Was There A Rus’ Khaganate?

Enough of these remnants of trying to turn the quarter-of-a-million words I wrote on the history of tenth-century France into something a publisher will touch! Let’s turn to something from my actual, current research. As I said announcing it, I’m currently looking at the political cultures of a group of polities I’m lumping together under the heading of ‘Viking realms’ (although in the research proposal this took a fair bit of talking out as to exactly what I mean), with four in particular as my main case studies: Dublin, East Anglia, Frisia and the Rus’ Khaganate. On day two of the project, I discovered that the latter of these might not exist.

You may be wondering how that might be. After all, it’s got a Wikipedia page and everything. However, there are reasons to be concerned. The key piece of evidence linking all three elements of ‘Rus’’, ‘Scandinavians’ and ‘Khagan’ is also the very first piece of evidence which mentions the Rus’ at all, the 839 entry in the Annals of Saint-Bertin, which says that some people who called themselves Rus’ (Rhos) showed up in the train of some Byzantine ambassadors. Their king was called chacanus; but when Louis the Pious investigated further he found them to be Swedes (gens Sueonum) and had them detained on suspicion of being spies. The interpretation of chacanus as ‘khagan’ is by now scholarly orthodoxy, but in (much) older scholarship it was interpreted as being the personal name Hákon, and Ildar Garipzanov has recently written a defence of this position, arguing 1) that as a title ‘khagan’ is always written in our Frankish sources with a ‘g’ (caganus, chaganus, etc) and 2) the argument that the ‘H’ in ‘Hákan’ could very well be written in Latin with an initial ‘Ch’ at this time, by analogy with the Frankish rulers Chlodoicus (Louis the Pious) and Chlotarius (Lothar). So this was worrying; more worrying was a follow-up article by Donald Ostrowski building on recent Russian and Ukrainian historiography and taking a more general tilt at the idea of a Rus’ khagan and a Rus’ khaganate.

How art the mighty fallen? A remnant of the capital of the Khazar Khagagante at Itil – has the idea of a Rus’ khaganate been similarly demolished? (source)

Why does this bother me particularly? After all, even if the Rus’ ruler wasn’t called a khagan, there’s still unambiguously a Scandinavian presence in Eastern Europe which means I could achieve my research goals of comparing the Western European ‘usual suspects’ with a group not as proximate to Latin Christianity. However, whilst that is true, what is also true is that the specific title of ‘khagan’ is especially interesting and opens up a lot of conceptual room for political-cultural borrowing from the steppe world. Thankfully, my mind is more and more set at ease about the existence of a Rus’ khaganate.

Let’s start with the Annals of Saint-Bertin, because if the Rus’ king is called a ‘khagan’ there, then that’s pretty unambiguous. Here, Garipzanov’s primary claim about the uniqueness of a form with a middle ‘c’ doesn’t hold up. Towards the very end of the eighth century, for instance, a poem written to commemorate the victory of King Pippin of Italy over the Avars has a couple of references to ‘the Khagan, their king’ (Cacanus rex), as straightforward as you like, and with that middle ‘c’. Similar middle ‘c’s can be found in one of the manuscript families of the Chronicle of Regino of Prüm as well as the work of Paul the Deacon. On the other hand – and I will defer to a philologist here – I don’t think that a name like ‘Hakán’ would have an initial ‘Ch’. ‘Louis’ and ‘Lothar’ do, but they’re also starting with consonant clusters (‘Chl’) rather than a weak ‘h’. Names like ‘Hagano’ or ‘Heiric’ or ‘Helisachar can often lose the ‘h’ (‘Agano’, ‘Eiric’, etc) but I’ve never seen a ‘Chagano’ or ‘Cheiric’. It therefore seems to me pretty likely that we are, in fact, dealing with a Rus’ khagan.

Turning outwards to our other sources, we have a fairly large number of references to a khagan over the ninth and early tenth century. Ostrowski tries to minimise these, but I’m not convinced by his arguments. The best Latin source is a letter written from Louis II of Italy to the Byzantine Emperor Basil I as part of a lengthy ding-dong about titulature. This has been translated in full elsewhere, but the relevant section goes as follows:

We find that the overlord of the Avars is named the khagan (chaganum) not the *Khazars (Gazanorum) or Northmen (Nortmannorum); nor is that of the Bulgars ‘prince’, but rather ‘king and lord of the Bulgars’. We say all this, so that you might know that these things are otherwise than you have written based on what you read in Greek books.

This seems to me to be much clearer about what Basil said than has sometimes been allowed. Basil’s letter no longer survives and we have to reconstruct it from Louis’; but nonetheless Louis is fairly evidently contradicting specific assertions of Basil and one of those was that the Northmen (or a word which Louis understood that way) were ruled by a khagan. Of note is that is the Gazani were the Khazars, Louis is wrong here.

A final more-or-less contemporary source is the work of Ibn Rustah, a Persian geographer writing in the very early tenth century, who says that the Rus’ live on a big swampy island, spend their time raiding and trading, and are ruled by a khagan (Khaqan Rus, خاقان روس). This is pretty straightforward, and most of the serious opposition to the idea of a Rus’ khagan essentially handwaves it.

