Post-classical history


Harald Hardrada

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THE NORWAY INTO which Harald Sigurdsson (later to be known as Hardrada) was born was similar in its economic and social organization to the rest of northern Europe, though very different in its laws and culture. Medieval Scandinavia, benefiting from the much milder climate of the early Middle Ages, seems to have been able to support a considerable population, though scholars dispute its nature and size. There is much evidence of demographic pressure on natural resources. Some say that overpopulation was a consequence of polygamy, others that it was the trigger for Viking expansionism from the late eighth century. But Norway seems to have been able to feed a population in excess of two million by the eleventh century. There was intensive farming of wheat, barley, oats and rye, a thriving dairy industry and large herds of cattle. A meat-eating diet was the norm in a land where vast herds of elk, reindeer and red deer could be hunted, and where million-strong flocks of ducks and geese were regular visitors. Then there was the abundant fishing off Norway’s long North Sea coast, especially off the Lofoten Islands.1

Although commerce was probably more important in Scandinavia than elsewhere in northern Europe – the fame of the Vikings as warriors has obscured their great role as traders – the key to wealth and hence social organization was still land. The Norwegian aristocracy was originally composed of warrior chiefs with clan bands along the patrimonial model, but by the eleventh century, doubtless learning from their cousins in Normandy and from England, land ownership was the key to social success and intermarriage with powerful kinship groups the way to establish one’s place in the pecking order of lords and vassals. But, as befitted the descendants of Vikings, the Norwegian oligarchs always had much more interest in commerce than their counterparts elsewhere in Europe: one great magnate had the monopoly of trade with Finland, another became wealthy through controlling the export of furs to England.2

One of the great features of Norwegian history in the hundred years before Harald’s birth was the struggle by successive kings, beginning with Harald Fairhair, to establish their supremacy over the territorial magnates. Before Harald certain classes of nobility, theodelsbondermen, enjoyed full property rights in their land which were vested permanently in the family, who had the right to redeem the property if it was sold outside the immediate kinship group. Harald Fairhair’s revolution was to make property-ownership provisional, as under feudalism; whether he forced the bondermen to pay a land tax or merely imposed a personal tax is uncertain, but it was widely felt that the odel had been abolished, and many magnates emigrated as a result.3

Harald Fairhair established a model of kingship which Olaf Haraldson (St Olaf) and Harald Hardrada himself would later follow. The king retained the right to levy a personal tax on his subjects, to tax special privileges and incomes, to receive tribute from vassal peoples and even to make trade a royal monopoly. To strengthen the monarchy, two new types of noble were created: the king’s personal household of warriors and retainers known as the hird – roughly corresponding to the housecarls in England – and his local officials, sheriffs and administrators and tax collectors, known as lendermen. In return for making the royal writ run throughout the country, the lendermen held lifetime tacks of Crown lands; their fiefs were not hereditary, nor did their powers include the privileges and prerogatives over sub-vassals inherent in feudalism proper, but they drew income from their lands, in return for which they had to provide armed men whenever the monarch declared a levy. The more resistance there was to the king, the more lands were confiscated and added to the royal demesne, swelling the numbers of landowners bound to the Crown.4

The two key events in Norwegian history in the tenth century were Harald Fairhair’s centralized monarchy and King Olaf Tryggvason’s conversion to Christianity. Opposition to the new religion from devotees of Odin and the Aesir became confused with, and sometimes ran in tandem with, aristocratic opposition to the monarchy, and in the early years of Harald Sigurdsson’s life these issues had not been fully resolved. In the year 1000 Olaf Tryggvason was defeated and killed by an alliance of recalcitrant aristocrats and the kings of Sweden and Denmark. Norwegian kingship received a crushing blow and for a time the aristocracy regained its power; Norway was divided between the kings of Sweden and Denmark and the jarls Eirik and Svein ruled the country as their vassals.5

For sixteen years Norway lay under the foreign yoke; the jarls, representative of aristocratic reaction, allowed the various districts of Norway to become semi-independent, with their own petty kings, as in the old days. One of these was Sigurd Syr, one of three kings of Oplandene (the Uplands) in south-east Norway, who ruled over the districts of Hadeland and Toten, with his capital at Ringerike. Another minor king was Harald Grenske, Harald Fairhair’s great-grandson. Around 990 Harald Grenske married Aasta and in 993 a boy, Olaf, was born, but Grenske died before his son’s birth. Aasta then married Sigurd Syr, who brought up the boy as his own. Legend says that Olaf was christened with that name when Olaf Tryggvason visited Ringerike in 996 and insisted that Sigurd Syr and Aasta should be baptised.6

At the age of fifteen Olaf Haraldsson joined a Viking expedition which took him first to Denmark, then Sweden and Finland and finally Holland. In 1009 Olaf arrived in England, where he lived for four years, then spent a further two years in Normandy. In 1015, at the age of twenty-two, well schooled in the arts of war and having seen a good deal of the world, he sailed for Norway, determined to regain the throne of his ancestors and fully Christianize Norway. Lacking Olaf Tryggvason’s charisma and charm, he possessed great reserves of willpower, single-mindedness and even fanaticism. His first call was on Sigurd Syr, who backed him to the hilt and persuaded his fellow kings of Oplandene to proclaim Olaf king at the Uplands thing. More and more powerful chiefs joined him, until in 1016 Olaf felt strong enough to meet jarl Svein in a decisive battle. At Nesjar in 1016 Svein was defeated in a bloody battle, fled to Sweden and died the next year. Olaf was then proclaimed king of the whole realm at the Orething at Trondelagen.7

Olaf still had to fight hard against the intransigent king of Sweden until a peace was concluded in 1019, largely because King Olaf of Sweden, a treacherous and devious man, feared the rising power of Cnut. For nine years Olaf Haraldsson was free from foreign wars. He rewarded Sigurd Syr by abolishing all the petty kingdoms and began his campaign of imposing Christianity by force, even blinding or maiming those who would not accept the new dispensation. Crucial to the Christianizing campaign were the many bishops and missionaries Olaf had brought with him from England to Norway. The hasty, forcible conversion simply drove paganism underground, and a crude syncretism resulted whereby Jesus Christ was given the attributes of Thor and Freya was merged with the Virgin Mary. A great organizer, Olaf drew up an elaborate code of civil laws and an even more complex system of ecclesiastical law. He rebuilt the city of Nidaros, brought the Orkneys back to the Norwegian fold, and developed particularly close relations with Iceland.8

