Biographical Notes by George

Copyright: 24 September 1998

A number of antique Russian weapons shown on this web page are attributed to the Russian, Vladimir Monomakh. To the average reader, this name means little or nothing. But, in fact, this gentleman played a most important part in the development of Russia during the Middle Ages. This was an extremely turbulent time in Russia. Warfare was waged not only against various Asiatic, Semitic and Caucasian tribes, which were forever making incursions into Russian territory, but also there was internecene conflict between competing Russian families and factions. It was Monomakh who eventually restored a semblance of peace and order to the country and has since been venerated for his bravery and wisdom.

To give the reader an idea of the complex state of affairs and the large and confusing cast of characters, during the life of Monomakh, the writer presents below a condensed summary of events. This summary has been extracted from a chronology of Russian history that he has started to compile some years ago.


Death of Vsevolod on April 13th. He leaves two sons, Vladimir Monomakh, who holds Tchernigov, and Rostislav, who holds Pereiaslavl. He is succeeded by Sviatopolk, the second son of Iziaslav, who is the rightful successor after the assassination of his brother Yaropolk. He imprisons the ambassadors of the Polovtsi, in violation of the law of nations. Russians are defeated in the battle of Tripole on May 23, 1093

Rostislav drowns, Sviatopolk and Vladimir Monomakh flee.

Another campaign against the Polovtsi is disastrous to the Russians. Sviatopolk returns to Kiev with but two companions. Tortchesk capitulates, the Polovtsi retire to the steppe with booty and prisoners. Sviatopolk buys peace and marries the daughter of the Polovtsian khan. Oleg, son of Sviatoslav, returns from Tmoutarakan to enforce his rights upon Tchernigov, which had been the original seat of his father as the second son of Yaroslav, and which was held by Monomakh, who was the son of Yaroslav's third son. Monomakh capitulates and evacuates to Pereiaslavl.

Monomakh defends himself against the continuous irruptions of the Polovtsi. Oleg's brother David captures Smolensk. Oleg refuses to join in a combined campaign against the Polovtsi, and defeats two sons of Monomakh. A third son of Monomakh falls in one of many battles against the Polovtsi. There is a general war, lasting two years, which covers the entire territory of Russia from Novgorod to Murom, and to the steppe.

To settle all disputes, a congress of princes is held at Lubetz, in the territory of Tchernigov. The division of territory was: Sviatopolk (the grand prince) retains Kiev and Turov

The Russian north now has a respite.

Secretly, Vassilko is preparing to conquer the Danubian Bulgarians, invade Poland, and then fight the Polovtsi, and has taken into his pay several nomad hordes. David of Volhinia mistakes these actions for a conspiracy against him by Vassilko and Monomakh, and convinces Sviatopolk of this thesis. Vassilko is lured to Kiev and there cruelly maimed. Sviatopolk takes it upon himself to avenge this outrage upon Vassilko, who was surrendered to Volodar.

David flees to Poland. Sviatopolk annexes David's territory and then turns, most unjustifiably, against the sons of Rostislav. Defeated by Volodar, he forms an alliance with Koloman, king of Hungary. The alliance now assumes a most unexpected and distorted character. David unites with the Rostislavichi and with Buiak, khan of the Polovtsi; and at Peremishl defeats Sviatopolk and his allies. The war, the horrors of which were increased by the repeated raids of the Polovtsi, seemed to draw out without end or aim, when finally Monomakh convoked a second congress of the princes.


The second congress of princes is held at Uvetitchi, on Kievan territory, in August. Only a few towns in Volhinia are left to David, the remainder going to Yaroslav, son of Sviatopolk. The Rostislavichi retain their territory. Order is restored and the direction of affairs passes to Monomakh. Under his leadership the Russian princes are now united against the Polovtsi, and there ensues a series of campaigns of which no clear account had come down to us. Monomakh, as well as David and Oleg, the sons of Sviatoslav, take Polovtsian wives for their sons to reduce the dangers.

Monomakh, leading the princes, crosses the Dnieper and Vorskla, and presses into Polovtsian territory as far as the Don, conquering two cities. They cross the Don and fight a great battle on March 24-26. Here, the Russians are on the Sula, the last tributary of the Don before reaching the sea of Azov, in a most unfavorable position and surrounded on all sides by the Polovtsi. The scales are turned when the drujinas of David and Monomakh, which had been kept in the rear, make a terrific onset on the exhausted enemy, who flee in panic. According to tradition, angels preceded the Russians and smote the Polovtsi with blindness. Death of Sviatopolk April 16, 1113.

