The second and third Romes

May 11 2007

The end of the Roman Empire

The end of the Roman Empire, part 2

The Roman Empire was the Hellenic civilization’s world-state, and its cultural and economic centre of gravity lay, not in Italy, but in the Levant, to the east of the Straits of Otranto and the Syrtes. After the temporary dissolution of this world-state during the anarchic half-century A.D. 235-84, it was reconstructed, on new lines, by Diocletian; and, in the Levant, the Diocletianic Roman Empire survived into the seventh century. In this region, the world-state was reconstructed again, successively, by the Syrian, Macedonian, Comnenian, and Ottoman dynasties. The Ottoman Turkish Roman Empire did not break up till the years 1912-18, when it was dismembered by the outcome of the First Balkan War and the First World War. It was not formally liquidated till 1922, when the Ottoman Dynasty was deposed to make way for the latest of its successor-states, the present Republic of Turkey. It will be seen that the Hellenic world-state, like the Sumero-Akkadian world-state, long outlasted the civilization on whose account it had originally been called into being. Its Diocletianic avatar saw the Hellenic civilization replaced in the Levant by a set of Christian civilizations: the Eastern Orthodox, the Nestorian, and the Monophysite. The establishment of the Ottoman avatar of the world-state saw the political power in it pass out of Eastern Orthodox Christian Greek hands into Sunni Muslim Turkish hands. Yet the Turks’ fellow Muslims recognized that the Ottoman Padishah had stepped into the Roman emperors’ shoes. They signified this by styling him “the Caesar of Rome” (Qaysar-i-Rum).

Russia has been a rival claimant to be the Roman Empire’s heir. Russia entered the field of civilization as a satellite of the Eastern Orthodox Christian civilization. In the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Russia was given internal peace, and also some protection against the aggressiveness of her Western and her Tatar neighbours, by the forcible unification of the local Russian states in the Russian world-state of Muscovy. In Russian eyes the Greek Orthodox Christian Roman Empire at Constantinople forfeited its mandate when, in 1439, it recognized the Papacy’s supremacy over the Eastern Orthodox Christian churches in the vain hope that, at the cost of this grievous concession in the ecclesiastical field, it might obtain effective Western Christian military support against the ever-advancing Ottoman Turks. When, fourteen years after the ecclesiastical Union of Florence, 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 last Russian czar was deposed in 1917, five years before the deposition of the last Ottoman Turkish qaysar-i-Rum, but the fates of the Russian and the Turkish avatar of the Roman Empire have not been the same. The Ottoman Turkish Roman Empire had broken up before the Ottoman Dynasty was dethroned; the Russian Roman Empire has survived the liquidation of the Russian czardom. It survives today, under a new name, in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; and, though it has substituted Communism for Eastern Orthodox Christianity as its official religion, it has not renounced its claim to be the unique interpreter and champion of orthodoxy.

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

Change and Habit, The Challenge of Our Time, OUP, 1966

3 Responses to “The second and third Romes”

  1. davidderrick Says:


    “The term ‘tsar’ was used once by Church officials of Kievan Rus in the naming of Yaroslav the Wise of Kiev. This may be connected to Yaroslav’s war against Byzantium and to his efforts to distance himself from Constantinople. However, other princes of Kievan Rus never styled themselves as ‘tsars’. After the fall of Constantinople to the Crusaders and the Mongol invasion of Rus (1237–1240), the term ‘tsar’ was applied by some people of Kievan Rus to the Mongol (Tatar) overlords of Rus’ principalities. Yet the first Russian ruler to openly break with the khan, Mikhail of Tver, assumed the title of ‘Basileus of Rus’ and ‘tsar’.

    “Following his assertion of independence from the Golden Horde and perhaps also his marriage to an heiress of the Byzantine Empire, ‘Veliki Kniaz’ Ivan III of Muscovy started to use the title of tsar regularly in diplomatic relations with the West. From about 1480, he is designated as ‘imperator’ in his Latin correspondence, as ‘keyser’ in his correspondence with the Swedish regent, as ‘kejser’ in his correspondence with the Danish king, Teutonic Knights, and the Hanseatic League. Ivan’s son Vasily III continued using these titles, as his Latin letters to Clement VII testify: ‘Magnus Dux Basilius, Dei gratia Imperator et Dominator totius Russiae, nec non Magnus Dux Woldomeriae’, etc. (In the Russian version of the letter, ‘imperator’ corresponds to ‘tsar’.) Herberstein correctly observed that the titles of ‘kaiser’ and ‘imperator’ were attempts to render the Russian term ‘tsar’ into German and Latin, respectively.

    “This was related to Russia’s growing ambitions to become an Orthodox ‘Third Rome’, after Constantinople had fallen. The Muscovite ruler was recognized as an emperor by Maximilian I, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 1514. However, the first Russian ruler to be formally crowned as ‘tsar of all Russia’ was Ivan IV, until then known as Grand Prince of all Russia (1547).”

  2. […] and Russia (from 1547 to 1917). (There were pre-1547 precedents in Russia: see a comment below this post.) Ferdinand I of Bulgaria adopted the traditional title again in 1908 and it was used, but only […]

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