The rock on which he perished was his attempt to make royal power absolute and his insistence on equality before the law. Outraged by the loss of their privileges and their inability to hold sway in their districts because of the ubiquity of the lendermen, the old territorial magnates bided their time, thirsting for vengeance. Their chance came in 1028 when Olaf and the new king of Sweden, Anund Jacob, foolishly attacked Denmark at the very moment Cnut, after solving his problems in England, was again looking north. When Cnut assembled a mighty fleet to invade Norway in 1028, the disgruntled Norwegian oligarchs saw that their chance had come: they convened a thing at Trondelagen and proclaimed Cnut king. Overwhelmed by superior forces, Olaf fled to Sweden and thence to the court of Grand Duke Yaroslav at Kiev.9

The euphoria of the oligarchs was shortlived. Their leading lights Einar Tambarskjelver and Kalv Arnesson both hoped to succeed to the Norwegian throne when Hakon Eiriksson, the man Cnut appointed as his under-king in Norway, was unexpectedly drowned and died without issue. But to their great disgust, Cnut announced that he intended to appoint his own son king of Norway; Einar Tambarskjelver went into self-appointed exile and did not return for some years. The news of Hakon’s death encouraged Olaf to attempt to return to Norway. He recruited a number of Varangian guards from Constantinople under Aasta, the Norse chieftain, and raised hundreds more in Sweden, where Anund Jacob, for fear of Cnut, dared not give him open support. In 1030 he crossed into Norway with an army of 2,500 men, many of them ill-trained levies.10

Among those who flocked to his standard was an immensely tall and strong fifteen-year-old youth named Harald Sigurdsson, his own half-brother. Harald was the son of Sigurd Syr and Aasta, and he must have been born right at the end of Aasta’s reproductive life, for twenty-two years separated his birth from Olaf’s. Of the first fifteen years of Harald’s life we know nothing significant, but it is clear that it was the mother who was the vital influence. Sigurd Syr was a mild, peace-loving man of no great ability, who was said to have been helping his peasants bring in the harvest when Olaf Tryggvason visited him in 996. Aasta, though, was a determined and ambitious woman, who wanted her sons to gain power and renown and constantly dinned into the young Harald the message that these were the supreme values. She told Olaf: ‘If I had the choice, I would rather you became king of all Norway, though you lived no longer than Olaf Tryggvason, than that you should remain at the level of Sigurd Syr and die of old age.’11

According to the sagas, Harald early showed his deep character. When Olaf came to visit Sigurd Syr around 1018, he amused himself by pulling demonic faces at Harald’s two older brothers, who were so afraid that they burst into tears; Harald, however, stared back at him fearlessly. On another occasion Harald and his brothers were asked what they most wanted in the world; the brothers said, ‘Corn and cattle,’ but Harald answered: ‘Warriors.’ It is a fair inference, then, that Harald’s early formation was in the harsh world of the warrior ethos. Perhaps the aesthetic side of his nature, which later manifested itself in a love of heroic poetry, was nurtured by childhood in Ringerike, a town then famous for its artwork and decorated rune-stones.12

When the fifteen-year-old Harald joined Olaf and his army he must have known what a desperate venture he was engaged in. The enemy had superior numbers and all the best generals, including Kalv Arnesson, Tore Hund and Haarek of Tjotta. Olaf marched across the Kjolen mountains towards Trondelagen and selected a field of battle at Stiklestad where he would command the higher ground. There he waited for the expected reinforcements under Dag Ringsson, but Dag reached the rendezvous only after the battle had been fought. On 29 July 1030, therefore, Olaf had to give battle to the forces of the pro-Cnut Norwegian aristocracy when he was outnumbered by two to one – the best estimates of the enemy army put it around 5,000 strong.13

Before fighting, Olaf slept and was said to have had a dream in which a ladder reached down from heaven to earth and Christ beckoned to him. The dream was certainly premonitory. At about one o’clock Olaf ordered the charge, hoping that the downhill impetus of his men would throw the enemy into confusion. The front line of the chieftains’ army buckled but the ranks behind stood firm, and soon numbers told. Olaf’s force was first outflanked, then surrounded, and finally annihilated. Olaf himself was wounded and then cut down by Kalv Arnesson and Tore Hund, and almost all the great lords who had joined Olaf were also slain. Dag Ringsson arrived with the reinforcements in time to witness the final stage of the rout, but his brief counterattack could not reverse the verdict. In the confusion of the later stages of the battle the badly wounded Harald Sigurdsson managed to crawl away and hide in a ditch.14

One of those who fought that day with Harald was Rognvald Brusisson and it was he who rescued Harald, found a peasant family to nurse the young warrior and tend his wounds, and himself travelled east to Sweden to seek refuge with King Anund Jacob. Harald stayed with the peasant family until his wounds were healed; then, with the peasant’s son as a guide, he made his way east to Jamtland and thence to Sweden, travelling at night or by little-frequented byways. While skulking in the hills on his way east, Harald was said to have begun his career as a versifier by composing the following: ‘From copse to copse I crawl and creep now, worthless. Who knows how highly I’ll be heralded one day.’15

Harald stayed in Sweden until 1031, then proceeded to Kiev, at that time the Mecca for exiled Scandinavians. The Prince of Kiev in the years 1019–54 was Yaroslav, formerly Grand Duke of Novgorod (1016–19), the son of Vladimir Monakh; a man who had come to power with the aid of Norse warriors after four years of civil war with his half-brothers. Vladimir had a bad reputation with Norwegian mercenaries because of his alleged meanness with money. There had been very close contacts between Yaroslav and Harald’s half-brother King Olaf. Yaroslav’s wife Ingigerd had, when a girl, nursed a romantic fantasy about Olaf (whom she had never met) and married Yaroslav only after her father, Olaf of Sweden, expressly forbade a match with his Norwegian namesake. But when Olaf came to Russia in 1029, Ingigerd found him as congenial in the flesh as in fantasy. She persuaded Yaroslav to offer Olaf the rule of the province of Bulghar on the Volga, baiting the offer with a suggestion that Olaf make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land first; Olaf hesitated, but in the end returned to Norway, Stiklestad and his death.16

As Olaf’s half-brother Harald also received a warm welcome in Kiev, and for three years he fought with Yaroslav’s armies, alongside his companion Eilif, son of Rognvald of Orkney. He served with distinction in campaigns against the Poles and East Wends, and on the strength of this made so bold as to ask for the hand of Elizabeth, Yaroslav’s daughter, when she came of marriageable age. Yaroslav replied curtly that the young warrior would first have to achieve real fame and an individual reputation. The obvious place for Harald to achieve his ambitions was Byzantium, where the Varangian guard of Norse mercenaries had served the emperor for almost a century. Accordingly, in 1034 Harald took his leave of Yaroslav. We may discount all the fanciful skaldic stories that he first journeyed to Saxony and France and committed piracy in the Channel ports before decamping to Lombardy, Rome and Apulia and then proceeding to Constantinople; the obvious inference is that he sailed down one of the major Russian rivers to the Black Sea and then crossed over to Byzantium.17

