The Vikings And Their Eastern Expansion

People know about the Vikings in England, but what about the Viking’s eastern expansion? The Danelaw in England was just …

People know about the Vikings in England, but what about the Viking’s eastern expansion? The Danelaw in England was just a speck compared to the land carved out during the Viking’s eastern expansion into Russia and Ukraine. Read on and learn more about that lesser-known group of Scandinavian marauders who expanded their territory to the east. 

Vikings and other raiders of Eastern Europe

In the early Middle Ages, many of the tribes living in Central, South, and Eastern Europe were raiders. One almost had to be to survive. Raiding someone else before they could get to you might mean extra food, silver, and gold for status, jewelry, to pay for food and other goods, and slaves. It “paid” to raid, or at least unite with others to do so. 

The Bulgars, Croats, and Magyars (today’s Hungarians) were only three of the many tribes and cultures that made raiding a way of life. The Magyars were so mobile and their archers so good that they instilled fear as far as the eastern border of Frankia (today’s France). Further east, the Pechenegs and the Khazars, ruled and raided the vast plains of today’s Ukraine and southern Russia. 

Swedish Vikings were not “Norsemen”, but they were “Northmen”

The Vikings who ventured east were mostly Swedes. Those who raided west to England, France, Ireland, and the isles north of Scotland were mainly Danes and Norwegians. Though the word “Norseman” today describes all Vikings, “Norsemen” only refers to Norwegians, as far as historians are concerned. The Danes, of course, were “Danes”. The word “Northmen” refers to Vikings in general.

That leaves a very large percentage of the Scandinavian population – the Swedes. In actuality, before and during the Viking Era, there were two main groups of Swedes, – the “Goths” and the “Sver”. Swedes call their country “Sverige” – the “Kingdom of the Sver”.

The Goths were a minority in Viking Age Sweden. Many of them had left to carve out immense empires in Europe before the Viking Age began. The remaining Goths lived in the western-central and southwest part of today’s nation, right across the straits from Denmark. During the Viking Age and beyond, the isle of Gotland off the coast of south-eastern Sweden played a huge role in the economy of the area. Today has been in the headlines again as an outpost of Sweden. One of the two newest NATO members (the other being Finland). “Got-land” means “land of the Goths.”

Not all Vikings who went eastward were Swedes

Sometimes the Vikings who went east are called “Swedes”, and at times, “the “Rus”. The group of Vikings whose lands eventually morphed into a multicultural territory whose descendants became the first Tsars of Russia. Given the intense similarities in culture and nearness of geography, it is highly unlikely that numbers of Danes and Norwegians didn’t go eastward into Russia and beyond as well. However Russia was dominated by Swedes.

Actually, the man considered by many historians to be “the Last Great Viking”, Harald Hardrada (c. 1015-1066), was a Norwegian who traveled east in his youth. He even served in the “Varangian Guard”, the Byzantine emperor’s bodyguard. It was likely Harald that faked his death to gain access to an enemy’s castle. Not the Ragnar Lothbrok of the TV series “Vikings”. Harald is also famous for his death – in the last great battle between the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings at Stamford Bridge in England. Just before the Battle of Hastings in 1066. 

What caused the Swedish Vikings’ eastward expansion?

War

Why did the Vikings go east? There were many reasons, some more important at times than others. First, the Vikings were a very warlike people at a time of warlike people. Their view of the cosmos and their role in it stressed the value of dying in battle. 

Population growth and lack of women might have caused Viking Eastern expansion

Second,  there was massive population growth and not enough arable land to feed everyone adequately. This theory is generally accepted as one reason for Norwegian and Danish expansion. It likely did play a role for the Swedes, as well. There may however have been a more sinister reason for the population changes. That might have had less to do with growth than the mix of people in Scandinavia. 

Many historians and archaeologists today believe the populations of Scandinavia were skewed heavily male. Why? Due to widespread female infanticide.  This left more men than women. Leaving those at the bottom of the social scale with a hard time finding a suitable mate. Many of those women that lived to child-bearing age were taken by men above them in rank or physically more powerful. If you think about it, this removes the idea that Viking society had any notion of racial or ethnic superiority. Many traveled overseas to find a woman, whether a bride or a slave. 

Riches, slaves, women, and land

Vikings went overseas for riches, fame, women, slaves and land. The area that the Swedes expanded into was massive. The resources/goods they found that were indigenous to the lands of north-eastern Europe, Russia, and Ukraine were goods they needed. Timber and furs were the primary goods sought by the Vikings that “grew” in abundance there. As the Northmen expanded their trading territory they came into contact with people from, or had done business with, with the great empires of the Middle East and China.

