How did the Byzantine Empire influence Russia?

A 19th-century painting of the baptism of Prince Vladimir

Russia has a unique history, and the influence of Byzantium on Russia's culture, society, and politics cannot be understated. The influence of the Eastern Roman Empire changed Russia not through conquest but a cultural exchange.

This article examines the nature of this cultural exchange and its impact on the development of the Russian people. It demonstrates that the Byzantines, Christianized the Russian people, which over centuries influenced Russia's culture, society, and political system.

The Background

The Eastern Roman Empire, often known as the Byzantine Empire, was the successor to the Roman Empire. After the fall of the Western Empire, the eastern provinces continued to keep alive the traditions of Rome. However, over time the Eastern provinces became Greek in culture and outlook. After the expansion of the Byzantine Empire during the reign of Justinian II, it fell into a period of decline known as the ‘Byzantine Dark Ages.’ The eastern Roman Empire faced complete extinction at the hands of first the Persians, then the Arabs.

However, it recovered, and by the 9th century AD under a series of soldier-emperors, it was once again flourishing, politically and culturally. To the north, the area occupied by modern Ukraine and Russia was people by mainly Slavic tribes. Legend has it that a group of Viking warriors under a leader known as Rurik was invited by them to become their leader. The Norsemen who came from Sweden were part of the significant expansion from Scandinavia that changed Europe.

The Vikings became a ruling aristocracy who governed a great many tribes and who eventually created a state centered around Kiev which became a vital trading center. [1] The Vikings over time began to merge with their Slavic and Finnic subjects and became known as the Rus, from this comes the name of Russia.

Throughout the decades’, the Rus expanded from Kiev and dominated large areas of modern Ukraine and central and southern Russia. The Rus state was not only the first Russian polity but is also seen as an important stage in the emergence of the Russian people.

Byzantine-Rus contacts

A good example of Byzantine influence on Russian architecture, the Dormition Cathedral in Vladimir (1186—1189)

It appears that the Rus dominated the trade routes between northern Europe and the Black Sea and that their merchants acted as middlemen specifically in the fur trade. It also appears that Rus merchants often visited the spectacular city of Byzantium. However, the Byzantines preoccupied with the Bulgars and the Arab threats paid little attention to the growing power of Rus. This changed in 860 when the Rus raided the environs of Byzantium before being beaten back. In 941, the Rus threatened the Christian Empire with invasion, but a peace agreement prevented war.[2] This treaty led to more trade with Byzantium and encouraged Christians missionaries to follow the merchants into Russia and bring the Gospel to the people of the Steppe.

However, in 970 A.D under Grand Prince Sviatoslav, the Rus after conquering the Bulgar Empire invaded Byzantium. It took two years of hard fighting for the Byzantines to defeat the Rus. All the time it appears that Byzantine cultural and religious influence spread in Kievan Rus. It seems that a mother of a Grand Prince, Olga was baptized by Byzantine missionaries. The Grand Princess Olga ruled as regent for her son Sviatoslav, however despite his mothers’ influence he remained an avowed pagan. Christianity was slowly growing in Rus, but it remained overwhelmingly pagan.[3] This was to change in around 1000 AD when Emperor Basil II and Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev (958-1015 AD) came to an arrangement. The Rus leader agreed to support Basil in his civil war with a rebel in return for the hand of his sister in marriage. As part of this bargain, Vladimir agreed to convert to Greek Orthodox Christianity. Vladimir under the influence of his wife became a zealous Christian, and the Grand Prince personally tossed pagan idols into a river.[4]

The Grand Prince is today recognized as a saint in the Orthodox Church. It is widely believed that Vladimir used the Christian Church to unify his realm. Like many other ‘state-builders’ Vladimir used religion to extend his own power and to discipline his people. After the death of Vladimir, the Kiev Rus state flourished for several more decades until the Empire began to fragment because of a series of succession disputes. Interactions between the Byzantine Empire and the various Russian states that emerged in the wake of the fall of the Rus continued for some centuries but was interrupted by the Mongols conquest of the Russian principalities.

