© Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO
TRADING WITH THE GREEKS (Circa 833 AD)
“They who followed Bragi the Old were called Bragunar.”
Snorri Sturluson; Skaldskaparmal.
Founded by the Greeks in 658 B.C., Constantinople was established as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire by Augustus Caesar Constantine in 330 A.D. It was to be a bastion of western civilization for a millennium, with a population of over half a million citizens and a strategic location, between the Sea of Marmora and the Bosporus that controlled trade between the Mediterranean and Black Seas. Twelve miles of stone wall protected its palaces and churches, forums and arenas, cisterns and aqueducts, while six gates allowed access to its streets and houses. It was on the tip of a peninsula called the Golden Horn, with its harbour of the same name to the north, the Bosporus Strait and Asia Minor on its east, the Sea of Marmora or Propontus to the south and the Lycus River trailing into the continent of Europe on its west.
It had taken Hraerik a month of haranguing and many bribes to get the leading merchant of Cherson, a Greek called Chaleus, to arrange for an escort to and meeting with merchants in Constantinople. And this, Chaleus did with style. An escorting trireme of the Roman navy dwarfed Fair Faxi as it led Hraerik and merchants of the Hraes’ Trading Company from Cherson southwest across the Black Sea to the Bosporus and up into the Golden Horn. Calm had been the sea passage, with exceptionally fine weather for late fall, but the winter rains were starting as they rowed down the strait between Europe and Asia. The Greek naval officers had wasted no time in displaying the superior speed of their trireme’s oars while leaving the harbour of Cherson, but the Norsemen showed the Romans how their little ship sped swiftly over the high sea waves once out upon the Pontus Euxinus, so the Greeks took their time leading the longship down the Bosporus, and Hraerik studied the small towns and many churches crowding both shores of the passage. The little settlements never ceased, one town blending into the next with the odd monastery or church in between. And the waters were alive with little boats and ships, fishing craft and merchant vessels. As Fair Faxi approached Constantinople, the shorelines were crowded with houses, estates and vineyards, and on their left the city of Chrysopolis settled into the Asian coast and up into its hills as far as the eye could see, then, to the south, they saw the Sea of Marmora before heading west up into the Golden Horn. The high-walled capital of the Roman Empire loomed ominously above the Norsemen, casting deep evening shadows across calm rippling waters, as they rowed up into the long harbour.
The Roman navy was on manoeuvre along the Horn and Hraerik witnessed a phenomenon he had only heard tales about, an event he suspected had been planned as a demonstration of Roman military might: the throwing of Greek fire, from a bireme onto the decks of an abandoned old hulk of a merchantman. Hraerik had been raised on tales of his grandfather, Sigurd, attacking just such a fire breathing bireme on the rivers of Asia many years before. Roman sailors were on the deck of the bireme and the crew manning the hollow tube of the Greek weapon stood out in their flame proofed mail shirts and their shaggy hide breaches and their broad brimmed bronze helms and soon the tube roared a great ‘Hraaaaaa’ from the deck of the Greek warship, spouting flaming black liquor into the night air and onto the decks of the little galley while the massive bladders and bellows below deck exhausted their pressurized air. Hraerik imagined his grandfather standing at the forestem of his ship shouting ‘Hraaa’ right back at the top of his lungs and his crew all shouting ‘Hraaa’ in unison to keep up their courage as they rowed straight for the bireme and when the Greeks replied with another flaming ‘Hraaaaa’, Sigurd led his men in a responding ‘Hraaa’ once more while fending off the flames with his ship’s green hide awnings and water logged shields, then coming in low, under the arc of fire, to attack the soft underbelly of the beast, grappling and boarding that ship of the Empire and stealing away the hoard of Roman gold that the dwarf Regin had told him about. The Greek naval officers of their escort vessel shook their heads in disbelief as the barbaric Norsemen laughed and shouted ‘Hraaa” at this demonstration of the Roman Empire’s fiery secret weapon. Hraerik would never tell the Greeks that it was his grandfather that had stolen their emperor’s gold, but he let all the Norsemen in his company know about it and he told them that Sigard got his famed byname ‘Hrae’, Sigurd Hrae, from that sea battle. And that was how his son Gunar became Hraegunar and his byname became Lothbrok, or Shaggy Breaches, and how his own Erik was destined to be Hraerik or Ruirik. And how his gifted shield was called Hrae’s Ship’s Round and the tales that were carved into it were to cover up the charred marks burnt into it by the Naphtha flames and how now his company of traders were called the Hraes’. Erik owed much to the secret weapon of the Greeks. Poems and tales were still being made of the Hraes Gold, or Regin’s Gold, or the Red Gold or the Hring Gold stolen by Sigurd Hrae. It would not become the Rhine Gold yet; that would come later in Ingleheim.
