Scandinavia at the beginning of the Viking Age appears to have shared a common culture, as shown by the archeological record, but it later diverged into several distinct groups. As I discussed in my previous blog about the difference between the Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish Vikings, we know the most about the Danes and Norwegians because of the breadth of primary sources written about them by contemporary Christian Chroniclers. We have far less information on their Swedish cousins called the Rus who, despite how little we know about them at the outset of the Viking Age, left an incredible legacy behind in Eastern Europe. Here I will briefly overview what we know about the Swedish Vikings who were called the Rus (and Varangians), and their early activities across the river systems of what are today Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and even Turkey.
Earliest Mentions of the Rus
Primary sources for the early societal structure, culture, and activities of the Rus are practically non-existent. They did not leave any writings behind for us to find other than disparate runes carved into wood planks or stones. The Annals of St. Bertin tell us of a diplomatic delegation from Constantinople that visited Louis I in Aachen in 834, and among the delegation were several Rus. The Rus were, as far as we can tell, as active in raiding and foreign trading as the Danes, if not more, and earlier. The people they attacked—chiefly those in Finland, then Slavs further east—were not literate like those the Danes terrorized, which might further explain why sources are so sparse about their early activities. The Rus’ arrival in Louis’ court was marred by the fact that the missionary Anskar, the future bishop of the archbishopric of Hamburg, had already visited and returned from Birka, in Sweden, and his testimony about the Swedes led the emperor to distrust his unexpected guests. In the annals, it is said that Louis learned the Rus were, in fact, “people of the Swedes.” He detained the group to verify their claim that they only wished to travel peacefully, and from there the annals cease to mention what happened next.
We do not know if the Rus were allowed to return home, or worse, executed. While we are left in permanent suspense about the fate of these Rus, what this account tells us is that the Swedish Vikings had, by the mid-9th century, traveled far enough to the east to have established relations with the Byzantines. How, or why, or how long it took to arrive at this point is still not well understood, but a treasure trove of silver coins from the Muslim world found at Lake Ladoga gives us some idea of when contacts began. As a standard practice in the Muslim world, the date the coins were minted was imprinted on them, and the coins at Ladoga appear to date back to the 780s. Combined with further archeological evidence of early colonies on the eastern shores of the Baltic, it is likely trade contacts between Sweden and the Middle East began several decades before the Danes and Norwegians launched their first raids against Europe.
The mission of Anskar to Birka is the closest thing to a contemporary source as we have on the Rus, and his story is related to us by his biographer Rimbert. His mission in Birka lasted six months, with the permission of a Swedish king, and when he returned he devoted the rest of his life to turning the archbishopric of Hamburg into the center for the conversion of Scandinavia to Christianity. His account of the Swedes must be treated with caution for two reasons: first, he and his fellows had a clear bias against the pagan religions of Scandinavia; second, the testimony given about his mission contains extraordinary elements that undermine the credibility of the author.
Adam of Bremen, a later bishop of Hamburg, carried out a second mission to Birka and reported similar extraordinary elements as Anskar. Most controversially, both men claim to have witnessed human sacrifices. Historians have long discounted the testimony of such practices as propaganda against the pagans. Still, evidence of human sacrifice permeates the archeological record, and additional testimony from the Arab chronicler Ibn-Fadlan almost a century later on the shores of the Volga river lends further credence to the practice. Some elements of Anskar and Adam of Bremen’s testimonies, therefore, may be true. The challenge is splitting apart fact from fiction, and thus we cannot rely on their writings to inform much us on the Rus.
We encounter similar problems with the testimony of an Arab chronicler named Ibn-Fadlan who spent time with the Rus on the shores of the Volga river. His story, called the Risala, is useful insofar as it gives us some good information about the Rus. Unfortunately, numerous inaccuracies and Ibn Fadlan’s prejudices have slanted the account, making the work of historians all the harder. Still, the Risala is a fascinating document that, when combined with other sources, gives us some idea of who the Rus were.
How the Rus Got Their Name
How the Rus got their name is also somewhat of an enigma. Like the word Viking, the name Rus has several possible sources. In the Annals of Saint Bertin, and indeed in several other sources, they are referred to as the “Rhos” which has led historians to hypothesize a connection with their tribal home of Roslagen. Others think the name was given to them by the Finns, who today still call the Swedes Ruotsi, a word borrowed from Old Norse meaning, “those who row.” While the origins of the name remain opaque, it is the name they would give to one of the most powerful nations in modern history, Russia. If the second origin theory of the name Rus is correct—the theory tying it to the Finnish word Ruotsi—the name Russia may actually mean “the land of those who row.”
