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History of the Byzantine empire
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With the name of John Vatatzes is connected the interesting question of the friendly relations between the two widely separated rulers, the Emperor of Nicaea and the western Emperor, Frederick II Hohenstaufen.
Frederick II, the most remarkable of all the Germanic kings of the Middle Ages, united under his power Germany and the Kingdom of Sicily. The latter, in the person of the Emperor Henry VI, at the end of the twelfth century had menaced Byzantium with fatal danger. Frederick had spent the years of his childhood and youth under the southern sky of Sicily, at Palermo, where had lived the Greeks, later the Arabs, and then the Normans; he spoke Italian, Greek, and Arabic beautifully and, probably, at least in his youth, he spoke German badly. He regarded religious problems much more coolly than his contemporaries. Under the influence of the eastern scholars, Arabs and Jews, large numbers of whom were at Frederick’s court in Sicily, he became an enthusiast about science and philosophy and he founded the University of Naples and patronized the medical school at Salerno, a school famous in the Middle Ages. In a word, in mind and education Frederick greatly surpassed his contemporaries, and they did not always understand him. The time of Frederick II may be designated as a “prologue to the Renaissance.” In the middle of the nineteenth century, a French historian wrote that Frederick II “gave the impulse to the Renaissance, which prepared the fall of the Middle Ages and the coming of modern times.” He was “a man of creative and daring genius.” A few years ago a German historian said; “In his universality, he was a real Renaissance genius on the imperial throne and at the same time an Emperor of genius.” A subject of perennial interest to the historian, Emperor Frederick II represents in many respects a riddle which has not yet been solved.
Having inherited the conception of the imperial power as unlimited and granted by God and comprehending supreme sovereignty over the world, Frederick was a sworn enemy of the papacy and of its doctrine of the superiority of the papal power to that of the kings. The struggle of the popes with Frederick II was stubborn; three times the Emperor was excommunicated and he died wearied and exhausted by the persistent struggle, in which the popes, putting aside any spiritual aim, were revenging themselves on their personal enemies, this “viper brood of the Hohenstaufens,” which they were determined to exterminate.
In such a nature as Frederick’s, political plans and motives were predominant over ecclesiastical. Frederick’s hostile attitude toward the papacy extended to all that had the support of the popes. Hence, as to the Latin Empire in the East, in which the papacy saw a means of union between the western and eastern churches, the interests of Frederick and John Vatatzes were the same. Frederick was hostile toward the Latin Empire, because he saw in it one of the elements of papal power and influence; John Vatatzes considered the pope an adversary who, by refusing to recognize the Orthodox patriarchate of Constantinople established at that time at Nicaea, was creating a serious obstacle to Vatatzes’ aim of taking possession of Constantinople. Close relations between the two emperors began at the end of the fourth decade of the thirteenth century. Frederick did not hesitate to make an “alliance with the Greeks, deadly enemies both of the papacy and of the Latin Empire.”
Even earlier Theodore Angelus of Epirus had held friendly correspondence with the western Emperor and had even received from him financial support, for which Pope Gregory IX had excommunicated and anathematized both Frederick and the Despot of Epirus. It is clear that for Frederick’s political combinations, the question of religion, either Orthodox or Catholic, had no importance.
But in their hostility towards the papacy, Frederick and John Vatatzes were pursuing different aims. The former wished the popes to renounce their claim to secular power; the latter wished that, by means of some compromises, the West should recognize the eastern church and that thereby the Latin patriarchate at Constantinople should lose its reason to exist. John Vatatzes could then hope that the Latin Empire would quietly disappear. The pope also differed in his attitude toward the two sudden allies. In Frederick he saw a disobedient son of the Church, who encroached upon the prerogatives of the “vicars of Christ” and the heirs of St. Peter, inalienable from the papal standpoint. John Vatatzes was, in the eyes of the pope, a schismatic, who hindered the fulfillment of the cherished dream of the papacy, that is, the reunion of the churches. The allies came to an agreement. Frederick II promised Vatatzes to free Constantinople from the Latins and return it to the legal emperor; for his part the Emperor of Nicaea pledged himself to become the vassal of the western Emperor and restore the union between the two churches. It is, of course, difficult to say how sincere these promises were.
