January 14, 2015
The imperialist and expansionist policies of V.V. Putin have been accompanied by the claim that modern neo-Soviet Russia is laying claim to the heritage of the pre-revolutionary Russian empire even in that highly religious form that early Muscovite elders and rulers understood under the term “The Third Rome”. Briefly defined, “Moscow the Third Rome” refers to the claim that the Russian Orthodox empire is the lawful successor of the Old Rome in Italy and the Second Rome of Constantinople, in the sense that, like its predecessors, it is destined by God to carry the cross of leading, championing and protecting the whole of the Orthodox Christian commonwealth throughout the world. Perhaps the most influential proponent of this view is the Moscow professor Alexander Dugin… This article aims to answer the following questions:- What are the origins of the idea of Moscow the Third Rome? Was the idea accepted by significant Orthodox authorities outside Russia – for example, the Ecumenical Patriarchate? How, if at all, did the idea change when the Muscovite autocracy was transformed into the St. Petersburg autocracy? Assuming that there was substance to the claim, to what extent did Moscow carry out her high calling? And finally: has the neo-Soviet regime of Putin any right at all to claim to be the Third Rome today?
1. Great Prince Ivan III and the Translatio Imperii
The Byzantine empire, the Second or New Rome of Constantinople, fell in 1453. But Rome is eternal and invincible– and not only in the minds of pagan Romans. “It is interesting to note,” writes Alexander Dvorkin, “how long the peoples did not want to part with the myth of the Empire, to become the centre of which became the dream of practically every European state both in the East and in the West, from Bulgaria to Castile. In the course of the 13th-14th centuries the canonists of many countries independently of each other developed the principle of the translatio imperii (translation of the empire). The process touched Russia a little later – in the 15th century, in the form of the theory of the Third Rome, which Moscow became…”
The idea of the universal empire survived into the modern period because it was necessary. In the middle of the fifteenth century, as compared with a thousand years earlier, or even five hundred years earlier, Orthodoxy was in much greater danger of fragmentation from centrifugal forces of a quasi-nationalist kind. Moreover, the quasi-universal empires of Islam in the East and the Papacy in the West were preparing to divide up the Orthodox lands between them. The Orthodox as a whole had to learn the lesson that the Serbian Prince Lazar had taught his people: Samo Slogo Srbina Spasava, “Only Unity Saves the Serbs”. And while that unity had to be religious and spiritual first of all, it also needed the support of political unity.
It was not only the political outlook that was threatening in 1453: if the empire was no more, what would become of the Church? Did not the prophecies link the fall of Rome with the coming of the Antichrist? But perhaps the empire was not yet dead… There were two possibilities here. One was that the Ottoman empire could be construed as a continuation of Rome. After all, there had been pagans and heretics and persecutors of the Church on the throne, so why not a Muslim? Or was Rome to be translated elsewhere, as St. Constantine had once translated the capital of his empire from Old Rome to the New Rome of Constantinople.
Unlikely as it may sound, some Greeks embraced the idea of Istanbul being Rome, and the Sultan – the Roman emperor. Thus in 1466 the Cretan historian George Trapezuntios said to the conqueror of Constantinople, Mehmet II: “Nobody doubts that you are the Roman emperor. He who is the lawful ruler in the capital of the empire and in Constantinople is the emperor, while Constantinople is the capital of the Roman empire. And he who remains as emperor of the Romans is also the emperor of the whole world.”
Certainly, the Ottoman sultans were powerful enough to claim the title. “Their empire did not have the great eastward sweep of the Abbasid Caliphate, but it had succeeded in spreading Islam into hitherto Christian territory – not only the old Byzantine realms on either side of the Black Sea Straits, but also Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary. Belgrade had fallen to the Ottomans in 1521, Buda in 1541. Ottoman naval power had also brought Rhodes to its knees (1522). Vienna might have survived (as did Malta) but, having also extended Ottoman rule from Baghdad to Basra, from Van in the Caucasus to Aden at the mouth of the Red Sea, and along the Barbary coast from Algiers to Tripoli, Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-66) could… claim: ‘I am the Sultan of Sultans, the Sovereign of Sovereigns, the distributor of crowns to the monarchs of the globe, the shadow of God upon Earth…’… A law-maker and a gifted poet, Suleiman combined religious power, political power and economic power (including the setting of prices).”
However, it was precisely his combination of all political and religious power – the definition of despotism – that prevented the Sultan from being a true Autocrat or Basileus. As for the other vital criterion – Christianity – there could be no deception here: the Ottoman Sultans made no pretence at being Orthodox (which even the heretical Byzantine emperors did), and they had no genuine “symphony of powers” with the Orthodox Church (even if they treated it better than some of the emperors). Therefore at most they could be considered analogous in authority to the pagan emperors of Old Rome, legitimate authorities to whom obedience was due (as long as, and to the degree that, they did not compel Christians to commit impiety), but no more.
So had the clock been turned back? Had the Christian Roman Empire returned to its pre-Christian, pre-Constantinian origins? No, the clock of Christian history never goes back. The world could never be the same again after Constantine and the Christian empire of New Rome, which had so profoundly changed the consciousness of all the peoples of Europe. So if the Antichrist had not yet come, there was only one alternative: the one, true empire had indeed been translated somewhere – but not unlawfully, to some heretical capital such as Aachen or Old Rome, but lawfully, to some Orthodox nation capable of bringing forth the fruits of the Kingdom.
What could that nation be? It had to be one that was independent of the Ottomans, or that could re-establish its independence. The last remaining Free Greeks showed little sign of being able to do this. The last Byzantine outpost of Morea in the Peloponnese fell in 1461, and in the same year the Comnenian “empire” of Trebizond on the south coast of the Black Sea also fell, after a siege of forty-two days. Georgia, Serbia and Bulgaria were already under the Muslim yoke.
Another possibility was the land we now call Romania, but which then comprised the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia. Prince Vlad “the Impaler” of Wallachia conducted a courageous rearguard action against the Ottomans north of the Danube. Stronger still was the resistance of the northern Romanian principality of Moldavia, under its great Prince Stephen (1457-1504).
But in spite of her name it was not Romania that was destined to be the Third Rome. In time the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia came under the power of the Turkish Sultans and Greek Phanariots. The honour and the cross of being the protector and restorer of the fortunes of the Orthodox Christian commonwealth fell to a nation far to the north – Russia…
The idea that the Orthodox Empire could be translated to the forests of the north was a bold one. St. Constantine’s moving the capital of the empire from Old Rome to New Rome had also been bold – but that step, though radical and fraught with enormous consequences, had not involved going beyond the bounds of the existing empire, and had been undertaken by the legitimate emperor himself. The Serbs and Bulgarians had each in their time sought to capture New Rome and make it the capital of a Slavic-Greek kingdom – but this, again, had not involved moving the empire itself, as opposed to changing its dominant nation. The Frankish idea of the translatio imperii from New Rome to Aachen had involved both changing the dominant nation and taking the capital beyond the bounds of the existing empire – and had been rejected by the Greeks as heretical, largely on the grounds that it involved setting up a second, rival empire, where there could only be one true one.