The Caspian Expeditions of the Varangian Rus’

June 5, 2020 — The Caspian expeditions of the Varangian Rus’ were military raids undertaken by the Varangians between 864 and 1041 AD. The Varangians were warriors and merchants from Scandinavia, primarily hailing from eastern Sweden and Gotland. The raids targeted the shores of the Caspian Sea, including ancient Persia.

The initial raids were small-scale and took place in the late 800s and early 900s. The Rus’ undertook the first large-scale campaign in 913; having arrived on 500 ships, they struck a loot sharing agreement with the Khazar Khaganate, a largely Turkish “kingdom polity” situated between the Black and Caspian Seas. The Varangians pillaged in the Gorgan-Hyrcania region of present-day Iran, and more to the west, in Gilan and Mazandaran, taking slaves and seizing goods. On their return voyage, the Varangians were ambushed by mercenaries in the employ of the Khazars, who had betrayed them. Few, if any, Varangians survived the slaughter.

“On their return voyage, the Viking-like Varangians were ambushed by mercenaries employed by the Khazar Khaganate.”

During their next expedition in 943, the Rus’ captured Bardha’a, the capital of Arran, in the modern-day Republic of Azerbaijan. The Rus’ stayed there for several months, killing many inhabitants of the city and amassing substantial plunder. It was only an outbreak of dysentery among the Rus’ that forced them to depart with their spoils.

The Fall of Khazaria

Sviatoslav, prince of Kyiv and of Scandinavian ancestry, commanded the next attack, which destroyed the Khazar empire in 965. Sviatoslav’s campaign established the Rus’ hold on the north-south trade riverways, helping to alter the demographics of the region. Raids continued through the Viking Age, with the last Scandinavian attempt to reestablish a trading route to the Caspian Sea taking place in 1041 by Ingvar the Far-Travelled.

Players will be able to revisit the Eastern lands of the Khazars and Kievan Rus’ in our turn-based tabletop strategy game Winds of Valhalla: Vikings & Varangians no later than 2023.


  • Historians have suggested the Scandinavian name Håkan, written as Hákon (Old Norse) in the Icelandic sagas and other Norse literature, and also the name of several Norwegian kings, was originally a title and not a given name. The Norse variant, Hákon, likely originated as a cognate of the Turkic title Khagan (Khagan=Hákon, Haakon). Hakan also happens to be a common Turkish forename, confirmed to be based on the Turkish language variant of the imperial title Khagan.

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