Viking graves and other archaeological finds have included Arabic silver dirhams by the tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands. As well as rare gems, jewelry, and slaves determined by DNA and other analysis to be non-Scandinavian. Statues of the Buddha have even been found in Viking graves and trading bases in Scandinavia. Enslaving people and selling them in Scandinavia or in the slave markets along key river routes in the east, all the way south the Byzantine Empire was one of the main “businesses” of the Vikings in the east.

Swedish Vikings were adventurers

The Danes and Norsemen are the ones known to have sailed the Atlantic to find Iceland, Greenland, and North America. However there can be no doubt that the Vikings who went east were adventurers and discoverers in their own right. First-hand accounts and in the sagas convey the sense of excitement that the Vikings felt when approaching what was likely the greatest and most mysterious city of the time. Constantinople (sometimes called “Byzantium” and today known as “Istanbul”, the great city of Turkey).

The Vikings competed and cooperated with other Vikings 

Lastly, geography may have dictated the Swedes’ choice. Sailing through the Skaggerak, (the straits separating the Baltic and North Seas) meant entering territories of the Danes and the Norse. Although these two groups shared similar cultures and world-views, that does not mean that they were eager to share their territories, sea lanes, and finds with would-be competitors.

The Danes and Norse often warred against each other and among each other. Meaning the Swedes, in any real numbers, would likely have been unwelcome. Besides, the Swedes had access to half of Europe untouched by the Norwegians and Danes. Soon they would expand into an area bigger than either group of their kinsmen could have imagined: Eurasia and the Black Sea. 

Swedes had been sailing to and fighting in the Baltic kingdoms for perhaps centuries. Long before they began sailing down the rivers of Russia and Ukraine. The Baltic territories, especially Estonia, were quite close. What’s more, not only did the Swedes (we don’t call them “Vikings” until the late 8th century when historians agree that the true “Viking Age” began) find timber and furs there. They also found slaves in abundance and a luxury item that would eventually make some Swedes rich – amber. 

Swedish Vikings raided the Baltic coast, Poland and wanted more

In 2008, an extraordinary archaeological find was made off the coast of Estonia. At Salme, a small village on the coast of the island of Saaremaa (called “Sȳsla” in Old Norse, though “Norse” refers to Norwegians, it is also the name of the language spoken by all Scandinavian Vikings). The remains of a wooden ship were discovered.

Analysis proved the ships and their contents were from Sweden. Much of what the ships contained were bodies. Forty-two of them to be exact, along with very expensive grave goods and weapons to accompany these defeated warriors to Valhalla. The ships and their crews were dated to 700-750AD, just before the Viking Age was to truly begin. From this, we know the Swedes at least were raiding to the east before the Vikings began raiding England.

Swedish Vikings later moved into what is now Poland. At the time, there were no “Poles” as we know them today . Just larger and smaller Slavic tribal and clan groups living in the dense forests of the area. This territory was the source of many of the Swedish Viking’s first slaves and those they traded among themselves and others. 

All Vikings were pre-literate, virtually until the end of the Viking era circa 1066. They did not have information about the territories they were entering in the east. At least not very detailed information. Therefore they, like their cousins in England and France, likely asked a lot of questions. And at some point, the Swedes determined there were better places to trade, conquer and become rich than the lands along the Baltic, which they had been raiding before “Vikings were Vikings”. As they moved east, they saw and heard much more about the lands that would soon become “The Lands of the Rus”.

The first Viking city in Russia

Aside from the rumors and tales of a great and rich land, it is easy to see why the Swedes decided to head eastward – it’s close.  Their first “Russian” trading post was near today’s Finnish border. This was the trading station/fortress at today’s Staraya Ladoga near St. Petersburg on the shores of Lake Ilmen in Russia. The Vikings arrived there around 750 AD.

Reinforcing our certainty that the Swedish Vikings established a presence there are archaeological finds which included Scandinavian type sleds. Interestingly, they are the same type of sleds with the same type of carvings on them as the sleds found with the Oseberg Ship, one of the greatest Viking finds of all time…which was found in Norway, not Sweden. New theories based on recent evidence seem to indicate a much more intertwined Viking world than previously believed.

As they traded and raided south along the rivers of western Russia, the Vikings founded the city of Novgorod just over one hundred years later, c. 859 AD. “Novgorod” means “new city” in Russian, and it’s highly likely that the word “gorod” meaning “city” stems from the Norse word “gard” meaning “fortress”.  It’s likely that Novgorod was the city of “Holmgard”, mentioned in the saga, and which means “strong fortress”. 