The escorting trireme led Fair Faxi to a dock offshore of the Gate of Plateia, where a number of merchants of Constantinople awaited Chaleus and his Norse traders. It was a sombre and overweight group that welcomed Hraerik to Constantinople as he stepped onto the solid stonework of the dock, the opulence of Rome self-evident. Chaleus introduced Hraerik to the merchants that he knew and they, in turn, presented the rest of their party. Hraerik was amazed at how quickly night followed day in the southern climes. There was no long period of dusk as in the northern lands. But the Greek merchants had fine carriages at hand to take the Norsemen quietly into the city. They passed through the immense bronze doors of the Gate of Plateia and travelled down a wide flagstone avenue lit up with oil-fired streetlamps, passing under a long aqueduct and turning left onto a street called the Mese. Passing through the Forum of Theodosius, they carried on to the Forum of Constantine and there awaited a messenger from the Great Palace of the Emperor, Michael. An hour passed before a palace eunuch ambled down the busy Mese with instructions that the Norse merchants be entertained in the Triclinium of Augustus, a hall in the Great Palace equipped with apartments and kitchens. The merchant Chaleus was to stay with the barbarians and was responsible for their behaviour. Once settled comfortably in their chambers, Chaleus said to Hraerik, “The Emperor is pleased with the sable pelts we presented him in tithe for the goods we shipped from Cherson. He wishes more and is willing to pay Roman gold for them. Further, he requests all sales of sable be restricted to the royal household.”
“We shall see,” was Hraerik’s taciturn reply. He was not impressed with his reception in Constantinople. He had been greeted with intimidation, been compelled to wait on palace slaves and was now being told his business. He was not looking forward to the morrow’s entertainment. Chaleus had promised him an afternoon of The Games, chariot racing, at the Hippodrome.
Hraerik could hear it even though he could not see it. It made a massive shuffling sound in the cool morning air and one could almost feel it vibrating the cold stones of the Triclinium of Augustus. One could taste the dust raised into the air by it and every fibre in Hraerik’s being was instinctively aroused by its ominous and crushing presence.
“It is the mob,” Chaleus explained in his broken Goth. “They who come to watch the games.” Hraerik wanted to see them, but the Greek explained that they, themselves, would be entering the Hippodrome directly from the palace grounds later, then, relenting, he led Hraerik out into a street of the palace, past the Hall of Nineteen Couches and to the Triclinium beyond the court of Daphne. There was a small watchtower atop the Triclinium from which advantage Hraerik could see much of Constantinople. But it was the mob that caught and held his eye. By the thousands, people were streaming into the Hippodrome, flowing like a great river of humanity into that ancient sea of stone, flowing from homes into small tributary streets, commingling in the larger avenues, converging on the huge Mese and flowing down through the centre of Constantinople, through the Forum of Constantine, where the masses eddied in small swirling surging bodies before streaming once again into the Mese and on to the stadium. Hraerik shivered involuntarily at the sight. This mob, as Chaleus called it, had to number in the hundreds of thousands: perhaps two hundred thousand‑‑twice as great as the army of the Huns. The thought of so many people gathering in one place awed Hraerik, but the thought of three or four times as many people all living together here in Constantinople, with even more if one included Chrysopolis and the surrounding towns, staggered him. From the vantage point of the watchtower, Hraerik’s overwhelmed senses left the people and moved on to the city of Constantinople, itself.
