Post-classical history




Inland from the Swedish coast, amid a network of lakes and rivers, sits Björkö, ‘birch island’ on Lake Mälar. During the Viking Age, when sea levels were higher, a wide channel led straight from Mälar to the Baltic Sea, affording easy passage for seaborne goods deep into Swedish territory. Around 800, the island became the site of a trading town, founded to replace an earlier settlement that proved to be too small for the needs of Sweden’s rising population. The settlement became known as Birka, and it became a magnet for trade from all over the Viking world, from Hedeby, Skiringssal, and points beyond. To the south of Birka, off the eastern coast of Sweden, lies the island of Gotland, another trading centre. Thanks to their positions on the ends of trade routes, these two islands form the centre of the Viking world – Gotland in particular has more Viking treasure than anywhere else. Archaeologists have unearthed the graves of many a fortune-seeker, buried with his hoard of silver coins and the swords that helped him win it.

Not all of the treasures of Birka and Gotland are below the ground. Rune stones dot the landscape, carved with memorials of journeys to far places – Semgall and Courland (Latvia), Wendland (Poland), Virland (Estonia), Gardariki (Russia), Greekland (more particularly, the Byzantine Empire centred on Constantinople), and Serkland, the land of the Saracens. Although some Swedes followed Danish and Norwegian voyages to the British Isles and beyond, Sweden’s interest has always lain in the Baltic, not the North Sea. For the Vikings of Sweden, the road to fortune lay not to the west, but to the east.

Early Swedish explorations followed a model similar to that of the Norwegians and Danes. Hopping from island to island, vessels first reached Åland in the middle of the Baltic, then the southern coast of what is now Finland. One saga refers to the region asBalagard (Meadow-fort?), implying at least one settlement, and probably more.1 In Finland, they roamed an archipelago of a thousand islands, and penetrated inland. For those in search of secure, unforested farmland to till, Finland did not offer much, but its lakes were teeming with fish, and its forests with game. Traders were able to meet with the same Sámi who also traded with the Norwegians on the Arctic coast, but also with new peoples, the Suomi (Finns), the Kainuans and the Karelians, whose lands bordered on what is now Russia. The local people asked them what they were, and they replied that they wererothr, ‘bands of rowers’. The locals called them Ruotsi, the Finnish word for Sweden to this day.2

In Finland, they discovered an unexpected benefit of the longship. A Viking boat was light enough to be hefted by its crew and dragged out of the water, this much was already known. But in Finland, with hundreds of interconnected navigable lakes, it became possible to sail many miles inland, pulling the ship out of the water and across separating isthmuses of land. The name of Birca had become synonymous with trade, it lent its name to Pirkkala, the ‘Birka place’ near Tampere in modern Finland.3 There, the Swedes traded with the locals, mainly in the furs of animals trapped by hunters in Finland’s endless forests. To this day, the Finnish word for money is raha, ‘pelt’.

The Swedes, however, did not keep pushing eastwards. They ran into the Kainu people along Finland’s eastern borders, a warlike race who excelled at dragging their own boats across the land to the Arctic Sea, and raiding against the Sámi. The Kainuans were already causing trouble for the Norwegians in the far north, and the Swedes preferred to steer clear. They turned instead to the south-east, and Norse sagas would eventually mangle the Kainu region into kvenna-land – the land of the Amazons.4

The Swedes found other things to occupy them further to the south. The ‘Eastland’, southern Baltic countries, Poland and Russia, represented prime raiding territory for early Swedish explorers, whom the locals called Rootsi. The legendary King Ivar the Wide-Grasper supposedly conquered an area corresponding to parts of north Germany and the European Baltic states sometime around the seventh century. Whether Ivar really existed, figures like him certainly explored the rivers and estuaries of the southern and eastern Baltic, and at some point, discovered the largest lake in Europe. Lake Ladoga, in the southernmost part of the Finnish peninsula, is today part of Russian territory, about 25 miles east of St Petersburg. This body of water, occupying some 6,700 square miles, was a vital location on the trade routes. It not only made it possible to sail over a hundred miles into the hinterland, it also brought the light ships within transfer or portage-distance of a series of other rivers and lakes. As they had done in Finland, the Swedes were able to sail from one to the other, negotiating a series of minor barriers until they found themselves on much larger rivers that led to the south – the Dnieper and the mighty Volga. Ladoga takes its name from the Finnish alode-joki, ‘lower river’, a root that was also corrupted to form the name of its original settlement, Aldeigjuborg.5 But the Finnish inhabitants shared the region with Swedes from the earliest days – what archaeologists once assumed to be the Finns’ temple is now thought to be a longhouse that sheltered a sizeable community of Norse traders.