VLADIMIR MONOMAKH (reign 1113-1125)

After the death of Sviatopolk the throne legally belonged to Oleg, son of Sviatoslav, cousin of Monomakh who was the son of Vsevolod. But the Kievans were determined to accept no one but Monomakh, and an uprising of theirs, which was directed primarily against the Jews, whom Sviatopolk had employed primarily for fiscal purposes, but which threatened to assume larger dimensions, induced him to yield to the universal demand. Thus the race of Sviatoslav - otherwise called the Oglivitchi - was excluded, and Monomakh succeeded in bringing the large part of Russia under his house. During his reign he continued the war against the Polovtsi, as well as against the Finns in the north and east, and the Poles in the west. The steppe was cleared so thoroughly that tradition, with its customary exaggeration, says that he forced the Polovtsi back to the Caucasus.

His relations to the Byzantine Empire have not yet been sufficiently cleared up. He was the son of a Byzantine princess, and his daughter Maria was married to Leo, son of the unfortunate emperor Romanus Diogenes, who was blinded in 1071 and banished to an island. Leo then made an attempt to revolt against Alexius Comnenus, but was poisoned in 1116. Vladimir Monomakh now espoused the cause of Leo's son Basil and sent an army to the Danube, which returned without accomplishing its purpose.

Crown of MonomakhAccording to a later tradition, which arose under the influence of Moscow, the emperor Alexius Comnenus, in order to put an end to the devastation of Thrace by the Russian troops, sent to Vladimir a diadem (later to be known as "Shapka Monomakh") and other imperial insignia through Neophyte, metropolitan of Epherus, who put the diadem on Vladimir's head and called him Tsar. But contemporary accounts tell us nothing of all this, and it is inherently improbable that Byzantium would bestow upon the Russian grand prince, who was no longer formidable, a title whose exclusive possession is so jealously guarded. On the other hand, it is known that in 1122, or six years after the supposed campaign to Thrace, a grand-daughter of Monomakh was married to a prince of the house of Romanus.

But the greater portion of Monomakh's military activity fell into the reigns of his two predecessors. He was in his 61st year when he became grand-prince, and he naturally avoided all fighting as far as possible, employing force only when needed to maintain his position as overlord of Russia. As far as circumstances permitted, he was a prince of peace, and a number of most important legislative measures are attributed to him, especially the laws relating to usury and to the half-free (zakupi). Russia had suffered very severely from the civil wars and the raids of the Polovtsi, and men of small property were reduced to extreme poverty. Being unable to maintain themselves on their wasted lands, they went to live in large numbers on the estates of the rich, who sought to reduce them to absolute slavery, or else they borrowed money at usurious rates and soon sank into a servile condition.

To remedy this ruinous state of affairs, Monomakh reduced the rate of interest from 120 to 20 percent, and decreed that he who had paid a year's interest according to the old rate, was thereby absolved from his debt. He also ordered the expulsion of the Jews from all of Russia. (They were during the Middle Ages the representatives of the money power throughout Europe - a foreign element in the "natural economy" of that time. Hence the universal hatred against them.)

But the problem of the zakupi could not be solved in this summary fashion. According to the regulations adopted they were to be regarded as free men who had become bound to the soil by contract, but who retained the right to acquire property and were not subject to the master's jurisdiction. A half-free man loses his freedom only when he attempts to escape from his master. It was also fixed what payments and services he was to render, and it was impossible for the lord to reduce him to a condition of unrestricted serfdom.

Monomakh died in 1125 at the then ripe old age of 73. He has left us a curious paper of instructions to his sons, which dates from 1117, and in which he gives them much sound advice, enforced with examples from his own life. It is a remarkable document worthy of quoting.


The grand prince begins by saying that his grandfather Yaroslav gave him the Russian name of Vladimir and the Christian name of Vasili, and his father and mother that of Monomakh; either because Vladimir was really through his mother the grandson of the Greek emperor Constantine Monomachus, or because even in his tenderest youth he displayed remarkable warlike valor. "As I draw near to the grave," he writes, "I give thanks to the Most High for the increase of my days. His hand has led me to a venerable age. And you, my beloved children and whosoever reads this writing, observe the rules set forth in it. When your heart does not approve them, do not condemn my intentions, but only say: The old man's mind was already weakened." Having described in their chief features the beauty of the works of the Creator, Vladimir continues:

