June 16, 2020

The Inheritance of the Tsars: Russia's Claim to Rome

The Inheritance of the Tsars: Russia's Claim to Rome
Like Rome, but with fewer columns. Diego Delso, Wikimedia Commons

Stick around Russia - and Russians - long enough, and you’ll probably come across the assertion that Moscow is the “Third Rome.” This idea isn’t only present among laypeople, either: some of Russia’s best and brightest, like Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, have been known to peddle it. But where does the idea come from, and what does (and did) it mean?

To understand why Moscow is the “Third Rome,” we have to go back to the First Rome: that city of toga-and-sandal-wearing, pilum-toting fame. In 285 AD, Emperor Diocletian split the massive Roman Empire into two halves, Eastern and Western. (He later retired and became an avid cabbage farmer. I’m not kidding.) The Western half centered on the city of Rome; the Eastern, on Constantinople.

Then, in 476, Rome and the Western Empire collapsed after a long and torturous decline. However, its Eastern counterpart, which became the Byzantine Empire, hung around (but rarely flourished) for another millennium, becoming a stronghold of international trade, scholarship, art, and Eastern Orthodoxy (in contrast to Western Catholicism). During this period, the land that is now Russia fell under the “Byzantine Commonwealth,” the wide regions of Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean within the Byzantine sphere of cultural, political, and religious influence.

The Church of Hagia Irene
The Church of Hagia Irene, Constantinople
highlights common architectural styles that
carried over into Russian constructions.

Russia can trace a few specific instances of Byzantine influence to this period. One ruler of Kievan Rus, Vladimir Monomakh, was a direct descendant of Byzantine royalty. Further, Russian religion (Eastern Orthodoxy) was a direct outgrowth of Byzantine influence. Hence the landmark Sophia churches in Kiev and Novgorod, which mirror the large one in Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia. Even today, Russian churches mimic Greek Orthodox churches, complete with domes, mosaics, and icons.

The Byzantine Empire, under Emperor Constantine XI of the Paleologos family, fell after a long decline in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks. However, the Paleologoi lived on in Princess Sophia, Constantine’s niece, who married the Muscovite Tsar Ivan III in 1472. Ivan subsequently felt free to adopt the Byzantine double-headed eagle as Moscow’s new insignia.

Russia's seal, with the double-headed eagle
The coat of arms of the Russian Empire, a variant of Muscovy's, featuring the Byzantine double-headed eagle. | Wikimedia Commons

One Russian monk summed it up concisely: “two Romes have fallen, the third stands, and there will be no fourth.”

While the Russian royal family’s claim to the throne died out in Time of Troubles dynastic crisis of the early 1600s, the idea that Russia (the state into which Muscovy eventually grew) was destined to be a great power, the inheritor of the civic ideals of Rome and the pious blessings of Byzantium, stuck around, resurfacing in the late nineteenth century.

If anything, the idea that Moscow is the Third Rome has seen a resurgence with the fall of the USSR. A renaissance – and growing encouragement – of national pride since 2000 has meant greater currency of the idea in Russia, even as most serious historians disagree with it. After all, while “The Third Rome” has a nice ring to it, in real terms, both modern and historical, it means practically nothing.

That said, perhaps Russia at least has a better claim to the title than the Holy Roman Empire, which was, in the opinion of Voltaire, “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.”

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