The Orthodox Church

The adoption of the Byzantine version of Christianity, by Grand Prince Vladimir, was revolutionary. Grand Prince Vladimir and his successors, especially Yaroslav the Wise modeled their church on that of that in the Byzantine Empire. Its hierarchy and organization were identical to that of Byzantium and so too was its theology and rituals. It should be noted that Christianity did not supplant paganism but often integrated it into its religious calendar and festivities.[5]

Following to the conversion of Vladimir, churches, and monasteries began to develop and soon became very important landowners and a dominant force in Russian society. The teachings of the Orthodox Church over time became very influential and began to change society, for instance, they helped to improve the status of women. [6] The Orthodox Church in Russia, following the example of the Byzantine Church, saw itself as distinct from Latin Christianity, which it viewed as heretical.[7] This was to result in Russia remaining outside the influence of Europe for many centuries, in a conscious effort to preserve the purity of its religion which they held was the only orthodox form of Christianity. It also ensured that the Russian Church, closely related to Byzantine practices and beliefs, became central to Russian national identity

Culture of Russia and Byzantium

A Russian-Byzantine icon

Within a century or so of the conversion of Vladimir, the Church was the dominant social institution in the Russian lands. The new religion needed new places of worship and to meet the demand; the Kievan Rus state and its successors imported Greek architects to build new Churches.[8] They used Byzantine models and this is seen in the distinctive domes of the churches and the cathedrals of the Orthodox Church. The influence of Byzantine architects on palaces and the homes of the elite soon became evident.

Within decades of the conversion of the Grand Prince, the city of Kiev was considered to be one of the most beautiful in medieval Europe. After the Mongol Invasions, architecture went into decline, but Byzantine models still influenced subsequent Russian building, as evidenced in the Kremlin.[9] The influence of the Orthodox Church was also important in the development of Russian painting. Icons were introduced into Russia by missionaries, and soon they were popular with converts. Frescoes were also popular in many Russian Cathedrals. Initially, Greek artists introduced the art of Byzantium to Russian artists. In the centuries after the adoption of Christianity, Greek artists such as Theophanes (1330-1405) helped to introduce new styles based on the Byzantine Renaissance, ‘which emphasized realism.’ [10]

This influence from Byzantium led to the development of essential schools of icon painting such as Pskov. The Byzantine tradition of icon painting is one that is still practiced in Russia to this day. Another significant result of the cultural exchanges between Byzantium and early Russia was that Byzantine chants and music was used in Russian Orthodox Church services. This was to have a meaningful impact on Russian music, right up to the great classical composers of the 19th century.

Literacy and Byzantium

The introduction of Byzantine Church rites and above all the Bible, led to Russia becoming a literate society. There may have been a nascent Russian alphabet prior to the conversion of Vladimir. However, the adoption of Orthodox Christianity was decisive in the development of a literate culture in the Russian lands. Constantine-Cyril (826-69) and Methodius (815-85), two Greek missionaries who proselytized in Slavic lands, ‘’created the alphabet for the liturgical language Old Church Slavonic that was influenced by Greek models in vocabulary, phraseology, syntax and style, and was the common literary language of all the Orthodox Slavs.’’ [11]

This alphabet became the language of the Church in Russian lands and all literary works for many centuries. The development of Old Slavonic meant that the production of literary works was in the hands of the Church and this tended to restrain intellectual life in Russia, for many centuries.

Relationship between the ruler and the ruled

The Byzantine Emperors were absolute rulers, they were both the head of state and the Church, in a form of government known as Caesaropapism. [12] They were seen as God’s representative on earth and defying the authority of the Emperor was, therefore, a mortal sin. This meant that the Byzantine Emperor was as usual as not an autocrat. Vladimir and his successor adopted the political ideology of Byzantium. This meant that they were both heads of state and of the Orthodox Church and this meant that they were at least in theory the absolute rulers in their territories and they were answerable only to God.

