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After his long absence in the Balkans, John Vatatzes spent the winter of 1254 in Nymphaion, close to his son. The month of February drew to a close and he took up residence in Nicaea in order to check the city’s preparedness for siege warfare and improve its security.1 The rumor of a massive Mongol invasion gave cause for concern. In 1254 the Great Khan Möngke dispatched one of his brothers, Hülegü, to lead a campaign of subjugation of Persia and the Nicaean state. Hülegü did not reach the Near East until 1256, but the timing and direction of this new wave of Mongol attacks were unknown – and profoundly unsettling for those living in western Asia Minor.2 The senior emperor suddenly fell gravely ill in Nicaea, lying motionless and out of breath for two days. He never recovered fully, but began to suffer seizures, progressively lost his strength, and had to be carried on a litter. The illness was believed, at least by later historians, to be a severe form of epilepsy and his physicians applied bleeding. This diagnosis is highly unlikely, just as in the case of his son, because there are no indications that he suffered from epilepsy before he was stricken with illness. Epileptic symptoms can indicate other diseases and Byzantine doctors too readily assigned the diagnosis.3 In early April Vatatzes returned to Nymphaion to celebrate Palm Sunday (April 5) and Easter (April 12). From there he moved to the Periklystra palace near Smyrna and came occasionally to pray to the miraculous icon of Christ kept in the Kamelaukas monastery in Smyrna dedicated to Christ the Savior.4
Theodore played a growing role in royal governance in the 1240s. Evidence from his writings, documents, and seals allows us to gain a better understanding of this key aspect of his life in his twenties. The chapter reconstructs his responsibilities – fiscal, judicial, managerial, and other – in a power-sharing arrangement with his father. The division of duties between the senior and the junior emperor was a sign of the challenges the empire of Nicaea faced at a time of rapid territorial expansion and the rise of the Mongol menace from the East. Letters and other works of Theodore Laskaris give unique insights into practices of governance and aspects of Nicean society and the economy.
Soon after Theodore Laskaris reached the age of thirty in late 1251 or early 1252, two events had a profound effect on him. The sudden death (1252) of his wife Elena led to an outpouring of grief and soul searching. One year after her passing (1253), the arrival of the embassy of Marquis Berthold of Hohenburg – a right-hand man of the emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen and a patron of letters – impelled him to take stock of relations with the Latin West and to begin to prepare manuscript editions of some of his ever-growing literary and philosophical works. These episodes in his life have left many traces in his writings and were occasions for self-descriptive compositions. They deserve our close attention.
In 1204 the political elite of the Byzantine Empire faced for the first time in its centuries-long history the prospect of a forced relocation from Constantinople, the city of New Rome, to the former provinces. This move led to ruptures with the past and shaped the world in which Theodore Laskaris was born. The fall of Constantinople to the crusaders on the night of April 12, 1204, was traumatic and unexpected. Medieval Christians and Muslims were in rare agreement that Constantinople was a city of wonders. Its concentration of power and wealth was unparalleled: a population of as many as 400,000 inhabitants in the twelfth century, splendid palaces, spectacular public squares adorned with monuments of antiquity, and churches packed with holy relics.1 For centuries the Byzantines knew Constantinople as “the queen of cities,” “the eye of the inhabited world,” and “the navel of the earth” – just a few of the expressions of admiration for the metropolis of New Rome.
The autumn of 1221 was a season of change in the Anatolian Byzantine state, which was well into the second decade of its existence. The elder Theodore passed away in November. His son-in-law John Vatatzes acceded to the throne in November or December, though possibly as late as early January 1222, amid a brewing dynastic conflict ().1 John Vatatzes stayed in Nicaea at the onset of the winter. The royal couple paid their last respects to the elder Theodore by attending the customary memorial service on the fortieth day after his death at the burial site, the monastery of Hiakynthos. His wife Irene was in an advanced stage of pregnancy. In the last two months of 1221 or early in 1222, their son, the younger Theodore Laskaris, was born in the imperial palace in Nicaea.2 “Nicaea loved by me,” he called it, “where I dropped to the earth from my mother.” His words echo the Book of Wisdom, one of his favorite texts: “I myself, when I was born, drew in the common air and fell upon the kindred earth” (Wisdom 7:3).3
One year before he passed away at the age of thirty-six, the subject of this biography sent a polemical letter to his teacher and spiritual father. The letter ended on a note of hope that his arguments “would be judged by future generations.”1 The author called for the judgment of history because he was conscious of criticism of him as a public personality. Throughout his life, he had observed with rising concern the vilification of rulers before and after their deaths. The inevitable lot of the individual vested with royal authority, he reasoned, was “to be the target of reproach.”2 He had a good reason to fear that he would suffer the same fate, for his policies had upset many among the ruling elite and had troubled his former teacher, the addressee of the letter. He wished his lone voice to be heard through the ages and intended his writings to become a lasting monument. “I know,” he wrote over a decade earlier, “that in this way I will gain an icon of remembrance before the eyes of the future generations and a clearing of my name.”3