Is there any truth to this siege? Did Rus warriors really make it to the famous walls of the Queen of cities?

Same empire, under new management

Whenever one attempts to tell a history of the Vikings, the fall of the Western Roman Empire is normally seen as a starting point. 

The withdrawal of Roman legions and eventual collapse of the stability, security, and infrastructure throughout western Europe – and the centuries it took for polities to rebuild this – was a key reason for how the Vikings were able to raid and roam so freely and devastatingly. 

One of the great alternative histories would have been judging how Viking warriors would have gone up against the might of the Roman legions.

The collapse of the Western Roman Empire by the late 5th century CE was not the end of the Roman story. More than a century earlier, in 330 CE, the Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great, had founded a city (which he renamed "New Rome") on the site of the existing Byzantium, a bustling port city settled in 657 BCE by Greek colonists. 

Constantine had grand plans, moving the capital of the Roman Empire away from Rome, which, he thought, was too far from the provinces and had become a corrupt cesspit of cynical and greedy politicians. His new Rome was the perfect place, with easy access to the Mediterranean, Black Sea, the Danube River, and the Euphrates frontier and with all the wealth of the Asian provinces at hand.

A New Rome on the Bosporus

The new city was modeled after Rome, divided into 14 regions with great palaces, temples, and even an 80,000-seat hippodrome for those beloved Roman chariot races. 

Yet, it was Constantine's later successor, Theodosius II, who made his biggest mark on the city. Following the fall of the (original) Rome and the subsequent "barbarian" invasions of the former Roman provinces in Western Europe, Emperor Theodosius II built, in the early 5th century CE, the famous 18 meter / 60 feet thick triple walls around the city that would not be breached for another millennium. 

It was also seen, from the reign of Constantine onwards, as the "cradle" of Orthodox Christianity, with the magnificent Hagia Sophia cathedral (built c. 360 CE) typifying the city's spiritually impressive role.

By the beginning of the Viking Age (c. 793 – 1066 CE), the Roman Empire (the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire was a later term used by historians, the people living in Constantinople thought of themselves as Romans) had become the largest, richest, and most politically impressive of polities in Europe with its long cultural history, and military traditions, stretching back to the beginnings of the Roman Republic. 

From the mid-5th to mid-13th centuries CE, Constantinople was a rich jewel straddling the strategically important Bosporus Strait.

The river trading Rus

Though there is still some academic debate about the origin of the Rus people, the general consensus is that they originated around what is now the eastern coast of Sweden sometime in the 8th century CE. 

The name, Rus, is said to hark back to the Old Norse term for "men who row" (rods-), which is exactly how they exploited the waters of the Baltic Region and into the river systems of Eastern Europe. 

These were Norse people (i.e., peoples from Viking societies) who dominated this area of Eastern Europe and Russia from the 8th to 11th centuries CE.

From the early 9th century CE, Norse settlers began to settle in the lower basin of the Volkhov River, an area that comprises the modern region surrounding Smolensk and Saint Petersburg. 

The river systems of Eastern Europe soon became part of an important trade network that linked the Roman Empire with the Islamic world and Western Europe. The nexus of this trading hub was, you guessed it, Constantinople.

This great city is strategically placed near the Black Sea, which many river systems in Eastern Europe empty out into. This means that the Rus could simply sail and trade their way down the river systems and end up at the richest and most economically bustling city in Europe of the time. 

Here the traders could exchange furs, wood, and iron, from the North, for precious jewels, silver, exotic spices, and wine obtained from the Mediterranean world, West Asia, and beyond.

For the Rus, Constantinople was Miklagard – "The Great City," and there is no doubt that these traders from the steppes of Eurasia were overwhelmed with the pomp, ceremony, and grandeur of this New Rome. 

According to a Russian source, on June 18, 860 CE, a fleet of up to 200 Viking longships sailed into the Bosporus Strait and began to lay siege to the suburbs of Constantinople. Illustration: The Viking Herald

So did they lay siege to Constantinople?

The first mention we have of a Rus siege of Constantinople is in Russian chronicles, which were compiled in 1786 CE during the reign of Catherine the Great. 

According to the chronicles, the Romans had constructed a fort on the Don River, which restricted the Rus' trading capabilities. There is an old saying that when money doesn't flow across borders, soldiers do, and this appears to be the cause of the siege. The Rus were not happy with the Don River being restricted and made their move in mid-June 860 CE.

