To the Byzantines, the lands of the distant north were self-evidently hellish. So terrible were the winters that even wolves, when they crossed the frozen seas, were reported to go blind with the cold. Unsurprisingly, then, there was nothing much for its inhabitants to do all winter except rut and procreate. In the sixth century, a bureaucrat writing in Constantinople identified Scandinavia as “a factory of peoples, a womb of nations”. Three hundred years on, in 860, his warning appeared borne out, when the citizens of the great city were appalled to find a fleet of 200 Viking ships churning up the waters of the Bosphorus. Even though Constantinople itself managed to withstand the assault, the depredations inflicted on its environs were clear evidence of the wrath of God. Churches were looted, monasteries burned, captives diced into tiny pieces and dropped into the sea. Over the next 200 years, more waves of Norse pirates would follow, beating in vain against the impregnable walls of the Byzantine capital, but plundering and murdering all around them with a terrifying relish. “Fierce and merciless are these people,” wailed the patriarch, “and their voice is like the roaring of the Ocean.”
Yet this lament did not tell the whole story. Not every Viking who came to Constantinople was looking to loot it. Evidence for this can be found in the very heart of the city, in Hagia Sophia, the cathedral which served Byzantium as its supreme shrine. Here, in 1964, a name was discovered scratched on to its southern gallery, written in Nordic runes: “Halfdan”. Then, 11 years later, a second inscription was identified: “Ari made this.” Only men particularly trusted by the emperor were permitted entry to the gallery where these two Vikings, tersely but eloquently, had left memorials to their presence. What had they been doing there?
A clue to the likeliest answer can be found in a collection of sagas written at the opposite end of Europe, in Iceland. Contained within the Heimskringla, our most important source for information about Viking Norway, is the biography of its most celebrated king. Harald Hardrada, “the Hard Ruler”, came to the throne late in life. As a young man, he had fled a murderous dynastic feud in his homeland for Russia, a land reliably reported to be the haunt of giants and men with mouths between their nipples, but also of booming Viking trading-posts such as Novgorod and Kiev, towns brash with frontier spirit. None of those foundations, though, could compare for sheer opportunity with Caesar’s golden capital: “the Great City” or “Miklagard”. Sure enough, it was in Constantinople that the exiled Hardrada finally ended up. There, he had highly prized qualities to market: his courage, his height, his proficiency with an axe. Tame a Viking, so the Byzantines had realised, and he could serve as a truly formidable mercenary. Like Halfdan and Ari, whose chance to carve their names in Hagia Sophia had evidently come while standing guard over the emperor, Hardrada had entered imperial service. Unlike Halfdan and Ari, he had fast made a name for himself that would echo as far as Iceland. He fought in Sicily, so the Heimskringla informs us, he liberated the Holy Land from the Saracens, he was fancied by an empress, he fought a dragon. By 1044, when he finally left Constantinople, he was a living legend. “Freighted with hard-won honour and gleaming gold,” he found it a relatively simple matter, on his return to Norway, to make himself king.
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