April 14, 2020 — When most people hear the word “Viking,” they think of wild-eyed raiders leaping from dragon-ships to attack some innocent monastery or village in England or France. However, Scandinavians also traded — peacefully — with Europe, the Middle East, and even China thousands of years before the first recorded Viking raid, and in doing so, they laid the foundation that helped jump-start Europe’s stumbling economy in the wake of the Western Roman Empire’s collapse.
One reason for the fall of the Western Roman Empire was the expansion of the Goths. Unlike their present-day namesakes, these were a Scandinavian people from the Gothic lands of what is now southern Sweden, although the Gothic leadership and “high society” likely came from the island of Gotland, which lies in the Baltic Sea between Sweden and Latvia. Sometime around the years 100 BC to 100 CE, the northern Goths first moved to Poland, and after settling the area around Gdánsk for four-five generations, continued on along the Vistula and Danube rivers and then spread across modern Russia and Ukraine and occupied much of the land between the Baltic and the Black Sea, an area known as Reidgotaland or Aujum/Oium in historical sources, where they became known as the Ostrogoths. It should be noted that, contrary to popular belief, the term Visigoth was not originally used to describe the Goths (and various indigenous steppe-nomadic cultures) that formed Reidgotaland aka the Kingdom of Aujum.
The Huns, a warring nomadic people attacking Reidgotaland from central Asia in the 270s CE, caused the Goths — who by now had split up into two major historical groups — the Ostrogoths and the Visigoths — to flee across the Danube river into the relative safety of the Roman Empire. Some Ostrogoths were left behind and had no choice but to join the Hunnic hordes, these Goths became the Gothunni, and are by all accounts known as “hraið-gutar” in Old Norse in Icelandic literary sources, which means “horse goths.”
The Visigoths and Ostrogoths who escaped across the Danube River were treated poorly by the Romans, which led to several successful revolts. However, the partially Romanized Goths became entangled in religious conflicts with each other since many Goths had converted to Christian Arianism, whereas others remained staunch pagans. As the years moved on, almost all of the pagan Goths become allies of the Huns since they had little or no trust in the Romans. They gladly joined the highly competent and infamously brutal warlord “King” Attila, who was born in Europe. Being brought up by the Romans in Constantinople (Istanbul), Attila had only one life-goal: to unite all “horse lord” warrior tribes of the Eurasian steppes and create an army powerful enough to bring down both the Eastern and the Western Roman Empires.
However, the Romans were skilled diplomats and masters of military tactics such as “divide and conquer.” A majority of the Christian Goths, in the latter half of the 400s exclusively known as Visigoths or Walagothi (Wala- meaning foreign in the Gothic language), were foederati which means they were strong allies and protectors of Rome, together with the Franks, a powerful and warlike Germanic tribe. Thus, the Romans, Visigoths, and Franks were, with some luck, able to defeat Attila in a historical battle that took place in 451 in the province of Champagne in France. In the battle, Visigoths, Franks, and Romans were almost obliterated by a massive force of Huns, Ostrogoths, Heruls, Alans, and many Eurasian tribes. The pagan Ostrogoths of the 400s, who later converted to Arian Christianity like the Visigoths before them, had become highly skilled cavalrymen, lancers, and archers by adopting elements of Hun culture, but in the end, the Hun confederation lost out to the Roman side (although Attila survived.)
Following the 451 battle in Champagne, the Franks continued to provide military support to Rome to fight imperial enemies and became the main adversary of the Visigoths who, unlike the Franks, distanced themselves from the Romans and moved to Spain where they formed the Visigothic Kingdom. At the same time, the Franks more heavily adopted Roman culture and state organization, and lay the foundation of Frankia — the First Holy Roman Empire (HRE) which, over the course of time, developed into France (a country that, incidentally, was repeatedly raided by Danish Vikings several hundred years later, throughout the 800s. Incidentally, many of those Vikings were both — directly and indirectly — related to the Goths of Aujum and the Ostrogothic Kingdom.)
Most historians agree the Western Roman Empire ended in the autumn of 476 when Odoacer, an East German military leader — possibly of Visigothic origin — deposed of the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus. Odoacer was allied to Eastern (Byzantine) Rome, and his army included the previously Hun-allied tribe of the Heruls, who, incidentally, had co-existed with the Goths of Reidgotaland/Aujum near the Black Sea in the 200s (many believe the Heruls emigrated to Sweden in the early 500s, and that the Anglo-Saxon/Viking title Earl/Jarl is derived from their name.) Interestingly, 476 is only 23 years after the death of Attila, so it can indeed be argued Hunnic aggression weakened Rome to such a degree that Attila became — at least in part — posthumously successful in achieving his ultimate goal.
