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Vikings in the East: Rus and Varangians

Dear Viking Answer Lady:

In almost everything you read about the Vikings, we're told about how intrepid warriors, traders, and explorers fared out westwards into Iceland, Greenland, and the New World, while others were the scourge of the Christian peoples of Europe. Did the Vikings ever travel eastwards, into Russia? Russia seems so close in terms of distance that I would think that there would have to have been Vikings there as well.

(signed) Easterner

Gentle Reader:

Vikings in the East: Rus and Varangians




The Scandinavian Advance Eastwards

The Viking Road East: Peoples and Cities Prior to the advent of written Scandinavian history, the Danes and Swedes were launching raids and settlements Eastwards across the Baltic. The reason for these warlike activities was wealth in the form of amber and furs which were looted or taxed from the Finns, Wends, Slavs, and others living in the eastern Baltic region. Russia itself was not subject to the swords of the Scandinavians except for scattered raids until ca. 850 AD The first evidence of this movement eastwards into Russia is provided by the biography of Bishop Anskar of Hamburg written by his successor, Rimbert, who tells of how the Swedish king Olaf of Uppsala sent an army to to punish rebellious Kurlanders and opportunistic Danes at Apulia in Lithuania. Shortly thereafter, as recorded in the Russian Primary Chronicle, a Scandinavian tribe called Rus appears, and by 859 had begun taxing the Slavs and Finns.

The usual pattern of Scandinavian advance was begun with armed traders, who having once detected a lucrative source of goods, established fortified centers with permanent warbands in residence to hold their gains. As these outposts prospered, settlement occurred around these garrisons, creating towns and trading cities. Once the lands and peoples in the vicinity were pacified, the process would be repeated further east. An excellent example of the start of such a pattern is to be found in Egils saga skallagrímssonar, where Egil and his brother Thorolfr travel to Kurland for both trade and raiding.

Arabic Silver Coins Silver was the main lure which brought Scandinavian traders into Russia. The Islamic world provided the silver from mines in Tashkent and Afghanistan. The trade was very important, being centered at Bulghar or the Middle Volga, capital of the Northern Bulgar. The Northern Bulgar, on account of the extensive silver trade they managed, became known as the Silver Bulgars. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Scandinavia had no source of gold or silver readily available, except that which they obtained via plunder of from the Islamic trade.

Trade through Russia was difficult in part because of hostile Slavic tribes, including the Krivichi (near Smolensk), the Dreovichi and Drevljane (west of the Dneiper), the Radimichi (east of the Dneiper), the Pechinegs, Poljani and Magyars (on the lower Dneiper), and the Khazars (east of the Slavs). Traders had to be as much warriors as businessmen, for the Slavic tribes a significant hazard. As a result, bands of Scandinavians who travelled eastwards joined formally as companies, swearing oaths of mutual assistance, defense, and support. The term for such an oath in Old Norse is var, and these eastern adventurers became known as Varangians.

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Who were the Rus?

Russian Statue of Rurik According to the Russian Primary Chronicle (ca. 1040-1118 AD), the Rus were a group of "Varangians," possibly of Swedish origin, who had a leader named Rurik. Rus appears to be derived from the Finnish word for Sweden, *Rotsi, later Ruotsi, which in turn comes from Old Swedish rother, a word associated with rowing or ships, so that rothskarlar meant "rowers" or "seamen."

Due to civil strife in Russia, the leaders invited Rurik and his Rus kinsmen to come rule over them:

"6370 (862 BC) ...Discord thus ensued among them, and they began to war one against another. They said to themselves, 'Let us seek a prince who may rule over us, and judge us according to the law.' They accordingly went overseas to the Varangian Rus: these particular Varangians were known as Rus, just as some are called Swedes, and others Normans, Angles, and Goths, for they were thus named. The Chuds, the Slavs, and the Krivichians then said to the people of Rus: 'Our whole land is great and rich, but there is nor order in it. Come to rule and reign over us.' They thus selected three brothers, with their kinfolk, who took with them all the Rus, and migrated. The oldest, Rurik, located himself in Novgorod; the second, Sinaeus, in Beloozero; and the third, Truvor, in Izborsk. On account of these Varangians, the district of Novgorod became known as Russian (Rus) land. The present inhabitants of Novgorod are descended from the Varangian race, but aforetime they were Slavs." (Russian Primary Chronicle)

Building Novgorod

Most of the campaigns of the originally Swedish rulers of Russia, the Rus, are recorded in the Russian Primary Chronicle and in the works of Greek and Arabic chroniclers. The Rus were in contact with Byzantium as early as 838, but did not have the resources to raid the capital at Constantinople prior to that date. The 838 date is supported by a Byzantine account that records that a party of Swedish traders had to turn back to the Greek city because their way north up the Dneiper was blocked by "savage tribes", perhaps the Magyars.