"O my children! give praise to God and love also mankind. Neither fasting, nor solitude, nor monastic life shall save you, but good deeds. Forget not the poor, feed them; and remember that every possession is God's, and only confided to you for a time. Do not hide your riches in the bowels of the earth: this is against the laws of Christianity. Be fathers to orphans; judge the widows yourselves: do not let the strong destroy the weak. Do not slay either the righteous or the guilty: the life and soul of the Christian are sacred. Do not call the name of God in vain; ratify your oath by kissing the cross, and do not transgress it. My brothers said to me: Let us drive out the sons of Rostislav and take their possessions, otherwise thou are no ally of ours! But I answered: I cannot forget that I kissed the cross. I turner to the Psalter and read with compunction: 'Why art thou so vexed, O my soul? O put thy trust in God, for I will yet thank him. Fret not thyself because of the ungodly: neither be thou envious against the evil doers.' Do not forsake the sick and do not be afraid to look upon the dead: for we shall all die; receive the blessing of the clergy lovingly; do not withdraw yourselves from them, for they shall pray to the Most High for you."

"Do not have any pride either in your mind or heart, and think: we are but mortal; today we live, tomorrow we are in the grave. Fear every lie, drunkenness and fornication, equally pernicious for the body and the soul. Esteem old people as fathers, love the young as brothers. In your household see carefully to everything yourselves, do not depend either on your pages or bailiffs, that your guests may not blame either your house or your dinner. Be active in war, serve as an example to your captains - it is no time then to think of feasting and luxury. When you have set the night watch, take your rest. Man perishes suddenly, therefore do not lay aside your arms where you may meet danger; and get to horse early. When you travel in your dominions, do not let the princely pages be a cause of offense to the inhabitants, but wherever you stop give your host food and drink. Above all, respect your guests and do them honor, both the distinguished and the supplicants, both merchant and ambassador; if you cannot give them presents, at any rate regale them with food and drink, for guests spread good and evil reports of us in foreign lands. Greet every man when he passes by. Love your wives, but do not let them have an authority over you. Everything good that you learn, you must remember; what you do not know, learn. My father, sitting at home, spoke five languages, for which those of other lands praised him. Idleness is the mother of vices, beware of it. A man should ever be occupied; when you are on the road, on horseback, without occupation, instead of indulging in idle thoughts repeat prayers by heart - or the shortest and best prayer of all, 'Lord have mercy!' Never sleep without bowing yourself down to the earth; and if you feel unwell, bow down to the earth three times. Let not the sun find you in your bed! Go early to church to render early praise to God: so did my father: so did all good men. When the sun shone on them, they praised God joyfully and said: 'Lighten mine eyes, Christ God, and give me thy beauteous light.' Then take counsel with the droujina, or judge the people, or go to the chase: and at midday sleep, for God has ordained that not only man but also the beasts and birds should rest at midday.

"Thus lived your father. I myself did all that could be ordered to a page; at the chase and at war, day and night, in the heat of summer and the cold of winter I knew no rest. I did not put my trust in burgomasters or heralds, I did not let the strong give offense to the poor and widows, I myself supervised the church and the divine service, the domestic organization, the stables, the chase, the hawks and the falcons."

Enumerating his military exploits, Vladimir writes: "My campaigns were in all eighty -three; the other smaller ones I do not remember. I concluded nineteen treaties of peace with the Polovtsi, took prisoners more than a hundred of their chief princes and let them go free, and I had more than two-hundred put to death and drowned in the rivers. Who has travelled faster than I? Starting early from Tchernigov, I was at Kiev (*) with my parents before vespers. We loved the chase and often trapped and caught beasts with your grandfather. How many times have I fallen from my horse! Twice I broke my head, injured my arms and legs, without caring for my life in youth or sparing my head. But the Lord preserved me. And you, my children, fear neither death nor combats, nor wild beasts, but show yourselves men in every circumstance sent from God. If providence decrees that a man shall die, neither his father nor his brothers can save him. God's protection is man's hope." (*: Approximately 95 miles.)

If it had not been for this wisely written testament, we should not have known all the beauty of Vladimir's soul; he did not lay waste other states, but was the glory, the defender, the consolation of his own, and none of the Russian princes has a greater right to the love of posterity, for he served his country jealously and virtuously. If once in his life Monomakh did not hesitate to infringe the law of nations and perfidiously slay the Polovtsian princes, we can but apply to him the words of Cicero, "The age excuses the man." Regarding the Polovtsi as the enemies of Christianity (they had burned the churches), the Russians thought that the destruction of them - no matter in what manner - was a work pleasing to God.

Death of Monomakh.

Legendary date for the foundation of Moscow by Yuri Dolgoruki.

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