Viking Exploration and Colonization

Exploration and Colonization in the North Atlantic (870–1000)

At about the same time that Alfred was beginning his heroic defence of Wessex against the great army (c.870), intrepid Norwegian mariners began exploring the ‘islands’ of the North Atlantic known to the ancients and contemporary historians like Bede as Thule – basically the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland and eventually Newfoundland. The first known Icelandic historian, Ari Thorgilsson, wrote in his early twelfth-century Íslendingabók (‘Book of the Icelanders’) that ‘Iceland was first settled in the days of Harald the Fine-Haired … 870 years after the birth of Christ’. Another Icelandic source, the Landnámabók (‘Book of Settlements’) written around 1100, purported that the motivation for such extreme emigration was the desire to escape the tyrannical rule of Harald Finehair, the first king of a united Norway who reigned from 872 to 930. Tradition has it that Harald won suzerainty over all Norway by defeating a coalition of Viking chieftains from the southwest, principally Rogaland, in the Battle of Hafrsfjord (near Stavanger) in 872. According to Snorre Sturlason, who wrote the Heimskringla, a history of the Norse kings, the decisive moment in that encounter came when Harald’s longship overwhelmed that of Tore Haklang, ‘a mighty berserk’. From then on, Harald imposed his will on the whole land, taxing everyone – a condition considered intolerable by many: hence the great exodus.

In all probability, however, the real reason was much more pragmatic: the sparsely inhabited islands of the North Atlantic offered Norwegian farmer-hunters unexploited lands similar to their own with little or no competition. The soil was virgin and such sought-after fauna as whales, walruses, seals and reindeer were abundant. Hence these Norse adventurers were willing to dare the savage seas of the North Atlantic in ships which provided little shelter. To be sure, they almost certainly disdained the slender, light longships used for raiding in favour of more stoutly built cargo ships designed to carry their livestock and household goods through the high sea states of what Norwegian mariners called the ‘North Way’. The most plausible vessel for these kinds of voyage was the knarr, best represented by the Skuldelev 1 ship found at Roskilde. Measuring 16.3m (53ft 6in) long by 4.5m (15ft) wide by 2.1m (7ft) deep, it was of sturdy construction with a relatively broad bow and a high freeboard, giving it a capacity of around 24 tons. Equipped with a few oars, it was primarily designed to be sailed by a crew of only six to eight men. The Saga Siglar, a reconstruction of the Skuldelev 1 ship, reached speeds of up to 10 knots in ‘extreme weather conditions’.

The first man to have made the voyage to Iceland was supposedly a Norwegian named Ingólfr who settled at Reykjavík on the island’s southwest coast. Ari Thorgilsson stated that ‘Iceland was fully settled in sixty years, so that no further settlement was made after that’. This implies that the best plots of land were all taken by 930, about the time the first Althing, a general assembly of freemen for legislation and adjudication, was convened at Thingvellir (‘Thing Plain’) just outside Reykjavík – the island’s first permanent settlement. A dispute in 962 prompted the partitioning of the island into four well defined territories called ‘quarters’, each with its own intermediate assembly. Clearly, arable land was becoming a limited commodity, fostering further exploration and emigration. Consequently, Ari related how in around 985 a certain Erik the Red discovered, on a voyage from Iceland, a land to the west which he named ‘Greenland’ to entice others. The objective was obviously colonization, because the sagas stated that he thoroughly explored it. On his second expedition he led a fleet of twenty-five ships, presumably carrying whole families with all their belongings for settlement. The fact that only fourteen of these vessels actually arrived in Greenland is grim evidence of how perilous such voyages were, even in the summer months with ships built for the purpose.

The foregoing makes the sagas’ version of the subsequent discovery of Vinland (North America) all the more credible. Both sagas which described the event, the Grœnlendinga saga (‘Saga of the Greenlanders’) and the Eiríks saga rauða (‘Saga of Erik the Red’), said that it occurred when ships bound from Iceland or Norway to Greenland around the turn of the millennium veered off course. The former saga gave credit for the discovery to a certain Bjarni Herjólfsson, while the latter claimed Erik’s son Leif the Lucky was responsible. Leif was certainly involved in the handful of voyages that followed. The exact location of Vinland remains uncertain, but the only archaeological evidence of these expeditions to date is the small cluster of turf-walled structures located at L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland.