Chaleus watched the barbarian as he studied the city. The Norseman showed no signs of being overly impressed, still Chaleus flushed with pride in Constantinople, the mother city of the Greco-Roman world. “You missed the sights with our night arrival,” he started, as the city of Constantinople lay spread out before them. “The fortification to the west is the Wall of Theodosius,” Chaleus explained in a medley of Goth and Greek words, “and to its north the Palace of Blachernae, so named for a Scythian prince who died on that spot. There you see the Cisterns of Aetius and Aspar,” he continued, pointing,” and then we have the Inner Wall of Constantine and the Church of the Holy Apostles and the Aqueduct that we passed under last night and, there, is the Gate of Plateia, through which we entered the city, and there is the Gate of Perama and beyond them both is the Harbour of the Golden Horn.” Chaleus gave Hraerik a moment to absorb the names, then continued. “As I explained last night, the great street running down the centre of the city is called the Mese and, by the aqueduct, is the Forum of Theodosius and then we have the Forum of Constantine and, finally, we have the Hippodrome,” he said, and Hraerik was drawn once more to the crowd at the stadium. “Going back to the west,” Chaleus started again, “the gates in the Wall of Theodosius from the north are: the Gate of Charisius on the Mese, the Gate of Romanus, the gate of Selembria on the Sigma Mese and the Golden Gate.” Hraerik could not see any gold on the Golden Gate, but, before Hraerik could question this, Chaleus continued. “Down the Sigma Mese is the Forum of Arcadius and the Forum of the Ox. To our south is the Sea of Marmora,” Chaleus explained, moving to the south-east corner of the tower, “and the Sophian Harbour. There are the Churches of Saint Thomas and Anastasia and the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus. Behind us is, of course, the Imperial Palace grounds and there is the Pentacubiculum and the Covered Hippodrome and, behind it, the Palace of Trichonus.”
Hraerik could just make out the Palace of Trichonus over top the Covered Hippodrome, and its roof, he could see, was covered in gold. Chaleus went on to detail the rest of the Great Palace to Hraerik: the lighthouse by the sea wall, the Imperial Apartments, the Octagon, the Court of Daphne, the Hall of Nineteen Couches, the Triclinium of Augustus in which they were staying, the Tribunal, the Court of Schools, the Open Square, the Brazen House, the Church of the Apostles and the Magnaura. The palace grounds ended at the Mese and the Milion, the column at which all distances from Constantinople were measured. Beyond were the Augustion and the Hagia Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom, the crowning glory of Orthodox Christianity.
“She’s the marvel of the Greek world,” Chaleus declared, as both men, Roman and Barbarian, took in the wondrous beauty of that climax of the First Golden Age of Roman architecture. “It was built in six years,” the Greek continued, “some five hundred years after the death of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” Hagia Sophia sat brooding, a magnificent church, oozing religion, its hundred-foot concrete dome rising higher yet over its surrounding grounds. “Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Militus built her and his son, Isidorus the Younger, completed her.” Chaleus considered himself to be a well‑educated man and somewhat of an expert on ships and buildings. Had he not been born into a wealthy merchant class family that bought and sold properties, he felt he would have devoted his life to the construction of magnificent structures, but this whim of his did not reflect the realities of Roman civilization. Merchants were the sons of merchants and builders the sons of builders and soldiers of soldiers until even mercenaries passed on their deadly skills to their own offspring.
Hraerik studied the massive structure and, even though he did not show it, he marvelled in its accomplishment. Both men’s reveries were shattered by the shout of an Imperial Guardsman, an officer of the elite Immortals Regiment.
“What are you doing here?” he shouted, rushing across the stone floor of the tower. Keeping clear of Hraerik, he grabbed Chaleus by the throat and shouted, “Showing the barbarian our defences? This is treason. I’ll have your head.”
“A mark of silver,” Chaleus wheezed, as the big man near lifted him off his feet.
“That’s all your miserable life is worth?” the guardsman hissed.
“A gold talent,” Chaleus countered.
The officer of the Immortals managed a small greedy smile before Hraerik remembered a word he had heard shouted many times from the walls during the siege of Cherson. “Pig!” Hraerik shouted in Latin.
The guardsman dropped Chaleus, who tumbled backwards into the wall of the tower and watched the fight unfold, sitting. The Immortal drew his long sword and it flashed in the sunlight. Hraerik stepped away from the wall, drawing Tyrfingr, and his sword glowed in the shadows. The huge Greek swung his weapon with such force that it shattered upon the star stone of Hraerik’s blade. He raised his arms as though to say, “I am unarmed,” but Tyrfingr bit deep into his chest and the Immortal died without a word.
As Hraerik withdrew the sword and sheathed Tyrfingr in the blood of the Roman guardsman, Chaleus rose to his feet, shaking.
“You could have spared the man,” he complained. “He’d have settled for a mark of silver at sword point.”
“There is a curse on this sword. It must be the death of a man each time it is drawn,” Hraerik explained. “It was him or you!”
“And the glow? It is part of this curse?”
Hraerik nodded in reply.
“Can you get more of these cursed swords?” Chaleus asked, his eyes lighting up as the merchant in him took over.