There are also Arabic sources which chronicled embassies by eastern scholars to visit the Rus, and who refer to them as such. They also referred to them as Majus, but this was a name they tended to use in the West, in Al-Andalus (Spain). The sources are used sparingly and carefully where the Rus are concerned because academics are not entirely certain that they were referring to the Rus. What makes their writings somewhat unreliable are observations that were made that are not consistent with what we know about Viking Age Scandinavians from both written and archeological sources. But, even if there is a kernel of truth in the Arabic writings, it underscores an easy and prevalent awareness of the Rus in the east, as well as proof of enduring contact.
Looking for the Rus in the Sagas
Snorri Sturluson in his work titled Ynglingasaga, which recounts at a broad level the history of the kings of Sweden (it also recounts the history of the kings of Norway), gives us some insight into the early activities of the Rus on the Baltic. It is widely accepted that Snorri’s works are semi-legendary because he wrote them several centuries after the fact and drawing mostly from oral tradition. Again, we are faced with the difficult task of separating fact from fiction, and we must proceed with caution.
There are certain aspects to Snorri’s accounts that have proven useful insofar as they have spurred archeologists to search for evidence to support broad story themes in his work. In 1929, for example, the archeologist Birger Nerman discovered the remnants of a colony in Latvia of Swedish origin. His conclusions were that the colony had existed since the mid 7th century and likely had formed as a result of the expulsion of one-third of the inhabitants of Gotland due to famine, a story related to us in Snorri’s Gutasaga. The discovery was the Viking equivalent of the discovery of the city of Troy, whose existence belonged to mythology until its discovery by Heinrich Schliemann in 1870.
Digging Up the Rus
Birger’s discovery has indeed proved paramount in helping to piece together the narrative of the early activities of the Rus in the east. The colony he discovered, known as the Grobin Colony, uncovered significant evidence in the form of burial mounds directly linking the inhabitants there to the Swedes of Gotland. Among the artifacts were picture stones in the shape and style of the Gotland stones. Further artifacts found within the burials were also of the style and construction known to have been common in Gotland. What is most interesting about the site is the progression of types of burials the colonists left behind. The oldest burials contained women, indicating that the settlement had begun as a colony. The younger burials, dating to the late 8th century, contained men with the typical weaponry of the day, indicating a change in the settlement’s demographics where the ambitions of the Rus shifted toward traveling east for raids and trade rather than to settle the Eastern Baltic to escape political turmoil in Sweden. Grobin is not an isolated archeological find. Distinctly Scandinavian artifacts have also been found in Ladoga, which date back to the mid-8th century.
There is no doubt that the achievements of the Rus in the east were among the most impressive of their day. From the establishment of their first colonies on the shores of the Baltic and Lake Ladoga, they established trade routes that made use of the complex interweave of river networks to dominate the eastern steppes and established trade with the Byzantines. Among the goods they brought were honey, wax, amber, blubber, furs, walrus tusks, and most importantly, slaves. They traded these goods for silver, and from an Arabic coin minted in 786 (it says so on the coin) at Ladoga, we understand that trade between the Rus and the East was already well established by the end of the 8th century. This stands in contrast to the Danes and Norwegians whose exploits had barely begun by this period.
Massive hordes of Arabic silver coins found in Sweden and Gotland over the years are evidence of how extensive their trade was. These hordes contained silver coins numbering in the tens of thousands in some cases, a massive fortune even by today’s standards. The sheer volume attests to a long term relationship between Sweden and the Byzantines, and one which endured several centuries.
Throughout the Viking Age, the Rus imposed themselves over the people they encountered, chiefly the Slavs. After an attempted raid on Constantinople, some enlisted in an elite cohort of warriors called the Varangian Guard, who served the Byzantine emperor (at his invitation). Evidence of their presence in Constantinople abounds, including a few recent finds, such as a Viking sword found in Patarka, Turkey, and runes carved into the walls of an old prison under Istanbul that read, “Sven was here.”
From Rus to Russian
From here, the story of the Rus shifts focus. The Russian Primary Chronicle, which tells of the early foundations of the modern country of Russia, tells of an event whereby the Slavs invited the Rus to rule over them. According to the account, the Slavs admitted to being unable to rule themselves, and so resorted to asking the Rus–considered strong leaders–to establish law and order. Similar to Snorri’s account, the Russian Primary Chronicle is considered semi-legendary. Therefore, the event commonly dubbed “The Invitation of the Rus” may not have ever actually happened. Instead, it may be an allegorical account to describe a process of usurpation that took much longer.
Whatever the true story, the Rus went on from this event to establish the principalities of Kyiv and Novgorod, at which point they ceased to act in a manner we would today associate with Vikings. They took on the role of autocrats rather than raiders, and established dominion over the Slavs, and assimilated into Slavic culture. The Rus’ conflicts with the Byzantines, as related through the Russian Primary Chronicle, and their conversion to the Christian Orthodox Church, all became part of the narrative of the founding of the Muscovy state, which would become Russia. And so as far as the “Viking” history of the Swedes and their eastern exploits are concerned, the story more or less ends there. Anything that came after is the subject of the early history of Russia.