Rus'-Byzantine War (860)

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For similar conflicts, see Sieges of Constantinople and Rus'-Byzantine Wars.
Rus' Siege of Constantinople
Part of Rus'-Byzantine Wars

The Rus' under the walls of Constantinople.
Date 860
Location Constantinople (Old East Slavic: Tsargrad, Old Norse: Mikligarður)
Result disputed
Roman (Byzantine) Empire Rus'
Michael III Askold and Dir?
Rus'-Byzantine Wars

The Rus' raid against Constantinople in 860 is the only major military expedition of the Khaganate of Rus' recorded in Greek and Western European sources. In the Primary Chronicle, the campaign is associated with the names of Askold and Dir and dated to 866.


[edit] The raid

The Brussels Chronicle, based on Byzantine sources, reports that on 18 June 860, at sunset, a fleet of the Rus' sailed into the Bosporus and started pillaging the suburbs of Constantinople (Old East Slavic: Tsargrad, Old Norse: Mikligarður<ref name="penguin">Sagas of the Icelanders, Penguin Group</ref>). The attack took the Greeks by surprise, "like a thunderbolt from heaven", as it was put by Patriarch Photius in his famous oration written on the occasion.

The barbarian fleet of about 200 vessels<ref>Contradicting the Greek sources, John the Deacon puts the number of ships at 360. This divergence has led Alexander Vasiliev to argue that John wrote about an entirely different event — a Viking attack on Constantinople from the south in 861, otherwise not attested by any other source. Vasiliev 25</ref> arrived to the walls of the imperial capital at an opportune moment when Emperor Michael III was absent from the city, as was his navy dreaded for its skill in using lethal Greek fire. The imperial army (including those troops that were normally garrisoned closest to the capital) was fighting the Arabs in Asia Minor. The city's land defences were weakened by the absence of these garrisons, but the sea defences were also lacking. The Byzantine Navy, which held the Empire's valuable asset of Greek fire, was occupied fighting both Arabs and Normans in the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. These simultaneous advantages left the coasts and islands of Black Sea, the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara susceptible to attack.

The Byzantines had first come into contact with the Rus' in 839, and the threat from them in 860 came as a surprise; it was as sudden and unexpected "as a swarm of wasps", as Photius put it. The exceptional timing of the attack suggests the Rus' had been informed of the city's weakness, demonstrating their pre-existing lines of trade and communication. The invasion continued until 4 August, when, in another of his sermons, Photius thanked heavens for miraculously relieving the city from such a dire threat. The writings of Photius provide a first-hand account of the Rhos, or Tauroscythians, as he styled the invaders. The learned patriarch reports that they have no supreme ruler and abide in some distant northern lands. The invasion gave rise to several riddles revolving around the name Rhos (Greek: Ρως).

[edit] Later traditions

The Blachernitissa: the icon before which Michael III may have prayed to the Theotokos for the deliverance of Constantinople from the Rus'.

The sermons of Photius offer no clue as to the outcome of the invasion and the reasons why the Rus' withdrew to their own country. Multiple later sources attribute their retreat to the Emperor's speedy return to the capital. As the story goes, after Michael and Photius put the veil of the Theotokos into the sea, there arose a tempest which dispersed the boats of the barbarians. In later centuries it was said that the Emperor hurried to the church at Blachernae, and had the robe of the Theotokos carried in procession along the Theodosian Walls. This precious Byzantine relic was dipped symbolically into the sea, and a great wind immediately arose and wrecked the Rus' ships.<ref name="Osprey">The Walls of Constantinople, AD 324–1453, Osprey Publishing, ISBN 1-84176-759-X.</ref>

