Rus-Byzantine Treaties – A unique insight into the tenth century
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September 26, 2022

Rus-Byzantine Treaties – A unique insight into the tenth century

By Christian Raffensperger

It is difficult to document the early history of Rus, in large part because written sources only begin to come into the picture in the eleventh century, post-Christianization. However, even in that comparatively late chronicle, the Povest’ vremennykh let (PVL, often translated as “The Tale of Bygone Years”), there are preserved two much earlier sources – treaties made with the Roman Empire, which we typically call Byzantium. These two treaties from the tenth century are fascinating sources about life and legality in a time before we know much about Rus.

The first of those treaties appears under the year 912 (6420 in the Anno Mundi calendar used by the Romans) wherein it states that, “This is the copy of the treaty concluded under the Emperors Leo and Alexander.” Similar language is included in the preface to the treaty recorded under 945, “A copy of the agreement concluded under the most Christian princes Romanus, Constantine, and Stephen follows.” The clear statement that these are copies of the treaties which were housed in Rus and are then copied into the chronicle allows us to treat these as tenth-century evidence, even though they are preserved in a chronicle that was compiled in the early twelfth century and is extant only from at least a century later.

The information in these treaties is a fascinating window into what was going on at the time, both within Rus and in Byzantium, but also in the way that legal contracts and treaties were made. Some of the language, for instance, would be quite similar to what modern lawyers would arrange. For instance, one of the most legalistic aspects of the treaties covers salvage found on the shores of the Black Sea. This portion of the treaties actually dates back to an earlier law known as the Rhodian Sea Law (named after the island of Rhodes in the Aegean). An excerpt of the language details the interest of both parties:

If a ship is detained by high winds upon a foreign shore, and one of us Rusians is near by, the ship with its cargo shall be revictualed and sent on to Christian territory…But if any such ship thus detained by storm or some terrestrial obstacle cannot possibly reach its destination, we Rusians will extend aid to the crew of the ship…

There follows stipulations about what happens to crew and cargo if the wreck is closer to Rusian or to Byzantine territory. This language, from the 912 treaty is further elaborated in the 945 treaty as well.

As the astute reader may have noted, the treaty terms also refer to the Byzantines as “Christians” delineating them by religion, with the implication that the Rusians are not Christian. This is most clear in the 912 treaty, but by the 945 treaty there are some Rusian Christians and the end of the treaty contains the manner by which everyone swore to the treaty. The Christians swore by the cross in the Church of St. Elias while the non-Christians laid down their weapons and armor and swear to the treaty upon being cursed by “God and Perun” if he does not honor it. The treaty thus preserves the existence of Christians well before the 988/989 Christianization of Rus as well as the name of a non-Christian god, Perun, which was worshiped by the population. These are all fascinating items about a period of Rusian life which is not well documented.

What the treaties say about the origins of Rusians

The treaties contain much more information as well. For instance, one of the most vexing questions in the history of Rus, and for modern eastern European studies, is the origin of the people known as Rus. The PVL records that “These particular Varangians were known as Rusians, just as some are called Swedes, and others Normans, English, and Gotlanders.” (s.a. 862) Following this entry, the Rusians were originally thought to be Scandinavians.

This was the case until the 18th century, when Mikhail Lomonosov, a Russian academic, created the idea that the Rusians were a Slavic group, not a Scandinavian one. His idea became known as the anti-Normanist hypothesis (Norman = Scandinavian here), and it related much more to 18th-century politics than to the reality of the medieval period. Despite that, it has persisted to this day and was popularized and backed by Russian and Soviet governments for hundreds of years.

The treaties, dating as they do from the tenth century, give us insight into this problem as well, for they contain lists of signatories representing Rus. Even a cursory look at this list will confirm the identity of the Rusians: in the 912 treaty we have, “Karl, Ingjald, Farulf, Vermund, Hrollaf, Gunnar, Harold, Karni, Frithleig, Horarr, Angantyr, Throans, Leithulf, Fast, and Steinvith.” While in 945 we have many, many more names, but a selection from the merchants listed shows the continuing trend, “Authun, Authulf, Ingivald, Oleif, Frutan, Gamal, Kussi, Heming, Thorfrid, Thorstein…” Such a grouping of names makes quite clear the Scandinavian origins and background of the Rus. Even the Slavic names by which we call early Rusian leaders (Oleg, Igor, and Olga) are all variants of Scandinavian names which they most likely bore at the time – Helgi, Ingvarr, and Helga.

What the treaties say about slavery

If this is not enough information contained in these priceless sources, we also can see the slave trade which played out between these two medieval polities. Both societies held slaves and both were clearly worried about the fact that slaves might run away to the other and find sanctuary. The 945 treaty, in particular, deals with these concerns and stipulates that both sides needed to be wary of runaway slaves and if they were found they needed to be returned to their owners. Additionally, if the slave stole any of their owner’s property, that must also be returned, and if it is, a finder’s fee will be allocated to the one returning it – a seemingly sensible measure that modern people could relate to. Both parties also wanted to assure that slaves held by the opposing party taken from amongst their own people, could be freed. The stipulation for Rusian slaves in Byzantium is fairly straightforward, as the few who were there were largely prisoners of war, and they could be ransomed by the Rusian government for ten bezants.

The Byzantine situation is much more complicated and seems to testify to a wider slaving of the Rusians amongst the Byzantine population. For instance, “young men or grown girls” can be ransomed at ten bezants, but middle-aged people are worth only eight bezants, while children and old people are only worth five bezants each. Not just a testament to slavery and its consequences in the tenth century, we also see here a social value placed on different lives based upon age and gender.

Legal sources like treaties are often treated as formulaic and perhaps even as “boring.” But these rare tenth-century treaties between Rus and Byzantium provide a fascinating insight into the two polities, the way they interacted and especially the life at the time. They can also help us answer many questions that we still care about today when writing the history of medieval eastern Europe; if only we read closely and listen to what the documents have to say.

Christian Raffensperger is the Kenneth E. Wray Chair in the Humanities at Wittenberg University, and currently is the Archie K. Davis Fellow at the National Humanities Center. His work presents Rus not as a principality or a collection of principalities but as one of the realms of medieval Europe. Click here to view his university webpage.

Click here to read more from Christian Raffensperger

Further Reading:

Simon Franklin, Writing, Society and Culture in Early Rus’, c. 950-1300 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)

Christian Raffensperger, Reimagining Europe: Kievan Rus’ in the Medieval World, 988–1146 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012).

The Russian Primary Chronicle: Laurentian Text, transl. and ed. Samuel Hazzard Cross and Olgerd P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor (Cambridge, Mass.: The Mediaeval Academy of America, 1953)

Frank Edward Wozniak, Jr. The Nature of Byzantine Foreign Policy toward Kievan Russia in the First Half of the Tenth Century: A Reassessment. Stanford University Ph.D., 1973.

Top Image: Meeting between Emperor John Tzimiskes and Sviatoslav I of Kiev in the Madrid Skylitzes, fol. 172rb

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