastline opposite Constantinople, while all the other areas of Asia Minor passed to the Empire of Nicaea. At the same time, Vatatzes constructed a strong fleet which, from its base at Olkos of Hellespont, launched naval operations capturing the islands Lesbos, Chios, Samos and Ikaria; later on (1232-1233), Vatatzes forced the ruler of Rhodes, Leo Gabalas, to recognise the emperor’s sovereign rights over the island.5 After the battle of Poimanenon the emperor, who resided in Lampsakos for a time in order to remain close to the theatre of operations, turned his attention to the European lands. His troops captured several costal cities and entered Adrianople, following the request of its inhabitants. But the forces of Theodore Doukas Angelos – who had been crowned emperor in Thessalonica in 1225 – soon arrived, and the troops of Nicaea were forced to withdraw. Vatatzes then turned to the East, and after a short campaign and negotiations with the Sultanate of Rum he managed to secure his eastern borders.

2.1. Relations between Nicaea and Epirus

The despotes of Epirus, Theodore Doukas Angelos, was Vatatzes’ greatest adversary. Aiming to recapture Constantinople, he quickly managed to expand his dominion through a series of successful campaigns. His plans, however, clashed with those of the tsar of the Bulgarians, Ivan Asen II (1218-1241). Having cancelled the alliance he had signed with Asen against John Vatatzes, Theodore Angelos declared war on the Bulgarian ruler. In the battle that took place in the spring of 1230 close to Klokotnitsa on the river Evros, Theodore Angelos was decisively defeated and his territories in Thrace and Macedonia fell to the Bulgarians. The western Greece Despotate finally gave up its claim to the throne of Constantinople, and it was now under the rule of Manuel, brother of Theodore Angelos. Manuel was succeeded by Theodore’s son, John Angelos; in 1242 John III Vatatzes forced him to recognise the suzerainty of the Empire of Nicaea and limit himself to the title of despotes. In around 1246, following the death of the Bulgarian tsar Kaliman, successor to Ivan Asen, John Vatatzes expanded his dominion in the Balkan Peninsula; after capturing the cities of Serres, Meleniko, Velbuzd, (modern Kyustendil), Skopje, Velesa, Pelagonia and Prosakos, he expanded his domain in Thrace up to the sources of the river Evros and in Macedonia up to the Axios (Vardar) river. Finally he turned west against Demetrios Doukas Angelos, and in December of 1246 he captured Thessalonica, forcing Demetrios to submit. Then, in around 1247-1248, the forces of Nicaea campaigned in Thrace, capturing Tzouroulos and Vizye. Following the battle of Klokotnitsa, Epirus was split from the Empire of Thessalonica, and was restored as an independent principality under the illegitimate son of Michael I Angelos, Michael II Doukas. Initially Vatatzes sought to develop amicable relations with Michael II, and entered into an alliance with him, which was confirmed in 1249 with the marriage of his niece Maria to Michael’s son, Nicephoros. In 1251, however, Michael II cancelled the alliance and moved aggressively against the Nicaean possessions in Macedonia, aiming to capture Thessalonica. Early in 1252 Vatatzes campaigned in western Macedonia. Michael II was forced to capitulate and sign a peace treaty in Larissa. The ruler of Epirus handed over Velessa and Prilapo to the emperor of Nicaea, receiving the honorary title of despotes in return.