Atilla died in 453, two years after the battle at Champagne in the Catalaunian fields, which caused the Hunnic empire to quickly dissolve. As the Huns were forced back, the Ostrogoths rebelled against them and became their own kings and commanders. And in doing so, the Ostrogoths were able to re-establish trade and communication with their kin in Scandinavia and on Gotland. In the 490s, the Ostrogoths went on to form the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy, while, as mentioned above, the Visigoths moved back west across the Roman Empire before seizing control of an area that covered much of modern Spain and France, which became known as the Visigothic Kingdom.
With trade routes between Scandinavia and continental Europe re-opened, the Gotlanders once again took advantage of the great rivers that flowed into the Baltic and offered these accomplished sailors a ready-made highway into eastern Europe, and a short portage across the Carpathian Mountains to the Volga, the Dnieper, and the Dniester rivers which flowed in the other direction to the Black and Caspian Seas. Beyond the Black Sea lay Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire, covering modern Greece, Turkey, and much of the eastern Mediterranean. At the southern end of the Caspian Sea was the Muslim world and the western end of the famed Silk Road, which ran across Persia and northern India to China. The Arab historian Ahmad ibn Fadlan wrote of an encounter with a group of Scandinavian warriors and traders on the Volga River in 922, which he called Rūs (his account inspired the first part of Michael Crichton’s novel Eaters of the Dead, which was filmed as The 13th Warrior — and was largely based on the epic saga Beowulf.)
To the Greeks and Muslims, the visiting traders — and mercenaries — from the Baltic were, interestingly, called Varangians — not Vikings, and their history stretches back before the Romans established their first city. The Varangians set up several trading posts in what is now western Russia, eventually consolidating their presence with other people groups to become known as the Varangian Rus. The name “Rus” applied to river-borne Swedes and, and is possibly derived from an Old Norse word meaning “oarsmen” although conflicting historians are convinced “Rus” refers to “red beards.” Regardless of the word’s original meaning, the Varangians and the Rus gave birth to modern Russia and was the home of powerful Rus-Varangian trading states centered on Novgorod, once the center of a powerful republic, and Kyiv, which is now the capital of Ukraine.
Gotland plays an important role in the Varangians’ history because it’s likely where they originated. Gotland is Sweden’s largest island, located in the middle of the Baltic Sea, east of the Scandinavian peninsula. There’s been some confusion over whether the people of Gotland were Vikings or Varangians, with some even using the two terms interchangeably. However, recent research shows whatever the similarities between the people of Scandinavia and Gotland might have been — the Gotlanders certainly viewed themselves differently.
One factor pointing to two distinct cultures in the region is how others referred to them. Take the Vikings for example. They never had direct encounters with the Arabs, and the Arabs did not have a specific name for them, calling Vikings al-Majus, something similar to “magicians.” However, the Arabs called the people from Gotland and Scandinavia who, as mentioned, spread into eastern Europe and Russia, the al-Rus’.
East of the Elbe River, most cultures called these same people of Gotland “Varangian” and associated them with Gotland and the Rus as well. Additionally, scholars long thought Romans like Tacitus and Pliny were referring to the Vikings when they talked of Scandinavia or “Thule,” with the other frequently used term “Svear” referring to an unknown people group. However, it’s now believed the Romans were, in fact, speaking of Gotland and, by extension, the Varangians, with Thule referring specifically to the Scandinavian peninsula and its people. Old claims that Rome couldn’t have known about Gotland are debunked by Gotland’s importance in regional trade and the presence of Roman items among Gotland grave goods.
The Gotlanders themselves, like the people of western Europe, called the people of Scandinavia Vikings. One runestone on Gotland, in particular, tells of a king who went west with “the” Vikings, a description that indicates the Vikings were a distinct group known to explore, conquer and sail in the western seas of Kattegat and the North Atlantic, unlike their eastern cousins the Varangians.
