Contact Between the Vikings and Eastern Europe

Medieval Novgorod, by Apollinary Vasnetsov / Wikimedia Commons

The Vikings raided, traded and settled as far afield as the Baltic, modern Russia, Byzantium (later Constantinople) and Baghdad. (In this region the Vikings were often known as the “Rus”, from which we get the name “Russia”.) Some cultures came to appreciate the Vikings skills as traders and warriors, and in some respect the Northmen helped maintain stability in Eastern Europe for a time.

By Dr. Caroline Stone

Scandinavian settlement was not restricted to Western and Northern Europe. The town of Ladoga (established in c.750) is believed to be the first town in Russia with Scandinavian inhabitants.

They came not to pillage and raid, but to engage in trade and production. At first the Scandinavians probably stayed in the town only on a seasonal basis, but gradually a permanent settled Scandinavian population developed. Ladoga was home not only to Scandinavian settlers, but was a ‘multinational centre of craft production and international trade.’ Scandinavians traded in the Baltic, modern day Russia, Byzantium and as far afield as Baghdad. In the 10th century Kiev emerged as an important power centre.

Trade routes of the Vikings with Ladoga and Miklagarðr (“the great city”, the Old Norse name for Constantinople). / Bogdan Giuscă / Wikipedia

The Scandinavians in this part of the world were known as the “Rus” (from which we have the modern “Russia”). The term “Rus” ultimately derives from ON róa, to row.

8th-10th century Viking burial mounds along the bank of the river Volkhov near Staraya Ladoga, Russia. / Mark A. Wilson / Wikimedia Commons

The Varangian Rus

The Russian Primary Chronicle tells of how warring peoples in the region between the Black Sea and the Baltic sent a message to the Varangian Rus (in other words, the Swedes), saying: “Our land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come to rule and reign over us.” Judgement may be reserved on the truth of the story, which has other folklore elements. Three brothers, the oldest of whom was named Rurik, answered the call, established wise rule and founded city states; by the 9th century and probably before, the area was being settled by men of Scandinavian origin.

Warriors and merchants -like all the Vikings – they spread along the river systems as far as the Caspian, until they were stopped by the boundaries of the Byzantine Empire (centred on Constantinople) the Arab Empire (centred on Baghdad) or by aggressive Turkic tribes such as the Petchenegs and the Bulgars. The Byzantines, after successfully countering their attempted raids, approved on the whole of these newcomers; they were useful as traders and a valuable buffer against the Turkic peoples.

Swedish Expansion

The Viking tactic of swift, devastating raids before vanishing – not unlike the Mongols attacks on land in later centuries – were very hard to counter. Mas’udi, the 10th-century Arab historian, in describing the operations of the Rus in the Volga and Caspian region about 912 AD, gives a very similar picture of swift sorties, changing to the use of an island base for a systematic harrying of the countryside and, finally, their total defeat at the hands of a Muslim general who had succeeded in trapping them into a pitched battle, after which they left the area alone and sought out easier prey. Mas’udi, writing in Baghdad, was, incidentally, perfectly aware that the Northmen who harried Spain were the same as those raiding around the Caspian, although he was unsure of the geographical link-up.

An early reference to the Swedish expansion comes from the court of the Frankish ruler, Louis the Pious, in 839 when the Byzantine ambassadors brought with them some “Rus” merchants, originally from Sweden, who were trying to get home after a visit to Constantinople without running the gauntlet of hostile tribes. Louis and his advisors, whose experiences had been with the other kind of Northmen, insisted on making some investigations before giving them permission to proceed.