“There is but the one,” Hraerik laughed, shaking his head, but the interest of the Greek warned Hraerik of the danger of letting Tyrfingr fall into Roman hands.
“I’ll have my people come collect the corpse,” Chaleus offered as they descended the tower.
“No,” Hraerik answered. “I’ll have my Centuriata get him when we’re at the games.” And, while Chaleus and Hraerik were busy with the pomp and majesty of the Emperor’s entrance into the Hippodrome, four of Hraerik’s men covertly carried an empty wine keg to the top of the palace watch tower and spirited a full one down.
The Hippodrome was a huge stone and brick stadium holding over a hundred thousand spectators. A quarter of a mile long and four hundred feet wide, it was the largest structure within the walls of Constantinople. The full length of its east side adjoined the Great Palace, then swept around to the south and west in a graceful arc and the tiered stone seats of its western side ran for another quarter mile, leaving the north end open for the entering of processions and parades. Access to the general public was via hundreds of entrances all along the outer wall of the stadium and Hraerik thought, as they entered the Imperial Section, that if Odin, indeed, had a hall called Valhall, it would be like the Hippodrome, with drinking and games and massive entertainments.
Hraerik and Chaleus, although sitting in the Emperor’s Section, had not been invited to sit in the Imperial Box. Surrounded by fellow merchants of note, they sat several rows below and to the left of Emperor Michael, the Second. As the chariots and teams were being led into the stadium from the north, a Greek merchant asked Hraerik a question which Chaleus translated for him. “How would you describe our fair city?” Chaleus asked Hraerik.
Hraerik sat stiffly, showing no signs of his earlier wonderment. “Miklagard!” he shouted.
“Michael’s Keep,” Chaleus translated for the merchant, who smiled condescendingly.
The chariots were soon lined up in front of the Imperial Box and ready to start the race. A low wall ran down the centre of the field, most of the length of the stadium, separating it into two halves, forming the track around which the four-horse chariots would race. There were four teams decked out in their respective colours of blue, green, red and white representing the four quarters of the city. The blue team had the official support of the emperor and the green had the empress’s backing. The wife of the sovereign ruler of the empire stood up, silk kerchief in hand, and let the bright cloth fall. Hraerik watched it float down from the Imperial Box and, as the wind swept the silk out over the reaching arms of the crowd, he was reminded of the handkerchief Gunwar had dropped to begin the Hraegunarsons’ duel with the sons of Westmar, out upon the ice, and a sharp pang of loneliness pierced him as he thought of his wife. The race, meanwhile, had begun, and the chariots were hurtling around the first turn in the course. The blue chariot was in the lead, followed by the green and the white, with the red team trailing last. Coming down the far side of the track, the teams maintained much the same order, but, in the desire to win, the green chariot attempted to go inside of the blue team as it went around the last corner. The two chariots collided with each other, sending the blue team crashing into the wall of the stadium. The white and red teams swept by the floundering green and crossed the finish line. The driver of the blue chariot got up out of the wreckage as slaves rushed out to attend the horses. “It is a bad omen for Emperor Michael,” Chaleus whispered, “but a good one for us,” he chuckled, the white team being representative of the merchants of Constantinople. A brooding scowl altered the face of the emperor, who had been very pleased and smiling upon learning that the barbarian had called Constantinople, Miklagard. It was a sombre Imperial party that returned to the Great Palace late that afternoon.
That evening, Chaleus had arranged for a business meeting between Hraerik and a number of influential merchants of Constantinople at the House of Lanterns, a silk emporium that gained fame by the magnificent collection of ancient lamps and lanterns that burned night and day there. The street lighting of Constantinople had impressed Hraerik, as had the water and sanitation systems, but the House of Lanterns stood out in Hraerik’s mind as a bright spot in a city of lights. The building itself was of a traditional Hellenic style that Hraerik had come to recognize and appreciate, thanks to the critiques of Chaleus, with its fluted Dorian columns and bas relief. Lanterns surrounded the exterior of the building, lighting up the night air, and lamps were set throughout the atrium giving the whole place an unreal sensation of daylight at night. It was with the intent to impress, that the merchants arranged an evening meeting with the barbarian, but, as fascinated as he was, Hraerik yet again proved to be a most difficult man to deal with. The merchants brought the disturbing news that a large mission had been sent to Constantinople from Khazaria and that they were due to arrive at any time. Chaleus advised Hraerik to make the best deal he could and then to leave Constantinople at once, but that only served to anger Hraerik and he presented yet stiffer demands. He wanted direct and standard tithes between Gardar and Constantinople, with special privileges for Norse merchants in Constantinople, including free access into the city, free room, board and entertainments and Roman provision of any materials required to repair and re-outfit all ships damaged in their southern journey. Further, he wanted all Gardar merchants to have the right to winter in Constantinople, if they should so desire, and he made it clear to Chaleus that he would not be running from any Khazar emissaries by stating that he would be the first Varangian to take advantage of the wintering privilege. Hraerik was not about to let representatives of the tottering Hun Empire winter in Constantinople unmolested, their sole purpose to undo all that Hraerik had planned to accomplish there. Hraerik’s demands, being well beyond the realm of the merchants to grant, would be presented to the emperor’s officials on the morrow. The Kagan Bek of Gardar, meanwhile, instructed Chaleus to find out all he could about the expected arrival of the Huns.
