Your RDA of Irony

The Rake’s Progress: or the Road to Runes

Husbands throughout the Northern Hemisphere now may be confronted with a new reason for doing the yardwork. A Viking treasure might be waiting. Last Monday a little yardwork uncovered more than 1,000 silver coins from the 10th century. Of course, that was more likely to happen in Gotland, Sweden than in Northbrook, Illinois but your wife will still hand you a rake.

The coins were Arabic. Indulging in modern stereotypes, we might imagine some emir flinging a fortune at Scandinavian blondes. In fact, that treasure hoard more likely was a Viking’s retirement fund, the measure of a life of successful looting.

Western Europe is familiar with the Danish and Norwegian Vikings; victims tend to remember. However, the Swedish Vikings were not exactly vying for the Nobel Peace Prize. In fact, they made their western cousins seem like underachievers. The Norwegians grabbed Normandy and Scotland. The Danes overran Ireland and England. That was not trivial; they could write home about that if postcards came in Runic. But the Swedish Vikings took over Russia!

Known by the Slavic pronunciation as Varangians, they in fact created Russia in the 9th century, merging the independent tribes into one nation. Any Slavic reluctance succumbed to Viking persuasion. However, it really was not much of a nation. The Varangians united the country only to divide it up among themselves, and they had no reason to trust each. Nonetheless, even thieves need a sense of etiquette, and the chief thief was acknowledged as the Grand Duke of Kiev. The names of the first Grand Dukes reflect their Viking origin: Rurik, Oleg and Ingmar. (Then came Svaitoslav; by the fourth generation some assimilation was inevitable.)

Ruling Russia was pleasant and profitable, but the Vikings were never known for their complacency. There was a particular temptation directly to the South: the Byzantine Empire. Byzantium was the greatest and richest civilization in medieval Christendom. The Vikings were not really interested in illuminated manuscripts except to rip off the gold leaf, but all that gold leaf was incentive enough.

Oleg and Svaitoslav launched attacks on the Byzantine Empire. Oleg lived to regret it; Svaitoslav did not. It turned out that the Byzantines could defend themselves. Some of their erudition was very practical, especially a form of napalm known as Greek Fire. It incinerated Oleg’s fleet, further blackening the Black Sea.

After those debacles, the Vikings came to a depressing realization. If they wanted Constantinople’s gold, they would have earn it through honest labor. Fortunately, there was a market for Viking prowess in the Byzantine army. Indeed, that army offered a very promising career: good pay and ample opportunities for loot, and the decadent delight of spending it in the most luxurious city in the world. Hearing of such lucrative opportunities. many young men ventured from Scandinavia to make the very long journey to Constantinople. The Byzantine Army soon had thousands of Viking recruits who were organized into the Varangian Guard.

I would guess that the recently discovered trove of Arab coins had belonged to a veteran of the Varangian Guard. In the tenth century, the Byzantine Empire was expanding at the expense of the bordering Arab states, reconquering territory it had lost in the seventh century. Antioch was one of the great cities of Antiquity, and it still was tempting by medieval standards. When the city was captured by the Byzantines, there must have been a lot to loot.

Perhaps one Varangian guard discovered, stole or extorted 1000 silver coins as the victors ran amok. Of course, he would be expected to share with his fellow soldiers; but if he didn’t, he had all the more reason to move back to Scandinavia. With that fortune, he could retire in luxury.

Ironically, he evidently did not. Aside from the usual slaughter among vying nobles, tenth century Scandinavia was rift by a new reason for war: religion. Pagans and Christians were applying Viking means to debate theology. Although the Christians obviously had the last word, it was a long and heated debate. Our Varangian veteran (who had to become a nominal Christian to enlist in the Byzantine army) eventually was caught in this turmoil. He buried his treasure but apparently did not live to retrieve it.

In hindsight, he probably would have been better off spending the fortune in Constantinople, carousing among women of rentable affection. But then today we would not have this inspiring reason for yardwork.

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