The relations between Frederick and John Vatatzes were so close that, at the end of the fourth decade of the thirteenth century, the Greek troops fought in Italy in Frederick’s army. But the relations of the two antipapal emperors became still closer after the death of the first wife of John Vatatzes, Irene, daughter of Theodore I Lascaris. The widower-Emperor, said a source, “being unable to bear his loneliness” married Constance of Hohenstaufen, the daughter of Frederick II, then only eleven or twelve years old, who, when she joined the Greek church, took the Greek name of Anna. There exists a long poem written by Nicolaus Irenikos (Eirenikos) on the occasion of the nuptial festivities at Nicaea; the first two lines of the poem are:
Around the lovely cypress-tree, the ivy gently windeth;
The Empress is the cypress-tree, my Emperor is the ivy.
Constance-Anna survived her husband by many years, which were full of vicissitudes and adventures. She ended her days in the Spanish city of Valencia, where, in the little church of St. John-of-the-Hospital, the coffin of the former basilissa (empress) of Nicaea has been preserved. It bears the epitaph: “Here lies the lady Constance, the august Empress of Greece.”
Frederick’s ecclesiastical ideas, which give some scholars grounds for comparing him to the king of England, Henry VIII, under whom the reformation in England began, are reflected in his correspondence with John Vatatzes. In one of his letters Frederick stated that he was actuated not only by his personal affection for Vatatzes, but also by his general zeal for supporting the principles of monarchic government: “All of us, kings and princes of the earth, especially zealous for the orthodox [orthodoxe] religion and faith, cherish an enmity towards the bishops and an inward opposition to the primates of the Church.” Then, inveighing against the abuses of liberty and the privileges of the western clergy, the Emperor exclaimed: “O happy Asia! O happy Powers in the East! they do not fear the arms of their subjects nor dread the interference of the pontiffs.” Despite his official allegiance to the Catholic faith, Frederick showed himself remarkably kind to eastern Orthodoxy; in one of his letters to Vatatzes which is preserved both in Greek and in Latin, there is this passage: “How! this so-called great arch-priest [that is, Pope; in Latin sacerdotum princeps; in Greek αρχιερευς], excommunicating every day Your Majesty by name in the presence of all men and all your subject Romans (in Latin Graecos), shamelessly calling heretics the most orthodox Romans, from whom Christian faith has reached the extreme bounds of the Universe…” In another letter to the Despot of Epirus Frederick wrote: “We desire to defend not only our own right, but also that of our friendly and beloved neighbours, whom pure and sincere love in Christ has united with us, and especially the Greeks, our close friends… [The Pope calls] the most pious and orthodox Greeks most impious and heretics.”
The friendly intercourse between Frederick and Vatatzes continued until Frederick’s death, though in his last years he was alarmed by the negotiations between Nicaea and Rome and by the exchange of embassies between them. For this reason, in his letter to Vatatzes, Frederick blamed “in a fatherly manner the behavior of the son,” who, “without the paternal suggestion, had sent an ambassador to the Pope.” Not without irony Frederick wrote further: “We desire to do or undertake nothing without your advice” in the affairs of the East, “for these countries which are your neighbors are better known to your Majesty than to us.” Frederick warned Vatatzes that the Roman bishops are “not archpriests of Christ, but rapacious wolves and wild beasts devouring the people of Christ.”
After Frederick’s death, and especially after his natural son, Manfred, had become king of Sicily, relations changed, and Manfred came out as an enemy of the Empire of Nicaea. In a word, after John Vatatzes’ death, in 1254, “the alliance of which Frederick II had dreamt, was nothing but a memory.”
It cannot be said that the alliance between the two emperors brought about important results; but it may be pointed out that John Vatatzes, relying on the friendly support of the western Emperor, must have had a surer hope for the final success of his policy, that is, the taking of Constantinople.