Ladoga archaeologists have yet to find any swords, except for several toy ones fashioned from wood in imitation of Norse originals. The area also revealed a significant amount of Norse jewellery, although who wore it is still open to debate. A Rus cemetery on the other side of the river seems to have been used between 850 and 950. Of the 18 identified graves many are female and wearing Norse jewellery, although it is undetermined whether they are local girls or women from the homeland. Linguistic evidence suggests that even if there were an early population of Scandinavian women with the men, their genes were soon crowded out by those of local people.

Ladoga has yielded no inscriptions apart from a few runes scratched on coins and indistinct runic carvings on a stick, the meaning of which still splits scholars – it has been variously described as an elf-summoning wand, a tribute to a fallen Swede, or perhaps even a poem about an arrow or shield.6

Tree-ring data on the Ladoga buildings tells us that the first Norse settlement was destroyed between 863 and 870, and replaced a few years later with a stronger stone building. This tallies with a description in the early twelfth century Russian Primary Chronicleof a local revolt, in which the new settlers were briefly overthrown, before being invited back:

The Varangians came from beyond the sea and demanded tribute from the Finnish and Slav peoples. They were driven off, but in due course dissension broke out among the people and became so acute that they said ‘Let us find a prince who will rule us and judge justly.’ So they went across the sea to the Varangians, to the Rus, (for the Varangians were called Rus as others were called Swedes, [Northmen], Angles and Goths), and they said to the Rus ‘Our land is large and fruitful, but lacks order. Come over and rule us.’ Three brothers were chosen as rulers, and these three agreed to go over, taking all their family and all the Rus people with them. It is further related that the eldest brother, Rurik, came to Ladoga and built there the town of Aldeigjuborg [Old Ladoga]. The second, Sineus settled near the White Sea [at Byelosersk], and the third, Truvor, at Isborsk in southern Estonia. Two years later, the younger brothers died and Rurik assumed full power, after which he went south and build on the shore of Lake Volkhov the town of Novgorod [Holmgard]. From here, the Rus people spread south . . .7

The relation of Rurik and his ‘brothers’ is fictional – it is no coincidence that each chooses one of the three main lake-routes on which to settle. The confused to-ing and fro-ing of the report suggests something else, that one group of Norse settlers was violently supplanted by another, who later claimed to have native support.8 Whoever they were, they soon established Novgorod and Kiev where they traded with merchants who came up the Dneiper from the Black Sea. There were no offshore islands for natural protection, so the Swedes built heavily defensible enclosures, divided by hundreds of square miles of potentially hostile terrain. The siege mentality led their kinsmen back in Scandinavia to call Russia Gardariki – ‘the place of fortified towns’.

The Vikings soon headed down the Dnieper to see for themselves. Our sources for their travels are far more reliable than the Russian Primary Chronicle: the treatise De Administrando Imperio, written in the mid-tenth century by the Byzantine emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus (‘the Purple-born’). It is thanks to Constantine’s account that we know of the Byzantines’ attitude towards the Vikings, and of the gruelling journey they had to make in order to reach the Miklagard markets.