It took several days of negotiations between merchants and officials of the Ministry of Finance before a counteroffer could be agreed upon. In the interim, Chaleus had learned the expected time and place of the arrival of the Huns and told Hraerik about it. Hraerik assembled and armed all members of his Centuriata and led them out to the Gate of Plateia to await the enemy. They did not wait long, for Chaleus learned of their impending arrival from paid observers who watched and read the signs broadcast by the chain of signal beacons the Greeks had running up the Bosporus and into Asia Minor. Hraerik and his force of thirty armed men waited overtly at the gate until they saw three ships of the Khazars, then they walked out onto the dock outside the Gate of Plateia and took their weapons, swords, shields and battle axes, out from under their cloaks and, as the ships approached, they began to beat their shields with their swords, and a few berserkers in Hraerik’s band began to go into their fits, and it was apparent to the Khazars what would happen if they attempted to land. The Huns turned their ships away from the dock and looked, for a moment, as if they would try to find another dock at which to anchor, but several of the berserks began to howl at the enemy and one broke free of his companions and dove into the harbour after them and, this being too much for the Khazars, they turned full about and fled the Golden Horn and did not stop until they reached their homeland. No trace was found of the berserker who had chased them off, but, although stories were circulated that he had caught up to the last ship and had died, half clearing its deck, Hraerik knew from experience that the cold of the water would have dissipated the fit leaving the berserker to drown in his resulting state of weakness.
Hraerik thought of Princess Gunwar often in the months to come, as the Varangians wintered in Constantinople. He had won most of the concessions he demanded, save free access to the city. The merchants of the Hraes’ Trading Company, or Rhos as they came to be called by the citizens of Constantinople, required at least one Greek sponsor before they could enter the city, and only in the merchant quarter were they free to roam about unescorted. And, for these benefits, Hraerik had but to promise the emperor access to all the sables that were brought to Constantinople. There had been, however, one concession the emperor was not free to give, one favour Hraerik hadn’t even bothered to request, one element of pagan trade that, in his dealings with Brother Gregory of Sugadea, he had learned was forbidden to Christians: slavery. And it was a chance meeting that gave Hraerik the opportunity to resolve this shortcoming of the Greek trade.
Towards the end of winter, Hraerik happened to meet several Arab merchants attached to an embassy to Constantinople from the Caliph of Baghdad. In the few moments they had together, one of the merchants, an older man who introduced himself in Greek as Ahmad Ibn-Yakut, seemed very anxious to talk and told Hraerik that he remembered, on an embassy to the Khazars and then on to the Bulgars, meeting a Norse merchant called Hraegunar, who had been interested in establishing trade with the Arabs, specifically slave trade. He had then, at hand, a number of captives that he sold to them, but he had also a young beautiful Slav princess with whom he would not part for any sum. Ahmad asked Hraerik if he knew of the man and, when Hraerik told him that Hraegunar was his father, Ahmad Ibn-Yakut commented that somehow Hraerik had looked vaguely familiar. Hraerik found this odd, because all his life he had been continually reminded that he bore no resemblance to his father whatsoever. Still, because of the Arab’s unusual acquaintance with Hraegunar, Hraerik agreed to meet Ahmad Ibn-Yakut in Baghdad, after the next trading season, to work on a trade agreement between Gardar and the Arab Caliphate. In the spring, Hraerik, Chaleus and the Centuriata boarded Fair Faxi and set sail for Cherson, leaving the great city of Constantinople, Miklagard, behind them. Out on the open waves of the great Black Sea, Hraerik had his men commit a wine cask to the waves.