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Byzantium (or Constantinople, to use the name of its founder) was an empire seven hundred years old when Harald Sigurdsson arrived there and it was gnerally considered one of the wonders of the world. By the standards of the day a titanic megalopolis, with a population of one million, it had street lighting, sewerage and drainage, hospitals, orphanages, public baths, aqueducts, huge water cisterns, libraries and luxury shops like the ‘House of the Lanterns’, illuminated at night, where Byzantine silks were sold. The city was surrounded by twelve miles of high walls and gave on to a great harbour; there was a lighthouse or Pharos on a promontory within the palace enclosure. A chain of beacons linked the city to Asia Minor across the Bosporus, allowing messages to be sent rapidly to distant parts of the empire. Inside the huge fortress, doubly protected by walls and water, there was a cluster of great buildings, palaces and churches, stuffed with treasures from all over the world.18

There were seven palaces, including the imperial abode, where bronze gates were unlocked at dawn and then closed to the public from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. – the hours when casual sightseers might be abroad. The Triconchus palace, built in 738, was roofed with gold; in the adjoining hall, Sigma, were fountains which flowed with wine and doors of silver and polished bronze. In the state throne-room, where foreigners were received, stood jewelled organs and the great throne of the emperor, guarded by two massive lions of gilded bronze. In front of the throne stood the phenomenon which most amazed observers then and since: a metal tree with mechanical birds in its branches. The imperial family rarely strayed outside the palace precinct except to go to the Hippodrome and the public rarely came in. There was little need to leave the precinct, for within the walls were the emperor’s polo-ground, his private zoo and aviary and gardens and pleasure grounds with superb views over the sea of Marmora and the Golden Horn.19

Two things struck foreign observers of Byzantium: the power of its armies and the proliferation of its bureaucracy. In 1034 there seemed to be no serious military enemies in sight, as the Seljuk Turks were in abeyance and the threat from the Normans in Sicily had not yet materialized. The greatest danger to the Byzantine military came from within, from the jealous civilian and bureaucratic powers, who started to have the upper hand from 1025 onwards; here was paradox indeed – anti-military feeling in a society that was dependent on the military for survival. More than one commentator noted the rapid decline in the power of the emperor himself during the period 1025–1071, when there were no less than ten lacklustre emperors; Basil II, by contrast, who died in 1025, was an autocrat who reigned fifty years and brought the reputation of Byzantium and its armies to the highest pitch.20

After Basil’s death, the dominant political figure was his niece Zoe, by common consent the one true descendant of the Macedonian line worthy of supreme power. Zoe was unintelligent, like her sister Theodora, but was a woman of undoubted sexual charms, where Theodora was a homely spinster. For three years Basil’s brother, a notable weakling, ruled as Constantine VIII, but it was his daughter Zoe who captivated the Byzantines. Devoting herself to the life of a voluptuary, even though aged fifty in 1028, Zoe ran through three husbands in the space of fourteen years but never lost her hold on the affections of the public. The bureaucratic faction quickly saw that she was the key to their success and forced the feckless Constantine to nominate her first shadowy husband as his successor. The unlucky bridegroom was a sixty-year-old named Romanus Argyrus, who was already married. Forced by the bureaucratic élite to divorce and remarry on pain of blinding and mutilation if he did not comply, Argyrus married Zoe on 15 November 1028 and shortly afterwards succeeded as Romanus III.21

Romanus was a Walter Mitty character, who dreamed of reviving the glory of ancient Rome. A humiliating defeat by the Saracens outside Aleppo ended that fantasy and destroyed the myth of the Byzantine army’s invincibility, so Romanus tried to retrieve his fortunes by toadying to the big landowners. Where Basil II had introduced progressive forms of taxation and been a champion of the smallholder, Romanus truckled to the latifundistas, abandoned Basil’s reforms and reverted to the hated system of tax farming, which bore most heavily on the little man. But his parsimony with money, when extended to Zoe’s household budget, proved his undoing. A low-born palace eunuch named John Orphanotrophus inveigled himself into the empress’s good graces and introduced her to his attractive younger brother, Michael, who became Zoe’s lover in 1033. Suddenly, on 11 April 1034, Romanus was found dead in his bath. So insouciant was Zoe about the inevitable suspicions concerning her husband’s end that she married her lover the very next day. He assumed the purple as Michael IV and reigned seven years and eight months, though real power remained in the hands of John Orphanotrophus.22

Such was the Byzantium in which Harald arrived. The tall, broad-shouldered, blond warrior, with his certificate of service from Yaroslav, had little difficulty getting enrolled in the élite Varangian guard, for Russia had long been a source of supply of mercenaries to Constantinople. Kievan Russia was the transmission belt between Scandinavia and Byzantium, and the links between Russia and Constantinople were of the closest. There was a Russian colony in the city; the Russians acted as a kind of recruitment agency for the Varangians, architects, painters and merchants moved freely between Russia and Byzantium; there was a flourishing trade from Byzantium to Russia in jewellery, ceramics, glassware, olive oil, wine and fruit, and from Russia to Byzantium in slaves, furs, wax and honey. In normal circumstances Russian loyalty to Byzantium was guaranteed by the metropolitan Archbishop of Kiev, who represented the spiritual authority of the patriarchs of Constantinople.23

For all that, relations between Russia and Byzantium were often uneasy. The Viking states in Russia began life as forts – Norse trading posts that had to be secured against attack – but the ambivalent status of the Vikings, part traders, part marauders, is nowhere better illustrated than in the first (failed) attack by the Scandinavian Rus in 860, two years before the first permanent Norse settlements were established in the Ukraine. There was always mutual suspicion: as late as the mid-1020s it is related that 800 Kievan Vikings or Rus who sailed down to Byzantium in the hope of being enrolled as mercenaries were massacred out of hand by the Byzantine army.24

It was during the reign of Basil II that the Varangians really became established as a fixed point in Byzantine military life. His fifty-year rule from 976, which saw the empire at its apogee, depended greatly on his use of the élite Scandinavian bodyguard. They it was who were instrumental in securing for him the great victory at Abydos in 989, after which there were no more serious challenges to his rule. They, too, obeyed unhesitatingly when he ordered every single man, woman and child in twelve districts of the city put to death, even though it took them three months of butchery to achieve the objective. Most of all, the Varangians were the cutting edge of his military machine in a variety of foreign wars – for Basil was no bookish ruler like most of his fellow emperors but a brutal and bloody warrior. The Varangians heavily defeated the Georgians in one of Basil’s last wars (in 1021) and earlier made their mark in Italy. A rising in Bari in 1011 by the local magnate Meles saw pro-Meles Norman mercenaries pitted against the Varangians in a campaign that dragged on for seven years before Byzantine victory in 1018.25

