Paleologue, Sophia

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(d. 1503) niece of the last two Byzantine emperors and the second wife of Grand Prince Ivan III of Moscow.

Sophia Paleologue (Zoe) improved the Russian Grand Prince's international standing through her dynastic status and promoted Byzantine symbolism and ceremony at the Russian court.

Zoe Paleologue was the daughter of Despot Thomas of Morea, the younger brother of the Byzantine emperors John VIII and Constantine IX, and Catherine, daughter of Prince Centurione Zaccaria of Achaea. After the conquest of Morea by the Ottoman Turks in 1460 and her parents' subsequent death, Paleologue became a ward of the Uniate cardinal Bessarion, who gave her a Catholic education in Rome as a dependent of Pope Sixtus IV.

After protracted negotiations with the Russian Grand Prince, who saw an opportunity to increase his prestige in a marital union with a Byzantine princess, the Vatican offered Paleologue in a betrothal ceremony to one of Ivan III's representatives on June 1, 1472. During Paleologue's trip to Russia, the Byzantine princess assured the Russian populace in Pskov of her Orthodox disposition by abjuring Latin religious ritual and dress and by venerating icons. Paleologue married Ivan III on November 12, 1472, in an Orthodox wedding ceremony in the Moscow Kremlin and took the name Sophia.

Paleologue gave birth to ten children, one of which was the future heir to the Russian throne, Basil III. The existence of Ivan Molodoy, the surviving son of Ivan III's union with his first wife, Maria of Tver, and natural successor to the throne, caused friction between the grand prince and Paleologue. According to contemporary Russian chronicles, Paleologue intrigued against Ivan Molodoy and his wife, Elena Voloshanka. Paleologue's situation at court deteriorated even more after Voloshanka gave birth to a son, Dmitry Ivanovich. The untimely death of Ivan Molodoy in 1490 inspired rumors that Paleologue had poisoned him. The focus of Paleologue's and Voloshanka's dynastic struggle shifted to Dmitry Ivanovich. Ivan III's decision to make Dmitry his heir in 1497 caused Paleologue and her son Basil to revolt. Although Ivan III disgraced Sophia and crowned Dmitry as his successor in the following year, the Byzantine princess emerged victorious in 1499, when Basil was made Grand Prince of Novgorod and Pskov. Conspiring with the Lithuanians, Paleologue put pressure on her husband to imprison Voloshanka and her son Dmitry and to proclaim Basil Grand Prince of Vladimir and Moscow in 1502.

In pursuing her political and dynastic goals, Paleologue exploited traditional Byzantine methods to advertise her claims. In a liturgical tapestry she donated to the Monastery of Saint Sergius of Radonezh in 1498, she proclaimed her superior heritage by juxtaposing her position as Tsarevna of Constantinople with the grand princely title of her husband. By exploiting Byzantine religious symbolism, in the same embroidery she expressed her claim that Basil III was the divinely chosen heir to the Russian throne. While there has been no substantiation for the claim of some scholars that Paleologue was responsible for the introduction of wide-ranging Byzantine ideas and practices at the Russian court, the Byzantine princess's knack for political messages draped in religious language and imagery undoubtedly left a lasting mark on medieval Russian culture.

See also: basil iii; ivan iii


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Thyrêt, Isolde. (2001). Between God and Tsar: Religious Symbolism and the Royal Women of Muscovite Russia. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press.

Isolde ThyrÊt