Lives of the Czars, Caesars of the Third Rome
You Thought the Twelve Caesars Were Bad? Try the Czars!
The Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii (Notes on Muscovite Affairs, Notes on the Muscovites, or Notes on Russia), written by the Austro-Slovene diplomat Sigismund von Herberstein in 1549, was the first authoritative historical and ethnographic account of East Slavic civilization to be published in Western Europe. Herberstein had twice served (1517–1518 & 1526–1527) as the Holy Roman Empire’s ambassador to the Grand Duchy of Moscow, or Muscovy. His high-level position there in the Moscow court, coupled with his command of Slavic languages, gave him a level of access to Russia beyond the reach of the region’s previous western visitors. Herberstein wrote in the spirit of Herodotus and Pliny the Elder, compiling the history, politics, culture, religion, geography, military affairs, and natural history of the Russian world together with an account of his own time there as imperial ambassador. The best-selling work marked a watershed in Russian historiography and remained a western European authority on the Russian world for decades. [For Herberstein’s Latin comments on Grand Princess Olga of Kiev, see here.]
The following selections from the Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii are biographical sketches of figures from the history of Kievan Rus (c. 880 A.D — 1240 A.D), the first unified East Slavic state, and the Grand Duchy of Moscow (1267 A.D — 1547 A.D), one of its successors and the nucleus of the later Russian Empire and today’s Russian Federation. The English translation used was completed in 1851 by Richard Henry Major for the Hakluyt Society. His edition, published in two volumes, has been digitized by Google Books and is also available in physical form from Cambridge University Press. The Latin text was transcribed by me from a 16th-century codex of the Commentarii digitized by Google Books.
SADDLE FOR MY PILLOW: GRAND PRINCE SVIATOSLAV I IGOREVICH “THE BRAVE” (r. 964–972)
WARRIOR PRINCE: “Svuatoslaus, nobili genere natus, fuit magna vi et animi et corporis … Corpus patiens inediae, algoris, vigiliae supra quam cuiquam credibile est.”
[Olha] Svuatoslaum autem filium ad baptismum nequaquam perducere potuit, qui, cum adolevisset, strenuus ac promptus statim omnes bellicos labores periculaque consueta non detrectavit. In bello nulla impedimenta, ne vasa quidem coquinaria exercitui suo permisit. Carnibus tostis dumtaxat utebatur, humi requiescens, sella capiti subiecta. Vicit Bulgaros, ad Danuvium usque progressus.
[Olga] could not, however, by any means persuade her son Sviatoslav to be baptized, who on arriving at manhood proved to be strong and active, and shrunk from no warlike exertion or danger to which warriors were accustomed. He permitted his army to carry no baggage, not even cooking utensils, and himself ate nothing but roast meat, and was accustomed to sleep upon the ground with only a saddle for his pillow. He carried his arms as far as the Danube and conquered the Bulgarians.
HIS SPEECH TO HIS ARMY: “… fortiter contra illos pugnando aut mortem oppetere aut gloriam reportare certum est.”
Basilio et Constantino regibus bellum denuntiat. … Post, cum uterque exercitus convenisset, Rhuteni Graecorum multitudine terrentur. Quos cum pavidos videret, Svuatoslaus inquit, “Quia locum non video, Rhuteni, qui nos capere tuto posset, terram autem Russiae tradere inimicis numquam in animum induxi, fortiter contra illos pugnando aut mortem oppetere aut gloriam reportare certum est. Etenim si strenue pugnando occubuero nominis immortalitatem, si vero fugiam, perpetuam inde ignominiam sum relaturus. Et cum hostium multitudine circumventus effugere nobis non licet, stabo ergo firmiter caputque meum in prima acie pro patria omnibus periculis obiciam.” Cui milites, “Ubi caput tuum ibi et nostrum.” Mox confirmato milite in adversum hostem raptus, magno impetu facto, victor evadit.
