Radivilias by Jonas Radvanas as the Text of Lithuanian Imperialism

The literary creative work in Lithuania during the last decades of the 16th century was influenced by several important cultural and political factors: the war of 1558–1583, waged with Moscow over Livonia, an ever increasing tension between the Catholics and Protestants, penetration of the Baroque worldview and the consequences of the Lublin Union, concluded in 1569, painful to the part of societal elite which was not willing to resign to the new situation. The moods of protest expressed by some influential nobles and an ever-increasing national self-awareness manifested itself via different cultural forms. For example, Duke Merkelis Giedraitis took under his patronage Mikalojus Daukša, the pioneer of Lithuanian writing, and the Lithuanian historian Maciej Stryjkowski. Duke Lew Sapieha succeeded in his efforts to have a separate Lithuanian Statute-Book (the Statute of 1588) approved. Dukes Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Red and his son Krzysztof Radziwiłł the Thunderbolt invited poets to stay in their courts, with the aim of protecting Lithuania’s interests by artistic and creative means.

No doubt, Jonas Radvanas (Lat. Joannes Raduanus) was a talented poet. The historical data about his biography is scarce. In all likelihood, he was not of noble descent and served (possibly as a secretary) in the courts of several high-ranking officials of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. One can only speculate as to where he obtained his education as there is no historical data shedding some light on this period of his lifetime. All the surviving creative works by Jonas Radvanas are written in Latin and published in the period of 1584–1592. He signed his first printed poem as Jonas Radvanovijus Vilnensis. Furthermore. The poet also left certain signs attesting to his knowledge of the Lithuanian language. This is sufficient proof of Jonas Radvanas ethnicity. The poet must have been of Lithuanian descent.

A majestic portrait of the Motherland and its defender

The most famous and largest piece of created by Jan Radvanas was the heroic poem Radivilias (published in Vilnius in 1592). Scholars regard it as the most outstanding work of art of the Lithuanian Renaissance.

In its extent and volume, the abundance of the material presented and excellence of both its form and literary expression, the poem surpasses the other works written in this genre. The main theme dealt with in the heroic poem Radivilias is the lifespan of Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Red, the Voivode of Vilnius, the Great  Chancellor and the Great Hetman of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, from birth to death, with a detailed narrative of the deeds and victories accomplished by this great military commander during the Livonian war against Moscow. In particular, the author highlights the significance of the Battle of Ula (26 January 1564) and the contribution of Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Red in gaining the victory. The Battle of Ula is known to have destroyed the plans of Ivan IV the Terrible, ruler of Moscow.

The poem Radivilias could be analysed from many perspectives. A literary portrait of Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Red deserves special attention and analysis. Even though openly eulogical in character (as befits a piece of artwork representing this genre), the portrait of the protagonist reflects the stereotype of a model of a ruler and defender, “a true father of the motherland,” prevailing in the mindset of people at that time. The image of the antihero, the ruler of the Great Principality of Moscow, having declared himself as the tsar (that is, the Emperor), is also portrayed by the poet in vivid colours. Ivan is depicted not merely as an aggressor but also as a vengeful madman, possessed by the furies from hell, treating his subordinates in a much more ferocious and brutal manner than his foe. In the third part of the poem, the decisive Battle of Ula is described, with the most distinguished warriors, both Lithuanian and Muscovite, presented. A detailed and accurate account of the warfare and weaponry is provided by the author. Furthermore, the poet touches upon the controversial aspect of “the genuine faith” in his poem (as is well known, Janas Radvanas, like his protagonist Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Red, was a professed Protestant).

However, the reader of our times is mostly impressed by the depth of pride and the extent of infinite love of the poet’s Motherland Lithuania, permeating the poem composed in the 16th century. Lituania Magna, described by him, is a mighty, majestic and rich country, endowed with natural resources and populated with heroes, looked upon by its neighbours with venerable awe. In the first half of the Radivilias, the poet describes the famous Lithuanian forests as a symbol of Lithuania’s majesty, comparing them almost to the core of the world, even though they were regarded by West Europeans as an obvious sign of both economic and cultural backwardness of the country.

