Known to the world as John III Doukas Vatatzes, St John the Merciful was Emperor of Nicea from 1221 to 1254. Born in c. 1192 contemorary Greece, he was probably the son of a general and his wife, an unnamed Imperial niece. In reward for his eminent service and promise, in 1212 when he was aged only 20, the then Emperor of Nicea, Theodore Laskaris, gave him the hand of his daughter Irine and made him his successor. In January 1222, John, aged around 30, was crowned Emperor by the Patriarch in Nicea.
Two years later the new Emperor routed attacking Catholic forces and as a result of this victory the greater part of what the heretics had captured in Asia Minor fell to his control. In 1228 the elderly Catholic John of Brienne exchanged his nominal kingdom of Jerusalem for the Latin throne of occupied New Rome (Constantinople) and in 1233 attacked the Christians. He too was routed and John extended Nicean control over much of the Aegean, freeing Rhodes, Samos, Lesbos, Chios, Cos and many other islands.
Next the Bulgarians joined John as part of an anti-Catholic alliance of Christian rulers. The allies immediately opened hostilities against the Catholic invaders and besieged occupied New Rome by land and by sea. Although the Catholics were reduced to a small strip of land around Constantinople, the siege was unsuccessful. The superiority of the Latin sailors over the Christians led to the defeat of their fleet. By land, however, John was more successful and liberated the rest of the Frankish possessions in Asia Minor. Later John was to liberate most of Macedonia and Thrace.
John’s policy of appointing non-aristocrats to administrative posts was revolutionary. In his social policy he took steps to improve the living standards of both those in the country and in the towns. He ordered a census and gave every subject of his Empire a plot of land. Towards the end of his reign he also requisitioned the property of great landowners and aristocrats. He himself led a very frugal life and took measures to end the excessive spending of private wealth. Moreover, in order to establish and affirm social justice he also took measures against the exploitation of the poor.
John oversaw the smooth functioning of Church affairs. In 1228 he issued a decree in which he forbade the interference of the authorities in matters of Church inheritance. He also made generous donations to Church institutions and saw to the rebuilding of existing churches and the building of new ones. In periods of peace John promoted the welfare of his subjects. He patronized the arts and sciences, built new roads, distributed taxes equally and was loved by all for his kindness and justice.
He was also greatly interested in the collection and copying of manuscripts. The leading representative of the educational movement of the 13th century, the scholar, writer and teacher Nicephorus Blemmydes, lived during his reign. Among Blemmydes’ students were John’s heir and son, the learned Theodore II Laskaris. Sources are full of references to the Emperor’s concern for the development of intellectual life. He promoted the creation of centres of learning, especially of secular studies, while higher educational institutions were established.
In about 1252 when a new war was threatened, John set out to defend the Christians, but fell ill in Macedonia and returned to Asia. He died after much suffering at Nymphaeum on 3 November 1254, probably aged sixty-two, ending a reign of some thirty-three years. He was buried in the Monastery of Christ the Saviour (the Monastery of Sosandra) on Mt Sipylos, near Magnesia in the area of Smyrna.
Christian historians unanimously glorify John and he is called one of the greatest Christian Roman Emperors. His son and successor, Theodore II Lascaris, wrote of him: ‘He unified the Ausonian land which had been divided into a great many parts by foreign and tyrannical rulers, Latin, Persian, Bulgarian, Scythian and others, punished thieves and protected his land…He made our country inaccessible to our enemies’. In spite of his epilepsy John provided leadership in peace and war and he is considered a talented politician and the chief restorer of the Christian Empire.
His foreign policy was focused on the recapture of New Rome and the restoration of the Christian Empire. He brought under his control so much territory that he practically restored the Empire and laid the groundwork for the later recovery of New Rome itself. He was also successful in maintaining generally peaceful relations with his most powerful neighbours, Bulgaria and the Sultanate of Rum, while his network of diplomatic relations extended to the West and the Papacy. Here John’s main diplomatic concern was an alliance with the German ruler Frederick II, as both rulers struggled against Papal aggression. Frederick supported Christian efforts to capture New Rome and in 1236 he stopped the crusade that Pope Gregory IX was organizing against John.
Domestically, John’s long reign was one of the most creditable in history, witnessing the development of a prosperous economy and encouraging justice, charity and a cultural revival. Despite expensive campaigns to restore the Empire, he lowered taxes, encouraged agriculture, built schools, libraries, churches, monasteries, hospitals and homes for the poor and elderly. The arts prospered and he took steps to ensure the harmonious co-existence of State and Church, so that Nicea became one of the wealthiest and finest cities in the thirteenth century world.
When John’s grave was opened seven years after his repose, a fragrance filled the air and his body was found to be incorrupt, an indication of holiness. His body was like that of a living person. John was so loved and revered by the people that he was commemorated as a saint under the name John the Merciful and a Life was composed. Those who went on pilgrimage to pray before the saint’s relics were granted miracles; the sick were healed and demons expelled. The clergy and people of the city of Magnesia and its surroundings, where the Emperor was buried, gathered every year on 4 November to honour his memory.
A half-century later one account mentions that when the Turks invaded Magnesia, a guard on several occasions witnessed a lighted candle circling the city walls. He sent men to investigate, but to no avail. Then the deaf and dumb brother of the guard was sent. He was given a revelation and returned completely healed. He said that where the candle had appeared, he had found a man of a grand royal stature, who loudly urged the Christians to continue their defence. Later, when visiting St John’s shrine, he recognized the icon of the man he had seen.
John’s incorrupt relics were transferred to New Rome once it had been liberated from the Franks. When Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, his relics were hidden in a catacomb. Tradition tells that ever since he has been awaiting the liberation of the City. It also says that the holy king has his sword with him in its sheath and that every year the blade of the sword emerges a few millimetres until the time comes for the whole sword to emerge completely, which will signify the time for the liberation of the City.
In our own days Elder Ephraim of Arizona has said that the sacred relics of St John the Merciful were guarded by a family of crypto-Christians who kept them secret from generation to generation. He also affirms that the Merciful King has already risen and that the sword has emerged completely from its sheath. Now St John wanders around Constantinople in the guise of a fool and directs the hosts of the saints to take their places around the City. Here indeed is a model Orthodox ruler, and intercessor and restorer for our latter times, when we need him.
Holy John the Merciful, pray to God for us!