He then declared war against the kings Basil and Constantine … At length, when both were confronted, the Russians became terrified at the host of the Greeks. But Sviatoslav, seeing their fear, thus addressed them: “ Since, O Russians, I see no place into which we can retreat with safety and as, at the same time, it has never entered into my thoughts to surrender the soil of Russia to our enemies, I am resolved either to die or win renown by fighting bravely against them. For if I die fighting valiantly, my name will be immortal. Whereas if I flee, I shall carry with me eternal disgrace. And since it is not possible for one who is surrounded by a host of enemies to escape, it is determination to stand firmly , and at all risks to expose myself in the foremost rank for the sake of my country.” The soldiers replied: “Wheresoever thou leadest we will follow.” Having thus restored the confidence of his army, he rushed upon the enemy with a terrific onslaught and bore away the victory.
HIS DEATH: “… vitaque cum gemitu fugit indignata sub umbras.”
Quem tandem anno mundi 6480 (972) Cures princeps Pieczenigorum ex insidiis interfecit. Ex cranio eius poculum faciens, auro circumdato, litteris in hanc sententiam signavit: “Quaerendo aliena omisit propria.”
Finally, in the year of the world 6480 (972) , Cures, a prince of the Pieczenigi, caught him in an ambush and slew him and made a goblet of his skull surrounded with a golden rim, on which was engraved this sentence: “By seeking the possessions of others he lost his own.”
AN ASPECT OF TERROR: GRAND DUKE IVAN III VASILIYEVICH “THE GREAT” (r. 1462–1506)
THE FIRST CZAR: “… monarcham denique se totius Russiae appellare cepit.”
[Ioannes III Magnam ducem Michaelem Tverensem] sororium expulit et occupavit magnum ducatum Tverensem deinde etiam Novuogardiam magnam, cui postea omnes alii principes, magnitudine rerum a se gestarum commoti seu timore perculsi, serviebant. Rebus deinde feliciter procedentibus titulum magni ducis Vuolodimeriae Moscoviae et Novuogardiae sibi usurpare, monarcham denique se totius Russiae appellare cepit.
Mulieribus porro usque adeo infensus erat ut eius conspectu, si quae forte obviam sibi venissent, tantum non exanimarentur. Pauperibus a potentioribus oppressis iniuriaque affectis aditus ad eum non patebat. In prandio plerumque adeo se potu ingurgitabat ut somno opprimeretur, invitatis interim omnibus timore perculsis silentibusque, experrectus oculos tergere ac tum primum iocari et hilarem se convivis exhibere solebat.
[Ivan III] drove out his brother-in law the Grand Duke of Tver and took possession first of that Grand Duchy and then even of great Novgorod. After that, all the other princes, being moved by the grandeur of his achievements or stricken with fear, became subject to him. As affairs continued to prosper with him, he began to assume the title of Grand Duke of Vladimir, Moscow, and Novgorod and finally began declaring himself monarch of all Russia.
He was so hostile to women that if any women met him by chance, they almost always fainted with terror at the sight of him. No access was allowed to him for poor men, who were oppressed by the more powerful or unjustly treated. He generally drank so excessively at dinner as to fall asleep and, while his guests were all struck with terror and sitting in silence, he would awake, rub his eyes, and then first begin to joke and make merry with them.
GOD’S EXECUTOR: GRAND DUKE VASILI III IVANOVICH (r. 1505–1533)
A PALACE COUP: “dominationem raptum ivit … intus summa adipiscendi libido.”
[Ioannes III] suscepit ex Maria filium Ioannem nomine … Mortua priore coniuge Maria, [Ioannes III] alteram uxorem duxit Sophiam … ex qua suscepit quinque filios: Gabrielem, Demetrium, Georgium, Simeonem, et Andream … Ioanni primogenito monarchatum reservavit … Primogenitus Ioannes moritur relicto filio Demetrio, quem avus in patris mortui locum, iuxta consuetudinem, monarchatu investiverat.