South of Kiev, wrote Constantine, was the the great forty-mile natural barrier that kept trade to a trickle – seven cataracts where the river surged between forbidding walls of rock, whose names still invoke the sense of terror they must have struck into medieval travellers. The waterfalls and rapids of the Gulper, the Sleepless, the Island-force, and the Yeller, were followed by the greatest barrier of all, Aifur, the Ever-Fierce, or simply Impassable. Beyond Aifur lay the Narrow-force, the Wave-force, the Highcliff-force, the Seether and the Courser. No ship could hope to run the gauntlet of the whirling waters, steep drops and rapids, but as the Vikings soon demonstrated, no ship needed to. They brought their ships out on to the land and, as they had done in the north, simply dragged or carried them alongside the dangerous waters. The brave of heart only portaged their ships around the waterfalls, preferring to chance their luck in the rapids. To do so, men had to struggle naked in the water, feeling out the river-bottom with their feet, guiding their boats with long poles, as the white waters thundered around them and threatened to pitch them into oblivion. A rune stone in distant Gotland records four brothers who went ‘far into Aifur’ and lived to tell the tale, although their friend Hrafn lost his life in the attempt.9

Beyond Aifur and the other barriers, the dangers were easier to deal with. A long journey awaited, and occasional difficulties from the local Pecheneg tribesmen, but essentially, the worst was over. The Vikings were able to sail their ships along a river-road that eventually took them to the Black Sea.

This was the famed road to Miklagard, the ‘Great City’ of Constantinople, where the Vikings were able to sell their furs and slaves for silk and the other luxuries of Byzantine civilization. A number of Rus first arrived in Constantinople in 838, and, according to the Frankish Annales Bertiani, accompanied Byzantine ambassadors to the court of Louis the Pious. Questioned by the Frankish emperor as to their origins, they volunteered their Swedish ancestry, and the claim that they were friends and allies of the Byzantines at that time. They also asked to be allowed passage through Louis’s kingdom to return home, perhaps indicating that they were the first Rus to ever make it all the way downriver to the Black Sea, and did not much like the idea of trying to make their way back up again, through the rapids and the dangerous natives. The Greek-speaking Byzantines also called them something that sounded like Rus, either Rhos, ‘ruddy’, to mark their complexions or, using the term that had once described the attacking Heruls, Rusioi, ‘blonds’.10

An initial trickle of Rus traders was followed by bolder incursions across the Black Sea and eventually an attack on Constantinople itself. Emperor Michael III had conveniently just departed at the head of an army to fight Muslims, leaving the city unprepared for the arrival of 200 hostile vessels. Byzantine sources claim that the attack was only thwarted by divine intervention, when the sacred relic of the Holy Virgin’s Robe was dipped in the sea, causing a tempest to rise up and destroy the attacking fleet. This was news to many, who regarded the attack as a Viking victory.11Of particular embarrassment to the Byzantines who claimed a miraculous triumph was the later news that several of the ‘defeated’ Viking vessels sailed past the city to the Princes’ Islands, where they had sacked the monastery at Terebinthos. In a textbook re-enactment of the attack on distant Lindisfarne, the Vikings plundered the riches of the holy sanctuary and slaughtered 22 monks. Thereafter, the Rus of Kiev attempted to deal with the Byzantines peacefully, and the Byzantines were happy to oblige, until 941, when a second Viking attack came out of the north, led by one Igor (Swedish: Ingvar), later said to be the son of the legendary Rurik.12

Meanwhile, further inroads in Russia and north of the Black Sea brought the Rus into contact with new traders even further to the south and east. The archaeology of Russian Swedish graves tells its own story about the progress of these expeditions. During the eighth century, warriors were laid to rest with grave-goods that reflected their life – a sword or two, a spear, and some trinkets for use in the afterlife. Often, such trinkets include small silver coins, from trading deals by the Swedish Rus with merchants from a distant place the Swedes called Serkland.13 The coins, or dirhams, are marked with strange runes that meant nothing to the Scandinavians. If they had, they would have discovered that one side read: ‘There is no god but Allah.’ On the other, ‘He is Allah, the eternally besought of all, He begetteth not nor was begotten and there is none comparable to him,’ and in increasingly cramped Arabic: ‘He it is who has sent His messenger with the guidance and Religion of Truth, that he may cause it to prevail over all religion, however much the idolaters may be averse.’14

