Moscow, the Third Rome

December 3 2012

When, fourteen years after the ecclesiastical Union of Florence [a last-minute attempt to unify Christendom in the face of the Turkish threat], the Greek Roman Empire was extinguished by the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, the Russians saw in this a divine retribution for the Greeks’ apostasy. Now that the Muslim Ottoman Empire had imposed its rule on all the Orthodox peoples of Anatolia and South-Eastern Europe, Muscovy was the sole surviving independent Orthodox Christian state. What was more, the Russians were the only Orthodox Christian people that had preserved its orthodoxy uncompromised by any concessions to Papal claims. On these grounds a sixteenth-century Russian ecclesiastical publicist asserted that Moscow was “the Third Rome”. Augustus’s Old Rome and Constantine’s New Rome had now each fallen in its turn. Moscow was the heir of both, and her dominion, unlike theirs, was to have no end. This doctrine was endorsed by the Muscovite government implicitly when, in 1547, the Grand Duke Ivan IV “the Terrible” assumed the title “Czar” (Caesar).

The “ecclesiastical publicist” was the monk Philoteus, who in 1510 wrote to the Grand Duke Vasili III (Basil III): “Two Romes have fallen. The third stands. And there will not be a fourth. No one will replace your Christian Tsardom!”

The Grand Dukes (or Grand Princes) of Moscow were nominally vassals of the Golden Horde until the reign of Ivan III (the Great), 1462-1505.

The notion of this further Rome seems to have appealed to Toynbee in the Study, but he prints comments by two Oxford scholars who warn him not to make to make too much of it.

[The writer has had] the benefit of comments and criticisms from B. H. Sumner, the Warden of All Souls College, Oxford, and from Prince Dmitri Obolensky, the Reader in Russian and Balkan Medieval History in the University of Oxford, on the question of the degree to which the course of Muscovite History was affected by the influence of the Byzantine element in the Russian Orthodox Christian cultural heritage. B. H. Sumner’s opinion on this question is set out in the following passages of a letter of his, dated the 25th January, 1951, to the writer of this Study:

“I find the build-up and development of the Muscovite state in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries very difficult to analyse, but, from what I have read of those two centuries from the Russian side, I should say that the most effective and practical influences in building up centralized administration and government came from autochthonous Russian developments of the semi-feudal conditions of Moscow and the other Russian principalities (shot through with a strong nationalist colouring), combined with some Tatar influence, but with little Byzantine influence. I do not think, for instance, that either Ivan the Great or Ivan the Terrible [reigned 1547-84] regarded themselves as successors of the Byzantine emperors, or that they and their civil servants, boyars, diplomats, &c., had any idea of ‘oecumenical’ pretensions. It is true that Ivan the Terrible, for instance, claimed to be Tsar ‘Autocrat’, Gosudar [sovereign], and appointed by God, combining plenitude of power both vis-à-vis his subjects and as against any other states, but he never claimed to be the successor of the Basileus [Roman Emperor in the East], or to be ‘oecumenical’ or ‘Tsar of the Orthodox Christians of the whole World’ (that was the expression used by the Patriarch of Constantinople in a letter to Ivan in A.D. 1561, but not by Ivan). I don’t think that it could be held that Ivan the Great and Ivan the Terrible and the civilians in Russia held that there had been any translatio imperii, or made any claim over all Christians or all Orthodox.

“Such claims, implicitly or explicitly, had appeared from the end of the fifteenth century onwards, bound up with the idea of Moscow as the Third Rome, but, at any rate at that time, this idea, which admittedly had its origins in writings of certain monks, continued to be confined to certain ecclesiastical circles in Russia, with occasional echoes from Constantinople. It is striking, I think, that the official historiography of the sixteenth century in Russia, which was built up by the Tsars, does not lean at all towards Byzantium: both in the chronicles and in Russian diplomacy of the time the emphasis is all on the heritage of Kiev, not at all on the heritage of Byzantium. That, of course, was because of the continuous struggle for the Russian western lands against Lithuania-Poland.

“From about A.D. 1470 onwards, for more than a century, Moscow had a whole series of overtures, either from Rome or from the Emperor, or both, linking together an anti-Turkish alliance, re-union of churches, recognition of Moscow as the heir of the Byzantine Empire, and elevation of the Metropolitan of Moscow to the patriarchal dignity. It is, I think, significant that the Russians in reply were always silent as regards the inheritance of the Byzantine Empire, or coronation of the Tsar as ‘the Christian Tsar’. What the Russians were interested in was their claims against Lithuania-Poland and their struggle for an exit to the Baltic, and not the Balkans or the Ottomans: hence the failure of Western overtures for an anti-Turkish alliance and of Western attempts to win the Russians for this by dangling before them the lure of the Byzantine heritage.

“Thus, the conception of Moscow as ‘the Third Rome’, or of Muscovy as the inheritor of the ‘oecumenical’ role of Byzantium, was, in my view, of no practical importance and of very little theoretical or emotional importance among the governing class in Muscovy in the late fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries. Its appeal was in the main limited to certain ecclesiastical circles in Muscovy – and, in a sense, to needy Orthodox in the Ottoman Empire in quest of money from Moscow. It is quite true that the idea of Muscovy as the sole possessor of the pure Orthodox Christian faith after the Council of Florence and the capture of Constantinople was a stock-in-trade element in Muscovite national pride during these centuries, and it fostered Muscovite exclusiveness and xenophobia. But this line is not the same as stepping into the shoes of Byzantium by aspiring to an ‘oecumenical’ role.

