There was once a Christian emperor who ordered a census so that he could give a piece of land to the 7000 poorest people in his empire. How have I not heard of Saint (and Emperor) John III Doukas Vatatzes the Merciful before? This news comes to me this year just at the start of the Christmas Fast (November 15 to December 24).
For Orthodox Christians, it’s the start of preparations for Christ’s Nativity. This fast begins after the Feast of the Apostle Philip and is sometimes called “Philip’s Fast” because Philip told Nathanael to “Come and see!” (John 1:43-46) just as we are called to prepare and join all those who come to witness the baby born of Mary.
A visiting priest for vespers yesterday, told stories afterward of Saint John the Merciful during an informal homily. He connected this life of extreme mercy to our calling as we prepare our hearts to receive the child Christ.
As often happens (because the calendar is so filled with wonderful saints), the priest conflated two different saints with the same names and with similar feast days. John III Doukas Vatatzes ruled as Emperor of Nicea from 1221 to 1254 and is feasted on November 4 while John the Patriarch of Alexandria ministered from 606 to 616 and is feasted on November 12 (both are beloved as “Saint John the Merciful” and both left many incredible stories for us).
The Emperor John III Doukas Vatatzes of Nicea had a reign like no other that I’ve heard of in history, and it should be celebrated as a high point in the human story. His policy of appointing people of non-aristocratic descent in administrative posts was ground-breaking, causing much resentment among members of the aristocracy (on whom he relied heavily for military support). He took extraordinary steps to improve the living standards of both rural and city people such as conducting a census and bestowing on each subject of the empire a plot of land. He also took firm measures against the exploitation of the poor. Towards the end of his administration, he even requisitioned movable and immovable property belonging to great land-owners and the nobility (causing their further disgruntlement).
He was admired by all, however, for constructing new roads and distributing taxes with great equity. According to all the sources, he led a very frugal life, and took additional measures to curtail excessive spending of private wealth.
These internal policies were not only bold but successful. He is noted for achieving economic self-sufficiency for his empire through the improvement of domestic production as well as diminishing the import of foreign products (especially western luxury goods). He also had great military success, expanding his rule and establishing peace in an empire surrounded by warring rivals.
John Vatatzes also saw after the Church. In 1228 he issued a decree in 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 churches and monasteries as well as the construction of new ones.
In periods of peace, Vatatzes also promoted the happiness of his subjects by patronizing arts, sciences and education. He was deeply committed to the collection and copying of manuscripts. The scholar, writer and teacher Nikephoros Blemmydes (the foremost representative of the educational movement of the 13th century) 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, and he promoted the creation of many centers of learning.
With rare unanimity, Byzantine historians all praised him along with his successor. Seven years after his death, when his grave was opened, a sweet fragrance permeated the surroundings, and it was fond that his body and clothing were incorrupt. Miracles began to be connected with his memory, and a half-century after his death, he was recognized as a saint and the construction of a church in his honor was undertaken.
Not long after, his incorrupt relics were transferred to Constantinople right after it had been liberated from the Franks. With the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, his relics were hidden in a catacomb. Many legends have proliferated since that time telling how the saintly emperor is awaiting the liberation of Constantinople. Some of these stories state that John has his sword with him in its sheath, and that each year the blade of the sword emerges a few millimeters, until the time comes when the entire sword will emerge to signify the time for the liberation of the city.
However colorful the mythologies, Saint (and Emperor) John III Doukas Vatatzes the Merciful remains most astounding to me for the matter-of-fact details from his own remarkable life. It’s a wonderful and merry way indeed to start this Christmas fast.
(See my main source here.)