2.2. Relations with Bulgaria

Initially Ivan Asen II and John Vatatzes were on opposite sides, each seeking to capture Constantinople for his own sake. The political developments in the Latin Empire of Constantinople and the ascension of John de Brienne (1231-1237) to the imperial throne created ideal conditions for rapprochement between the Nicaean state and the Bulgarian one. In the winter of 1233 Vatatzes was attacked by the Latin forces of John de Brienne, but he successfully repelled this assault. Ivan Asen appeared on his side as the inciter of an anti-Latin alliance of Orthodox rulers, to which Manuel of Thessalonica also acceded. In the context of the negotiations, the political and ecclesiastical leadership of Nicaea accepted the founding of a Bulgarian patriarchate, as long as it recognised the sovereign authority of the Nicaean patriarchate. In spring of 1235 the alliance was signed in Kallipolis, which was soon after sealed with the marriage of John Vatatzes’ son and heir, Theodore, to the daughter of Ivan Asen, Helen. The allies immediately commenced hostilities against the Latins and besieged Constantinople by land and sea. The Latin Empire was restricted to a small strip of land around Constantinople. The siege, however, was unsuccessful. In 1236 the allies attempted to capture the capital once again. During the siege, however, Asen, fearsome of the rise of Nicaea, cancelled the alliance and demanded that his daughter, Helen, should return to him. He then sided with the Latins and the Cumans of Macedonia and, circa 1237, he commenced hostilities against Vatatzes, besieging Tzouroulos, a strategic stronghold. During the siege Ivan Asen changed his mind and, remorseful, he broke off the siege; he sent his daughter Helen back to Nicaea and signed a peace treaty with Vatatzes. In 1241 the Bulgarian ruler passed away. John III Vatatzes, rid of all his dangerous enemies, renewed the pact with the underage heir of Ivan Asen, Kaliman Asen I (1241-1246).

2.3. Relations with Frederick II

John Vatatzes’ main diplomatic concern was the rapprochement with the German emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen and an alliance with him.6 Both rulers were united in their struggle against the Latins. Frederick supported the Byzantine efforts to capture Constantinople and in 1236 he cancelled the crusade pope Gregory IX was organizing against Vatatzes, on account of John III’s hostilities against the Latins. John Vatatzes in turn sided with Frederick in the latter’s feud with the pope. Later the two rulers signed an alliance, while in 1244 Vatatzes took as his spouse Constance, the 12-year-old illegitimate daughter of the German emperor, who subsequently took on the name Anna. This alliance, however, brought no significant gain to the Empire of Nicaea, even though it did help establish its presence in the international diplomatic scene. The emperor of Nicaea maintained diplomatic relations with the German dynasty even after the death of Frederick, during the reign of Conrad IV (1250-1254).

2.4. Relations with the Vatican

Nicaea’s relations with the Vatican can be divided in two phases. During the first phase, Gregory IX (1227-1241) was the Pope in Rome, while Germanos II Anaplous was the Patriarch in Nicaea(1222-1240). In the second phase, the protagonists were the Pope Innocent IV (1243-1254) and the Patriarch Manuel II (1244-1255). The Papal Church sought to subordinate the Eastern Church, while John Vatatzes’ main goal was the recapture of Constantinople. Both sides were willing to make some concessions in order to accomplish their aims. The first contacts took place in Nicaea in 1232. In 1234, delegates of the two churches met first at Nicaea and then at Nymphaeum. They negotiated the issues related to the union of the Churches. Dogmatic issues were also discussed in depth. The Orthodox clerics, Nikephoros Blemmydes being their main representative, rejected the Latin teaching on the purgatorial fire, while regarding the heavily disputed filioque clause, they suggested the expression «from the Father through the Son» instead. Finally the talks came to a dead end, for the Pope did not agree to the condition John Vatatzes set, i.e. that no reinforcement was to be sent to the Latins of Constantinople. In 1236, on the occasion of the hostilities of the alliance of the Byzantines and the Bulgrarians against the Latins of Constantinople, nicaean relations with the Vatican deteriorated. In 1241, however, the Latin emperor Baldwin II de Courtenay and John Vatatzes signed a peace treaty. In 1243 contacts with the Roman Catholic Church began again on a new basis. The new pope Innocent IV was very energetic and appeared keen on accepting the terms Nicaea had set in order to achieve the union between the Churches. At the same time the emperor of Nicaea seemed to have accepted the idea of subordinating the Church to the Papal Curia in order to achieve his goal, the recapture of Constantinople. During this preriod, the rapprochement was greater than ever before. Political developments, however, and the patriarch’s disagreement on dogmatic issues delayed the negotiations. The total enfeeblement of the Latin Empire and the establishment of John Vatatzes' domination led the Nicaean ruler to reject the papal proposal. The negotiations finally ceased after the almost simultaneous deaths of John Vatatzes, Innocent IV and patriarch Manuel II.