So fond of the Varangians was Basil that it has even been suggested that his second wife, Ingerina, was Scandinavian. Certainly by the end of his reign the Norsemen had acquired every conceivable military skill. They had mastered the art of warfare on horseback; they could fight on ground which other armies avoided, especially woodland; they were experts in night-time assaults; they knew how to improvize field fortifications quickly or to construct dykes fortified by stakes, palisades and advanced ditches; above all, they were masters of the surprise attack. A favourite strategem was to retreat into stone buildings, houses or churches, turn them into fortresses, and then sortie unexpectedly against an enemy who thought them cornered. The Varangians were also masters of guerrilla fighting and warfare of a socially subversive kind, freeing slaves or enslaving freemen, always trying to divide their enemies and turn them inwards against themselves.26

From the emperor’s point of view these Norse mercenaries were invaluable. They were cost-effective in the sense that disciplined cavalrymen or axemen were worth twice their number in Arab or Bulgar infantry; as they came fully trained and armoured, the imperial treasury did not have to spend money bringing them up to fighting fitness; they were loyal to their paymasters as they had no local, territorial or family interests to defend; and their love of money was a stimulus towards economic growth and expansion, contributing to the well-attested prosperity of Byzantium in the eleventh century. So pleased with them was Basil II that he began to experiment with producing an élite within an élite, distinguishing the corps of ‘guard Varangians’ who remained inside the city from the ‘mercenary Varangians’ sent to fight foreign wars. It is interesting that Harald Hardrada’s eight-year career marks a progress from the mercenary to the guard type.27

The Guard Varangians’ main duty was to protect the person of the emperor, and to this end they accompanied him whenever he ventured outside the palace precinct, mainly for the purpose of coronations, triumphs, processions or visits to the racecourse at the Hippodrome. During Holy Week the Varangians’ duties involved strewing the floor of Hagia Sophia with boughs of myrtle, laurel and olive, and stripping the Brazen House, on the route between the palace and Hagia Sophia, of all treasures. The end point for all processions, whether during a coronation or during the annual festivity on 11 May to celebrate the founding of the city, was always Hagia Sophia. After a victorious campaign the emperor would enter the city by the Golden Gate at the western end of the walls and proceed by the broad straight road (the Mese, or Middle Way, which bisected the city) to the mid-point of Byzantium at the Milion; thence he moved along the Mese to Hagia Sophia to lay the insignia captured from the enemy on the altar.28

But the most common Varangian escort duty was to the Hippodrome, to attend horse races, chariot races, animal shows, boxing matches, athletic contests, circus acts or musical entertainments. Four-horse chariot races were the main attraction, and the fanatical racing factions, the Blues and the Greens, who functioned as primitive political parties, were still active, if not at the same strength that had triggered the notorious Niké riots in 531. The imperial box could be entered directly from the palace enclosure, and it was customary for the emperor to enter here, clad in state robes, carrying a lighted candle from his chapel. He would bless the audience, then drop a white handkerchief for the races to begin. It was said that the Varangians used to assuage boredom on such occasions by noting the similarities of the frescos on the walls of the Hippodrome to their own gods and heroes, the Aesir and the Volsungs. Sometimes, however, the Norsemen had to preside over grimmer business. Although fights with wild beasts were by this time prohibited, the blood lust of the people was indulged in other ways. Offenders such as traitors and deserters were sometimes publicly despatched or the heads of executed rebels displayed. Anna Comnena relates that the leaders of the Bogomil heresy were burnt alive in the Hippodrome.29

The Guard Varangians were quartered in different places at different eras – at one time they were lodged in the palace of the Buceleon, and at another in Numera, a building near the Hippodrome on the upper floor above the prison. But in Harald’s time both companies – the so-called great hetairia and the little hetairia – had their headquarters in the part of the great palace reserved for the Excubitores – a regiment exclusively formed from the Byzantine nobility – on the eastern side of the precinct. Reached through the Brazen House, the main route into the Palace of Daphne was through their quarters; to keep all entrances securely guarded the Varangians also had the use of their former lodgings in the old palaces. They were well paid by normal standards: guards in the great hetairia received forty-four gold coins a year, and those in the ‘little’ company forty. In addition to the salary, there were gifts at Easter and on the coronation of a new emperor, plus a share in the booty taken on campaigns and a percentage of revenues raised when the Varangians acted as tax collectors.30

The Varangians naturally attracted a good deal of jealousy from xenophobes and those irritated at the obstacle the foreign mercenaries posed to attempts at coup d’état. In élite circles it was whispered that it was unwise and self-destructive to have aliens occupying high offices of the state. The Varangians responded to their unpopularity by becoming increasingly ghettoized: they even had their own church – St Olaf’s near Hagia Sophia, said to have been destroyed when the adventurers of the Fourth Crusade sacked the city in 1204 – where in later days the sword of the canonized Olaf of Stiklestad was said to have been kept as a relic.31

To deflect criticism of their status and power the Varangians maintained a very high level of esprit de corps, complete with savage military discipline meted out against any of their number who transgressed their code. Flogging, lopping off ears and noses, blinding and execution made up the ascending order of penalties for disobedience, cowardice or even being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Incompetent or unlucky generals could hope to escape this fate only at cost of being dressed up as a woman, mounted backwards on an ass and driven through the streets of Byzantium to the jeers, blows and missiles of angry crowds. The Varangians had the right to be judge and jury in cases involving their own members, subject only to the emperor’s ultimate fiat, but there is no record of imperial intervention in any sentence. The draconian discipline of the Norse mercenaries was legendary: we hear of sentences of death for attempted rape and the attempted murder of the emperor Nicephorus III. In the very year Harald arrived in Byzantium, the Varangians met to try a case of a woman who had been raped in Lydia by a ‘mercenary Varangian’ and then killed her assailant with his own sword. The military court decided that the woman should inherit the dead man’s possessions and that his corpse should be treated as that of a suicide and thrown out on a dunghill without proper burial.32

Harald made an immediate impression on the Varangians and was excited by the view of his messmates that an able man could get right to the top in Byzantium. Whether this was so is doubtful, for all the highest positions in the state were reserved for scions of Greek royal families, and the evidence for Varangians in élite positions is suspect. Harald’s regal bearing led some to suspect that he was of royal birth and therefore ineligible for the Guard – since the Byzantines normally refused to employ foreign princes as mercenaries. Harald was lodged on the upper floor of the Excubitores section of the great palace together with the other great warriors he had brought with him from Russia, notably Ulf Ospaksson and Haldor Snorresson, an Icelander. It is stated in the saga sources that the Byzantines suspected Harald was a foreign prince and employed an Icelander named Mar to worm the truth out of Haldor in casual conversation, but the loyal Snorresson gave nothing away.33