Autocracy was considered the best form of government. This created a society in Russia where obedience and hierarchy, was seen as divinely sanctioned. Moreover, the early Rus rulers adopted the law codes of Byzantium, replacing the traditional law codes and this further enhanced their power over their subjects.[13] There are many who believe that the very autocratic nature of Russian political culture down the centuries owed much to the Caesaropapism’ that was imported into Kievan Rus, during the Christianization of the state.

Moscow as the Third Rome

The influence of the Eastern Roman Empire was complex and enduring. The Russian people stayed remarkably loyal to the Orthodox faith and the Church played a very important role during the long and dark years of Mongol rule. The Russians continued to revere the Byzantine heritage, that was transmitted by their Church. In 1453, to the shock of all in Russia, the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople. This came at a time when the Duchy of Moscow was transforming itself into a mighty state, under Ivan III. He later married, a niece of Constantine XI, the last Byzantine emperor, and he claimed to be the heir of the Roman Empire.

The Turkish takeover of Constantinople played an important role in the consolidation of his power and gave the expansion of his territories a veneer of legitimacy. The idea that Moscow was the Third Rome, was used to justify the foundation of the Russian Empire and later led successive Tsars to see themselves as the protectors of the Orthodox Churches in Eastern Europe. The importance of the idea that Moscow, was the heir of Rome can be seen in the adoption of the title of Tsar, by the Grand Dukes of Moscow, which is the Russian for Caesar, a title used not only by Roman but also by Byzantine rulers.

Conclusion

The conversion of Grand Prince Vladimir was in many ways the birth of modern Russia. It ensured that the Eastern Orthodox Church, its theology, rites, and style of government was imported into Russia. This led to a social revolution and changed Russia in every way and played a crucial role in the development of Russian national identity. Moreover, the influence of Byzantine ideology helped to create an autocratic political culture in Russia, that it could be argued, exists to this day. The fall of Constantinople led to the development of the idea that Moscow was the Third Rome, and this was crucial in the ideological justification of the development of the Russian Empire. The influence of Byzantium on Rome was decisive and an enduring one on that nations particular history and uniqueness.

Recommended Reading

Julius Norwich, John. Byzantium, The Apogee (London, Penguin Books, 1992)

Meyendorff, John. Byzantium and the rise of Russia: A study of Byzantino-Russian relations in the Fourteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2010)

Obolensky, Dimitri. The Byzantine Commonwealth: Eastern Europe, 500-1453. Sterling Publishing Company, 2000.

Runciman, Steven. "Byzantium, Russia and Caesaropapism." Canadian Slavonic Papers 2, no. 1 (1957): 1-10.

References

  1. David Christian. A History of Russia, Mongolia and Central Asia (London, Blackwell, 1999), p 189
  2. John Julius Norwich. Byzantium, The Apogee (London, Penguin Books, 1992), p 145
  3. Norwich, p 67
  4. Norwich, p 71
  5. Billington, James. Icon and Axe: An Interpretative History of Russian Culture. (London, Vintage, 2010),p. 101
  6. Angold, Michael. The Byzantine Empire, 1025-1204: a political history (New York, Longman Publishing Group, 1997), p 118
  7. Shepard, J. The expansion of Orthodox Europe: Byzantium, the Balkans and Russia (London, Routledge, 2017), p 116
  8. Billington, p 189
  9. Hamilton, George Heard. The art and architecture of Russia (Yale, Yale University Press, 1983), p 198
  10. Hamilton, p 189
  11. Ryan, Norma "Byzantine Influence on Russia Through the Ages", Culture & Memory. Special Issue of Modern Greek Studies (Australia and New Zealand), 2006: 279-290
  12. Runciman, Steven. "Byzantium, Russia and Caesaropapism." Canadian Slavonic Papers 2, no. 1 (1957), p. 9
  13. Billington, p. 178