Globetrotting Vikings: The Quest for Constantinople
(History) No place on Earth was as coveted by the Vikings as Constantinople, but the Scandinavian warriors could never breach the formidable defenses of the world’s richest city in spite of repeated attacks. It was only after the Vikings became the personal bodyguards of the Byzantine emperor that they grabbed a piece of Constantinople’s wealth.
The epic voyages of the Vikings to the British Isles, Iceland, North America and points west tend to obscure the fact that the Scandinavian warriors also ventured far to the east across Europe and parts of Asia. While the Danes and Norwegians sailed west, Swedish fighters and traders traveled in the opposite direction, enticed initially by the high-quality silver coins minted by the Abbasid Caliphate that sprawled across the Middle East.
These Vikings who crossed the Baltic Sea and descended across Eastern Europe were branded “Rus”—possibly derived from “ruotsi,” a Finnish word for the Swedes meaning “a crew of oarsmen” and the term from which Russia receives its name. As the Rus migrated down the Dnieper and Volga Rivers, they established settlements along trade routes to the Black and Caspian Seas and conquered the native Slavic populations in present-day Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.
By the middle of the ninth century, Rus merchants turned up in Baghdad. The capital of the Abbasid Caliphate may have been the world’s largest city with a population of more than one million people, but it failed to capture the Viking imagination like Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire that was said to harbor even greater riches.
“Silk and gold are the big lures,” says John Haywood, who chronicles the exploits of the Scandinavian raiders on four continents in his new book, “Northmen: The Viking Saga AD 793-1241.” “The Rus would have heard stories about the riches of Constantinople. The big attraction in trade was silk, which was a massively prestigious product for which they traded slaves, furs, beeswax and honey with the Byzantines. Constantinople was also one of the few places that still had gold coins, which were in short supply compared to the Roman period.”
Painting of The Invitation of the Varangians: Rurik and his brothers arrive in Staraya Ladoga.