As a newcomer Harald began his career in the ‘mercenary Varangians’ serving in foreign parts. His first job was to serve as a marine on the Byzantine galleys in the Aegean, clearing the sea lanes of pirates. The sources do not make it clear whether he fought against the pirates of Thrace and the Cyclades, who, though wounded by the recent loss of Crete, were by no means a spent force, or whether he was attached to the fleet Michael IV kept in Sicilian waters to deal with Arab privateers who preyed on shipping in the passage between Sicily and Africa. Yaroslav’s credential may have sufficed to give Harald the command of a body of marines on an individual vessel, for this alone makes sense of later developments. Such commanders were supposed to pay the emperor one hundred marks for every pirate ship captured (they could keep the rest), but Harald very early realized there was no proper accounting system, so that it was easy to keep back more than his fair share. Harald, like William of Normandy, was a greedy man, and his avarice would soon land him in trouble.34

The details of Harald’s maritime service are otherwise obscure. He may have been part of the fleet of Cibirriotes, who in these years won a great victory against the Thracian pirates, destroyed many ships and either enslaved or barbarously executed all prisoners. Or he may have opposed the great Arab fleet from Sicily and Africa that the annalist Zonaras mentions as active in the Aegean in the early years of Michael’s reign; the Arabs raided most of the Greek islands, laid waste the Greek mainland, devastated Asia Minor and even captured the town of Myra. Since this raid coincided with the rebellion of King Adam of Sebaste, where the Varangians were definitely involved, the likelihood is that Harald was fighting the Arabs. The only thing certain is that he made his mark and that his deep character increasingly emerged: forceful, self-willed, determined, courageous, far-sighted, he had a talent for war, was attractive to women but was also a ferocious disciplinarian, wildly ambitious and coldly ruthless, greedy and avaricious, with a lust for loot that became legendary.35

Harald may next have been switched from naval warfare to campaign against the Pechenegs, since it was a characteristic of the Varangian fighting machine bequeathed by Basil II that crack troops could be switched from front to front at short notice. This extreme mobility means that the saga stories of Harald visiting the Holy Land in 1036 may not be so far-fetched. In that year Michael IV concluded a peace treaty with the Caliphate of Egypt, allowing the Christian places in Jerusalem to be rebuilt. Michael sent masons to begin a massive rebuilding programme in Jerusalem, and it is eminently plausible that Harald might have commanded a small detachment of Varangians on escort duty, to ward off attacks by marauding Bedouin, who were as much a menace to the Caliphate as to Christians. There is scholarly speculation that many high-ranking Byzantines took this unique opportunity to visit the Holy Land, including Zoe’s two sisters, Eudoxia and Theodora. According to the saga tradition, Harald visited the sites of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, wore pilgrim’s clothes, made money offerings at the sacred places and bathed in the river Jordan.36

For two years from late 1035 Harald served mainly in Syria and Armenia, under the command of Nicholas Pegonites. The Varangians captured the fort of Bekni in Armenia and in 1036 collaborated with regular forces under Constantine Katallakos to relieve Edessa, originally wrested from the Saracens by George Maniakes in 1032. It is in this period that we first hear of Harald as a fully-fledged composer of sagas drawn from his own exploits and those of other Varangians. A favourite story from just a few years before showed that the tradition of the blood-feud did not die when Norsemen went to Byzantium. It seems that in 1031, as a result of some obscure dispute, a Varangian named Grettir the Strong and his brother were slain by a man named Thorbiorn Angle. Now Grettir had another brother, named Thorstein Asmund Arson, who swore to avenge his siblings, followed Thorbiorn’s trail all the way back from the Black Sea to Norway and killed him there. This was the kind of story that particularly enthralled the young Harald Sigurdsson.37

The most famous campaign in which Harald took part was the war in Sicily in 1038–41, which is particularly well documented from Greek, Latin, French and Arab sources. Sicily had always been a cockpit for Arab-Byzantine conflict and, after Basil II’s death, two Arab chieftains battled for supremacy there. One of them, Akhal Aboulaphar, sought the emperor’s help against his brother and opponent Abou Hafs, who in turn asked for military assistance from the Caliph of Tunis, Muizz-ibn-Badis. While Michael IV sent the catepan of Italy, Constantine Opos, to Sicily in 1037 to stiffen the military arm of Akhal, the Caliph of Tunis sent his son Abdallah-ibn-Muizz to reinforce Abou. This Arab alliance gradually prevailed against Akhal to the point where Constantine Opos was forced to retire from Sicily, though still in good order.38

Angry at the turn of events, Michael IV prepared a huge expedition for the reconquest of Sicily, which he put under the command of Georgios Maniakes, who had won fame by his victories in Asia Minor. Maniakes was given all the best troops in the empire, including the Varangians and three hundred Normans from Salerno commanded by the two sons of Tancred de Hauteville, levies from Lombardy, Apulia and Calabria, armies from Greece under Katakolon Cecaumenos, Armenian mercenaries and a fleet under the emperor’s brother-in-law Stephen. Although the Byzantines were masters of amphibious operations, their imposing armada was vigorously opposed by the Arabs; the sagas claim that it was only through the exceptional bravery of Harald and his unit that the Byzantine forces secured a beachhead.39

This was Harald’s first encounter with Maniakes, the greatest Byzantine commander of this era, the most notable captain in Constantinople between the reign of Basil II and that of Alexius Comnenus. Maniakes was a Turkish-born former camp-waiter, distinguished by his giant stature and voice of thunder. At this stage Harald was not senior enough to challenge Maniakes’s authority, but already he recognized a man cut from the same cloth as himself. As usual in such cases, where two over-similar individuals are vying for the same space, there was deep resentment, not least because Harald was used to being the only immensely tall individual in any gathering. They were at once both too alike and too unlike, for Maniakes was a self-made man, punctilious about military discipline and oversensitive to slights, real or imaginary. When campaigning Harald liked to take a relaxed attitude; he was a loner who liked to do things his way, even if this meant using unconventional methods. Maniakes was a by-the-book martinet who loathed any deviation from the normal chain of command. The campaign in Sicily saw continual friction between these two larger-than-life figures. In the sagas Harald is always given the last word or the crushing quip, but we should take this with a pinch of salt, as l’esprit de l’escalier imported into oral tradition.40

Despite the huge resources poured into the Sicilian war by Byzantium, the attempt to reconquer the island ended in spectacular failure. We know that by this time Harald commanded a regiment of 500 Varangians, but accurate details of the campaign and his role in it are hard to come by. The sagas are full of tall tales and absurd legends about his exploits. In one story, while the Varangians are besieging a castle, Harald pretends to be dead. The Norsemen then ask to be allowed to bury the body within the castle. Permission is granted, the Varangians carry the coffin to the gates, wedge them open with the heavy coffin, then their comrades rush in and slaughter the garrison. In another story the Varangians sap and mine under a castle, come up in the middle of a banqueting hall and then slaughter the feasters. In yet another Harald captured some birds, tied wood shavings to them, set fire to them and released the birds over the battlements, where they proceeded to set fire to the castle.41