2.5. Relations with the Sultanate of Rum

The relations of Nicaea with the Sultanate of Rum during the reign of John Vatatzes were peaceful, based on the respect of the border set circa 1230. In 1242 the Mongols invaded Asia Minor and threatened to destroy the Empire of Trebizond and the Sultanate. This caused great upheaval in the region and was the cause for a rapprochement in the shape of an alliance between Nicaea and the Sultanate. John Vatatzes feared that the likely fall of Iconium would leave his state directly exposed to Mongol raids, so he broke off his campaign in Thrace and Macedonia and hastened back to Nicaea. In 1243 he met with the sultan of Rum Kaikosru II (Kayhusrev) (1237-1245) in Tripolis on the Maiandros River, and they signed an alliance. The Seljuks were threatened by the Mongol raids. In 1244 they were defeated and became tributaries; however, the Mongols left Asia Minor unexpectedly. Despite the fact that Nicaea was forced to pay tribute, these developments benefited John Vatatzes. The Sultanate of Rum, because of the destruction wreaked upon it, could not be considered a serious threat anymore, while it faced grave food shortage, and was forced to import its necessities from Nicaea at quite high prices.

3. Internal policy

At the start of his reign, John Vatatzes had to face autonomist movements and insurrections in his eastern and western provinces, like the rebellion of Mavrozomes and the conspiracy of the brothers Andronikos and Isaac Nestongos,7 and he took measures to ensure his strict control over the court aristocracy and the provincial governors. His internal policy was very successful. The emperor paid close attention to social and, mainly, economic issues. He also reorganized the army, took steps to ensure the harmonious coexistence of the State with the Church and supported a cultural blossoming.

3.1. Social structures and economy

His successful expansive policy brought the annexation of new regions to the empire. In all likelihood the governors of the territories that were incorporated into the imperial administrative system enjoyed wide authorities. Vatatzes showed special care in restricting abuses by the officials, and he ensured the proper administration of justice. His policy of appointing people of non-aristocratic descent in administrative posts was ground-breaking, causing much resentment among members of the aristocracy. It is also noteworthy that he heavily relied on the support of the military aristocracy. The success of his internal policy, however, was mainly the result of his economic and agrarian measures. His actions in this field aimed at achieving economic self-sufficiency and the improvement of domestic production, as well as at diminishing the import of foreign products, especially western luxury goods.8 In his social policy, he took steps to improve the living standards of rural and city people. He conducted a census and bestowed on each subject of the empire a plot of land. Towards the end of his administration, he also requisitioned movable and immovable property belonging to great land-owners and the nobility, thus causing their disgruntlement. According to the sources he led a very frugal life,9 and took additional measures to curtail excessive spending of private wealth; moreover, in order to firmly establish social justice in his state, he took measures against the exploitation of the poor. He issued a novel by which he abolished the system of misappropriation, which practiced the toparchs until then. These measures strengthened the empire's economy and the state was financially much stronger than in the Comnenian era.

3.2. Vatatzes’ attitude towards the Church

In the context of his wider social policy, John Vatatzes also saw after the smoother function of the Church. In 1228 he issued a novel with which he forbade the interference of political authorities into ecclesiastical inheritance. He also made generous donations to ecclesiastical institutions and saw to the rebuilding of the existing temples and the construction of new ones, like the monastery of Sosandra in Magnesia and the monastery of Lemvos in Smyrna.