Vikings carrying their ship.
Olaus Magnus, via Wikimedia Commons

Swedish Vikings become “the Rus”

Speaking of names…you’ve likely heard the name “Rus” used to describe the Vikings in the east, but what is the origin of that name? For many years, people believed that the word “Rus” was a Slavic word that meant “red”, and which referred to the red beards and ruddy red faces of the Swedes.

Most historians today agree that the name developed far north of where the Rus eventually carved out their kingdom – in Finland.

At the time of the Vikings, Finland consisted of tribes that were relatively spread out in the woods and lakes of that country. However, there were trading posts on the coasts, many of which were controlled by the Swedes. The Finnish word for Sweden, to this day, is “Ruotsi”, which means “those who row”. That the name had stuck for over one thousand years tells you that the Swedes and their boats must have made a very deep impression. 

Between the founding of Staraya Ladoga and Novgorod are about one hundred years. What were the Swedish Vikings doing during that time? Trading has already been mentioned. It’s likely that trading came easily at times and with difficulty at others, and there were whole groups of people who could make life difficult for the Rus.

They expanded along the rivers

In the north, near Staraya Ladoga, and south towards today’s Minsk in Belorussia, the Rus encountered groups of Slavic tribes, some stronger than others. History tells us that using a combination of force, lucrative trading opportunities and a policy of “divide and conquer”, the Rus eventually became the dominant force in the area, at least along the main rivers.

The “goods” traded would have included slaves, most of which were from Slavic tribes. Some were sold to opposing tribes of their own people. Of course, many of them were shipped back to Sweden and sold, to lead a miserable and short life there.

The Rus Vikings played an important role in Russia and Ukraine

One account of the Rus’ interaction with the Slavs living in western Russia has it that when the strong and seemingly united newcomers began to make their presence felt, the elders and chieftains from the Slavic tribes came and asked the Rus to rule over them. According to legend, peace had eluded the Russian Slavs for centuries and they asked the Vikings to put an end to the fighting. Whether or not this is true, we do know that around the time the events in this tale were supposed to have taken place, the Rus became the predominant power in the area. Shortly thereafter they established what is known as “Kievan Rus”, the kingdom of the Rus based in the modern city of Kyiv in Ukraine. 

Norse gods/Slavic gods

It’s likely that relations between the Slavs and the Rus were made a bit easier by similarities in their mythologies. The Slavic god “Perun” was the god of thunder and lightning and had the same characteristics as the important Viking god Thor. “Zhiva”, a Polish and western Slavic goddess, had similarities to the Norse goddess Freya. There were also beings similar to the Viking “Norns”, the three female goddesses that spun the threads of fate. 

Vikings’ eastern expansion and the fierce tribes of the steppes

Further south, along the Don, Dniepr, and Volga rivers, the Rus met with more powerful peoples particularly the Khazars and Pechenegs, both groups known for their skill on horseback. The Khazars inhabited a large area consisting of Crimea, southern Ukraine, and western Kazakhstan. The Khazars were Turkic people and had lived in the area since the early 500s. The skill of their warriors was so renowned that the most powerful empire in Eastern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean, the Byzantines, hired them on occasion in their wars with the Persians.

Another powerful group encountered by the Rus were the Pechenegs, also a Turkic tribe and a sometimes rival of the Khazars, for their territories overlapped. The Pechenegs had a fearsome reputation: the Magyars (the warlike ancestors of today’s Hungarians that we mentioned earlier) were driven out of Eurasia by the Pechenegs.

The Vikings were not invincible

Many people today seem to have this notion that the Vikings were an invincible, unstoppable force. That is definitely not the case. In England, the Vikings were eventually vanquished and oft-defeated. This happened away from the coasts of Ireland and Scotland too. In Russia and Ukraine, the Rus were quite wary of straying too far from their base of operations and strong-holds on the rivers, where, if needed, they could simply get in their boats and row away. As you read about the ship-burials in Estonia, the Vikings didn’t always win, and numbers were often not on their side, at least at the beginning of their forays into Russia. 

The famous “dragon ships” helped the Vikings’ eastern expansion

Vikings' dragon ship.
Photo Credit: mythology_of_vikings

The rivers were the key to controlling the area that became the Kievan Rus empire. Suffice it to say that the famous Viking “dragon boats” allowed them access to the main rivers for much of the year due to the ships’ shallow draft. Smaller rivers and tributaries where the larger Viking vessels could not go were navigated and explored by smaller versions of the famous vessels. 