This minor fact is important for understanding how Europe developed during and after the fall of Rome. It’s true the Vikings eventually controlled vast and crucial trade routes across Europe — but they built on what the Varangians accomplished before them. The Gotlanders, or the Varangian Rus, and their ships and warriors built a vast trade network throughout the Baltic and much of what is now Russia. They brought goods from the north that were in constant demand: rich furs including bears, fox, marten, otter, beaver, and others; reindeer antler used to make fine combs and many other items in this pre-plastic age; ropes of incredible strength twisted from the hide of seals and walruses, removed from the body in one long, thin piece using a cunning spiral cut; walrus ivory, as valuable and sought-after as that of elephants, and easier to harvest; and the long, spiral tusks of narwhals, for which some were prepared to pay handsomely in the belief that they were the horns of the mythical unicorns. They also traded slaves, like most traders of those times, in return for Chinese silks, rich Byzantine textiles – and immense quantities of silver.
The Varangian Rus had large trade emporiums in Latvia and stations in the Vistula region of Poland near substantial amber deposits. A large number of coins ranging from Roman denarii to Byzantine and even English coins have been found on Gotland and other Gothic islands in the Baltic, further pointing to expansive and continued trade between Gotland Varangians and the major cultural centers of Eastern Europe.
Some claim the Varangians prospered in part thanks to a commitment to free trade — trade unimpeded by a central authority of any kind. Arab accounts of the al-Rus’ corroborate this belief, as they speak primarily of the Varangians as those who traveled the rivers with their distinctive boats and sold goods to any and everyone. Their slave-trading activities in the east eventually required a central base; their smaller market places tended to cluster around the Volga River, with some archaeological evidence pointing to these eventually being gathered under a Khagan Khanate ruled by the Varangian Rus.
However, the Varangians were able to achieve notoriety as traders thanks to a couple of additional groups, the Radhanite, and the Khazars. This loose organization of neutral Jewish merchants forged and maintained vital trading networks stretching from Europe and the Roman Empire to the Middle East, and the Radhanites were often the only traders allowed in certain areas either for religious reasons or because of conflict taking place between two powers. They also held strict control over the European spice trade, until their decline in the early 900s as a result of turmoil on the Asian trade routes.
On the other hand, were the Khazars, a group of Turkic nomadic tribes who had recently settled near the Caucasus mountains, between the Black Sea in the west, and the Caspian Sea in the East, and whose ruling elite had converted to Judaism. The Khazar Khaganate’s empire was situated east of Byzantium and straddled trade networks spanning from Asia west into Europe. Naturally, their geographic location meant they would inevitably come into contact with the Varangian Rus at some point, and their most important commodity was the slave. These slaves primarily came from the Baltic regions and were distributed throughout the Islamic Empires and beyond. Partly due to their geographic location, the Turko-Jewish Khazar rulers regularly came into conflict with other people groups, including the Varangian Rus, and by the 950s, the Varangians had successfully neutralized the Khazar Khaganate. In doing so, they gained the favor of Byzantium, ensuring stability for the Varangians – stability that let them focus on expanding their trade activities by utilizing the former Khazar trade networks and filling the role the Radhanites once played in the European economy.
Slavery remained an important part of the new Varangian-Viking economy, and the Varangians continued the Khazar practice of gathering slaves from nearby regions and sending them on throughout the Islamic and Mediterranean world. This might seem to confirm the Varangians, and the Vikings who also took part in the practice although their slave base was centered in Dublin on Ireland and Birka near Stockholm in Sweden, were barbaric since profits from slave trading helped build their society. However, these Scandinavian groups were something of an exception to this rule, as an understanding of slavery in the ancient world helps illustrate. In his landmark study of slavery in the Western world, The Making of New World Slavery, Robin Blackburn explores the nature of slavery in the ancient Mediterranean. While slaves in Rome weren’t owned as property and could eventually earn their freedom, they were considered socially inferior compared to everyone else until they became free. The situation was even worse in ancient Greece, where Aristotle infamously suggested a person’s place of birth and ethnicity marked them out as suited for slavery.
The Islamic empires of central Asia were the biggest markets for Viking slaves, who often ended up holding important positions in noble households, but many slaves were sent back to Scandinavia. New archaeological findings suggest those the Vikings enslaved and brought home enjoyed higher social standing than slaves in “civilized” European lands as well. A 2014 study in The Journal of Archaeological Science examined a set of graves in Norway previously thought to contain relatives for a prominent local Viking. Further examination revealed these remains were actually those of Viking slaves, and analysis showed their diets and general health were largely comparable to the average person in the area at the time.
In other words, many slaves taken back to Scandinavia from the Middle East enjoyed fairly normal lives, with evidence suggesting they were accepted into the community and treated like everyone else. This paints a picture not just of a hierarchical society — not one divided just into warriors and karls and everyone else, but as a whole, a relatively tolerant and open-minded society.
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