3.3. Army

John Vatatzes made special effort to build up the state’s army, the core of which continued to be made up of mercenaries, mainly Latins organized into the ‘Latinikon’. The concession of middle-size pronoiai to military men contributed to the forming of a stronger army, while the construction of fortresses in borderland, as well as the repairs on the frotifications of many cities (e.g. of Smyrna) contributed to the improvement of Nicaea’s defensive capability. In order to achieve the better manning of the army, the emperor allowed the settlement of foreign people, mainly Cumans, on the border regions of Thrace, Macedonia and Phrygia, in exchange for their military services. The Cuman mercenaries, which were usually referred to as ‘Scythians’ by the Byzantines, formed the so-called ‘Skythikon’. Already from the first years of his reign, John Vatatzes gave precedence to the reorganisation of the navy. The role of the fleet proved decisive in the efforts to annex the Aegean islands, most important of which was Rhodes, but also in the support of Nicaea’s land campaigns in Macedonia, and especially in Thessalonica. The megas doukas remained in charge of the navy, while the megas domestikos was in charge of the army.

3.4. Sciences and Arts

John Vatatzes, notwithstanding his constant and intense military and diplomatic engagements, saw to the intellectual needs of the empire. He founded libraries in the urban centres and fostered the sciences and the arts, and learning in general. He was greatly interested in the collection and copying of manuscripts. The foremost representative of the educational movement of the 13th century, the scholar, writer and teacher Nikephoros Blemmydes, lived during his reign. Among Blemmydes’ students were Vatatzes' heir, the learned Theodore II Laskaris, as well as the historian and statesman George Akropolites. The sources abound with references to the emperor's great concern for the development of his state’s intellectual life.10 He promoted the creation of centres of learning, especially of secular studies, while higher educational institutions were organized.

4. Canonization

His sensitivity for the lower social strata and his beneficial policies earned John Vatatzes the respect and love of the people. According to a popular tradition, few years after his death he was canonized as a saint. Georgios Acropolites mentions that the people saw to the construction of a temple in his honour in Nymphaeum, and that his cult as a saint quickly spread to the people of western Asia Minor. The cult of the saintly emperor survived till the modern years, mainly in the metropolis of Ephesus. His biography was composed, and many miracles were attributed to him. The church never formally recognized John Vatatzes as a saint; however, in the menologia we have a reference to the commemoration of “John Doukas Vatatzes” on the 4th of November.

4.1. Vita

The Vita of John Vatatzes was probably composed rather early, although there are no indications as to its precise date of composition, its author and the place it was written.11 In the 14th century, the bishop of Pelagonia George wrote the Life of Saint John the Merciful in the form of a synaxarion.12 The biographer relied on oral tradition and reports the events of the 13th century with many inaccuracies. Vatatzes and Lascaris are often mixed-up. Vatatze’s Vita is rather concise and refers to his alleged miracles, which are said to have occurred during the translation of his relics in Magnesia. Nicodemus the Athonite (1749-1809), who composed an akolouthia in honour of the emperor-saint commissioned by the metropolitan of Ephesus, probably relied on this text.13

5. Εvaluation

The complete agreement of the contemporary sources on the appraisal of Vatatzes and his work by is impressive. Poets (e.g. Nikolaos Eirenikos), historians and prose writers (e.g. Nikephoros Gregoras, Georgios Akropolites) stress the emperor’s rare qualities, extolling his virtue and his simple lifestyle. Indeed, during his reign the Empire of Nicaea doubled its territory, became the most powerful player in the international political scene, while in the interior the state experienced a golden age, becoming more prosperous and cultured. Although he did not manage to fulfil his ultimate goal, the recapture of Constantinople (this was accomplished seven years after his death by Michael VIII Palaiologos) Vatatzes was indubitably the one who effected all the necessary preconditions for the recovery of the Constantinople throne and the restoration of the Byzantine Empire.

1. The name ‘Vatatzes’ or ‘Vatatses’ was probably an appellative in the vernacular, plausibly deriving from «βάτος» (meaning «bush», «shrub»). The tsitakism observed in his name («Vatatzes»/ «Vatatses» instead of «Vatakes») suggests that he was of Thracian descent; his family, however, originated from Adrianople and Didymoteicho. John III’s grandfather, Constantine Vatatzes, was stratopedarches during the reign of Manuel Comnenos. Many members of the Vatatzes lineage are mentioned in the 12th century. Through the union of distant relatives grew the family branch of the Diplovatatzes, see Polemis, D., The Doukai: a contribution to Byzantine prosopography (London 1968), pp. 107-108, no. 72.