The pious legend was recorded by George Hamartolus, whose manuscript was a major source for the Primary Chronicle.<ref name="Primary Chronicle">For other Byzantine authors who narrate stories about the miraculous saving of Constantinople from the Scythians see: Leon Grammaticus, Bonn 1842, pp. 240-241; Theodose de Melitene, Munich 1859, p. 168; Symeon Logothetes, Bonn 1838, pp. 674-675.</ref> The authors of the Kievan chronicle appended the names of Askold and Dir to the account, as they believed that these two Varangians had presided over Kiev in 866. It was to this year that, through some quirk in chronology, they attributed the first Rus' expedition against the Byzantine capital.<ref name="Nikon Chronicle">The number of raids was multiplied in the 16th-century Nikon Chronicle, which interpreted the 860 raid (described in Byzantine sources) and the 866 raid (described by the Primary Chronicle) as two distinct events. This obvious blunder led Boris Rybakov to conclude that the Rus' raided Tsargrad on three or four occasions, in 860, 866, 874. For a critique, see Tvorogov 54-59.</ref>

Nestor's account of the first encounter between the Rus and the Byzantines may have contributed to the popularity of the Theotokos in Russia. The miraculous saving of Constantinople from the barbarian hordes would appear in Russian icon-painting, without understanding that the hordes in question may have issued from Kiev. Furthermore, when the Blachernitissa was brought to Moscow in the 17th century, it was said that it was this icon that had saved Tsargrad from the troops of the "Scythian khagan", after Michael III had prayed before it to the Theotokos. Nobody noticed that the story had obvious parallels with the sequence of events described by Nestor.

In the 9th century, a legend sprang up to the effect that an ancient column at the Forum of Taurus had an inscription predicting that Constantinople would be conquered by the Rus. This legend, well known in Byzantine literature, was revived by the Slavophiles in the 19th century, when Russia was on the point of wresting the city from the Ottomans.

[edit] Criticism

As was demonstrated by Oleg Tvorogov and Constantine Zuckerman, among others, the 9th-century and later sources are out of tune with the earliest records of the event. In his August sermon, Photius mentions neither Michael III's return to the capital nor the miracle with the veil (of which the author purportedly was a participant).

On the other hand, Pope Nicholas I, in a letter sent to Michael III on 28 September 865, mentions that the suburbia of the imperial capital were recently raided by the pagans who were allowed to retreat without any punishment.<ref name="Papae epistolae">Nicolai I. Papae epistolae. Ed. in: Monumenta Germaniae Hictorica. Epistolae VI. (Karolini eavi IV). Berlin, 1925. P. 479-480. Analyzed in Vasiliev 61-62.</ref> The Venetian Chronicle of John the Deacon reports that the Normanorum gentes, having devastated the suburbanum of Constantinople, returned to their own lands with triumph ("et sic praedicta gens cum triumpho ad propriam regressa est").<ref name="Venetian Chronicle">Iohannes Diaconus. Chronicon. Rome: Monticolo, Cronache veneziane antichissime, I, p. 116-117.</ref>

It appears that the victory of Michael III over the Rus' was invented by the Byzantine historians in the mid-9th century or later and became generally accepted in the Slavic chronicles influenced by them.<ref name="Zuckerman">This theory is advanced by Zuckerman, among others (see Zuckerman 2000).</ref> However, the memory of the successful campaign was transmitted orally among the Kievans and may have dictated Nestor's account of Oleg's 907 campaign, which is not recorded in Byzantine sources at all.

[edit] Notes


[edit] References

  • Alexander Vasiliev. The Russian Attack on Constantinople in 860. Cambridge Mass., 1925
  • Oleg Tvorogov. Сколько раз ходили на Константинополь Аскольд и Дир? // Славяноведение, 1992, вып. 2
  • Fyodor Uspensky. The History of the Byzantine Empire, vol. 2. Moscow: Мысль, 1997
  • Constantine Zuckerman. Deux étapes de la formation de l’ancien état russe, dans Les centres proto-urbains russes entre Scandinavie, Byzance et Orient. Actes du Colloque International tenu au Collège de France en octobre 1997, éd. M. Kazanski, A. Nersessian et C. Zuckerman (Réalités byzantines 7), Paris 2000, p. 95-120.

Rus'-Byzantine War (860)

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