Evidence Of Viking Mercenary District Found Near Istanbul
Archaeologists in Turkey have found what they believe to be a Viking mercenary district near Istanbul. The area dates back to the Middle Ages when Istanbul was known as Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire. The discoveries are providing more evidence on the role of Viking mercenaries in the Byzantine Empire. The Viking mercenary district discovered near the ancient city of Istanbul is changing the narrative on how the Norsemen fought for “money” all over the ancient world.
The Viking mercenary district was found by Turkish archaeologists, in 2014, in what was once the ancient city of Bathonea. The site is located on the European coast of the Sea of Marmara, about 11 miles (20km) from the bustling city of Istanbul. Archaeologists have been working on the site for six years, in cooperation with a range of international Viking experts.
A reproduction Viking amber necklace of the sort found in the Viking mercenary district of Bathonea. (Viking Dragon)
Viking Traders and Mercenaries Went Nearly Everywhere!
During the excavation of the Viking mercenary district near Istanbul the team found numerous artifacts that belong to the Vikings. For example, the experts unearthed a cross made from the rare substance ambergris, which was obtained from the bile ducts of a sperm whales. Ambergis was often used by Viking craftsmen. Heritage Daily reports that “The most significant find is a necklace depicting a snake, that represents Jörmangandr (also known as the Midgard Serpent) that will bring about the first signs of Ragnarök.” Blazei Stanislawski, a Polish Viking expert, who participated in the investigations, stated that “We unearthed seven clues that indicated the Vikings once lived here” reports Hurriyet Daily News.
The Vikings had a long history of interactions with the Byzantines in and around the Agean Sea. The Vikings and their kinsmen the Varangians, founders of the Kievan Rus state, extensively traded and interacted with the Byzantine Empire. The Varangians attacked the Byzantines twice but were repelled both times. After the signing of a 9 th-century AD treaty, peaceful relations were established.
Varangian guardsmen in an illustration in a medieval chronicle. ( Public Domain )
The Vikings of the Elite Varangian Guard Served the Emperor
After the peace treaty, many Vikings from Kievan Rus and Scandinavia served as mercenaries for the Byzantines. The Vikings came from a warrior culture that prized loyalty and they were famous for their massive axes, which proved decisive in many battles. These mercenaries were loyal to the Byzantine emperor with almost no allegiances to local aristocrats or factions.
In 988 AD, Viking mercenaries were formally incorporated into the Varangian Guard by Basil II, the Byzantine emperor. The Varangian Guard served as bodyguards to the emperor as an elite unit in his army. Heritage Daily reports that “Over the next 100 years, the guard’s ranks would include Norseman from Scandinavia, establishing a Norse cast that would become the dominant entity of the guard’s ranks.” One of the best known of these guards was Harald Hardrada, who later became King of Norway. A Viking mercenary graffiti message, written in runes, has been found in Hagia Sophia. The message states “Halfdan carved these runes,” or “Halfdan was here’’ according to Atlas Obscura. The Vikings served in the Varangian Guard until the 11 th century AD when they were replaced by Anglo-Saxon exiles fleeing Norman rule in England.
Graffiti presumably inscribed by Viking mercenaries on the second floor of the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, Turkey. (Not home / Public domain)
The Byzantines Used Viking Mercenaries But Didn’t Trust Them
The Vikings were valued as mercenaries but they were not trusted and successive emperors feared them. Researchers told Hurriyet Daily News that “Vikings and Varangians could only settle outside the city, so they chose to accommodate in Bathonea, an international port of the time.” They had to leave Constantinople every night and could only enter it in limited numbers in case they tried to take the city. The Viking mercenary base was established in Bathonea outside of the capital but close enough to serve when called to action.
The Bathonea archaeological dig has provided researchers with much physical evidence that proves the Viking mercenary base was a fact as opposed to a theory. Prof. Şengül Aydıngün, one of the directors of the excavations, told Hurriyet Daily News that “We have found their exact settlement area to be between the ninth and 11th centuries in the Bathonea excavations.” Specific residential areas for different religious cultures and ethnicities were common in Byzantine cities at the time.
- Vikings in Byzantium: The Varangians and their Fearless Conquests
- Varangian Guard: Bodyguards and Berserkers of the Byzantine Empire
- Gallowglass Mercenaries – The Notorious Norse-Gael Soldiers of Fortune
The Viking mercenary district of Bathonea continues to provide new insights into how the fearsome Norse warriors were used by the Byzantines. The evidence found so far indicates that the Byzantines employed them to strengthen their army but also took precautions to neutralize them as a threat. This is an important difference when you consider the experience of the Western Roman emperors, who were “overthrown” by their Germanic bodyguards and mercenaries, leading to the eventual Fall of Rome in 476 AD.
Top image: Viking helmets are special and few have been found but the Viking mercenary district warriors of Bathonea would have surely worn them as they fought for and protected the Byzantine emperor. Source: Helgi Halldórsson from Reykjavík, Iceland / CC BY-SA 2.0
By Ed Whelan