Vikings in Byzantium: The Varangians and their Fearless Conquests

The Invitation of the Varangians: Rurik and his brothers Sineus and Truvor arrive at the lands of the Ilmen Slavs at Staraya Ladoga.

27 MAY, 2015 – 22:07 RYAN STONE

It is relatively well known that the Vikings were some of history’s greatest travelers, traders, and mercenaries.  Their reach extended far, as they are credited with finding North America and Greenland, their names drove fear into the hearts of many European mainlanders.  What is sometimes less known, however, is exactly how far the arm of the Vikings reached.  In actuality, their culture stretched as far east as Turkey and Russia, culminating in their direct influence in the creation of the Kievan State of Rus’, lasting well into the thirteenth century.

According to the Russian Primary Chronicle, one of the foremost texts documenting the Viking influence on Russia, the Varangians—as dubbed by the Greeks and Eastern Slavs—settled in Ladoga, Russia in the mid-750s, and then later in the nearby Novgorod.  Not unlike the tracks of the Scandinavian Vikings, their settlements were not initially peaceful as they demanded tribute from the people they had conquered, the Baltic Finns and the Slavs.  Because of this, they were initially driven out of Novgorod for a period of time.  However, the intriguing twist is that the Finns and Slavs soon began to appreciate the regulations the Varangians had brought to their community and so the Varangians were begged to come back and bring those same regulations with them.  It was then that the leadership of Rurik (830-870), from whom a Russian lineage extends, was first recorded.

Painting of the leader Rurik dated 1672.

Painting of the leader Rurik dated 1672. (Wikimedia Commons)

Rurik’s cousin Oleg was responsible for expanding the Varangians from Novgorod further south, eventually capturing Kiev in 882 and forging a seat of Varangian power there.  That seat became the capital of a federation of Slavic states, dubbed the Kievan State of Rus’.  Following Oleg, Vladimir the Great’s reign saw the introduction of Christianity to the Varangians and their subsequent conversion.  Rurik and Oleg’s descendants continued to remain in charge of the Kievan State, eventually leading to the foundation of the Tsardom of Russia.

The Baptism and Christianization of Kievans, a painting by Klavdiy Lebedev. Painted Prior to 1916.

The Baptism and Christianization of Kievans, a painting by Klavdiy Lebedev. Painted Prior to 1916. (Wikimedia Commons)

Now, it is no surprise that the Varangians were as aggressive as their northern predecessors.  While the named Vikings’ desire was to expand their land and wealth across the Atlantic and down into England, one of the main priorities of the Varangians was obtaining the untapped riches of the eastern world.  They were so forceful and persistent that they intentionally started wars with the people of Byzantium so that they could pilfer in the event of their victory.

The Varangians were a force to be reckoned with because they controlled the two main trades from the east to the west.  The Volga Trade was a ninth century route connecting Northern Russia, known to the Varangians as Gardariki, and the Middle East, called Serkland.  The trade route was known for transferring goods and wealth from the Baltic Sea to the Caspian Sea, and remained the primary form of transportation and trade until the eleventh century decline in silver.  At this time, the Dnieper Route, stretching from the Black Sea to the capital of Byzanitum, Constantinople, took its place, as its directness to the capital provided protection from the Turks.

Map of European territory inhabited by East Slavic tribes in 8th and 9th century.

Map of European territory inhabited by East Slavic tribes in 8th and 9th century. 2010. By: SeikoEn. (Wikimedia Commons)

When the Viking Age ended, the east saw a conclusion to the influx of Scandinavians to their region, and the Varangians began to assimilate and intermarry with the natives.  By the time of the fall of Kievan Rus’ in 1240 at the hands of the Mongols, the Varangians became relatively indistinguishable from the native Slavs.  Despite this fusion of ethnicities, it is important to create a distinction between the Vikings and the Varangians for a better understanding of their impact on the history of Russia.

Featured Image: The Invitation of the Varangians: Rurik and his brothers Sineus and Truvor arrive at the lands of the Ilmen Slavs at Staraya Ladoga. Painted prior to 1913 by Viktor.M.Vasnetsov. (Wikimedia Commons)

By Ryan Stone

References

Cross, Samuel Hazzard and Olgerd P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor. The Russian Primary Chronicle: Laurentian Text (Medieval Academy of America: NY, 2012.)

D’Amato, Raffaele and Giuseppe Rava. The Varangian Guard 988-1453 (Men-at-Arms) (Osprey Publishing: Oxford, 2010.)

Davidson, H.R. Ellis. The Viking Road to Byzantium (George Allen & Unwin Ltd.: London, 1976.)

Duczko, Wladyslaw. Viking Rus: Studies on the Presence of Scandinavians in Eastern Europe (Brill: Leiden, 2004.)

Winroth, Anders. The Age of the Vikings (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2014.)

“Suggested Chronology of Events in the pre-Kievan and early Kievan Periods.” University of Washington. Accessed May 20, 2015. http://faculty.washington.edu/dwaugh/hstam443/K-chron2.html

The Varangian Guard: Berserkers of the Byzantine Empire

Is the Period of the Vikings older than what believed?

Mystery Settlers Reached ‘Step to Americas’ Before Vikings

The long goodbye to Scandinavian Paganism and the Christianization of three realms

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