What interested the idolaters of Rus was the silver itself, capitalizing on the sudden flood of the metal in the Muslim world, largely occasioned by the discovery of a rich silver mine in Benjahir, Afghanistan.15 The Islamic world had silver to spare, and the Vikings had the rich furs and white slaves that the Muslims wanted. By the beginning of the ninth century, there is a vast increase in the number of Muslim dirhams, not just in graves of Rus, but in Scandinavia itself, particularly at the trade centres of Gotland, Birka and Hedeby. The Swedes had cut out the middlemen, and established contact directly with the source of the silver. They may have been encouraged by a sharp rise in demand – the first wave of Muslim silver in Rus areas was followed by a second, even larger wave direct to Gotland, implying that the Vikings of the homeland had gone in search of direct trade, and found a market suddenly booming.16 The years 869–883 saw the catastrophic Zanj Rebellion in what is now Iraq, where thousands of black slaves turned on their masters and set up a short-lived independent state. The incident led to an increase in general mistrust of Africans in the Arab world, particularly since some Muslim soldiers of African origin defected to the rebels. This may have contributed to the improved market for white slaves in the Abbasid Caliphate in the early tenth century, and hence encouraged the Vikings in both their trade and the raids that supplied it.

After Birka and Pirkkala, another ‘birch island’ was added to the list, at Berezany in the Crimea, where runic inscriptions have been uncovered.17 Even as some Vikings were dealing with the Byzantines by sailing down the western coast of the Black Sea, others were finding the mouth of the river Don on its northern shores. By 912, they had found the point where it was possible to drag their ships across a narrow neck of land dividing the Don from the Volga, thereby finding the route down the Volga itself, to the trading post of Itil – the Khazar name for the river, transcribed as Atilin Arab sources. South of it lay the Caspian Sea. Throughout the tenth century, the south shores of the Caspian were home to the Samanids, Persian Muslims that supported a strong trade network into the rest of the Abbasid caliphate that ruled the entire Middle East. From the south shores of the Caspian, traders could make their way to Baghdad itself. The journey was not easy but for the merchant with the right merchandise it was worth it – the return journey went back east from Baghdad, north to the Caspian coast, and then up to the environs of Itil as taking around eleven months. Some Muslim traders were prepared to take the risk, and met with the Norsemen who had made the long voyage to Itil.18

The Arab impression of them was not altogether positive. In the tenth century, one Ibn Rustah wrote that the Rus were a people of traders and slavers, ruled by a ‘Khagan-Rus’ (a Rus chieftain) dwelling on an island in a lake, who preyed upon the native population to acquire animal pelts, slaves and other tradeable goods. He also noted that they were intensely quarrelsome among themselves, used to settling disputes through fighting, and prepared to sacrifice human beings to their gods in a ritual that involved hanging.19

The writer Ibn Fadlan, who journeyed to Itil himself, observed in 922 that he had ‘never witnessed more perfect bodies’ than those of the traders he encountered, but also that they were the filthiest of the races created by Allah and ‘as stupid as donkeys’.20 Ibn Fadlan’s account also includes an intriguing description of the Rus traders’ religious observances. Ibn Fadlan notes that each of the Rus traders leaves offerings and prays to a wooden pole, the image of his god, giving careful accounts of the number of slave-girls and furs he has to sell. Most tellingly, Ibn Fadlan recounts the increasing desperation with which unlucky traders return to their gods on successive days, doubling and redoubling their sacrifices, pleading with their deities for a ‘merchant who has many dinars and dirhams, and who will buy whatever I wish to sell’.21 It is not difficult to imagine the consequences of a truly unsuccessful trip to Itil. A group of traders would have battled their way down the Dnieper from Kiev, wading through the freezing rapids of the cataracts, sailing through potentially hostile Pecheneg and Khazar territory, dragging their ship across a wilderness and into the Volga, and thence to the remote encampment of Itil, only to discover that Arab traders were not in the mood for buying. What use, then, would be their cargo of furs and slaves? Doubtless such lean times, for traders with nothing left to lose, were the origin of ‘Viking raids’ on the southern Caspian in 864, 910 and 912, when fleets sacked Abasgun, Baku and Azerbaijan.