Most of these episodes are commonplaces of the folk tales of many different cultures. The tunnelling and the mock funeral occur in stories of Russian kings and of the emir ibn-Khosran of Baghdad, while the incendiary birds feature in the history of the Mongols and in the saga of the capture of Cirencester by the Danish king Guthrum in the ninth century. The sagas featuring Harald seem to be a mixture of itinerant folk tales, military clichés and genuine oral tradition, usually signalled by distinctive circumstantial touches. One saga story about Harald in Sicily that may be true is how he outwitted the defenders of a town he was unable to take by siege. Mocked by the citizens for their inability to make inroads, the Varangians at Harald’s command responded by holding an athletics tournament just out of missile range. This went on for three days, but on the fourth the Norsemen hid weapons under their cloaks as they approached the athletics ground. The defenders, who had become blasé, appeared on the walls unarmed to watch the spectacle, at which Harald ordered a general charge, which took the enemy by surprise and saw the Varangians shinning up the walls to open the gates.42

All we know for certain is that Harald spent two grim and largely fruitless years in Sicily. Bari, which fell to the enemy in 1038, was not retaken until 1040, when Argyros, son of the rebel Meles, made peace and recognized imperial overlordship. Harald and his Varangians were with the new catepan of Italy, Michael Dokeianos, when he arrived in Bari in 1040, but this was the year when the entire Byzantine position was destabilized by a revolt in Bulgaria and another rebellion in Italy. For the débâcle in Italy Maniakes must bear some of the blame. Having won a great victory over the Arabs at Traina in 1040, he ruined everything by his arrogance and niggardliness.

Three separate incidents underline Maniakes’s folly. He had never got on with Admiral Stephen and now, in a fit of anger, he beat Stephen over the head with a whip, blaming him for Abdallah’s escape to Tunis after the battle. Then he alienated the three hundred Normans, serving mainly as cavalry, who protested to Maniakes after the battle that they had not received their fair share of prize money and booty. Finally Maniakes had an important ally, Arduin the Lombard, flogged through the camp for contumacy after Arduin claimed as his prize a particularly desirable warhorse captured from the Arabs. Having already sampled Maniakes’s arrogance, Harald and the Varangians openly sided with Stephen and the Normans.43

The sequel to the victory at Traina was utter disaster. Harald and his regiment of Varangians were recalled to help subdue the revolt in Bulgaria. Stephen complained to Constantinople about Maniakes, while Arduin raised Italy in revolt against his former allies, and was joined by the Normans. The result was a string of defeats for the Byzantines. At Mottola in 1040 Nicephorus Dokeianos was killed, Boianes, commanding another regiment of Varangians, was badly beaten by the Normans and later ransomed at huge cost, while his successor Synodianos was penned inside Otranto. In 1041 the Normans won two great victories, at Olivento, near Venusia, on 17 March and at Montemaggiore on 4 May. At Montemaggiore the Byzantine commander Michael Dokeianos had a clear numerical advantage but was outmanoeuvred by the Normans; in the ensuing fiasco large numbers of retreating Varangians were drowned in the river Ofanto, then in full spate. The net result was that by the end of 1041 the Byzantines were left with just Messina in their possession in the whole island of Sicily.44

Harald and his regiment, meanwhile, arrived in Bulgaria at the tail-end of the revolt there. In the summer of 1040 a runaway slave from Constantinople, named Peter Delianos, aspired to be a second Spartacus. Claiming to be a grandson of Bulgarian czar Samuel, he raised an army and was received with open arms by the people of Epirus and Macedonia, who were groaning under the yoke of Michael IV’s regressive tax reforms. Greatly aided by Alousian, younger brother of Ladislas, last czar of the old Bulgarian empire, Delianos led his army into Greece and won initial victories which alarmed Michael IV’s sufficiently to order the recall of troops from Sicily, including Harald’s detachment of Varangians. On 26 October 1040, heartened by news that an imperial army was nearby, the besieged garrison of Thessalonica sortied and routed Alousian’s army, which was completely destroyed, sustaining 15,000 casualties.45

Scholars debate about whether Harald and his men were present at the battle or whether he arrived just too late. In any case, either at Thessalonica or in mopping-up operations, Harald performed with such distinction that he was awarded the title of Manglavites with the rank of Spatharocandidatus; moreover, the emperor ordered a gold coin struck in his honour. It was almost Michael’s last act, for the strain of the Bulgarian revolt turned him into a weary old man and he died on 10 December 1041 from some mysterious malady that made his limbs swell. Harald, promoted now from the mercenary Varangians to the imperial guard in Constantinople, seemed to face a purely ceremonial future. The duty of a Manglavites, who was entitled to wear a sword with a gold hilt, was to walk before the emperor in procession, carrying a jewelled whip on a belt, used to restrain the crowd. The Spatharocandidatus was something like an honorary colonel, though not a military title; it ranked sixth among the fourteen grades of Byzantine court official.46

Harald was now a person of some note and distinction in the Byzantine capital, but his elevation to the palace guard coincided with one of those sordid and bloody crises that so often disfigured Byzantine history. John Orphanotrophus, the power behind the throne for the last eight years and not a man to relinquish privilege and eminence gladly, persuaded Zoe to adopt his useless reprobate nephew as heir and ruler, but then pushed too far by having him crowned Michael V. Aristocratic sensibilities were offended by the idea of the son of a Paphlagonian dockworker as emperor, and the élite longed for an excuse to get rid of him. But for four months, while Michael appeared to live in harmony with Zoe, they had no pretext for action.

Having reached his apogee with Michael IV, Harald found himself at a nadir immediately on Michael V’s accession. Part of the problem was Maniakes, whose fortunes oscillated in inverse relationship with Harald’s. Following the altercation with Admiral Stephen after the battle of Traina, and even though Maniakes was completely justified in his reprimand, if not in his physical violence, Stephen predictably wrote to the emperor, accusing Maniakes of aiming at the purple. Maniakes was recalled and imprisoned, only to be released and given command of Byzantine forces in Italy when Orphanotrophus’s nephew became emperor. Michael gave Maniakes a new fleet and army with which to retrieve the Byzantine situation in Sicily and southern Italy, where, by 1042, only Messina, Bari, Tranato, Brindisi and Otranto remained in Byzantine hands.47

One of Michael V’s first acts, on the advice of Maniakes, was to disband the Varangians and replace them with a Scythian bodyguard. The Scandinavians, who were considered unreliable, were thrown on the scrap heap, but to the non-Scandinavian contingents in the Varangian guard fell the gruesome task of castrating all male members of the imperial family who expressed reservations about the new regime. Maniakes, angry that the insubordinate Harald had risen so high accused Harald of embezzlement, specifically of retaining for himself that portion of war prizes and booty he was duty bound to give up to the empire. To this (certainly justified) charge were added others: that he had insulted the empress Zoe by refusing to give her a lock of his hair when requested; that he had murdered a man while tax-collecting; and that he was a spy for the Russians, as evinced by his return to Kiev every winter during his first two years of service.48