At sunset on June 18, a fleet of up to 200 Rus vessels – the dreaded Viking longships – sailed into the Bosporus Strait and began to lay siege to the suburbs of Constantinople. The Rus set about doing what the Rus do best in times of war: devastatingly deadly attacks. Civilians were killed or drowned, their houses burnt, and rape, pillage, and plunder were the order of the day.

The Roman Emperor, Michael III (also known by the less than flattering nickname, Michael the Drunkard), was said to be away on campaign with his entire fleet, trying to invade the Abbasid Caliphate. 

Constantinople was left more or less undefended. The Rus had learned, possibly via their trading network, of the schedule for Michael's campaign and then launched a surprise attack on the city. This was a very common Viking tactic, utilizing the element of surprise.

Behind those thick Theodosian walls, the city quaked with fear. When the Emperor was away on campaign, the archbishop of Constantinople, Patriarch Photios I, was left in charge. With no military might to call on, he looked above for spiritual help. 

He urged, in one of his sermons, for the residents to call on Theotokos (Greek for "The Mother of God," i.e., Mary) for help. The attack was, according to Photios, "like a thunderbolt from heaven."

After more than six weeks of pillage and plunder, the Rus retreated in early August 860 CE.

Did it happen, though?

So why did the Vikings retreat all of a sudden? If we are to believe later Byzantine sources, it is because of spiritual and military aid. 

Emperor Michael and his navy – with their technologically advanced "Greek fire" – eventually heard about the siege and came back to the rescue. 

He was said to have taken an icon of Theotokos along with the Patriarch and thrown it into the sea. This was said to have caused a tempest, which afflicted the Rus' vessels.

Modern historians and academics have laid serious doubt on whether this siege happened at all. Given the high standards of literacy (for the early medieval period) in the Roman Empire, an account of this siege would definitely have been recorded in multiple sources. 

And yet we have no contemporary accounts or chronicles of this siege mentioned anywhere – amongst Roman, Arab, or Rus sources.

Yet within the space of a century – more than a millennium later - we have two instances of this siege popping up in the historical record.

The first, as mentioned, was during the reign of Catherine the Great. With her Russian Empire constantly pushing further south, with the aim of recapturing Constantinople, the cradle of Eastern Orthodoxy, for Christian Europe, this account of a Rus siege plays well into this objective. 

The Russian Empire saw the Rus as their cultural ancestors. Unlike them, she wanted to be successful in capturing Constantinople. Furthermore, like the Romans, Catherine the Great saw herself as fending over great hordes of "barbarians" (especially in the south and east of her empire) as the great Orthodox Christian polity of Europe.

Over a century later, in 1894 CE, we have our second historical "find" of an account of this siege. The 19th-century historian, Franz Cumont, found an undated account in a library in Brussels. 

This account, a manuscript bought in 1611 CE, though undated, gives a detailed account of this siege as well as the later Latin conquest of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade – two events affecting the city but separated by more than four centuries.

So a piece of Russian political propaganda from the 18th century CE and an undated manuscript said to be acquired in the early 17th century CE but presumably much older are the only "records" of this siege passed down to us.

Whether the Vikings actually laid siege to Constantinople in 860 CE is still a subject of debate in scientific circles. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Later events

Whether the Vikings laid siege to Constantinople in 860 CE is yet to be conclusively proven, but this was not the end of the Roman interaction with the Rus. 

For almost the next two centuries, the Rus fought a series of naval raids against the Roman Empire. However, this interaction between the two peoples was not always violent. Orthodox missionaries went back with Rus traders and began the process of the Christianization of the Rus and the East Slavs, which would last until the 11th century CE.

Flowing in the opposite direction were Rus warriors (who the Romans called "Varangians") who would eventually join the Imperial army and form an elite praetorian guard. 

This "Varangian Guard" included the most elite Viking warriors and would later be commanded by Harald Hardrada, one time King of Norway, whose death at Stamford Bridge in 1066 CE is used, by some historians,  as the bookend of the so-called "Viking Age."

In the years after this supposed siege, the Rus would go on to found a state that is now known as the Kievan Rus (c. 882 – 1240 CE). This included a huge swathe of Eastern Europe and European Russia, from the White Sea to the Black Sea, and saw a Rus elite rule over, and later assimilate with, local Slavic and Finnic peoples. 

Kiev, Minsk, and Novgorod were established and became important cities during this period, whilst Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine today claim this state as their cultural ancestor.

For more on the Varangian Guard, read an article on them by Heritage Daily Magazine, available here.

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