By 943, the Muslim merchants in Itil were dwindling, and the few remaining were telling stories of a lack of demand back home. Although the Vikings cannot have known it, their traders told the truth – the supplies of the Afghan silver mines were running out, leading to a financial crisis across the Islamic world. Demand fell for luxuries like fur and slave-girls, and for those Rus unlucky enough to make the arduous journey for no reward, the consequences were predictable. That year a Viking fleet captured the town of Berda near Baku, but was defeated by a Muslim counter-assault, and an outbreak of dysentery. Their enemies showed them no mercy even in the afterlife, looting their buried corpses of their grave-goods.22

The sudden reduction of Arab silver would have an effect elsewhere in the Viking world, and may have ultimately led to Svein Forkbeard’s search for new revenues in England (see Chapter Eight). The lean times in the Arab world were also a probable cause of renewed pressure on the Byzantines. In 941, Rurik’s son Igor sailed on Constantinople once more. This time, the numbers were serious, with conservative estimates placing the fleet at over a thousand ships. Byzantium was caught, once again, almost unawares, with the army of Romanus I fighting Muslims in the east, and his navy spread thinly across the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. News of the fleet’s approach reached Constantinople early, the reward for renewed diplomatic links between the Byzantine Empire and the Bulgars through whose territory the Vikings passed. The Bulgars made no attempt to stop the fleet, but did get a message to Constantinople that trouble was on the way.

With no other option, the Byzantine shipwrights dragged everything remotely seaworthy into service, refitting 15 old vessels that had been earmarked for scrap. The ships were kitted with launchers for Greek fire, and sent on 11 June to block the Bosphorus, that tiny strait which forms the portal from the Black Sea to Constantinople and the Mediterranean. It was a pitiful attempt at defence, but Greek fire was not something for which the Vikings were prepared.23 Normal fire was one thing, but the Byzantines had a secret ingredient that made their flames impossible to douse with mere water.24 The front line of the approaching Viking fleet was engulfed in the mysterious flame, and the other ships hastily turned. They headed east, and Constantinople was saved, although the remainder of the Viking fleet wrought havoc along the northern Black Sea coast of what is now modern Turkey, particularly among the inhabitants of the local monasteries, with only occasional resistance.

Before long, the remainder of the Byzantine fleet had been successfully recalled to the Black Sea, and stood in wait for the Vikings on their homeward voyage. The Vikings made the fatal error of trying to return by the way in which they had come, past Byzantium itself, where their fleet was met by an overwhelming mass of Byzantine ships, many armed with Greek fire. Few Vikings made it back alive; Igor himself was only saved by the shallow draft of his ship, allowing him to seek refuge in waters where the Byzantine ships could not follow him. He was back in 944, with an even bigger fleet, sailing alongside an army that marched on the land – all the better to present a double-pronged threat to the Byzantines. But Igor’s new attempt never made it to Constantiople – instead, Romanus met him at the Danube and negotiated a detailed treaty.

Both sides came away convinced that they had the upper hand. Romanus had a guarantee that Vikings would only be permitted on Byzantine soil in unarmed groups of fifty, and that a tax was to be levied on trade. Igor could be satisfied with reciprocal military agreements that guaranteed his merchants a much safer passage south of the cataracts. But posterity would show Romanus was the true victor, in the spiritual sphere initially – conditions were now favourable for Byzantine missionaries to travel to Kiev and Novgorod, and their most influential convert was Igor’s own wife. She is known as Olga in the Russian Primary Chronicle, but was Helga to the Swedes, another sign of the slow slide of Viking Rus into true Russian. She came from a rich family in the north, and if Rurik’s younger brother existed, may even have been his descendant. Soon after Igor’s treaty with Romanus, the Viking leader met with an untimely end at the cataracts, murdered by Pecheneg tribesmen of the Drevljane.25

The Drevljane were attempting to grab for power like the Vikings, hoping to control the rivers and thereby trade between the Black Sea and Baltic. With that in mind Mal, prince of the Drevljane, made a proposal of marriage to Igor’s widow, hoping thereby to bring the lands of the Rus within his own control. So, at least, claims the Russian Primary Chronicle, in a story that grows progressively less believeable, but which has stayed with us because it became incorporated into hagiography.