It is interesting that most of these charges were entirely warranted. Harald had certainly already acquired a vast fortune, in part from retaining far more spoils of war than he was entitled to and in part from extortion during his tax-gathering missions (and the alleged murder could well relate to an incident when one of the mulcted was foolish enough to resist). It is also a moral certainty that he had given Yaroslav invaluable information about the Byzantine army, its state of morale and readiness, the city’s fortifications and water supplies, to say nothing of political intelligence. The sagas prefer to pass over this solid ground in order to concentrate on arrant nonsense about the empress Zoe, who was said to have been madly in love with Harald; he, however, preferred her niece Maria. It need hardly be said that no such person as Maria ever existed, nor is there any evidence whatsoever of any romantic interest by Zoe in the young Viking.49

But the saga writers excel themselves when it comes to the details of Harald’s imprisonment. Sober historical fact records that Harald was imprisoned alongside his faithful comrades Haldor Snorresson and Ulf Ospaksson in a tower located in the same street as the Varangian church, St Mary’s near Hagia Sophia, and that he was released by the Varangians during the violent events of April 1042. According to the romancers, Harald was forced to do battle with a lion in the arena as a penalty for having seduced a noblewoman, but overcame the beast with his bare hands. In another version Harald, Haldor and Ulf had to do battle with a giant snake (a thinly disguised version of the earth-serpent in Norse mythology), which was overcome when Harald strangled it while Haldor and Ulf held it by the tail; in yet another version the monster is a dragon.50

Had he been imprisoned by any other emperor, Harald might well have languished in his tower for years, but events soon turned in his favour once again with the downfall of Michael V. Michael began by rounding on his old patron John Orphanotrophus and, in collusion with John’s brother Constantine (who hated him), having him exiled to a distant island. Next he turned his attention to Zoe, whom he secretly loathed. After reigning for four months, Michael expelled Zoe’s powerful spiritual mentor, the patriarch Alexius, then moved against Zoe herself, despite the warnings of the risk from his uncle Constantine. He had her arrested, divested of her imperial robes, and then removed to the Prinkipo islands in a nun’s habit and with her hair shorn. Next he sent the non-Scandinavian rump of the Varangian guard to murder Alexius in his bolt-hole at the Stenson monastery. Alexius, knowing the venality of the Varangians, successfully bribed them to allow him to escape; he fled to sanctuary at Hagia Sophia and began organizing resistance to the new regime, summoning the high officials of state and army to him as Zoe’s representative and thus the only legitimate authority extant.51

Meanwhile Michael V had learned to his cost of the immense popularity of the deposed Zoe. When he told the docile Senate that he had been obliged to exile Zoe as she had tried to poison him, the venal senators acquiesced in his version, doubtless remembering the real occasion when Zoe had tried to poison an emperor (Romanus III). But when Anastasius, the Serbocrator of Constantinople, tried to promulgate the credentials of the new regime in the Forum, he was nearly lynched; for the people of Byzantium the popularity of Zoe was inextinguishable and the dark tales of her behaviour seemed only to increase her lustre. In a spontaneous upsurge of grief and anger, a crowd formed on 19 April which swelled into a multitude; carried on a flood of pro-Zoe emotion, it began to attack the imperial residence, where, to its joy, it was joined by the Varangians, thirsting for revenge against the man who had humiliated them. To show their gratitude, the people’s representatives issued a set of provisional decrees, ordering the release of all political prisoners, including Harald Sigurdsson.52

Elated by the turn of events, the Varangians released Harald and his comrades from their dungeon and, under his direction, pressed the assault on the palace. But 20 April 1042 turned out to be a black day for Byzantium when the emperor’s Scythian guard resisted strenuously and bloody hand-to-hand fighting began. The palace was attacked from three sides – the Hippodrome, the Tzykanisterion and the Augusteum near the Excubita – and the net was being drawn tighter on the defenders, when the balance of power was suddenly upset by the arrival from Sicily of Katakalon Cecaumenos and a shipload of troops who joined in on Michael’s side. Varangian now fought Varangian in some of the most vicious street-fighting Constantinople had ever witnessed. Finally, after 3,000 men lay dead in and around the palace grounds, the outnumbered defenders threw in the towel: some surrendered; others, including Katakalon Cecaumenos, fled under cover of darkness; the emperor and his uncle Constantine escaped by boat to seek sanctuary in the Studite monastery. The euphoric victors sacked the palace and destroyed the most detested symbol of imperial tyranny: the tax records.53

The newly appointed city prefect Campanares was inclined not to punish Michael and his uncle now that they were powerless, but a faction loyal to Zoe’s sister Theodora was fearful that the weak-willed Zoe might forgive Michael and restore him. This faction accordingly drew up orders for the blinding of the ex-emperor and Constantine and gave them to Harald to implement. He set off for the Studite monastery on 21 April, only to find that the pro-Theodora mob had got there before him. Michael and Constantine clung piteously to the altar, claiming the right of sanctuary, but the enraged mob scorned the sin of sacrilege and tore them from their refuge. Apparently they intended to drive their victims through the city as figures of fun before deciding what to do with them, but they were intercepted just outside the monastery by a grim-faced Harald and his heavily armed Varangians. Harald showed his orders and at once set to work on the gruesome mutilation. First he gouged out Constantine’e eyes and then Michael’s. Constantine endured the agonizing ordeal bravely, but Michael wept, pleaded and begged for mercy and had to be bound before the blinding could be carried out.54

Harald and the Varangians were restored to all their ranks and privileges, but these were anxious and uncertain times at Byzantium. For two months Zoe tried to co-reign with her sister Theodora but the experiment was not a success; in the end Zoe gave up and married for the third time (at sixty-five). Her new husband was Constantine Monomachus, who in June 1042 became Constantine IX and whose twelve-year reign was to epitomize imperial decline. During the interregnum Harald was appointed senior commander of the Varangians and in this capacity acted as judge, jury and executioner of those members of the Guard who had backed the wrong side during the uprising of 19–20 April. He was now at the height of his power, in possession of a vast treasure, and was rapidly building up a cult around his name. He liked to fight with a one-edged axe (the Varangians, like the Anglo-Saxon housecarls, usually fought with the double-headed axe) and he had made for him a mailed coat, which he called Emma, that protected him down to the calves.55

There were no further worlds for Harald to conquer at Byzantium, but he was faced with the problem of getting his vast hoard of gold and silver out of the city without running into objections from the imperial bureaucracy. Testing the waters, he applied for permission to return to Norway in late 1042, but Constantine IX refused him. Harald was now in a race against time. It is usually asserted that the fillip making him keen to leave Constantinople was news from Scandinavia that his eighteen-year-old half-nephew Magnus had been recalled and crowned king of both Norway and Denmark. But his reasons for wishing to leave were more pressing. On the one hand, he had word from Yaroslav that 1043 would bring a concerted Russian onslaught on the Byzantine empire; on the other, Georgios Maniakes had raised the standard of revolt in Italy and it was rumoured that Harald would be made commander-in-chief of the forces sent to subdue his old rival. Equally, Constantine’s refusal to release him may have been because he too knew of Yaroslav’s plans and did indeed intend to use the captain of the Varangians against Maniakes.

