Why is Russia the Third Rome?
Sometimes you’ll hear people say that Russia is the Third Rome.
This is especially true if you’re around people from Eastern Europe or Orthodox Christians.
And when you hear it, you may wonder why they say that is.
Here’s the short answer:
Russia is the most influential Orthodox Christian country. It inherited this role when the Byzantine Empire fell. The Byzantine Empire, also called the Eastern Roman Empire, was the Second Rome. It became so when the Western Roman Empire fell. Russia is the successor of Rome’s successor.
So, first there was Rome, then there was Eastern Rome, and then there was Russia.
Let’s explore how that happened.
The History of the Roman Empire
The Roman civilization began in the middle of the Italian peninsula. They warred against the others there, and they managed to seize it all for themselves.
Then they warred with the powers outside of Italy. They fought Carthage and the barbarians in Western Europe. So they managed to conquer northern Africa, Gaul, Iberia, and southern Britain.
They also fought the Greeks in the east. And won. Time passed, and Rome also conquered Egypt, Turkey, Judea, and many other places.
So the empire was really big.
It was too big. It could no longer be managed from Rome.
So an emperor named Diocletian divided the empire into western and eastern halves. The west was managed in Rome, and the east was managed in Constantinople.
Then the Huns attacked. They came from central Asia, and they drove many Germanic tribes into the western half of the empire.
These tribes conquered the Western Roman Empire, and the Eastern half survived.
The Eastern Roman Empire would continue to exist for over 1,000 years.
The Emergence of Christianity
Jesus and his followers created Christianity. It spread throughout the Empire and was declared the state religion by the Eastern Roman Emperor, Constantine, during the early years of the fourth century.
The Christians in the east maintained good relations with the government there and vice-versa. The Church and state were deeply intertwined, and they regulated one another to a fair extent.
In the west, things were different. The Empire was collapsing because of numerous factors, the chief of which were barbarian invasions, corrupt governance, and rivalries between the Christians and the Roman pagans.
And these problems were never fixed. The Western Roman Empire slowly disappeared, and the church emerged as the only trusted authority in the following years. It would remain so for a long time.
So the Eastern Roman Empire, which was later called the Byzantine Empire, became the Second Roman Empire.
Why Is Russia the Third Rome? – The Eastern and Western Churches
All hell had broken loose in the west, and order was kept in the east.
So the western church (located in Rome) was the only trusted authority in the lands that had been the Western Roman Empire. The other powers at work there were Germanic warlords.
Meanwhile, the church and the government in the east had both remained intact.
So the western church came to have a monopoly on legitimate authority in the areas where it existed. This was not the case for the eastern church, which shared power with the Eastern Roman governors.
So the western church began to amass power for itself while the other churches did not.
Later, the Arabian tribes unified and left their peninsula. They invaded the Eastern Roman Empire and conquered roughly half of its territory.
They also invaded Western Europe, but they were less successful here because the countries they had been invading were too far from the Muslim homelands.
So the eastern church was declining in power while the western church was growing.
As the political power of the western church grew, it tried to assume theological power as well. The Roman church started to claim authority over its eastern brethren.
But the eastern churches would not permit this. Eventually, this disagreement, among other things, led to the churches excommunicating one another.
So the Christian world was split in two, just like the Roman world had been.
The eastern Christians were Orthodox, and the westerners were Catholic.
The Vikings and Kiev
Near the end of these events, the Vikings started invading Europe. They split themselves into tribes, and one tribe was called the Rus.
The Rus traveled the Volga river and conquered a decent Slavic town called Kiev. From there, they sent emissaries to Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.
The Viking emissaries were impressed by the religious practices they saw in the city. They returned to their leader, Prince Vladimir, and told him what they had seen. Shortly afterward, the Rus converted to Orthodox Christianity.
So Orthodoxy spread throughout the lands which would later become Russia, and it replaced the Slavic paganism which existed there beforehand.
The Eastern Roman Empire Falls
The Arab Muslims continued to attack Eastern Rome. However, most of their invasion efforts had failed after their initial onslaught.
A stalemate had been reached between the two powers.
Then a third party entered the scene. They were the Seljuk Turks.
The Seljuk Turks were not Christians or Muslims. They came from central Asia, near where the Mongols were, and they invaded the Eastern Roman lands in Asia Minor. The Seljuk managed to take most of them after the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 . Then the Turks adopted Islam and stopped making progress.
So the Eastern Emperor asked the Catholic Church for a military alliance against the Muslims on the basis of their shared Christian religion. Some of the Popes who heard this request liked the idea, and they sent crusaders to assist the Eastern Empire.
One crusade, the Fourth, was hijacked by Venetian loyalists who had a grudge against the Eastern Romans.
The Empire and the city-state of Venice were competitors for trade in the eastern Mediterranean, and the Venetians wanted to destroy the Emperor’s naval strength.
So the Venetians filled the crusading army with men who would betray both the Pope and the Emperor on behalf of Venice. Then they sent the army to Constantinople, and the Emperor’s men allowed it to enter and rest before entering the Muslim lands.
The Eastern Romans had permitted the crusaders to enter their city. Then the Venetians betrayed them and destroyed the capital. They held onto it for a few decades before the Emperor’s men could retake it.
By the time Constantinople had been reclaimed, the Empire had lost most of its former strength. It was surrounded by enemies and eventually fell to the Muslim Turks led by Mehmed II.
When the Empire fell, Orthodox Christianity was almost dead.
Why Is Russia the Third Rome? – Moscow Revives Orthodoxy
By this time, the Second Rome had fallen and it did not have a clear successor.
But further north, Orthodox Christians were living freely in Novgorod and Muscovy.
Now, at the time, both cities were regional powers, but they were unimportant in the world at large. Moreover, they were surrounded by enemies. These included the Swedes to the north, the Polish and the Lithuanians to the west, and the Mongols to the south and east.
So the two cities raised formidable armies to repel their unfriendly neighbors. Of the two, Muscovy was the stronger, and it surpassed Novgorod.
After Muscovy had established dominance in the area, it turned its military might against its belligerent neighbors.
And it had a particular hatred of the Mongols and their successors, who had stagnated after their adoption of Islam centuries beforehand.
So the Russian Muscovites warred against the Mongol successor states and won. They also conquered several other problem neighbors.
When they had finished fighting, the Muscovites had created a large empire for themselves. Moreover, its rulers were close to the Orthodox church.
So the Muscovite Empire was an Orthodox empire.
And it was the first one to exist after the Eastern Roman Empire had fallen.
So people began to call it the Third Roman Empire.