Aiunt Sophiam hanc fuisse astutissimam, cuius impulsu dux multa fecit. Inter cetera induxisse maritum perhibetur ut Demetrium nepotem monarchatu moveret inque eius locum praeficeret Gabrielem. Persuasus namque dux ab uxore Demetrium in vincula coniecit detinetque. Tandem moriens eundem ad se adduci iubet. “Care,” inquit, “nepos, peccavi in deum et te quod carceribus mancipatum te afflixi teque iusta haereditate spoliavi. Iniuriam igitur a me tibi illatam, obsecro, mihi remitte. Liber abi iureque tuo utere.” Demetrius hac oratione permotus noxam avo facile condonat. Egressus autem Gabrielis patrui iussu comprehenditur inque carceres conicitur. Alii fame illum ac frigore, pars fumo suffocatum putant. Gabriel vivente Demetrio gubernatorem se gessit. Eo vere mortuo principatum tenuit non inauguratus, Gabrielis dumtaxat in Basilii nomine commutato.
He [Ivan III] had by Mary a son, also named Ivan … After the death of his first wife Mary, he [Ivan III] married Sophia … By her he had five sons: Gabriel, Dimitry, George, Simeon, and Andrew … To Ivan the eldest he reserved the sovereignty … Ivan the eldest died, leaving a son, Dimitry. And his grandfather invested him with the sovereignty, according to custom, in place of his late father.
They say that this Sophia was a very artful woman and had considerable influence over the actions of the grand duke. Among other things she is reported to have induced her husband to remove his grandson Dimitry from the sovereignty and to elevate Gabriel to his place. For the duke, overruled by his wife, cast Dimitry into prison and kept him there, until at length on his deathbed he ordered him to be brought to him and thus addressed him : “Dear grandson, I have sinned against God and thee, inasmuch as I have afflicted thee with imprisonment and have deprived thee of thy just inheritance. I beseech thee forgive me the injury I have done thee, depart in freedom and enjoy thy right.” Dimitry, affected by this address, readily forgave his grandfather the injury, but as he went out he was seized by command of his step-uncle Gabriel and thrown into prison. Some think that he was murdered by starvation and cold, and others that he was suffocated with smoke. Gabriel acted as regent during the life of Dimitry, but after his death he retained the sovereignty without having been inaugurated, merely changing his name of Gabriel to that of Vasili.
THE AUTOCRAT: “Executorem denique voluntatis divinae credunt.”
[Basilius III] patrem multis rebus imitatus est. Ea quae sibi reliquerat pater integra custodivit. Ad haec multas provincias non tam bello, in quo erat infelicior, quam industria imperio suo adiecit. … Auctoritate sua tam in spirituales quam saeculares utitur. Libere ac ex voluntate sua de omnium et vita et bonis constituit. Consiliariorum quos habet nullus est tantae authoritatis qui dissentire aut sibi in re aliqua resistere audeat. Fatentur publice voluntatem principis, Dei esse voluntatem, et quicquid princips egerit, ex voluntate Dei agere. Ob id etiam clavigerum et cubicularium Dei appellant. Executorem denique voluntatis divinae credunt.
[Vasili III] imitated his father in many things. All the dominions that his father had left him he not only kept entire but added thereto many provinces besides, not so much by war, in which he had but little success, as by industry. … He use his authority as much over ecclesiastics as laymen and holds unlimited control over the lives and property of all his subjects. Not one of his counsellors has sufficient authority to dare to oppose him or even differ from him on any subject. They openly confess that the will of the prince is the will of God and that whatever the prince does he does by the will of God. On this account they call him God’s key-bearer and chamberlain and, in short, they believe that he is the executor of the divine will.
Gabe Kuhl holds a B.A. in Classics from Randolph College. He worked as a Rome Fellow with the Paideia Institute (2017–2018) and later taught in Macedonia with the Peace Corps. He currently lives and works in Arlington, Virginia.
Sign up to receive email updates about new articles