The self-awareness of the poet, based on the “great power” mentality, is reflected even in the description of Lithuanian rivers, seemingly neutral at first glance.

To begin with, he mentions the Boristen river (the ancient name for the Dnieper River), the waters of which “fall into a fathomless sea.” However, the lower reaches of the Dnieper geographically are within the territory of Ukraine, which after the Lublin Union ceased to be part of Lithuania. This part of the text can only signify the refusal of Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Red and his allies to accept the legality of the Act of Union concluded in Lublin in 1569.  The second river, referred to by the poet as “the Lithuanian river,” is the Daugava, flowing across Latvia, which was at that time part of Livonia and which served as the main reason of waging the war against Moscow.  Thus, a seemingly “innocent” mention of the rivers, referred to by the poet, should be regarded as a declaration of geopolitical claims.

A poetic redaction of history portrayed as Lituania Magna by Janas Radvanas

Another thematic component, that of historic memory, is depicted in the Radivilias in a similar way. The name of a legendary Roman noble Palemon, regarded as an progenitor of the Lithuanian nobility, is interpreted as an abbreviation of Publius Libonus, a Roman commander who had fled from Julius Caesar and supposedly settled down in Lithuania. According to the poet, the name of Livonia comes namely from Libonu. Such interpretation, provided by the author of the poem, suggested that Livonia was regarded by him as the Lithuanian patrimony. No less important in this respect is the description of Radziwiłł’s shield in the third part of the poem. The very idea of the shield is believed to have been taken over by the poet from The Aeneid by Virgil. In The Aeneid, the face of the shield, beautifully crafted and stronger than metal forged by humans, depicts the story of the Roman glory. At the same time, Janas Radvanas seems to regard the narratives about the Kievan Rus’ (Grand Duchesses of Rus’ Olga and Sviatoslava), borrowed from The Chronicle by an integral part of the Lithuanian history. These narratives were borrowed from The Chronicle by Maciej Stryjkowski, who in turn based the information on the material presented in the Short Redaction of the Lithuanian Chronicles. Once again, there is a message in between the lines that Ukraine had for ages been and therefore has to remain part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

The Lithuania portrayed in the poem Radivilias is the state existing during the times of Vytautas the Great (it is not by accident that Vytautas appears in front of Radziwiłł as a dream  or apparition on the eve of the Battle of Ula, addressing Radziwiłł as the greatest hope of Lithuania). The decline of statehood after the Lublin Union, the enormous territories torn away from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the respective weakening of military power is ignored in the poem as if it were a temporary affliction or malaise, which is not worth paying attention to. Such ideas should be looked upon as manifestation of imperial self-awareness. There is very scarce mention of the Poles in the poem Radivilias, if any at all. According to the poet’s version, it was not the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which was fighting in the Livonian war against Moscow, but exclusively Lithuania, defending its territories and finally gaining victory against the foe, as if the Commonwealth had never existed. Of particular interest are the eloquent observations made by the author about the relief felt by Livonia after truce was concluded and therefore “the imminent threat of the Lithuanian attack faded away” or a reference to Ivan’s impudence “he was daring enough to launch a war against Lithuanians!” In the poem, Jonas Radvanas highlights the importance of Vilnius, describing it as a “most beautiful gem,” “a densely populated city,” and, above all, “a patron of nations.” An inscription on the title page of the book indicates that it was published in “Vilnius, Metropolis of Lithuania.”

Mikołaj Radziwiłł’s the Red deathbed prayer stands out as a distinctive episode among the other memorable narratives included in the poem, “recounted” in the fourth part of the poem. The protagonist begs God to bestow both honour and sceptre upon Lithuania. The prayer expresses the hope that the Grand Duchy of Lithuania could still become not only an independent state but a kingdom as well.

Eglė Patiejūnienė