Review of the Reluctant Emperor

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Of all the Byzantine emperors, John Cantacuzene stands out. Famed for his many talents and illustrious career, he was the only emperor to leave his memoirs to posterity. But his legacy came not from his role as emperor. Instead it came from his work as a monk and theologian. In “The Reluctant Emperor,” Donald Nicol gives an interesting account of this controversial individual.

Nicol has made lasting contributions to Byzantine studies throughout his career as a historian. One of his career highlights includes serving as the vice-principal of King’s College. Another is being the founder-editor of the scholarly journal Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. His written works include, “The Last Centuries of Byzantium, 1261-1453” and “The Immortal Emperor: The Life and Legend of Constantine Palaiologos, Last Emperor of the Romans.”

In “The Reluctant Emperor,” Nicol manages to achieve the following aims. He successfully provides a comprehensive biography of John while addressing the various misconceptions surrounding him. He also shows how John’s lasting legacy came about as a monk and theologian. Finally, Nicol fills in the gaps in history about John by providing a thoughtful critique on his character, achievements and failures.

The rise of John Cantacuzene

The devastation inflicted on the Byzantine Empire by the 4th Crusade reduced it to a regional power surrounded on all sides by formidable enemies. This was the world that John Cantacuzene was born into. John had a privileged birth which gave him access to the elite social circles in the Byzantine Empire. There, he met and befriended the future emperor Andronicus III who trusted him with his life. By helping Andronicus III to organize the overthrow of the reigning emperor Andronicus II, John became the true power behind the throne. The strengths of John and Andronicus III complemented each other. John’s prudence and administrative ability guided the vigorous leadership of Andronicus III. This beneficial change in government did much to strengthen the power and prestige of the Byzantine Empire.

The succession issue of Andronicus III

Unfortunately, Andronicus died early without leaving a clearly defined successor. Although Andronicus had a son, John V Palaeologus, he had never officially nominated him as his successor and co-emperor. Complicating matters, Andronicus had offered the position of co-emperor to his trusted friend John years ago before John V was born. John however declined the position. This succession issue soon led to civil war which weakened the Byzantine Empire. Ultimately, John prevailed after much difficulty and became senior emperor. But his refusal to dispose of John V, whom he made his son-in-law, would cause him problems later on.

The troubled reign of Emperor John VI Cantacuzene

As an emperor, John faced problems on multiple fronts. He had to deal with the fallout of the civil war, the black plague, foreign invasions, an empty treasury and the management of dwindling imperial territory. His financial reforms and introduction of new taxes caused him to lose much popular support. John’s overreliance on and friendliness with the Turks also gave his enemies another reason to oppose him. Worsening matters, he failed to settle the family dispute between his son Matthew and the junior emperor John V. This led to yet another series of hostilities. After a rule of seven troubled years, John had enough. He abdicated in favour of John V.

John Cantacuzene as the monk Joasaph

Many emperors who became monks faded into obscurity. But John was an exception. He actually enjoyed greater popularity and moral authority as a monk for the next thirty years of his life. Even the emperor John V Palaeologus sought his advice on affairs of the state. Freed from the burden of rule, John spent the rest of his time dealing with religious matters which would become his enduring legacy.

How Donald Nicol cleared the name of John Cantacuzene

John was a controversial figure in Byzantine history and he knew it. Naturally his contemporaries viewed his actions with suspicion which was part of the reason for the civil war. Here, Nicol patiently explains and corrects each misunderstanding through evidence and analysis. For example, John’s enemies accused him of supporting hesychasm, a religious doctrine, during his reign for political purposes. But Nicol refutes this by pointing out that John continued to defend hesychasm long after his abdication. Ironically, John’s defence of hesychasm became his lasting legacy to the world today.

Analysis of the life of John Cantacuzene

Finally, Nicol analyzes the character, achievements and failures of John. For me, this was the most enjoyable part of the book; gaining a more intimate understanding of the man. Firstly, Nicol shows how multi-faceted John’s character was from the account of his friends. John’s firm friendship with the Turks was highly unusual for his time. Secondly, Nicol also provides insight into the way John perceived the Byzantine Empire and the world around him. This worldview shaped John’s actions and policies. Lastly, Nicol reveals the reasons behind John’s actions as he struggled to cope with the problems he faced.

Throughout the book, Nicol makes skilful use of his sources to shed light on John Catacuzene. For example he explains how John reclaimed Northern Greece for the Byzantine Empire through his eloquence. So persuasive was John that the three rebel commanders surrendered their cities after listening to him. All these revelations provide a deeper understanding of this complex individual.

How you will benefit from reading “The Reluctant Emperor”

The Reluctant Emperor has given me a deeper understanding of John Cantacuzene and the final years of the Byzantine Empire before its irreversible decline. At the end of the book, I find myself agreeing with Nicol assessment of John. Had John been more determined and ruthless, he may have been able to restore the Byzantine Empire. Nevertheless, the following are just some of the benefits you will derive from reading this entertaining book.

Firstly, you will have a thorough account of John’s life. Beginning with his background, Nicol covers his rise and ascension, his troubled reign and finally his life as a monk and theologian. Secondly, Nicol provides many anecdotes which are crucial to understanding the character of John Cantacuzene. In the process you also learn about the Byzantine Empire in the 14th century. Thirdly, Nicol corrects the various misunderstandings of John with proper evidence so that his true character shines forth. Lastly, Nicol gives a thorough analysis of John’s life and actions. By the end of the book, you will have a comprehensive understanding of this uniquely Byzantine individual.

If you are interested in learning more about John Cantacuzene, click on the link below to purchase the book.

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