Mal soon discovered the true nature of his bride-to-be, when he heard of how she ordered his ambassadors thrown in a trench, and asked them if they found her honour to their taste, even as her men shovelled earth and buried the Drevljane alive. Olga then embarked on a campaign of revenge herself, ending in a year-long siege of the Drevljane capital. Eventually, she consented to a truce, asking only for a tribute of six live birds per household. When this strangest of taxes was handed over, she had her men wrap sulphur tapers to the birds’ legs and sent them flying home to their nests under the eaves, causing a terrible conflagration.26

The story is doubtful, of course, not the least because it is one of several bird-arson tales to be found in Viking legend. But other elements ring true, particularly Olga’s decision in the aftermath to leave many of the Drevljane free, all the better to tax them. For it was in the regency of Olga, as her son Svyatoslav reached maturity, that the Swedish Rus began to institutionalize the collection of revenue from the conquered areas. Each autumn, as the trading season came to an end, the rulers of the Rus would begin theirpolyudie, a progress among the peoples of the surrounding area to collect tribute, be it in money, furs, slaves or services. In typical Viking style, the ruling class of nascent Russia would leech off their neighbours when times were hardest, returning to their bases of Kiev and Novgorod in the spring, ready for a new season of trading with the south. Olga put a stop to the charade, instead setting up a system of government-salaried tax inspectors, extorting her protection money in a more civilized manner.

As for Olga, she began paying tribute to a higher power. After ruling in the name of her son Svyatoslav, she found a new faith in the Christian God, and set aside her warlike ways. At the instigation of her mentor, a missionary called Father Gregory, she even made a pilgrimage to Constantinople, there to be baptized in the cathedral of Hagia Sophia itself. But Olga had a rude awakening on her arrival in Constantinople. She expected to be feted as a visiting dignitary, bearing gifts of gold plate, and proclaiming that her baptismal name was to be Helena, in honour of the current empress. But the emperor Constantine VII, son-in-law of Romanus I, had a different view, assuming that Olga was coming to pay tribute to Constantinople as a representative of a vassal state. In his eyes, he honoured her by permitting her to dine with the ladies-in-waiting. Olga returned to Kiev, still a Christian, but embarrassed enough at her treatment to send envoys to Germany in search of Catholic priests, hoping perhaps to have better treatment from them than at the hands of the Eastern Orthodox nobility.

Despite the occasional disagreement with her son, Olga did not have to endure an outright challenge from him – the closest they came to an argument was over his pagan polygamy, of which Olga sternly disapproved.27 But after Olga, later Saint Olga, was laid to rest in 969, her son did not wait long before renewing war with Constantinople.

Svyatoslav himself led a campaign along the river Volga to Itil, where he destroyed the centre of the Khazar people who opposed Viking passage to the Caspian Sea. That, at least, was the official excuse – it is more likely that the Khazars were getting the blame for the drop in the flow of Muslim silver. When this led to no appreciable improvement in trade with the Muslim world, Svyatsolav did what any self-respecting Viking leader would, with a financial crisis looming and a large number of unoccupied warriors – he marched on Constantinople, with an army of Rus alongside tributary battalions from the conquered Pechenegs, Magyars and Bulgarians.

With Constantinople ruled by the usurper John Tzimisces, Svyatoslav sought restitution – he believed, or at least it was his excuse, that Tzimisces had reneged on an earlier Emperor’s offer to pay Svyatoslav to fight the Bulgarians. But when Tzimisces offered to pay his predecessor’s debt, Svyatoslav made it clear that there would be no negotiation:

If you reject my proposals, you will have no choice, you and your subjects, but to leave Europe forever, where you have scarcely any territory left to call your own and where you have no right to dwell. Retire then to Asia [Minor], and leave Constantinople to us.28

Tzimisces had hoped that the sight of supremely disciplined Byzantine troops would be enough to put Svyatoslav to flight. His generals were able to win small victories against some of the auxiliaries. The battle against the Rus themselves, fought at Arcadiopolis (modern Lülebargaz), was a tougher affair. But the Byzantines, hardened in countless battles in the east, eventually won, forcing the surviving Rus to retreat. In 972, John Tzimisces pursued Svyatoslav into Bulgaria, ‘liberating’ the region from its conqueror, and besieging the former invaders in Dristra (modern Silistra). After a three-month siege, Svyatoslav made a desperate attempt to hack his way through the Byzantine army, but failed. Humiliated, he called for a meeting with Tzimisces, who was of Armenian descent, short of stature with dark-blond hair and a red beard. Svyatoslav, despite his Slavic name, still had Viking genes – his head was shaved, but for two long locks of blond hair, the mark of rulership in his Rus culture, and a long Scandinavian-style moustache. Suitably cowed, the Rus leader politely expressed his hope that the old treaty would continue to be honoured, and then rowed back to his people.