No permanent Viking presence was apparently ever established on Vinland due to an inimical environment populated by a hostile indigenous people. Nor did any of the Norse settlements on Greenland persist into the modern era. Given the state of maritime technology and navigation at the time, both these colonial experiments were simply too isolated to survive in such forbidding surroundings. Iceland, on the other hand, converted to Christianity in 1000 and gradually became reabsorbed into Norway’s sphere of influence, beginning with a treaty with King Olaf Haraldsson in 1025 which confirmed the rights of Icelanders in the realm in return for a tariff. Iceland officially accepted the king’s authority around 1262.

Expansion Eastwards through Trade (750–989)

Just as the Norwegians led the way westwards, the Svear of what would become modern Sweden spread eastwards along the great rivers of European Russia. The incentive for them was not new farmland, but slaves, furs and Arabian silver – items they acquired by mercantile means, for raiding was not as profitable an option as it was in western Europe. Initially at least, there were few monasteries and wealthy towns along the waterways of eastern Europe to victimize. Moreover, riverine travel was difficult, often requiring the negotiation of rapids and rushing currents in small, light craft (probably monoxyla), which occasionally had to be portaged for substantial distances over rough terrain. ‘In European Russia, by contrast,’ notes Thomas Noonan of the University of Minnesota, ‘the Scandinavians had to organize local systems to collect the natural wealth, and then establish trade centres and trading routes to market these goods.’

The first of these trading centres was founded around 750 at Staraja Ladoga near the north end of the Gulf of Finland on the Volkhov river about 13km (8 miles) from where it joins the massive Lake Ladoga. Called Aldeigjuborg by its Norse founders, it was the gateway to a set of river routes which flowed across the Eurasian landmass all the way to the rich markets of Byzantium and the Islamic Caliphate. From trading entrepôts such as Birka on Björkö (‘Birch Island’) in Lake Mälaren of modern Sweden, Scandinavian merchants like the Svear would sail across the Baltic into the Gulf of Finland, then row up the river Neva to Lake Ladoga. At the southern end of the lake they would find the mouth of the Volkhov and a short distance upriver on the left bank lay Aldeigjuborg. From there, the Varangians, as they were known to the Greeks and Slavs, had a choice of two basic routes, depending upon their intended destination. Those wishing to reach Constantinople would normally head for the Dnieper river by rowing south along the Volkhov to Novgorod at the north end of Lake Ilmen. From there, they would travel down the Lovat river and the Western Dvina to the headwaters of the Dnieper river, which flowed past Kyiv into the Black Sea, and finally, of course, via the Bosporus to Constantinople. Those Varangians journeying to the Caliphate made their way via the mighty Volga. They joined it from Lake Ladoga either by the rivers Sias and Mologa north of Rostov or via the river Svir to Lakes Onega and Beloya to the river Syeksna and finally to the Volga, which flowed into the Caspian Sea at Itil.

The most often travelled, and thus the most lucrative, route seems to have been the Dnieper. Its terminus was the wealthiest city of the western world at the time: Constantinople. The Annals of St-Bertin revealed that the Varangians had been journeying there since before 839, when Swedish envoys sent by the Emperor Theophilos arrived in the court of Louis the Pious at Ingelheim. Moreover, the southern end of the Dnieper route could be used to connect to the Volga route. The Varangians naturally sought to control it, particularly the major trading settlements of Novgorod and Kiev. Their desire for domination revealed itself as early as 859, when the Rus Primary Chronicle (a twelfth-century history of Kyiv) noted, ‘The Varangians from beyond the sea imposed tribute upon the Chuds, the Slavs, the Merians, the Ves, and the Krivichians [basically the Finns and East Slavs of northwestern Russia].’ But according to the Rus Primary Chronicle (also known as Nestor’s Chronicle or ‘The Tale of Bygone Years’), their first opportunity to extend rule over the region came in 862. The Finns and East Slavs threw off the yoke of their foreign oppressors, but found it difficult to govern themselves, so they invited a group of Varangians led by a certain Riurik and his brothers to rule over them. They called them the ‘Rus’, a name believed to have been derived from the Finnish word for the Svear, Ruotsi (meaning ‘rowers’). Hence the realm of the ‘Rus’, which would eventually give its name to modern Russia, came into being.

Riurik based himself at Novgorod. His two brothers passed away shortly thereafter, leaving him to rule alone. Thus was born the Riurikid dynasty of the Rus. After consolidating his hold on the northwest, Riurik dispatched two of his followers, Askold and Dir, to Kyiv, which was ruled by the Khazars at the time. The two eventually assembled enough Varangians to assume control of city and the surrounding territory. Within a few years they felt strong enough to challenge the Byzantine empire itself. In the early 860s they ravaged Greek possessions on the Black Sea with a fleet of 200 ships and even engineered an abortive assault on the environs of Constantinople itself. Riurik died in 879, entrusting the realm to his kinsman Oleg while his own son Igor remained a minor. By 882 Oleg had slain Askold and Dir, setting himself up as the ‘prince of Kyiv’. At this point the Riurikids ruled what Noonan calls a ‘tributary domain from the Polish frontiers to the upper Volga’. The Rus of Kiev then shifted their covetous gaze to the riches of Constantinople.