There is nothing surprising about Vikings, merchants, raiders, settlers and later pilgrims being found so far afield. Numerous Sagas are devoted the wanderings of the “far travelled”, and rune stones bear evidence to numbers who died fighting or trading in the East, North Africa, at Jerusalem, in London … To say nothing of the lost tombstones of numerous English Varangians that were once built into the walls of Constantinople. One of the most famous runic inscriptions is on the flank of one of the great stone lions that guard the Arsenal at Venice. The runes were cut at Piraeus, where the lions originally stood, and are illegible today:

The Piraeus Lion stands outside the Venetian Arsenal in Italy. It was likely defaced sometime in the 11th century – when it was still located in Athens, Greece – with runes etched by Scandinavian Varangians. / Photo by Caroline Stone, Creative Commons

“They cut him down in the midst of his force: but in the harbour the men cut runes in memory of Horse, a good warrior, by the sea …The Swedes set this on the lion … He went his way with good counsel; gold he won in his travels. The warriors cut runes, hewed them in an ornamental scroll, Æskel … and Thorleif had them well cut, they who lived in Roslagen, … son of … cut these runes. Ulf and … coloured them in memory of Horse, he won gold in his travels.”

Vikings in Constantinople

Information on the Vikings and their trade with the Byzantines was set down by the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus in his De Administando Imperio, written about 950 for the benefit of his son, who did not make much use of it. The journey along the river system to Constantinople is described in some detail and surviving documents give the terms and conditions on which the Vikings could stay:

“When Rus come here (as envoys) they shall receive such supplies as they require. When they come as merchants they shall receive a monthly allowance for six months, including bread, wine, meat, fish and fruit. Baths shall be provided for them as often as they want them…”

“If Rus come here without cargoes they shall receive no such allowances. Your prince shall personally order any of the Rus who come here not to commit acts of violence in our towns and territories. Such Rus as come here must reside in the Saint Mamas quarter of the suburbs. Our authorities shall send officials to list their names … They shall enter the city by one gate only, unarmed and in groups of fifty, escorted by an imperial officer. They may conduct such business as they need without paying dues.”

An irrelevant, but irresistible footnote on the tax question: St Mamas was a holy man from Cyprus, who absolutely refused to pay the poll tax on principle. Summoned to the Emperor’s presence and threatened with death, he befriended a lion on his way to court and arrived there riding on its back. He was exempted from all dues and subsequently became the extremely popular patron of those who felt they were being unfairly taxed. The 13th century chronicle The Sweet Land of Cyprus endearingly adds that he also milked the lions in order to make cheese for the poor.

A treaty dating from 945 contains provisions very similar to those quoted, but it is interesting that by then written documentation, as opposed to seals, were being requested and the number of Scandinavian names had declined while those of Slavic origin had increased. There were also now limits on what could be exported -a maximum of 50 gold bezants worth of silk, for example, indicating an economic shift.

The Vikings doubtless dreamed of taking “Miklagard” – the Great City – and we know from Ionannis Diaconi’s Chronicum Venetum that in 860 they attacked Constantinople. Further attacks between c.907-12 allowed the ruling dynasty, the Riurikids, to conclude favourable trade agreements with the Empire. But on the whole they contented themselves with defending it and trading there. It was probably more for reasons of urban security than fear of invasion that they were expected to register and obtain residence permits. They were also forbidden to settle over the winter in the Constantinople region, or even at the mouth of the Dneiper, unless they had officially enlisted as mercenaries in the Emperor’s army, or belonged to the Varangian Guard, formed about 988. The Byzantines were well aware of the Vikings’ raiding techniques and had not forgotten how the western Empire had collapsed under uncontrolled hordes of barbarian immigrants.

Graffiti presumably inscribed by Viking mercenaries on the second floor of the Hagia Sofia in Constantinople, Turkey. / Not home / Wikimedia Commons

Merging Cultures

However it may have occurred, then, the Rus merged with the indigenous Slavic peoples and, by the latter part of the 9th century, Novgorod and Kiev were already important centres. These cities were also to become in later centuries points at which two trading systems intersected – the Eastern overland route, connected with Baghdad and the Silk Road to China and hence the trade centres of Iran, India and Central Asia, and the eastern termini of the sea-borne Hanseatic League, thus linking Bergen, London, Bruges, Hamburg and the cities of the Baltic with the markets of the Orient.

