Alex Feldman is a final-year PhD candidate at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies. This essay is adapted from the presentation he recently gave at the Ecclesiastical History Society Postgraduate Conference at Newman University, Birmingham, on 7 March, 2018
Byzantium (the Christian Roman empire) and Russia are frequently thought of as constituting two separate ancient ‘states’. Their respective sovereignties, often imagined as absolute and taken for granted, may be comparable to the case of Khazaria, which occupied a similar time and space to Rus’. Both of these entities, Rus’ and Khazaria, however, were initially Christian Roman metropolitanates, in other words, imperial provinces. It is well-known that the Rus’ metropolitanate was established at the behest of the Byzantine emperors and adopted by the princes of Kiev in the 10-11th c. However, in many ways this mirrors the earlier establishment of the Byzantine metropolitanate of Gotthia in the 8-9th c., which subsequently disappeared and which some see as a Byzantine attempt at Christianizing Khazaria. Nevertheless, both metropolitanates, of Gotthia first and then Rus’, have been thought of as essentially Byzantine attempts to Christianize, via their rulers, an area previously populated mostly by pagans and are mentioned in various versions of the Notitiae Episcopatuum.
The Notitiae Episcopatuum Ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae was usually an official, hierarchical listing of all the metropolitan bishops appointed by the patriarch of Constantinople, periodically renewed from century to century. Among the metropolitans and their corresponding metropolitanates listed in various iterations of the Notitiae Episcopatuum, are the listings for first the metropolitanate of Gotthia, or Khazaria, and then Rus’, or later, Russia.
The metropolitanate of Gotthia existed from about the mid-8th c. to the mid-9th c. Many scholars agree that this ecclesiastical region, at least theoretically, stretched over the broad swathe of an area ruled at that time by great khans of the Eurasian steppe between Crimea, the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea – a place they called Khazaria – and a place we wouldn’t typically think of as ‘Roman.’ We don’t know for certain whether or not (or when) the Christian Roman (Byzantine) emperors claimed possession of Crimea and the rest of Khazaria, but due to the Notitiae Episcopatuum most scholars accept that there was an imperial ecclesiastical dominion over much of what constituted Khazaria during the 8-9th centuries. This was a time of détente between the Christian emperors and the Khazarian khans, as many scholars agree. The question of course becomes, what happened to it, and does it relate to the disappearance of Khazaria and/or the emergence of Russia?
The third version of the Notitiae Episcopatuum, composed during the late-8th c., outlined a list of metropolitanates which sought to Christianize not only Crimea (what was called ‘Gotthia’ in Greek), but the entire north Caucasus region between the Black and Caspian Seas – in other words, all of Khazaria. But we also know that throughout that 9th c., the great Khazarian khans were intending to convert to one of the Abrahamic faiths – Islam, Christianity or Judaism. Surprisingly, they chose to convert to Judaism in the early-860s.
It has been supposed that the main reason why the metropolitanate of Gotthia disappeared from the Notitiae Episcopatuum was because of the church’s disappointment in the khans’ conversion to Judaism. By the 10th c., Greek sources suggest irritation at Khazaria. One letter, sent by the Constantinopolitan patriarch Nikolas Mystikos in about 920, refers to Khazaria as “…that deluded nation…” The early Church Slavonic Vita Constantini hints at ways to reintegrate Khazaria back into the empire. And the mid-10th-c. De Administrando Imperio suggests ways for Christian emperors to bribe pagan barbarians into attacking Khazaria. Finally, 10th-c. Hebrew sources written on behalf of the Khazarian khans complain about Byzantine attempts to sow discord between Khazaria and her neighbours, the Russians. Eventually, we know from the earliest Russian sources, that the Rus’ prince Svjatoslav conquered Khazaria in the late-10th c., and by the late-12th c., the name Khazaria all but ceased to exist, save for references to Crimea as ‘Gazaria’ in medieval Italian and the Caspian Sea, even to this day, as the ‘Khazar Sea’ in some modern languages (such as Azeri and Farsi).
But in perhaps one of history’s intermittent ironies, in a sense, Russia came to take the place of Khazaria. In the late-11th-c. Notitiae Episcopatuum 11, a new metropolitanate appears which covers many of the same bishoprics as the earlier metropolitanate of Gotthia – notably around the northern Black Sea – but now it’s called the metropolitanate of ‘Ros.’ It seems that by the 11th c., the erstwhile metropolitanate of Gotthia was subsumed as an archbishopric into the emergent Rus’ metropolitanate. By the 12th c., according to the Notitiae Episcopatuum 13, the Rus’ metropolitate was already known as ‘Great Russia.’ The source lists the names of Belgorod (Πελοργάδων), Novgorod (Νευογράδων), Chernigov (Τζερνιγόβων), Polotsk (Πολοτζίκων), Vladimir (τού Βλαδιμοίρου), Pereslavl’ (Περισθλάβου), Suzdal’ (Σουσδαλί), Turov (Τουρόβου), Kanev (Κάνεβε), Smolensk (Σμολίσκον), Galitsa (Γάλιτζα), along with the northern Black Sea cities which had previously been part of ‘Gotthia,’ or Khazaria.
Still more surprising, even in the 12th c., perhaps the largest ecclesiastical province of the Christian empire – Great Russia – only ranked in sixtieth place according to the Notitiae Episcopatuum, and it was reduced by the Palaiologan emperors in the early-14th century. Finally, given what we know about the significance of the metroplitanate of Gotthia for Pontic-Caspian Eurasia, we may come to understand the Rus’ metropolitanate not so much as a frequently imagined ‘proto-state,’ but as a province ruled by local archontes (Rus’ princes) – theoretically loyal to the Christian ecumene.
This, however, is not to say that Rus’ was not a ‘proto-state,’ but only that ‘statehood,’ whether Rus’, Byzantine-Roman, or any other case, as imagined by modern notions and projected backward onto versions of the past, was not necessarily so cut and dried. By comparing the imperial metropolitanates of Gotthia to Rus’ in this way, as opposed to regarding them separately, it may demonstrate that our present views of Byzantium, Khazaria and Rus’, as ‘states,’ may be alternatively viewed as a series of overlapping and shifting allegiance networks depending on local and ecumenical loyalties. We may even reconsider statehood itself, conceived not in the absolute terms common today, but rather in terms of fluid loyalties, common in every era before the present.