The great general Maniakes had performed miracles in Italy and partially restored the Byzantine position there after the terrible reverses sustained by Dokeianos and Boioannus. Then he fell victim to a serpentine intrigue directed by the powerful Sclerus family. Romanus, the leader of the clan, had a sister, Sclerena, who for eighteen months from late 1042 to 1044 was not just Constantine IX’s mistress but officially recognized as such; she was given the title Augusta and attended official ceremonies openly, forming a threesome with the emperor and Zoe. With such powerful support at court, Romanus Sclerus, who nursed ancient grievances against Maniakes, moved in for the kill. In rapid succession he plundered the general’s estates in Anatolia, seduced his wife and then denounced him to Constantine as a traitor. When Maniakes was deprived of his title of magister and ordered to relinquish his command in Italy to Pardus, he raised his army in revolt and defeated Pardus at Ostrovo in 1043 after being proclaimed emperor by his men. His death in the very moment of victory changed the course of Byzantine history, not least because the military élite, having lost its greatest leader, finally succumbed to the hegemony of the bureaucrats.56

The crisis with Maniakes gave Harald his chance to escape while Constantine IX’s mind was elsewhere. Secretly purchasing galleys and the loyalty of a large body of men out of the vast treasure he had accumulated, Harald prepared to make his bid for freedom, taking his gold and silver with him. It may be that he was aided in his subterfuge by a mobilization order preparing the Varangians to move against Maniakes in Italy. One night he and his men stole down to the galleys and set sail, but their flight was a perilous one as they had to sacrifice a ship breaking through the boom across the Bosporus – a great chain or succession of chains set on rafts placed at appropriate distances apart, which were drawn into the shore during the day and refloated across the waterways at night. Sceptics have doubted that this incident took place on the grounds that the great chain spoken about was drawn across the Golden Horn rather than the Bosporus, but careful scholarship has established that a second boom was probably set up on the Bosporus to guard against the rumoured Russian attack.57

Harald and his men sailed north through the Black Sea to the estuary of the Dnieper, then set a course for Kiev. Almost as though by pre-established harmony, Yaroslav then launched the mighty attack on Russia he had planned with the aid of Harald’s intelligence. A fleet of 400 ships under Yaroslav’s son Vladimir, the Prince of Novgorod, set out with all the enthusiasm and appearance of an old-style Viking raid. Although Constantine IX had long expected this blow to fall, Byzantium was ill prepared, possibly because of the drain of resources to the Maniakes revolt in Italy. The Russian fleet appeared at the northern entrance to the Bosporus, where the Prince of Novgorod gave the emperor the chance to buy them off, but – at three pounds weight of gold for each Russian sailor – the terms were considered prohibitive. Constantine decided to equip the few triremes in the city, together with some old transports, with tubes for propelling the Byzantine secret weapon: Greek fire. But to prevent the emergence of a fifth column, he first ordered the arrest and deportation of every Russian merchant in Constantinople and the disarming of the Varangians, who were suspected of covert sympathies, if not outright collusion, with the enemy.58

Next morning the Byzantine triremes assembled in the harbour to confront the Russians, who were anchored on the opposite shore. The Russians then advanced to block the exit from the Bosporus, confident they had Constaninople in a stranglehold. It was only in the afternoon that the triremes emerged from the harbour, seemingly easy prey for the vastly numerically superior Russians. But as the Russians closed in, they were deluged with a devastating bombardment of Greek fire – an early version of napalm: liquid which burst into flames on contact. Since Greek fire was inextinguishable by the technology of the time and burned even on water, it caused the most appalling panic, with men abandoning ship in terror. To complete the discomfiture of the Russians a sudden storm blew up, wrecking ships and driving them into each other. Most of the Russian ships were either sunk, captured or driven ashore and the invaders had sustained astronomical casualties; it was said that 15,000 bloated corpses were later washed ashore. Among the damaged vessels was Vladimir’s, and he was lucky to get away with his bodyguard to the Bulgarian coast to the north. Russian accounts speak of a running pursuit in which the valiant Vladimir managed to disable four triremes.59

This was disaster on a huge scale. All Russian prisoners had their right hands cut off and the severed limbs were exhibited publicly on the walls of Constantinople. The panic-stricken Slav army commander Vyshata tried to take his troops by the land route back to Kiev but was ambushed near Varna and cut to pieces. Some eight hundred survivors, including Vyshata, were taken back to Byzantium and all who were not ransomable were blinded – the traditional punishment for ‘rebellion against the state’. A subsequent victory by the remains of the Russian fleet over a Byzantine squadron off the coast of Thrace changed nothing. Yaroslav was involved in protracted negotiations until 1046, when the surviving prisoners, including Vyshata, were released as part of a treaty stipulating that Constantine’s daughter would marry Yaroslav’s younger son.60

Meanwhile Harald had returned to Kiev in great triumph, his fame consolidated and his fortune made. Yaroslav’s daughter Elizabeth was now of marriageable age and, with her father’s eager approval, Harald asked her to be his wife. The suit did not go smoothly at first, it appears, for Harald composed a couplet in which he lamented:

Yet to the Russian queen I fear

My gold-adorned, I am not dear.

Seemingly, Elizabeth was regarded as a great beauty by the standards of the age, for she is portrayed, in company with three other princesses, in a wall painting in S. Sophia of Kiev dating from the early 1050s. Harald travelled north to Novgorod on some mission for Yaroslav and while there composed a series of verses which skaldic experts say are the best he composed. In the Gamanvisur series Harald boasts of his exploits in Sicily and laments that the Russian maid (‘the goddess of the gold ring’) gives him the cold shoulder. Nevertheless, by the end of 1043, whether through change of heart or under pressure from Yaroslav, Elizabeth finally consented to marry him. A glittering ceremony took place in Kiev, and Harald joined the list of notable marriages made by Yaroslav’s daughters, which included unions of Anna with King Henry of France (1031–60) and Anastasia with King Andrew of Hungary. Still only twenty-eight, he was already the most famous warrior of the age.61

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