As in other areas colonized by the Vikings, assimilation and mutation came rapidly. “And the fourth generation descended from Rurik,” relates the Chronicle of Novgorod, “was the Grand Prince Vladimir who enlightened the Russian land with baptism in the year 988”, although missionary work had already begun in the previous century by Sts. Cyril and Methodius, “the Apostles to the Slavs”. Again, the Primary Chronicle tells of how Vladimir, feeling that paganism was no longer a fitting religion for a great power summoned representatives of the major faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam to come and debate in his presence, so that he could choose the most worthy. He selected Orthodox Christianity. The story may or may not be believed – although religious debates of this kind seem to have been a Central Asian sport, commissioned among others by Genghis Khan and the Mughal Emperors.

Vladimir was the son of Svyatoslav, the ruler of the Rus who was killed in 972 by the Petchenegs, who turned his skull into a drinking cup. A blend of Viking and Slav who rode without baggage or tent and used his saddle as a pillow, Svyatoslav is described by Leo Diaconus in 971:

“Svyatoslav crossed the river in a kind of Scythian boat; he handled the oar in the same way as his men. His appearance was as follows: he was of medium height – neither too short nor too tall. He had bushy brows, blue eyes, and was snub-nosed; he shaved his beard but wore a long and bushy moustache. His head was shaven except for a lock of hair on one side as a sign of the nobility of his clan. His neck was thick, his shoulders broad, and his whole stature pretty fine. He seemed gloomy and savage. On one of his ears hung a gold ear-ring adorned with two pearls and a ruby set between them. His white garments were not distinguishable from those of his men except for cleanness.”

Vladimir, like his father, was a pagan, although his grandmother Olga had converted to Christianity and the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus describes the lavish ceremonies attendant on the occasion. After his father’s death, Vladimir fought his brothers for power and then turned to subduing the Petchenegs and Bulgars.

Vladimir married Anna, the sister of the Emperor Basil II. Like many other royal women – Byzantine or Chinese – given to the “barbarians of the steppes” for reasons of policy, Anna was deeply reluctant. The marriage entailed Vladimir’s formal baptism – and the mass baptism of a large number of his subjects. Conversion, of course, greatly changed the status of “Greater Sweden”, as the area was known, and it entered the cultural world of the Byzantine East.

One very important decision made by Vladimir was the choice of language for his church: Slavonic, not Greek as might have been expected, nor a Scandinavian language – presumably as in France the invaders’ original tongue had already largely vanished. This linguistic choice provided a powerful bond among different groups in the area and also ensured that Russia developed its own independent cultural and intellectual tradition, even if it owed much to its Greek roots.

The intersecting of two trade networks mentioned above mirrored the intersection of two cultural traditions: on the one hand the Norse-type councils or veches where the citizens could discuss issues of importance and generate their own laws, rather than having them imposed from above and on the other the growing tendency towards absolute despotism on the eastern pattern, as later practised by the Tsars. Arguably, the stress between the two traditions has continued up to the present.

The Slave Trade

Although the Rus were energetic slavers, neither Russia nor Scandinavia were dependent on slave labour and only small numbers were owned; the slaves were largely for export east. Similarly, the serfdom associated with feudal rule was not fully established in Russia until the 15th century.

Large scale slaving in Western Europe also came into existence, largely as a result of the Vikings building up their contacts with the Muslim world, the major market for human merchandise. A thousand souls was the estimated take at Armagh in 869 and another 710 were carried off from the same place in 895. Slave raiding to supply the Muslim market was to continue into the 19th century, often with Christian renegades taking the place of the Vikings in the later period.

Maintaining Stability

First as mercenaries and later under Vladimir as the personal body-guard of the Emperor, the Varangians – Scandinavians, Rus intermarried with Slavs, and after the Norman Conquest, disaffected Frenchmen, Englishmen and Danes from Eastern England – defended the Byzantine Empire in what is now Iraq, the Balkans, South Italy, the shores of the Caspian … By doing so, they protected the Roman Empire of the East and by extension Europe. The Turks would eventually engulf the Byzantine Empire, take Constantinople and invade and colonize Eastern Europe, but the Northmen played their part in holding them back and protecting Europe at the same time as their relatives from the north were still undermining it by the raids and harrying already described.


Originally published by Civilizations in Contact, University of Cambridge, under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license.