However, Svyatoslav was not so lucky on his return journey. The Pechenegs had permitted his army to pass through their territory unhindered on the promise of a cut of the loot, and Syvatoslav was returning home empty-handed. The locals allowed him and his starving men to get as far as the cataracts of the Dnieper, where they ambushed them during the vulnerable portage process. Svyatoslav was killed, and the rulership of the Princedom of Kiev passed to his sons Jaropolk and Oleg.

It was a third son, Vladimir, overlord of Holmgard (Novgorod), who became the eventual ruler of Russia. Since he was the bastard offspring of Svyatoslav and a guard-captain’s daughter, this outlying, unimportant town seemed suitable for him. Its northerly position, however, put it much closer to Scandinavia. Novgorod, it is thought, was the place of exile where Vladimir’s contemporary Olaf Crowbone grew to manhood (see Chapter Six), and sagas relate several tales of the young Vikings’ friendship.29 It was thanks to Vladimir’s proximity to the old country that he was able to call on Viking aid. In the inevitable power struggle that ensued between him and his brothers around 978–80, Vladimir arrived in Russia with an army of fresh recruits from Sweden, killed his brothers, and became the ruler of many pagan peoples. Vladimir’s coup may also have revitalized the population with more Scandinavians and allowed it to preserve its Norse identity for another generation or so. The original ‘Rus’ had largely gone native by this time, replaced by semi-Slavic descendants. Vladimir’s mercenary ‘Varangians’ from Sweden, many of whom stayed, brought stronger connections once more to the motherland.30

Vladimir was not a pagan for long. In far Constantinople, the new emperor Basil II, ‘the Bulgar-Slayer’ invoked the terms of his predecessor’s treaty with Svyatoslav, and Vladimir was obliged to send 6,000 Viking soldiers to serve him. Beleaguered by no less than three challengers, themselves backed by reinforcements from Baghdad and Georgia, Basil II badly needed help. Vladimir insisted on a terrible price for his aid – the hand in marriage of the emperor’s sister Anna. Contemporary writers present this as a mismatch of almost horrific proportions, a 25-year-old beauty, led weeping to the altar where waited a savage Viking beast who already had four other official wives and, it was later said, 800 concubines. Vladimir was, after all, the man one German chronicler called fornicator immensus et crudelis, whose second wife, Rogned, became his when he raped her in front of her terrified family in Polotsk.31 Princess Anna accused her brothers of selling her into slavery, and her fears seem well founded.

But Vladimir was most insistent. He had kept his end of the bargain, and his 6,000 warriors turned the tide in Basil II’s war. Many of them were to stay and form units within the household troops, the first of the famous Varangian Guard. When the weeks turned into months and there was still no sign of his new bride, Vladimir showed the Byzantines what could happen when treaties were broken – he attacked the Crimea, in blatant defiance of another of Svyatoslav’s promises.32 Realizing that the Crimean campaign was a prelude to yet another Viking assault on Constantinople itself, Basil II caved in, although he did insist that Vladimir set aside his allegiance to the Thunder God, and instead accept Christian baptism.

If it was an attempt to call Vladimir’s bluff, it failed. Vladimir was no stranger to Christianity, having grown up in the shadow of his grandmother, Saint Olga. He accepted, the extremely reluctant Princess Anna arrived with a group of priests, and Vladimir was baptized in Kiev. The marriage and attendant conversion was, says one authority, ‘perhaps the most fateful religious ceremony in Russian history’.33 It linked the fate of the Rus with that of the rulers of Constantinople and it led to the conversion, over a long period, of thousands of Vladimir’s subjects. Most importantly of all for posterity, it locked Russia into the orbit and influence of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

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