August 17, 2022

The Three Romes - Glen Bowersock


"So know, pious king, that all the Christian kingdoms came to an end and came together in a single kingdom of yours, two Romes have fallen, the third stands, and there will be no fourth [emphasis added]. No one shall replace your Christian Tsardom according to the great Theologian [cf. Revelation 17:10] [...]." - Philotheus of Pskov (Source: Wikipedia).

"An excerpt from, "The Byzantine history of Putin's Russian empire" By Theodore Christou, The Conversation, March 15, 2018:

When Constantinople was conquered after 11 centuries as the Roman capital, by Ottoman Turks under the leadership of Mehmed II in 1453, Russia had become a central part of the Byzantine alliance.

The Russian tsar — a derivative of the Latin Caesar, or imperial ruler — assumed, or presumed, the role of the imperial head of the Roman empire.

Following the Bolshevik Revolution and the establishment of the communist, secular United Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922, this imperial legacy was largely lost.

In recent history, historians are reclaiming this Byzantine history and its Russian legacy. Under Vladimir Putin, Russia’s history has been largely Byzantine.

Putin has associated Russia with Byzantium in ways that are apparent to countries with an Orthodox legacy, but not necessarily clear to the rest of the world.

Byzantium matters. It matters if we want to associate Russia today with imperial Russia at its zenith.

An excerpt from, "Third Rome Rising: The Ideologues Calling for a New Russian Empire" By Areg Galstyan, The National Interest, June 27, 2016: 

Russian society is actively discussing the recent visit of President Vladimir Putin to Greece, where he took part in the celebrations of the thousandth anniversary of Russian monks’ presence on Mount Athos. During his meeting with the clergy, the president said that Mount Athos is the source of society’s moral foundations. The leading Russian media, either on purpose or due to ignorance, embellished the ceremony at Mount Athos, claiming that Putin sat on the throne of the Byzantine emperors. In fact, Putin spent the service in a stasidion—a monastic chair with a folding seat designed for high-ranking honored guests in the temple. Nevertheless, Putin’s symbolic visit sparked joy among those conservatives in Russia who see this as a sign of ideological revival, under the slogan, “Moscow is the Third Rome.”

An excerpt from, "What Happens When the Third Rome Falls?" By Anthony J. Constantini, The American Conservative, June 14, 2022:

Looking at the path of the Second Rome, one can detect a striking similarity to that of the Third. Like its Orthodox predecessor, Russia has had a long and storied history, full of different states and types of government: some religious in nature, some less so. Like the Byzantines, Russia was sometimes ruled by natives and other times by those who had been born elsewhere. But if viewed as one long imperial history, the similarities become even more acute.

Told this way, the Soviet Union was not a new state, but was instead the Russian equivalent of the Komnenian restoration: a new governing force taking control after a civil war and overseeing rapid expansion. For the Byzantines, that force was the strong-willed and clear-eyed Komnenian dynasty; for the Russians, it was the Bolsheviks who seized power over the state apparatus. Both of these new governing forces had slow starts and both arguably began their true ascent under their second “dynastic” leaders, Alexios I Komnenos for the Byzantines and Josef Stalin for the USSR. Within decades, both had massively expanded: the Byzantines unquestionably reattained great power status (or at least its early 1000s equivalent) in their part of the world, and by the 1950s the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence ran across Eurasia from Berlin to Beijing.

But just like the Komnenian restoration, the rapid Bolshevik expansion soon reversed. Just over 100 years after Alexios I Komnenos took the throne of the Second Rome and undertook his expansions, the Byzantines were, as discussed, briefly conquered by the Latin West in 1204. Likewise, the Bolshevik “imperial restoration” fell after just over six decades to Western ideological forces in the late 1980s and early 1990s. While the Third Rome was not literally conquered by the West as Constantinople was, Moscow for the period of the 1990s was run by the Boris Yeltsin administration, a government which itself was effectively run by Western neoliberal thought and was, in the case of the 1996 Russian presidential elections, literally kept in power by American electoral interference.

Finally, both the Second and Third Romes followed their periods of Western control or influence with the throwing away of that Western rule, the former by re-establishing the Byzantine Empire under the Palaiologos dynasty and the latter in the form of President Vladimir Putin. Like the Palaiologos did with their forebears, Putin’s government has brought back all of the symbols of former Third Roman greatness: love of country, Orthodoxy, pride in history, a distrust of the West, and respect for the leader while not necessarily creating a cult of personality—all while failing to truly stave off decline. Putin’s Russia is attempting to gain territories it once controlled and is desperately fighting to restore its former sphere of influence, as the Palaiologos’ Byzantium did. But like the Second Rome, the Third faces overwhelming headwinds: a rising East, nationalism in former colonial and territorial possessions, internal corruption, and a West intent on using trade and other means to weaken and grind it down.

Those troubles were ultimately enough to blow the Byzantines to the winds of time. Will they blow Russia away today? And what happens if they do? These are the questions the West must now face.


Glen Warren Bowersock (born January 12, 1936 in Providence, Rhode Island) is a historian of ancient Greece, Rome and the Near East, and Chairman of Harvard’s classics department.

Bowersock was awarded the James Henry Breasted Prize of the American Historical Association for his book Hellenism in Late Antiquity. A symposium in his honor was held at Princeton University on April 7, 2006, under the title East and West: A Conference in Honor of Glen W. Bowersock, the proceedings of which were published by the Harvard University Press in 2008.

He is a Foreign Member of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei in Italy, Associé étranger de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, and Foreign Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Video Title: The Three Romes - Glen Bowersock. Source: Institute for Advanced Study. Date Published: May 4, 2016.