2. Polemis dates the death of the erudite empress Irene to 1239. See Polemis, D., The Doukai: a contribution to Byzantine prosopography (London 1968), p. 108.

3. On the occasion of the emperor’s second wedding, the court poet Nicolaos Eirenikos composed an Epithalamion. See Gardner, A., The Lascarids of Nicaea, the story of an Empire in exile (London 1912), pp. 169, 308.

4. On John's III death, allegedly on November 4, see Polemis, D., The Doukai: a contribution to Byzantine prosopography (London 1968), p. 108.

5. The Nicaean suzerainty over Rhodes was bound to impede the Genoese aspirations, who in 1248 conquered the island. The Byzantine fleet was sent against them; in charge of the naval campaign was the pigernes John Kantakouzenos. See Σαββίδης, Α., “Η γενουατική κατάληψη της Ρόδου το 1248-1250 μ.X.”, Παρνασσός 32 (1990), pp. 183-199.

6. Frederick II Hohenstaufen, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (1212-1250). His external policy aimed mainly at the entrenchment and expansion of  German rule over Italy. His aspirations were against the interests of the Papal Curia and caused his feud with the pope.

7. The brothers Andronicos and Isaac Nestongos, cousins of John III, conspired with other aristocrates against him, a conspiracy which was quickly uncovered and thwarted, while the emperor was away on a campaign against the Latins in Lampsacus. The conspirators were put to trial in the city of Achyraous and received rather mild sentences. Andronicus Nestoggos was imprisoned in Magnesia, but he managed to escape and sought refuge in the Sultanate of Rum. Georgios Akropolites in his Chronike Syggraphe offers many details on the conspiracy. See Georgii Acropolitae, Αnnales, ed. A. Heisenberg (1903, corr. P. Wirth, in BSGRT, Stutgardiae 1978), pp. 37-38.

8. The general success of the measures for the protection of domestic production and economy can be in part attributed to the fact that the Sultanate of Rum, ruined by the Mongol raids, was forced to import its necessities from Nicaea, at rather high prices.

9. Nicephoros Gregoras mentions the crown of eggs, the so-called «ὠάτον», given by the emperor to his spouse Irene, a rather characteristic case: this diadem was bought with money gathered from the selling of eggs from the imperial farm. «ὡς ὀλίγου χρόνου πρὸς τῶν συναχθέντων ἐντεῦθεν χρημάτων στέφανον κατασκευασθῆναι τῇ βασιλίδι, λίθοις καὶ μαργάροις λίαν πολυτελέσι διηνθισμένον, ὂν καὶ ὠάτον ὁ βασιλεὺς ἐπονόμασε, διὰ τὸ ἐκ τῶν ᾠῶν πράσεως κατασκευάσθαι αὐτὸν». See Nicephori Gregora, Historia Romana, ed. L. Schopen – I. Bekker  (Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae, Bonn 1829), 1, 43, 14.

10. Illuminating information for John III Vatatzes as a patron of the letters is given in the Encomium on John Vatatzes by his son Theodore II Laskaris, as well as in the Epitaph composed by George Akropolites.

11. It is worth noting that the Vita of John Vatatzes is often confused with that of John the Merciful (7th century).

12. His Vita is preserved in the Sammelcodex Vatic. gr. 579, 229r-250v, a manuscript dated to the 15th-16th century.

13. On John Vatatzes as a saint, information is contained in codex Burney (British Museum) 54 (XVI s.), 219v, dated to the 16th century. It preserves a troparion, a kontakion and an oikos (=stanza), all of them being probably fragments from an akolouthia in honour of «the glorious amond the Apostles saint king John the younger Merciful, the Vatatzes of Magnesia». See Polemis, D., “Remains of an Acolouthia for the John Doukas Vatazes”, in Mango, C. – Pritsak, O. (eds.), Okeanos, Essays presented to Ihor Ševčenco on his Sixtieth Birthday by his Colleagues and Students (Harvard Ukrainian Studies VII, 1983), p. 543.


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