Sophia of Byzantium (1448–1503)

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Sophia of Byzantium (1448–1503)

Russian empress, niece of the last two Byzantine emperors, and second wife of Ivan III, grand prince of Moscow. Name variations: Sofia or Sophie Paleologa, Paleologue, or Paleologos; Sophia Palaeologus; Zoë or Zoe Palaeologus. Born Zoë Paleologus in Byzantium in 1448; died in Moscow on April 7, 1503; daughter of Thomas Paleologus, despot of Morea, and Catherine of Achaea (d. 1465); niece of Constantine XI (r. 1448–1453), Byzantine emperor; educated in Rome; became second wife of Ivan III the Great (1440–1505), grand prince of Moscow (r. 1462–1505), on November 12, 1472; children: Helene of Moscow (1474–1513, who married Alexander, king of Poland); Theodosia of Moscow (1475–1501); Vasili also known as Basil III (1479–1534), tsar of Russia (r. 1505–1534); Yuri (b. 1480); Dimitri of Uglitsch (b. 1481); Eudoxia of Moscow (1483–1513, who married Peter Ibragimovich, prince of Khazan); Simeon of Kaluga (b. 1487); Andrei also known as Andrew of Staritza (b. 1490).

Sophia of Byzantium had unusual family ties. She was the niece of the last two Byzantine emperors, the ward of two popes in Rome, the wife of Grand Prince Ivan III the Great of Moscow, and the mother of his successor Basil III. She brought with her to Russia both her Byzantine and her Roman heritage, and she left her mark on Ivan's court and on the architecture of his capital.

Sophia of Byzantium was born Zoë Palaeologus in 1448, during difficult times, the daughter of Thomas Paleologus, despot of Morea, and Catherine of Achaea . The first half of the 15th century witnessed the overrunning of the once wealthy and highly civilized Byzantine Empire by the Ottoman Turks. In 1453, her uncle, the Byzantine emperor Constantine XI, died in a fruitless attempt to save his capital of Constantinople (now Istanbul). Seven years later, her father, who was Constantine's younger brother, was forced by the Turks to flee his principality of Morea (present-day Greece) for the Adriatic island of Corfu. When Thomas and Catherine died in 1465, Sophia and her two older brothers were taken to Rome where they became the wards of Pope Paul II. Sophia benefited from spending her teenage years in Renaissance Italy. She received an exceptional education under the direction of Cardinal Bessarion. Unlike most women of her day, she learned to speak and read several European languages. Bessarion also influenced her decision to convert from Eastern Orthodoxy to Roman Catholicism.

As both Sophia and the papacy realized, the future of the orphaned girl lay in marriage. One of those approached was Ivan III, grand prince of Muscow. From the pope's point of view such a marriage would strengthen ties with Moscow and possibly lead to a union of the Eastern and Western branches of Christendom. At the very least, the grand prince might be drawn into an alliance to stop the spread of the Muslim Turks in Europe. From Ivan's point of view, he needed more sons since his first wife Maria of Tver had died in 1467 having produced only one possible heir. Moreover, the prestige of marrying the niece of the last Byzantine emperor would enhance the dignity of the Muscovite ruler. Negotiations, which lasted for three years, finally led to a Catholic marriage by proxy in Rome on June 1, 1472. A month later, Sophia was delighted to leave the restrictive life of the pope's court for the long journey to Moscow. She and her large entourage arrived on November 12 and on the same day, after accepting the Orthodox faith and the name of Sophia, she was married again in a Russian service to the 32-year-old grand prince.

Life in Moscow must have been a shock for Sophia after her very civilized upbringing in Rome. The country was landlocked and isolated, its economy was in decay after more than two centuries of Mongol domination, and education and culture were almost totally lacking. Her husband had begun the task of uniting the state, consolidating his own political powers, and slowly modernizing the economy of Muscovy. Sophia adapted surprisingly well to her new life. She did her part by importing Italian architects, artisans, masons and other specialists to rebuild in stone many of Moscow's old wooden buildings and to beautify the city. The stone walls and towers of the Kremlin were constructed during this period and an Italian armorer built a foundry in Moscow which produced the first reliable cannon for Ivan's army as well as bells for the Kremlin's churches. Sophia's court, which attracted an increasing number of foreign visitors, undoubtedly provided a whiff of Western air and a taste of the Renaissance to an otherwise backward and isolated country. Some historians have suggested that she also helped to formalize and dignify the procedures of Ivan's own court and the machinery of his government.

Sophia of Byzantium's other contribution to Muscovite history was in producing children and backing by sometimes dubious means the claim of her eldest son, Basil, to succeed her husband. Her first child Helene of Moscow , who subsequently married the king of Poland and Lithuania and was used as an excuse for a war with Lithuania, was born in 1474. She was followed by Theodosia of Moscow (b. 1475), Basil (b. 1479), Eudoxia of Moscow (b. 1483), and four more sons. Succession became an issue in 1490 when Ivan's son and heir by his first wife died, perhaps poisoned on Sophia's orders, but not before producing a son of his own, Dmitri. This left two claimants to the throne but no obvious heir apparent. Ivan could choose either his grandson Dmitri, who was only six years old, or Sophia's 11-year-old son Basil. The question remained unresolved until 1497 when Ivan chose Dmitri, largely for the foreign allies his family would bring for Moscow's war with Lithuania. Sophia continued to push her own son's claims and in 1499 succeeded in having the decision reversed. Russian and later Soviet historians have long argued whether in this fight she backed or opposed Russia's aristocratic class in its own efforts to curb the steady growth of monarchial absolutism. What is obvious now is that she sought primarily to further the interests of her son and that Basil, when he finally came to power in 1505 two years after his mother's death, continued the centralizing policies of his father and contributed to the further strengthening of the Muscovite state.


Fennell, J.L.I. Ivan the Great of Moscow. London: Macmillan, 1961.

Miller, David B. "Sophia (Zoe) Paleologos," in the Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History. Vol. 36, 1984, pp. 172–175.

R. C. Elwood , Professor of History, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada

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Sophia of Byzantium (1448–1503)

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