Fire and Ice: Byzantium and Rus – the historical contacts

I’ve recently been reading Colin Wells’s excellent book, Sailing from Byzantium, which traces the heritage of Byzantium through its impact on the West, particularly Italy and the beginnings of the Renaissance; the Arab world; and the Slavs. The book is good on the early contacts between Byzantium and the Slav world, and in particular on what the Slavs took from Byzantium.

This is what I want to focus on in this post, the second in a series about the links between the two cultures.

The history of the initial contacts between Byzantine and Russian cultures revolves around two key dates.

The first documented contact occurred in 860. The Byzantine Emperor, Mikhail III, was away from the capital fighting the Arabs, when suddenly a fleet of 200 ships from the north appeared offshore and began to attack the city. The attack was completely unexpected and from an unexpected direction. Two weeks of plunder and savagery followed before the attackers withdrew. By the time the Emperor returned to defend his capital, the attackers had vanished.

The attack had a traumatic effect on Byzantium and its perpetrators were described as a barbaric, nomadic tribe. Until very recent times it was thought the attackers came from Kiev, but modern archaeology has indicated that at the time, Kiev was just a collection of huts and the attack is therefore more likely to have come from further north, possibly Novgorod.

One impact of this event is the decision by the Byzantines to commence a mission to the Slavs, commencing with that of SS Cyril and Methodius (see my first post). This was largely self-preservation, but also an attempt to head off the influence of the Latin (ie western) wing of the church, already working on conversions to Christianity in Moravia.

Over the next hundred or so years trade links between Rus and Byzantium (or Tsargrad – the city of the Emperors) began to develop on a more systematised basis.

The second key date is 988, the date when traditionally Prince Vladimir of Kiev was baptised. The Primary Chronicle, the history of Kievan Rus between the ninth and the early twelfth centuries, explains Vladimir’s conversion as the result of a conscious choice between several different options. He considered the Latin church (represented by Germans), Islam (represented by Bulgars), Judaism (represented by Khazars) and Byzantium (represented by a Byzantine scholar). Eventually Vladimir sent envoys to the Germans, the Bulgars and to Byzantium to find out more about the different candidate religions.

The Primary Chronicle records the reactions of the envoys when they were taken to Haghia Sophia by the Emperor and Patriarch:

“we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty, and we are at a loss to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty.” 

Colin Wells points out that the Byzantine point of view is quite different. The Emperor at that time, Basil II, was hard pressed by the Bulgars and so turned to Vladimir of Kiev for support. In return for providing 6,000 soldiers he gave his sister, Anna, in marriage to Vladimir, but on the condition that he was baptised a Christian and gave up his other wives. From that prestigious marriage based on the parlous state of Byzantium, Vladimir kept his side of the bargain and ordered his people to be baptised.

Acceptance of the religion of Byzantium brought with it the need to build churches in Kievan Rus and the means with which to disseminate the new faith in his kingdom. So a wave of architects, artists and scholars went to the newly converted kingdom to help in this great task. And the language in which the new religion was celebrated and taught was Old Church Slavonic.

What do these early contacts have to tell us?

Realpolitik forced Byzantium into an alliance with Rus which Rus accepted because of the prestige of the alliance. Religion was also an important factor, but the appeal of the religion, as The Primary Chronicle makes clear, seems to have been primarily an aesthetic one, rather than based on its compelling theology. Rus accepted Orthodoxy wholeheartedly and adapted it to its language and culture (eg through the use of Old Church Slavonic in worship; and the use of domes on their churches, probably because they were more suited to the snow than the Byzantine style). But it did not radically re-examine or re-invent it.

Perhaps also Vladimir was attracted by the role that the Byzantine Emperor, as God’s representative on earth, played in relation to the Church. It was a way of bringing his people together and uniting spiritual and temporal power in one person. Religion with its prestigious links and unrivalled tradition stretching back into history provided a rich narrative with which to be associated.

The use of Old Church Slavonic for the dissemination of the new religion was both a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing in the sense that it made it easier for the new religion to be accepted amongst the Slavs (compare that with the use of Latin in the Western Church). But it was curse in that it cut the Slavs off from the Hellenic heritage which (to some extent) Byzantium had preserved. Ultimately it would prevent a similar re-discovery of the Classics that occurred at the Renaissance in the West, a challenge to the authority of the Church and divine rulers, and the development of a Russian form of the Enlightenment.

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7 thoughts on “Fire and Ice: Byzantium and Rus – the historical contacts

  1. Great post! I find the whole history of the Black Sea and the Rus fascinating (the Volga Vikings too). It’s funny you mention that story about Vladimir – it’s something I’d heard as a child from a relative, maybe my dad, but I always wondered if it was true or not. I’ll keep a look out for the book

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