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History of the Byzantine empire
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With the death of John Asen II, in 1241, the brilliant epoch of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom passed away, and Asen’s weak and inexperienced successors could not maintain his conquests. With his death collapsed the second attempt of the Bulgars to found in the Balkan peninsula a great Greco-Slavonic Empire with its center at Constantinople; for both Simeon in the tenth century, and the Asens, Kalojan and John II, in the thirteenth century, this task proved to be too great. The last attempt of this kind conceived and organized on a larger scale by Slavs, that is, by the Serbs, was to be made in the fourteenth century.
Taking advantage of the decline of Bulgaria, John Vatatzes crossed with his army to the European coast and in a few months took away from Bulgaria all the regions of Macedonia and Thrace which had been conquered by Asen II. Pursuing his march, Vatatzes advanced towards Thessalonica, where anarchy prevailed, and in 1246, without difficulty, took possession of this city. The state of Thessalonica ceased to exist. In the ensuing year Vatatzes seized some Thracian cities which were still under Latin rule. The Emperor of Nicaea drew near Constantinople. The Despotat of Epirus submitted to Vatatzes’ suzerainty. There were no more rivals in Vatatzes’ aspiration for the shores of the Bosphorus.
Towards the end of Vatatzes’ reign his dominions, both direct and vassal, extended from the Black Sea to the Adriatic. Leaving out of the question middle Greece and the Peloponnesus, nothing but Constantinople was lacking for the restoration of the Empire.
In 1254 John Vatatzes died at the age of sixty-two, ending a reign of thirty-three years. With rare unanimity the sources praise him. His son and successor, Theodore II Lascaris, wrote in a panegyric: “He has unified the Ausonian land, which was divided into very many parts by foreign and tyrannic rulers, Latin, Persian, Bulgarian, Scythian and others, punished robbers and protected his land … He has made our country inaccessible to enemies.” Byzantine historians unanimously glorify John Vatatzes. Even if there is some exaggeration by the sources in their estimate of the Emperor of Nicaea, John Vatatzes must be considered a talented and energetic politician, and the chief creator of the restored Byzantine Empire.
It is interesting that the name of John Vatatzes was so beloved and esteemed by the people that some time after his death, he became a saint in popular tradition; miracles began to be connected with his memory and The Life of St. John the Merciful was composed, a sort of popular canonization. The memory of John Vatatzes has not been officially recognized by the Greek church, and his cult confined itself to the narrow limits of a Lydian city in Asia Minor, Magnesia, where the Emperor was buried. This life of Vatatzes is not to be confused with a biography of a saint of the seventh century, John the Merciful, as sometimes happens, and scholars vary in opinion concerning the place and time of its composition. Even at the present time the clergy and population of Magnesia and its surroundings gather annually on November 4 in the local church and honor the memory of the late Emperor John the Merciful. The Orthodox calendar gives under November 4 the name of “John Ducas Vatadzt.”
The external activity of Vatatzes was extremely important because, by eliminating gradually the pretenders to the role of restorer of the Empire — the rulers of Thessalonica, Epirus, and Bulgaria — he brought under his power so much territory as practically to signify the restoration of the Byzantine Empire. The main role in the restoration belonged to John Vatatzes, and in 1261 Michael Palaeologus only profited by the results of the persistence and energy of the best Nicene Emperor. The generations after John Vatatzes looked back upon him as “the Father of the Greeks.”