In 860 the Normans, following a successful campaign in the Mediterranean, attacked Constantinople. Though the Normans were the descendants of Vikings, by this date they had been absorbed into the feudal Frankish culture of their new Normandy home. Byzantine forces, particularly the fleet, were also occupied with a campaign against the Arabs to their east. This was the moment when the Rus launched their first assault against Miklagard, the Golden City, led by the Rus leaders Askold and Dir.

Patriarch Photius The Rus attack in June, 860 is best described in the Greek sermons of the Patriarch Photius. Photius's sermon described the fury of the attack, the terror of the Greeks, and the great loss of life and property outside the City. Photius says that the attack took the Greeks completely by surprise, "like a thunderbolt from heaven." Photius goes on to describe the Rus as a fierce and savage tribe of barbarian people, completely unknown and insignificant until they became famous in this attack. Internal details in the account show that the Rus launched the attack down the Dneiper, originating at Kiev. Various other accounts set the numbers of the attacking Rus force between 200 and 2000 ships. The 200 figure is most likely correct, and these ships would have consisted of small ships, basically a hybrid between a dugout canoe and the familiar clinker-built Viking ship.

Despite the Greeks' being taken by surprise and the fact that Byzantium was inadequately defended in the absence of their fleet with its deadly weapon, Greek Fire, for some reason the Rus did not take the City. The Greek sources attribute this to a miracle, brought about by the singing of hymns to the Virgin and a procession around the City walls, led by the Patriarch, bearing the robe of the Virgin about the City, which apparently resulted in a huge storm which scattered the Rus forces and saved the City. Undoubtedly the detail of the storm is accurate. Russian sources, including the Primary Chronicle, state that the Rus returned to Kiev ignomiously, claiming no victory. Perhaps any plunder that might have been gained in attacking the outlying areas of Byzantium were lost in the flight before the storm.

Between 864 and 867, a party of Rus were sent to Basil I to negotiate a peace after the 860 attack, and many of the members of this embassy specifically requested instruction in Christianity. It is thought that perhaps the Greek claims of the miracle of the Virgin's robe may have impressed the pagan Rus embassy.

This marks the beginning of a period of amicable relationships between the Greeks and the Rus, for this is the point at which the Rus begin taking service in the Byzantine army.

Meanwhile, the failed Rus captains Askold and Dir were put to death by Oleg (Helgi, in Old Norse), the Rus ruler of Novgorod and foster father of Rurik's son Igor (Old Norse Ingvarr). Oleg became ruler in Kiev as well as in Novgorod. With this consolidation of Rus power, Oleg acquired enough power to be able to launch his own attack upon Byzantium in 907, according to the Primary Chronicle. When Oleg's forces arrived in the Golden Horn, they found the sea-lanes closed by the great chain closing the mouth of the Horn. The Rus disembarked, killed the Greek garrison, and mounted their ships on wheels or rollers and let the wind help carry the boats overland to reach the Bosphorus and so come to the City. The Russian Primary Chronicle claims that the Greeks tried to feed Oleg and his men poisoned food, which he shrewdly refused, then the Greeks promised to pay Oleg tribute. Oleg demanded silk sails for his ships and linen sails for his allies' ships, along with wine, gold and fruit. The Chronicle also claims that Oleg hung his shield over the City gate as a sign of victory. However, there is absolutely no corroboration from Greek sources documenting this attack, leading modern historians to believe that the whole tale was made up using details of previous raids on Byzantium in order to create a "hero tale" which glorified Oleg, or else that a small raid by Oleg's men was magnified into a major campaign and victory.

In 907, and later in 911, the Byzantines negotiated a trade treaty with the Rus which put an end to raids aginst Byzantium for many years.

The next attack recorded by the Primary Chronicle is in 941, an attack led by Igor, son of Rurik and foster-son to Oleg. This account is corroborated by a detailed account by Liutprand, later Bishop of Cremona, who happened to be in Byzantium in 949 on a diplomatic mission. Liutprand's step-father had been present for the 941 attack. The Greeks met this threat by quickly equipping a number of older ships and galleys with Greek Fire projectors, and launched these against the Rus. When the fleets met, the seas were clear and calm, perfect for the use of the dangerous Greek Fire. The Rus threw themselves into the sea to drown in great numbers rather than face the flames. Only those men who managed to get their ships to the shore quickly ebough survived, because the Greek ships with their much deeper draught could not follow them into the shallows. A number of captured Rus were later publicly beheaded.

In 944 Igor returned with yet another fleet, including an army of Slavs and Pechinegs as well. The Emperor, hearing advance word of this attack, "paid Danegeld" by offering to pay the Rus tribute. The Rus forces then turned to attack the Caspian area Arabs. During this attack, a great protion of the Rus forces were either posioned as described in the Arabic sources, or more likely contracted a virulemnt epidemic that decimated their forces.

