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In 941, Prince Igor Rurikovich broke the peace treaty with Byzantium, which had been concluded under Oleg the Prophet, and organized a campaign against Constantinople. Sources mention the large number of troops gathered by Igor (from 1,000 to 10,000 ships).

Forewarned by the Bulgars about the enemy’s movements, the Byzantine commanders were able to first defeat the Rus on land, and then, when Igor attempted to retreat by sea, the ships equipped with “Greek fire” burned down a large part of the prince’s fleet.

Map of Igor’s campaign against Tsargrad-Constantinople in 941

View of the capital of the Byzantine Empire - Constantinople-Tsargrad.
View of the capital of the Byzantine Empire – Constantinople-Tsargrad.

Reasons for the campaign

Several of the most likely reasons for Prince Igor’s violation of the peace between Rus and Byzantium can be identified:

  1. The Greeks stopped paying the tribute owed under the treaty with Oleg the Prophet[1]V. N. Tatishchev, “Russian History” book 2, chapter 3
  2. Igor wanted to repeatOleg’s victorious campaign on Constantinople in 907

In addition, there is a version according to which the campaign was organized after a defeat by the Khazars as a condition for peace with the Khazar Khaganate[2]“Cambridge Document”. However, the ancient Russian chronicles do not mention such a confrontation.

Description of events

In the year 941, Prince Igor sent his men to Constantinople to collect the tribute owed according to the peace treaty of 911. Upon seeing that the envoys returned empty-handed, Igor Rurikovich decided to remind the Byzantines of the importance of meeting their payments and to repeat the famous campaign of his mentor Oleg the Prophet, who in 907 had nailed his shield to the gates of Tsargrad in victory.

According to various sources, Igor Rurikovich set out on a sea campaign with a large fleet (from 1000[3]“Retribution” by Liutprand of Cremona to 10,000[4]“Biographies of the Kings”, Theophan’s Successor ships) and in June 941 approached the coast of Byzantium.

The raid was not a surprise. The Bulgarians had sent word of it in advance, and later the commander of the Greek colony of Cherson had also warned the Byzantines. However, the Byzantine fleet, commanded by Emperor Roman, had previously been sent to fight the Arabs and defend the islands in the Mediterranean, so in June the Rus approached the Black Sea coast of the empire.

When the ruler of Byzantium was informed that only 15 ships remained in port, which had not been taken due to their age, he decided to use the main weapon of the Greeks and ordered the shipbuilders:

“Immediately go and equip the remaining galleys [a type of ship]. But also install the device for throwing fire not only at the bow, but also at the stern and on both sides”.[5]“Retribution” by Liutprand of Cremona

Dromon, Byzantine warship
Dromon, Byzantine warship

On June 11 near Heraion, the Greeks decided to engage in battle with the Ladean fleet of the Rus. Fire-ships broke through the enemy ranks and began setting all surrounding ships on fire with Greek fire, causing panic and fear among the Varangians who had never before encountered such a weapon. Following the fire-ships, dromons and triremes entered the battle, completing the rout.

Byzantine dromon attacks the battle boats of the Slavs (art. José Daniel Cabrera Peña)
Byzantine dromon attacks the battle boats of the Slavs
(art. José Daniel Cabrera Peña)
The action of Greek fire during the siege of Constantinople by Igor. Engraving by F. A. Bruni, 1839
The action of Greek fire during the siege of Constantinople by Igor.
Engraving by F. A. Bruni, 1839

The Rus fleet was scattered, with many drowning under the weight of their own armor as they tried to escape the Greek fire and jumped from burning ships. Igor made the decision to return home.

Another part of the army regrouped and, taking advantage of the shallow waters (Byzantine ships were much heavier and could not pursue the Rus there), sailed to the eastern coast and began raiding the surrounding areas:

“And they came and sailed, and waged war against the land of Vifinskaya, and devastated the land along the Pontic Sea to Heraclea and to Paphlagonia, and devastated all the land of Nicomedia, and burned the entire Sud.”[6]«Tale of Bygone Years»

Greek stratigos Varda Foka, sent to intercept, attempted to tie down the Varangians, launching unexpected attacks on them,while they scattered over a large territory and engaged in looting. Meanwhile, a forty-thousand-strong Greek army approached from the east, in the battle with which the Rus lost and, loading onto their boats, attempted to sail away. During an attempt to sail unnoticed along the coast of Thrace, the Varangians encountered the patrikios Theophanes and again suffered defeat in a naval battle. Emperor Roman ordered all captured Rus to be publicly executed.

Few survivors of this campaign called Greek fire the main reason for their failure upon returning:

«As if a heavenly lightning bolt, — they said, — the Greeks have it, and by releasing it, they burned us; that’s why we couldn’t defeat them».[7]«Tale of Bygone Years»

Further events

Upon returning home, Prince Igor sent messengers to the Varangians “beyond the sea” (possibly to Scandinavia) – the defeat in the campaign could not positively affect the ruler’s reputation, so revenge had to be taken. By 943, the prince had gathered a sufficient number of warriors and, for reinforcement, hired Pechenegs, who accompanied the campaign by moving on land parallel to the Varangian ships.

Having received news from Bulgaria and Cherson, the emperor of Byzantium preferred to restore peace and sent envoys with gifts and assurances of readiness to conclude a new treaty to meet Igor. After consulting with his retinue, the prince accepted the proposal and headed home, leaving the Pechenegs to plunder Bulgaria.

In 944, the envoys who arrived from Constantinople concluded a new treaty, sealing it with oaths on the cross (for Christians) and at the statue of Perun (for pagans).

"Igor makes peace with Byzantium" Art. Chorikov B. A.
“Igor makes peace with Byzantium”
Art. Chorikov B. A.
(Inscription – “PEACE WITH GREEKS 944”
“Grand Duke Igor, at the end of the war with the Greeks, promises to keep peace with the Empire in the presence of ambassadors”)

Results and outcomes

  • Complete defeat on land and sea
  • Only about 10 ships returned home out of the entire fleet
  • Upon his return, Igor began to prepare for a new campaign.

Cluster “Igor Rurikovich”

Список литературы

  1. V. N. Tatishchev, “Russian History” book 2, chapter 3
  2. “Cambridge Document”
  3. “Retribution” by Liutprand of Cremona
  4. “Biographies of the Kings”, Theophan’s Successor
  5. “Retribution” by Liutprand of Cremona
  6. «Tale of Bygone Years»
  7. «Tale of Bygone Years»
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Опубликовано: 24.03.2023
Изменено: 24.03.2023