Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Sunday, September 29, 2019

The Viking Siege of Constantinople

Vikings!  -  Thank Odin for violent programming

The Siege of Constantinople of 860 was the only major military expedition of the Rus' Khaganate recorded in Byzantine and Western European sources.  But who the Rus' were is confusing at best.

In 838 two Rus' ambassadors arrived unexpectedly at Constantinople from the Black Sea. They were greeted warmly by the Emperor Theophilos who sent them on to the German Emperor Ludwig for safe passage home. Ludwig discovered the men were Swedes and was rightfully suspicious as Scandinavian Vikings had started to raid his empire.

This event marked the first appearance in the Roman East of Swedish Vikings also known as Varangians whom the Greeks called Rus. Commercial relations followed, and the Romans had no reason to suspect any hostility.

The Rus' Khaganate is the name applied to the Viking "state" in the poorly documented period in the history of Eastern Europe, roughly the late 8th and early-to-mid-9th centuries AD. How organized this state was in anyone's guess.

The Rus are described in all contemporary sources as being Norsemen, somewhere in what is today European Russia. The region was also a place of operations for Varangians, eastern Scandinavian adventurers, merchants, and pirates.

The possible cause of the siege was the construction of the fortress Sarkel by Roman engineers, restricting the Rus' trade route along the Don River in favor of the Khazars.

The Rus' under the walls of Constantinople.

A Viking ship is approached by Byzantines at Constantinople. (Credit: Michael Hampshire/National Geographic/Getty Images)


The Vikings’ opportunity came in 860 when Theophilus’ successor, Emperor Michael III, was away campaigning against the Arabs along the Syrian border, where he suffered a severe defeat due to his military incompetence (no doubt aided by his constant drunkenness).

The Empire was struggling to repel the Muslim Abbasid advance in Asia Minor. In March 860, the garrison of the key fortress Loulon unexpectedly surrendered to the Arabs. In April or May, both sides exchanged captives, and the hostilities briefly ceased; however, in the beginning of June, Emperor Michael III left Constantinople for Asia Minor to invade the Abbasid Caliphate.

Michael took with him all the elite Imperial Tagmata regiments normally stationed in and around Constantinople, leaving behind only the normal city garrison under the command of Urban Prefect Nicetas Oryphas. The capital’s extensive suburbs and the thickly settled shores and islands of the Sea of Marmara were therefore left defenseless

The much feared Roman Navy was also absent, having sailed in support of operations against the Normans and Arabs in the eastern Mediterranean and farther west against Danish Viking raids that had penetrated as far as Italy.

An Arab-Viking Coordinated Attack?

Rus' merchants having gone as far south as Baghdad passed along a great deal of intelligence to their lords in Russia.

I find it hard to believe that a large Viking naval strike force just happened to show up at Constantinople at the exact moment Emperor Michael had left with his army for the Syrian border. It is very possible that the Muslims in Baghdad and the Rus' merchants had worked out an agreement  for the Arabs to attack the Syrian border and draw the Roman army away from the city.

As for the Roman Navy, it was not a factor being already spread thin in many directions to the west far from Constantinople.

So suddenly at sunset on June 18, 860, “like a swarm of wasps,” according to Photios, the Archbishop of Constantinople, the Viking fleet of 200 ships emerged from the Bosporus, the narrow strait connecting the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea, to assault Constantinople. 

An army of 5,000 to 20,000 Vikings surged ashore, but Prefect Oryphas was an able man and shut the gates of the capital just in time. 

Here is where an Arab-Viking alliance seems likely. The amount of money, time and work needed to assemble a fleet of 200 ships and load them with an army is considerable.

Rus' merchants and spies would have known about the Tagmata regiments being permanently stationed around Constantinople. With those Imperial troops in place an attack on the city would have been a bloody battle with little loot.

So it is reasonable to assume that a Viking fleet would not have set sail on such a long voyage unless they knew the Emperor and his troops were being drawn away by the Arab attacks to the south.

Modern reconstruction of 6th century urban militiaman. His blue tunic marks him as a member of the “Blues Circus Fraction”. The double head eagle though appeared after the 14th century. Once the Vikings appeared the Urban Prefect of Constantinople Niketas Ooryphas would have called out the city militia to help man the walls.

The Vikings may indeed had been planning to rush the gates of the city at sunset in hopes of overpowering the limited number of city garrison troops on duty.  If that was the plan they failed.

The city was saved from falling to the Vikings' bold rush. At that point the Viking leaders, like so many invaders before and after, stood looking helplessly at the powerful walls and moat of Constantinople.

There was little the Vikings could do except burn and loot the unprotected suburbs and kill or enslave the inhabitants.

Having devastated the suburbs, the Rus' passed into the Sea of Marmora and fell upon the Isles of the Princes, where the former Patriarch Ignatius of Constantinople was in exile at the time. The Rus' plundered the dwellings and the monasteries, slaughtering the captives. They took twenty-two of the patriarch's servants aboard ship and cut them into pieces with axes.

Constantinople was far from helpless. The inhabitants of the Empire’s urban areas were organized in groups along the lines of the Circus Fractions. These groups were called “Deimoi” and were headed by leaders called “Democrats”. 

These groups were organized as paramilitary formations with policing and military tasks. Among their tasks were keeping the city clean, performing fire service and the burial of the dead from the epidemics or war. Because they were not considered reliable in open battle, their main role during wartime, was the defense of the city walls in case of siege.

With the city garrison supplemented by militia the Viking hordes outside the walls could do little since they had no siege equipment.

Meanwhile military signal system would have alerted the Emperor and surrounding military units in Anatolia of the Viking attack.

The invasion continued until August 4. So after about a six week siege the Vikings packed up and left for home.

There was little point in the Vikings staying. Constantinople was easily holding off the Viking army and whatever loot there was outside the city walls was long ago collected. Add in that every day the Vikings stayed in place saw the Emperor and his army, and perhaps the Roman Navy, getting closer and closer.

A Long Trip For Nothing
Viking invaders meet the walls of Constantinople and come up short.

The Theodosian Walls

(Siege of Constantinople)    (archive.org)    (historynet.com)

(history.com)    (Siege of Constantinople)    (Kievan Rus)


Anonymous said...

nice piece gary
now if the swedes want to conquer the world they may send a army of nuisances like Greta Thumberg to haunt us all about climate change THAT GREAT BIG HOAX on democraties

Karak Norn Clansman said...

Origins of fountanella. Notice Akritai connection. Of Byzantine interest: https://www.quora.com/Does-fustanella-originate-with-the-Albanians/answer/Dimitris-Almyrantis