The Swedes going South – a snippet of history


These days I am reading Henri Pirenne’s book “A History of Europe”, which I find the most readable history of the period from the invasions to the 16th century.

Henry Pirenne
Henry Pirenne

In it I found some facts about the movement of Swedes to the South, which I would like to share.

All the material I use comes from pages 59 and 60 of the book (Taylor and Francis, 2010). I have also used material from a relevant (‘Varangians’) Wikipedia article.

“Varangian routes”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –

Apparently the Swedes were the only Scandinavians who were tempted to discover Byzantium and the Caliphate. This was largely due to the trade between the two regions.

The map shows three routes, one is red and connects Scandinavia to the Caliphate through the Caspian Sea, and the other two are purple and connect Byzantium through the Black Sea. These were the lands of the sun and fortune for the Swedish adventurers.

The Slavs called these strangers by the name of ‘Rus’, which the Finns had given them.

In the 9th century, they settled along the Dnieper and Rurik, their leader founded Novgorod. In 892 Olaf, Rurik’s successor, established himself in Kiev. We may call this the birth of a ‘Russian” -that is Swedish – state in the basin of the Dnieper.

The settlers maintained their tongue and customs for a period. However, by the 11th century, they were absorbed by the population they governed and exploited.

These newcomers were known, in Russian, by an old Swedish word meaning ‘foreigners’ (vaering).

Hence the ‘Varangians’, βάραγγοι’, of the Constantinople guard, which was composed at first mainly of Scandinavians. But this did not happen until 988. Earlier there had been a series of attacks of the Varangians against Constantinople.

Varangian Guard
Varangian Guard

The Varangians launched their first attack against Constantinople in 860. After many attacks over more than 100 years, they settled their differences with Byzantium by making trade agreements. They were Christianized in the second half of the 10th century, and this sealed their good relations with Byzantium and Emperor Basil II, who mistrusting his own troops, set up the Varangian Guard as the elite corps to protect the Emperor and his family. The Guard included mainly Scandinavians until the 11th century.

More than 200,000 Byzantine and Arabic coins have been exhumed from Swedish soil, the oldest dating from 698.

You can read more about the Varangians in the excellent article by Lars Brownworth.


  1. What’s more interesting to me is that following the Norman conquest, a great number of Ango-Saxons boarded ships and set out to find a new homeland. They settled in Byzantium, many of them serving as members of the Varangian Guard. Apparently, they kept their language and cultural identity until the very fall of Constantinople, and there are conjectures that they were given land in the north-east of the Black Sea, that became the mythical Nova Anglia. Fascinating piece of history.

    • Thank you for your comment! In a sense, you stole my thunder, as I was going to write a sequel snippet to tell the story of the Anglo-Saxons in Constantinople. Now I will have to work harder!

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