Legend has it that Rurik founded a dynasty that endured until 1598 AD, when Fedor, the son of Ivan IV, died without an heir.

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The Varangians of Byzantium

Varangian Trade Routes The Vikings did not limit their eastern travels to Russia. Eventually Nordic traders found their way down the great riverways to discover riches beyond their dreams at journey's end. The perilous journey from Kiev down the river Dneiper led the Northerners to the Black Sea, and eventually to the greatest of the cities of the age: Constantinople.

Early in spring, the men of Kiev travelled to the surrounding Slavic settlements, collecting tribute in furs and slaves. Some of the Slavs paid tribute in simple boat hulls, made in dugout canoe style. The Rus improved these simple hulls, adding strakes to build up the sides, to which long planks were attacked clinker-style, making these vessels resemble the familiar lines of the Viking longship. Traders from Scandinavia, from Novgorod, and all over the Russian settlements come together in Kiev to join the trading convoy.

Finally, in June, the ships left Kiev, sailing southwards on the river Dneiper. The timing of this departure allowed the Varangians plenty of time to reach Constantinople, do their trading, and still return before the river froze the following winter.

Tribute from the Slavs

Artist's Conception of a Varangian Guardsman The travel down the Dneiper was long and very dangerous. Aside from attacks from warlike tribes such as the Pechenegs, the Varangian ships had to pass by a series of dangerous rapids, whose names reveal their hazards: Essupi (from Old Norse vesuppi, "do not sleep"), Ulvorsi (from holmfors, "island rapid"), Gelandri (gjallandi, "yelling, loudly ringing"), Aifor (eiforr, "ever fierce"), Baruforos (barufors, "wave rapid" or varufors, "cliff rapid"), Leanti (hlaejandi, "laughing" or leandi, "seething") and Strukun (strukum, "rapid current"). Yngvars saga vidforla recounts tales of this journey southwards through Russia, and the hazards which accompanied it.

Despite the hazards, the lure of the great city of the Byzantines made the journey worthwhile to the Scandinavian traders. The Vikings called Constantine's city "Miklagard," the great city. The Byzantines were equally glad to see the goods brought southwards by the Varangians, for this was their source of furs, amber, and slaves.

It is inevitable that the Northmen would have found the temptation of such a treasurehouse as Constantinople overwhelming, and from time to time Norse attacks were launched agains the Byzantine capital. The Byzantines thwarted these attacks each time, using diplomacy, encouraging the Pecheneg tribes to attack the invading Northerners, and their most devastating and terrifying weapon, Greek fire.

Despite these attacks, the Byzantines found it useful to encourage trade with the Varangians. The Primary Chronicle records two trade treaties, one in 907 and the other in 911. These treaties defined the rights accorded to Varangian traders while in Byzantium, as well as explaining the provisions of Byzantine civil law which the Northmen would be expected to obey while in Constantinople.

Wealthy Rus Traders The Byzantines made lavish arrangements for the comfort of the Varangian traders: each Varangian trader was provisioned by the Byzantine Empire for six months with bread, wine, meat, fish, and fruits. Baths were provided. Provisions and sailing tackle were made available for the return journey northwards. In turn, the Varangians were expected to avoid violence, were expected to dwell exclusively in the St. Mamas quarter which was reserved for them, and each Varangian was required to register his name with the city officials. The names recorded reflect the Scandinavian, and notably Swedish origin of the traders: Karli, Fasulfr, Vermundr, Hrodleifr, Steinvidr, Ingjaldr, Godi, Hroaldr, Karni, Fridleifr, Angantyr, Throndr, Leidulfr, Fasti. The Varangians were required to enter the city only through a single designated gate, and must enter the city weaponless, and accompanied by a Byzantine official.

Another provision of the 911 treaty concerns those Varangians who desired to enter military service with the Byzantine Emperor. These Varangians are perhaps the most famous of all, for they formed the famed Varangian Guard of the Byzantine Emperors. The men who entered Byzantine military service were allowed to remain in the city indefinitely so long as their military service lasted. Many famous Norsemen served in the Varangian Guard, among them Kolskegg Hamundarsson and King Harald Hardrada. Apparently service in the Varangian Guard was quite lucrative, for the sagas mention men who have served as Varangians, and who return later to their homes in Norway or Iceland wealthy men indeed, such as Bolli Bollason:

Rus Warrior Costume"Bolli brought with him a great deal of money and many treasures that princes and men of rank had given him. Bolli had such a taste for the ornate when he returned from his travels that he would not wear any clothes that were not made of scarlet cloth or gold-embroidered silk, and all his weapons were inlaid with gold... Bolli rode from the ship with eleven companions. His companions were all wearing scarlet and rode in gilded saddles; they were all fine-looking men, but Bolli surpassed them all. He was wearing clothes of gold-embroidered silk which the Byzantine Emperor had given him, and over them a scarlet cloak. He was girt with the sword 'Leg-Biter', its pommel now gold-embossed and the hilt bound with gold. He had a gilded helmet on his head and a red shield at his side on which a knight was traced in gold. He carried a lance in his hand, as is the custom in foreign lands. Whenever they took lodgings for the night, the womenfolk paid no heed to anything but to gaze at Bolli and his companions and all their finery." (Laxdaela saga, ch. 77)

The Byzantine Army division stationed in and near the capitol was called the Tagmata, and the Varangians were a part of this division. Originally, Scandinavians served in several units of the Tagmata, including the Candidati (the cavalry, composed mostly of noble Greeks), the Hikanatoi (a less exclusive cavalry unit), the Excubitors (an army unit serving as the city police force), the Arithmos (the night palace guards), the Numeri or Optimati (infantry units who guarded the city walls), or the Hetaireia, which was the Emperor's bodyguard. Over time, the Varangian Guard was established as a separate unit, and eventually the primary duties of the Varangians were to act as the Emperor's Bodyguard, and to guard the Imperial Treasury.

Varangian Guardsman in Mail with Axe In 988, Scandinavians in the Imperial army were sent to support the Emperor, Basil II, against the revolt of Bardos Phocas. These men formed the first core of the Varangian Guard. Since the founding of Rus settlements in Russia, warriors from Scandinavia had been taking service as mercenaries in the armed forces of the Rus rulers of Novgorod and Kiev. By the time of the founding of the Byzantine Varangian Guard, however, the Rus kings had gotten a well-deserved reputation for cheating their troops, withholding pay, and making grand promises of rich rewards for deeds done which were ignored when crises had passed. Thus the Varangian Guard of the Byzantine Emperor became very attractive, for the pay was good and dependable, and there was much glory to be found in the service of the Emperor. The Varangian Guard was swelled by those warriors who in prior years would have been content to serve their Rus cousins, but now had bypassed their unreliable kinsmen for more glorious and more lucrative employment in Constantinople.

Artist's Conception of Varangian Guardsman In order to join the Varangian Guard, a warrior had to pay an initiation fee, which ranged from 7 to 16 pounds of gold. It is thought that the Imperial Treasury arranged loans to help new Varangians meet this fee. Though the initiation fee was steep, the pay of the Varangian warrior was equally rich. Not only did the Varangian Guardsman collect a regular wage, he was paid a sizeable monetary gift upon the accession of each new Emperor, bonuses as the high feast of Easter, and shares of booty acquired by the army upon campaign. The pay increased for those Varangians who served as officers in the Guard.

The Varangian Guard was normally barracked in the Great Palace. According to a 10th century account by an Arab observer, Harun ben Yahya, the uniform of the Guard apparently included blue silk tunics, scarlet cloaks, and gilded axes. Their normal armament featured large, single-bitted axes, man-high and terrifying in battle. Anna Comnena describes these axes in the hands of the Varangian guard in The Alexiad as she describes the reaction of a traitor surrounded by the Northmen in the Imperial Court:

"he looked fixedly... at the barbarians standing in a circle round the Sebastokrator, brandishing their one-edged axes on their shoulders, and forthwith fell to trembling and revelaed everything."

She goes on to describe the well-known loyalty of the Varangian Guard:

"The Varangians too, who carried axes on their shoulders, regarded their loyalty to the Emperors and their protection of the imperial persons as a pledge and ancestral tradition, handed down from father to son, which they keep inviolate, and will certainly not listen to even the slightest word about treachery."

Skylitzes Varangians, 11th c.

The duties of the Varangians, in addition to safeguarding the person of the Emperor and his family, included accompanying the Emperor to festivals and celebrations, accompanying the Imperial family to church services at Hagia Sophia, serving as door guards in the palace, and acting to provide crowd control when the Emperor was present. The Varangian Guard had important ceremonial duties during the crowning of a new Emperor, during Easter, and near Palm Sunday, as well as serving roles during Imperial weddings, the coronation of Empresses, and at the funerals of deceased Emperors.

The Varangian Guard endured as a Byzantine institution for centuries. The membership of the guard was largely Scandinavian, but included Anglo-Saxons, Irishmen, Scots, Germans, and other men from northern Europe. By the last years of the Guard, the greatest portion of the force was composed of men from the British Isles. The Varangian Guard continued until the Crusade broke the great city of Constantinople in 1204. Some mentions of a remnant of the Varangian Guard can be found in the historical record until as late as 1453, but it was no longer the mighty fighting force of Viking warriors that once had been.

Skylitzes Varangians, 1034

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Bibliography

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