Route to Greeks

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The key commercial and communication route between Kievan Rus and Byzantium, and called "The Way From the Varangians [Vikings] to the Greeks" in the Russian Primary Chronicle, this riverine route began in the southeastern Baltic at the mouth of the Western Dvina, connecting to the upper Dnieper at portage areas near Smolensk, and continued through Kiev to the lower Dnieper, where it entered the Black Sea, finally terminating in Constantinople. An alternative route in the north passed from Smolensk portages to the Lovat, which led to Lake Ilmen and, via the Volkhov and Novgorod, on to Lake Ladoga and thence, by way of the Neva, to the Gulf of Finland and the eastern Baltic. While segments of this route were used from the Stone Age onward, it did not achieve its fullest extent until the late ninth and early tenth centuries when Rus princes unified the waterways and adjoining lands under the Rus state.

In the mid-tenth century, the Byzantine emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus described (De administrando imperio ) the southern part of the route, noting the existence of seven cataracts in the lower Dnieper, passable only by portage, and the attendant dangers of Pecheneg attacks. According to Constantine, the Slavsfrom as far north as Novgorodcut monoxyla (dugouts) during the winter and floated them downstream to Kiev in spring. There, these boats were rebuilt and equipped with oars, rowlocks, and "other tackle." In early summer, the Rus filled these boats with goods to sell in Constantinople and rowed downstream to the island of St. Aitherios (Berezan) in the mouth of the Dnieper, where they again re-equipped their boats with "tackle as is needed, sails and masts and rudders which they bring with them." Thereafter, they sailed out into the Black Sea, following its western coast to Constantinople. With the Rus-Byzantine commercial treaties of 907, 911, 944, and 971, Rus traders were common visitors in Constantinople, where they stayed for as long as six months annually, from spring through the summer months, at the quarters of St. Mamas.

The Rus traded furs, wax, and honey for Byzantine wine, olive oil, silks, glass jewelry and dishware, church paraphernalia, and other luxuries. During the tenth century and perhaps a bit later, the Rus also sold slaves to the Byzantines. Rus and Scandinavian pilgrims and mercenaries also traveled to the eastern Mediterranean via this route. On several occasions in the tenth century and in 1043, the Rus used this route to invade Byzantium.

During inter-princely Rus disputes, the route was sometimes closed, as at the turn of the twelfth century when Kiev blockaded trade with Novgorod. On occasion, nomadic peoples south of Kiev also blocked the route or impeded trade, and Rus princes responded with military expeditions. With the occupation of Constantinople by Latin Crusaders in 1204, Rus merchants shifted their trade to the Crimean port of Sudak. The route was abandoned following the Mongol conquest of Rus in about 1240. However, up to that time, Kiev's trade via the route flourished, particularly from the eleventh to the mid-thirteenth centuries.

See also: byzantium, influence of; foreign trade; kievan rus; normanist controversy; primary chronicle; vikings


Cross, Samuel Hazzard and Sherbowitz-Wetzor, Olgerd P., tr. and ed. (1973). The Russian Primary Chronicle. Cambridge, MA: Mediaeval Academy of America.

Kaiser, Daniel, tr. and ed. (1992). The Laws of Russia, Series 1, Vol. 1: The Laws of Rus', Tenth to Fifteenth Centuries. Salt Lake City, UT: Charles Schlacks, Jr.

Noonan, Thomas S. (1967). "The Dnieper Trade Route." Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Noonan, Thomas S. (1991). "The Flourishing of Kiev's International and Domestic Trade, ca. 1100ca.1240." In Ukrainian Economic History: Interpretive Essays, ed. I. S. Koropeckyj. Cambridge, MA: Ukrainian Research Institute.

Roman K. Kovalev