The Varangians of Kyiv soon began to menace the Byzantines. The Rus wanted to increase trade with Constantinople, but the imperial court, wary of Varangian intentions ever since the raid of the early 860s, resisted. Oleg was not to be deterred. He ravaged the environs of the capital in 907 with a huge fleet. (The Rus Primary Chronicle gave the extravagant estimate of 2,000 ships.) The assault ultimately failed, but Oleg kept up the pressure until Emperor Leo VI finally agreed to a treaty in 912, granting the Rus access to Constantinople. His successor Igor, having come of age, returned in 941 evidently bent on conquest. The ‘Grand Prince of Kyiv’ was said by both the Rus Primary Chronicle and John Skylitzes to have brought a gargantuan armada of some 10,000 vessels with him. Liudprand of Cremona gave the less outlandish figure of 1,000 and indicated that the ‘Rusan ships’ were quite small so that they could ‘move in very shallow water’ – like the river Dnieper linking Kyiv to the Black Sea.

Whatever the exact number of their fleet, the Varangians soon learned the horrible efficacy of ‘Greek fire’. While the Rus ravaged the littorals of the Black Sea, Emperor Romanos I Lekapenos commanded the Protovestiarios Theophanes to equip what vessels he could find in the harbour of Constantinople (‘fifteen old battered galleys’ – probably dromōns) with ‘fire throwers’, i.e., ‘Greek fire’ siphons. The rest of the Byzantine fleet was elsewhere dealing with the empire’s Muslim adversaries. Theophanes met the Rus in calm seas at the northern entrance to the Bosporus. Liudprand of Cremona described what happened next: ‘As they lay, surrounded by the enemy, the Greeks began flinging their fire all around; and the Rusi seeing the flames threw themselves in haste from their ships, preferring to be drowned in the water rather than burned alive in the fire.’ John Skylitzes confirmed the rout of the Rus: ‘Many of their vessels were reduced to cinders with Greek fire while the rest were utterly routed.’ And the Rus Primary Chronicle gave grim testimony to the profound impact the episode had on the Kyivan Rus: ‘When they [the Rus survivors] came once more to their native land, where each one recounted to his kinsfolk the course of events and described the fire launched from the ships, they related that the Greeks had in their possession the lightning from heaven and had set them on fire by pouring it forth, so that the Rusi could not conquer them.’

Despite some militant posturing by Igor in 944, relations improved appreciably in the aftermath. The Byzantines and the Rus confirmed their commercial ties with a new treaty in 945. Following Igor’s death while trying to collect tribute from a tribe of East Slavs called the Derevlians, his widow Olga came to Constantinople and converted to Christianity in 948. Varangians of various sorts began hiring themselves out to the Byzantine court in ever greater numbers. They were probably among the formidable forces that Nikephoros Phokas used to reclaim Crete for the empire in 961. In 988 Grand Prince Vladimir accepted baptism and the hand of the emperor’s sister, Anna Porphyrogenita. The following year he sent several thousand Varangians to his new brother-in-law Basil II to aid him in his struggle to suppress the rebellion of Bardas Phokas. Within a decade the famed Varangian Guard had become a well-established institution of the Byzantine court. One of its most renowned members, Harald Sigurdsson (known as Hardrada or ‘Hard Ruler’), the future king of Norway, was among the Varangians who accompanied Giorgios Maniakes on the abortive Byzantine invasion of ‘Saracen’ Sicily in 1038.

1 thought on “Viking Exploration and Colonization

  1. Rus’ and Russia are NOT synonymous terms.
    Kyiv was never a Russian city, it was merely occupied by Russia at times, this did
    not make it Russian. Russian history starts with Moscow after the fall of Kyiv to the
    Mongols in 1240. As you indeed point out, the Russians are an amalgam of
    Finn and Slavic tribes that became unified under Mongol rule. The “Rus’ Primary
    Chronicle” (NOT “Russian Primary Chronicle”) makes all this quite clear. And
    Moscow did not exist during the golden years of Kyivan Rus’, and that is a FACT!
    So please clean up this article and stop appeasing the Russians, they are NOT Rus’!


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