The Infamous Svjatoslav: Master of Duplicity in War and Peace?

The Infamous Svjatoslav: Master of Duplicity in War and Peace?

By Walter K. Hanak

Peace and War in Byzantium: Essays in Honor of George T. Dennis, S.J., edited by Timothy S. Miller and John Nesbitt (Washington, 1995)

Introduction:┬áSeveral decades ago Jonathan Shepard elaborated upon the notion, although as he admits the idea was not original with him and earlier had been expounded upon by other scholars, that the Byzantine empire had gained a brief respite from Northern barbarians when in 968 Svjatoslav (942-972?), the prince of Kievan Rus’, abandoned his Bulgar campaign below the Danube and was compelled by circumstances to return, albeit reluctantly, to Kiev. Two paramount factors explain Svjatoslav’s return. First, the fortified city of Kiev had come under a prolonged siege by the Turkic Pechenegs, and second, the return was prompted at the behest of his mother Olga to save Rus’ from ruin. The Byzantine empire had gained a momentary advantage, and their steppe diplomacy of inciting one barbarian nation against another had proved successful. Shepard, however, primarily is concerned in this essay with the role of Byzantine propaganda and its impact upon the Kievan Rus’ rather than simply with the mechanism of state diplomacy. He notes, “the Byzantines feared the Russians [Rus’]. It is now worth considering how the Byzantines frightened the Russians, or at least how they tried to.” In the course of age-old struggles between emerging nations and established powers, the interaction between advocacy, diplomacy, and the solutions to the problems introduced by war and/or peace obviously are all-important and complicated. And yet, while the role of propaganda doubtless is essential in state relations, what is central to this discussion is the Rus’ and Byzantine annalistic fascination with one key figure – the Kievan Rus’ prince Svjatoslav, the son of the Varangian prince Igor and of the renown Slavic princess and sainted mother Olga who had undertaken a personal conversion to Byzantine Christianity a decade earlier.

For the Rus’ annalists, the pagan Svjatoslav was an unprincipled warrior who enjoyed the reckless life of a Varangian adventurer and thrived on the exploits of military campaigns. Before his inroads into the Balkans, he first, at the relatively young age of twenty-one or twenty-two, campaigned extensively in the Don Volga region, warring against the Vjatichi and Khazars, and even the Jasy, known as the Alans, and the Kasogy or the Adygi who inhabited the Kuban basin that adjoined the region of the Caucasus. His conquests included the cities of Kazeran, Itil, Semender, and Tmutorokan. His exploits entered for the year 965 are described vividly in The Russian Primary Chronicle. The annalists relate: “Svjatoslav went against the Khazars. The Khazars learned of this and came out against them with their prince, the khagan; and a battle began to take place, there on the field of battle. Svjatoslav defeated the Khazars and even took their city of Bjela Vjezha [Sarkel, the Khazar fortress-city on the lower Don River]. And he triumphed over the Jasy and Kasogy.”

More significant for this discussion is the characterization by the Rus’ annalists of Svjatoslav and his men. The preceding entry for 964 views him not as a disciplined commander of a large army, but as a Varangian renegade who moved about like a snow leopard and surrounded himself with a small, select retinue of brave warriors as undisciplined in the skills of organized warfare as himself. We are told that they lived as typical Varangians, having neither wagons nor kettles for the preparation of food. Rather, they cut up their meat – mainly horseflesh, game, or beef – into thin strips and heated it over the coals of a fire. They did not sleep in tents, but on horse blankets, and placed saddles under their heads. This was then a small select retinue composed of valiant warriors from diverse nations, but mainly a retinue attracted to Svjatoslav, one of the Varangian leaders who through the fortunes of war undoubtedly could lead them to achieve fame and gain plunder. This was not a homogeneous and great army that sought to conquer and to occupy the Don-Volga region, creating in effect a territorial adjunct to the Kievan Rus’ state. Its primary goals were far more limited, as stated above to gain fame and plunder.

Click here to read this article from De Re Miltiari

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

medievalverse magazine