Ships did not have to be watered and fed like horses, and if the Vikings were overwhelmed by enemies, they could make a quick getaway. The Vikings used their ships to silently approach enemy outposts, and to feign retreat, attacking again from another direction after having sailed away. From skeletons found in Viking ship burials, it is believed that the Swedes did on occasion bring horses with them, but not in great enough number to threaten their rivals, nor were the Vikings known as great horsemen. Their “horses” were their ships, sometimes referred to in the sagas by the clever use of “kennings”, alliterative words used to describe something else – for instance “sea-steed” for ships. 

“Kievan Rus”

The Rus established permanent or semi-permanent settlements along the great rivers of Eurasia. 

Around 859-860, the Rus took over the already large Slavic settlement of Kyiv. Over the next decades strengthened it to the point of making it impregnable. By this point in time, more and more Swedes had come to Russia/Ukraine. In the following one hundred years, they had developed a culture of their own. Many children of the Rus were born to both Swedish and Slavic women and had never known their “home” country of Sweden. 

By the time a warrior named Rurik took over as the chieftain of the Rus at Kyiv, the Viking/Rus population had grown tremendously. Within a relatively short period of time they had carved out a large kingdom in the east. Rurik may or may not have existed – but the dynasty that controlled Kyiv and the Rus became known as the “Rurikid Dynasty”. The Rurikids ruled in an expanding area until the early 1500s. By the time they began calling themselves “tsars”, their culture was less Viking than that of a new civilization, Russian. The infamous Russian tsar “Ivan the Terrible” was a distant descendant of the Rus Vikings.

Constantinople, or “Miklagard”, and the Varangians

The establishment of the Kievan Rus meant that the Vikings would come into greater contact with the richest and greatest European empire of the time. The Byzantine empire, and their great city of Constantinople. Constantinople was known to the Rus as “Miklagard” for “great city” or “great fortress”. The riches of Constantinople stupefied the Vikings – they had never seen or heard of anything like it. The city contained groups of people the Rus had never seen, from all over Europe and the Middle East. This increased their knowledge of the world and their access to goods heretofore unknown to them. 

We know that the Rus lived and traded in Constantinople from a variety of sources. The Byzantine emperors themselves wrote about them. The archbishop of the city wrote about the Vikings in the Byzantine Empire. Arab travelers wrote about them. Amazingly, Rus Vikings were sent on a diplomatic mission to re-establish good relations with the kingdom of Frankia in 839. Though sending Vikings to France as goodwill ambassadors were not the best idea, and their mission was rejected. We also know that Vikings were there, because they left graffiti, most famously in the Hagia Sofia. Then, and now, Istanbul’s most famous building. One of the inscriptions reads “Halfdan”, a decidedly Viking name.

“Greek Fire”

In the early 900s, under Prince Oleg (said to be the first Rus ruler with a Slavic name) and his son, Prince Igor, the Rus attacked Miklagard. The Vikings got a rude surprise when they attempted to break into the core of the city from the sea. This was “Greek Fire”, a flammable mixture of tar and oil used by the Greeks since ancient times. Many Viking ships were lured in close to the walls of the city. Then huge funnels of sticky, burning oil set many of the ships and their crews aflame. Still, many Vikings did raid the city, causing great mayhem, panic, and death.

The Greek Fire.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

These attacks (really just giant raids made in order to force the Byzantines to trade with the Rus) illustrated something to the Byzantines. It was better to have the Vikings as friends than enemies. 

The Varangian Guard

To this end, from the mid-900s until the 14th century, the Byzantine emperors hired Rus and other Vikings to form an imperial guard. These warriors came to be known as the “Varangian Guard”, from the Greek “to pledge”. These northern warriors “pledged” themselves to the emperor for a period of time (and a lot of money). The people of the Byzantine Empire eventually called all Scandinavians “Varangians”. However, whether they were in the guard, in Constantinople, or not. 

The Varangian Guard was, in many ways the forerunner of the powerful “Janissaries”. Europeans used by the Ottoman Turks in their armies after they destroyed the Byzantine Empire in 1453. 

From raiding across the Baltic in the 600-700s, “the Rowers” had established themselves from the far north to Byzantium. They were to travel even further east and rowed/sailed over the Caspian Sea. Over twenty runestones in Sweden mention a Viking named Ingvar and his voyages east, which included traveling to present-day Georgia. Ingvar also made it to what is referred on the runestones as “Serkland”, which many believe was Persia. Sadly, Ingvar never made it home to tell his tale in person. However semi-precious gemstones from these areas have been found in Viking graves and trading posts in Sweden. Identically sourced items have been found in Viking era finds in England as well. The Viking world was much more interconnected than we previously thought. 

In entries to come, we’ll go into depth about the Swedish Vikings – their ships, raids,  gods, and much more!