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GreekReporter.comHistoryWhen the Byzantine Empire Fought the Vikings

When the Byzantine Empire Fought the Vikings

Fearsome Vikings, called Rus, attack Constantinople
Vikings attack the Byzantine Empire. Under the walls of Tsargrad. Detail from a medieval Russian icon.. Public Domain

The riches of the Byzantine Empire were coveted by many—from the Vikings in the northwest to the Arabs in the southeast. Constantinople was the Holy Grail.

The Vikings, who crossed the Baltic Sea and descended across Eastern Europe, were the most fearsome of all would-be conquerors of the great city—the richest in the world—that stood right between the East and the West.

The Scandinavian warriors who ventured to the east across Europe and parts of Asia were  initially enticed by the silver coins minted by the Abbasid Caliphate that sprawled across the Middle East. These silver coins were prized by the Vikings, as they were used for trade in Eastern Europe.

The Vikings that came from the north were referred to as the Rus, possibly derived from the Finnish word “ruotsi,” meaning “a crew of oarsmen,” which perfectly describes the fearless masters of the northern seas that spread terror upon appearance.

It is very possible that Russia was named so from the Rus. As the Rus migrated down the Dnieper and Volga Rivers, they established settlements along trade routes to the Black and Caspian Seas and conquered the native Slavic populations in present-day Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.

Viking Trade and the Byzantine Empire

The reason some Vikings chose to travel East instead of West toward today’s England, Ireland, Scotland, and France, for instance, was mainly for trade. Commodities such as jewelry, silver, silk, wine, and spices were just a few of the goods sought by Viking traders. In exchange, they could provide wood, iron, honey, and fur from the north.

They also traded people, including slaves that they acquired by raiding other lands or through trade, or criminal Vikings, as their justice system dictated that the official punishment for certain types of crimes was enslavement.

Through trade and conquest, the Vikings expanded further East and established outposts in modern day Poland, Latvia, and Russia. Novgorod in Russia is reported to have been such an outpost, founded by legendary Viking ruler Rurik.

To trade goods, the Vikings used small vessels capable of sailing on rivers. By sailing upriver from the Baltic Sea, portaging for a relatively short distance, they sailed downriver to the Black Sea and found reasonably easy access to Constantinople.

The Vikings were in awe of Constantinople, admiring its size and grandeur, as well as its strategic position at the European end of the silk road. This is evident from the name they chose for it: Miklagard, which means “Great City.”

At the same time, the furs, honey, and slaves traded by the Vikings were in high demand in Constantinople.

Byzantine Empire at War With the Vikings

The intrepid warriors from the North were a direct threat to the Byzantine Empire. Throughout the ninth century, bands of Vikings had attacked Constantinople, with the most notable being in 860. They also attacked other Greek sites around the Black Sea.

The Vikings’ attack on Constantinople in 860 happened at a time when the city was left largely undefended. Byzantine Emperor Michael III was off with his army fighting the Abbasid Caliphate in Asia Minor while the Byzantine navy was engaged with Arab pirates on the Mediterranean Sea.

Patriarch Photius called the attack “a thunderbolt from heaven.” The Rus plundered the suburbs of Constantinople, and their ships raided the Sea of Marmara, burning houses, churches, and monasteries and slaughtering the patriarch’s servants. However, they did not attempt to breach the city walls.

In 941, the Vikings launched another attack on Constantinople with a fleet of a thousand ships that turned out to be disastrous. Again, the Byzantine army and navy were gone from the city. Yet, the Byzantines with only fifteen dromons fitted with Greek Fire obliterated the Viking ships. Weighed down by their armor, many men drowned. Others burned alive in the water, as water could not extinguish Greek Fire. The remaining invaders sailed back home.

The Varangian Guard

The Vikings’ reputation as capable and fearsome warriors eventually earned them a place of honor in the Byzantine Empire. The Varangians, as they were called by the Byzantines, were an unusual gift to Emperor Basil II by Czar Vladimir (Valdemar) of Russia in 980. They were given to him to serve, as his guard faced an internal uprising in 987.

The Emperor established the elite Varangian Guard to protect Constantinople and serve as his personal bodyguards. With no local ties or family connections that could divide their loyalties and an inability to speak the local language, the Varangians proved far less corruptible than Basil’s Greek guards.

The six thousand Scandinavian-Russian Vikings were incorporated into the Emperor’s army as a single unit. They were the most capable and well-paid troops in the Empire.

From the tenth century onwards, more and more Varangians began associating themselves with the Byzantine emperor. Many of them came directly from the Rus people living north of the Black Sea, but there were also many immigrants directly from Sweden. The Varangian Guard served Byzantium for three hundred years.

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