“Much later [at the end of the eighteenth century], when the Russians had advanced far southwards and were strong enough to challenge the Turks, then the idea of the liberation of the Orthodox, and sometimes that of some form of resurrected Orthodox empire at Constantinople, became prominent, and increasingly so in the nineteenth century. Even so, I think that the influence of the messianic ideas of the Slavophils and Dostoievsky and their typicalness can be exaggerated, and that the ‘oecumenical’ and messianic elements in Russian nineteenth-century thought ought not to be read back into earlier centuries as being then powerfully creative and proof of a strong and continuous Byzantine heritage.”

In a note communicated to the writer of this Study on the ist June, 1951, Prince Dmitri Obolensky expresses the same view.

“Neither the successive Russian governments of the sixteenth century nor, on the whole, contemporary Russian writers and historians seem to have taken the theory of ‘Moscow the Third Rome’ very seriously; for the Muscovite rulers from Ivan III onwards, Moscow was much more the ‘Second Kiev’ than the ‘Third Rome’. I would agree here with Humphrey Sumner. Some recent historians have, rightly, it seems to me, ‘played down’ the importance of the theory of ‘Moscow the Third Rome’ in the development of Russian sovereignty. See, for example, G. Olšr: ‘Gli ultimi Rurikidi e le basi ideologiche della sovranità dello Stato russo’, in Orientalia Christiana Periodica, vol. xii, Nos. 3-4 (Rome, 1946), pp. 322-73.”

But he defends part of his view.

It will be seen that Sumner and Obolensky agree in making three points: In the first place, the concept of “Moscow the Third Rome” was an academic idea which was never taken very seriously outside ecclesiastical circles; secondly, the architects of a Muscovite autocracy were indebted to the institutions of the East Roman Empire for little except certain external forms and ceremonies; thirdly, the statesmen in control of Muscovite policy showed themselves unwilling to sacrifice the interests of their own Russian Orthodox Christendom to those of an Ottoman Orthodox Christendom which was sundered from Russia by the double barrier of the Eurasian Steppe and the Black Sea. None of these three points would be contested by the present writer; but he would point out, in his turn, that none of them is incompatible with the thesis that the extinction of the last glimmer of the East Roman Empire in A.D. 1453 had an important and enduring psychological effect on Russian souls, [footnote below] and that this effect consisted in the implantation in them of a feeling that Muscovy, as the now sole surviving Orthodox Christian Power of any consequence, had inherited from the East Roman Empire both the mission of preserving intact the purity of the Orthodox Christian Faith and the high destiny which this onerous mission carried with it ex officio.

It will be noticed that Sumner, in the passages quoted above, equates the ideological legacy of the East Roman Empire with a pretension to an oecumenical authority. As the present writer sees it, the idea for which the East Roman Empire had stood, first and foremost, in its own people’s minds was the guardianship of Christian Orthodoxy rather than the possession of a title to world-wide dominion. He would, however, go on to contend that, in fact, the second of these two pretensions was logically latent in the first, since it would be difficult for a people to believe that God had singled them out to be the unique heralds of His Truth on Earth without also believing that He had likewise singled them out to be His instruments for propagating this Truth eventually throughout the Oikoumenê. It was, for example, an article of orthodox Jewish belief among a politically impotent Jewish diasporà that the extinct Kingdom of David would eventually be restored by the Messiah, not in its historic form as a parochial state, but with a dominion that would be coextensive with the Oikoumenê. The writer would therefore take issue with Sumner’s contention that the idea of being the sole possessor of the pure Orthodox Faith does not carry with it an aspiration to an oecumenical role; and he would have consulted his friend and mentor further on this point if, by the date when he was revising the present Part of this Study for the press, Humphrey Sumner’s friends and fellow historians had not suffered an irreparable loss in this saintly scholar’s untimely death.

Footnote to the last paragraph but one:

This psychological effect of the concept of “the Third Rome” is, however, also questioned by Prince Obolensky:

“I do not wish to minimize the importance of the religious factor in the resistance offered by the seventeenth-century Russian conservatives to the infiltration of Western ideas and customs: some of them at least seem to have regarded Russia as a guardian of the Orthodox faith against the heretical West. But I doubt whether the theory of ‘Moscow the Third Rome’ had much to do with this attitude, except possibly among the ‘Old Believers’. Except in some ecclesiastical, and particularly monastic, circles, this theory does not seem to have made much headway in Russia. … [It] [bracket in original] does not seem to have been sufficiently accepted to justify the view that future generations of Russians were moved by it to resist the impact of Western culture upon their way of life.”

In an earlier passage – admittedly speaking of “survivals” rather than revivals or successions – he points out that

“survivals” afforded [EA Freeman and his school, with their exaggeration of the link between Hellenic and Western history] the intellectual and aesthetic pleasure of tracing – as they imagined – the continuity of this thread and that, as its colour flashed out and vanished and flashed out again in the shot-silk texture of historic sequences. This pleasant exercise of the fancy has sometimes led historians who have indulged in it into irrelevant conceits and barren controversies.

Whether he is right or wrong here, Toynbee was writing of what he knew: he sometimes allowed himself such “pleasant exercises of the fancy”. In due course I will quote the passage to which Sumner and Obolensky were objecting.

Novgorod and St Petersburg (post with pre-Ivan background).

Vasili III of Russia

Vasili III, contemporary (west) European engraving

Change and Habit, The Challenge of Our Time, OUP, 1966 (first quotation)

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

A Study of History, Vol I, OUP, 1934 (last)

One Response to “Moscow, the Third Rome”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Sumner wrote the volume on Peter the Great in AL Rowse’s old Teach Yourself History series (ideal short books for rainy afternoons): Peter the Great and the Emergence of Russia, English Universities Press, 1950.


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