So it seems that a reasonably large range of contemporary authorities in the ninth century thought the Rus’ were ruled by a khagan. One important critique I’ve read in a few places protests the jump from this to reifying their political organisation into a ‘Rus’ khaganate’, but I think that with appropriate caution it’s a perfectly useable shorthand. That is, so long as we consciously avoid inferring things we can’t actually demonstrate about the khaganate’s social and political organisation simply because we’ve given it a name, we should be OK. After all, we know very little about the khaganate’s internal organisation, governing ideology, or even geographical location; but with slightly different balances the same is true for what we habitually and unprotestingly call (on about the same direct evidence, mind) the Viking kingdom of East Anglia.

What is particularly interesting about the Rus’ khagan, from this angle, is that whilst a row of good authorities – Bishop Prudentius of Troyes, Emperor Basil I, Ibn Rusta – line up to say there was a khagan amongst the Rus’, an equally large row of good authorities – Patriarch Photius of Constantinople, Archbishop Rimbert of Hamburg, Louis II of Italy, the Persian geographer Ibn Khordadbeh and – most intriguingly – the Arabic traveller Ibn Faḍlān – don’t mention him. Some of these omissions are explicable. Rimbert, for instance, isn’t talking about the Rus’ at all, but about the Swedes. The main reason his silence on the khagan question is interesting is the important role Birka (about which he was writing) played in the eastern trade, to the point it’s actually been proposed as the home for the 839 Rhos. Equally, Photius’ literary purposes vitiate any use he might be as a guide to Rus’ political organisation: in his homily following their attack on Constantinople in 860, he refers to the Rus’ as ‘leaderless’ (deep breath, since I don’t speak Greek: ἀστρατήγητου, astratēgētou) but he’s pretty evidently deploying Classical stereotypes of outer barbarians to emphasise how much the Constantinopolitans have angered God for Him to be sending such rude peoples to vex and harass them. Ibn Khordadbeh and Ibn Faḍlān, though, are much better informed: Ibn Khordadbeh was high-up in the ‘Abbasid caliphate and Ibn Faḍlān actually met the Rus’, and neither of them say that the ruler is a khagan. Ibn Khordadbeh mentions other peoples who have a khagan, but not the Rus’; Ibn Faḍlān calls the Rus’ ruler a king (malik).

So what do I think is going on here? Well, coming up with an answer to that question is currently my job so this is preliminary. However, my first inclination is that these are different groups of Rus’. Several historians have argued that ‘Rus’’ is not an ethnic name, but a professional one, rather like ‘Viking’. We know from western parallels that Viking groups were farraginous clusters of smaller groups, not necessarily related to other groups called the same thing by our sources. (This is one of the problems with tribute payments to Vikings: paying off one army doesn’t help you with any of the others.) What if we have here multiple different groups of Rus’, perhaps competing with one another, perhaps representing different ideological tendencies within a wider overarching framework, perhaps just in different places and unrelated to each other? This raises important questions about how different groups of Vikings assimilated, changed or resisted the traditions they found – questions which we can ask more easily with different flavours of the Latin Christian tradition in the west, but which are deepened by comparison with political behaviour in a steppe arena that is not Christian and certainly not Latin.

*I put ‘Khazars’ with an asterisk because the form as we have it here, Gazani, is not the same as the more recognisable Chazari which shows up a little bit later in the letter and doubts have been thrown on whether it’s the same people meant. I think it probably is – Christian of Stavelot has the form Gazari and the letter’s orthography (such as in the case of the name ‘Abraham’) isn’t fully consistent – but there’s room for reasonable doubt.

[Edit from some weeks after this was written: and I’ve since come across a letter of Anastasius Bibliothecarius unambiguously referring to the Khazars by both forms, so I think the same applies here – which is potentially important, because Louis is of course wrong about the title held by the Khazar ruler!]

Reccopolis Now

Starting in Madrid, travel east along the A2 motorway, dipping down into a lush valley where the dry Meseta is interrupted by the Jarama river. Having made your crossing, continue along the royal road built by the Habsburgs to join their capital to Zaragoza, a smaller but important cousin to those that stretch across their former empire in distant lands like Florida, Panama and Chile. This is high country, a hard, beautiful realm populated by short, scrubby oak trees under skies ruled by red kites, punctuated by valleys filled with stubborn olive groves. Passing through towns named Pozo, Cigosa and Yebra, you approach the river Tagus which bisects and binds the entire Iberian Peninsula, bright blue under a clear sky, mighty even here, hundreds of miles from its eventual rendezvous with the Atlantic at Lisbon. Many bridges have stood at the site of the one you use to cross. Once over the river, pause in the fields which the ever-generous Tagus has filled with a fine harvest of smooth and perfectly round stones for the local farmers, and gaze up the hill that looms above the alluvial plain. There you will see what remains of the walls of the city of Reccopolis.

Photo taken from within the palace at Reccopolis, with Javier Martínez Jiménez (left) and Andrew Wallace-Hadrill (right). Beyond the fence is a sheer drop down to the Tagus, with the village of Zorita visible in the background.

This was my view on a beautiful morning in mid-December 2021. I was there as part of a field trip organised by the ERC-funded Impact of the Ancient City project, which had been employing me from January 2017. We were being guided by our friend and colleague, Dr Javier Martínez Jiménez, a man whose infinite talents stretch to rugby, playing the guitar and cooking a mean paella, but who was acting that day in his capacity as master of Spanish archaeology.

Reccopolis was a site of great interest to us. The early medieval period that followed the end of the Roman empire in the West was meant to be a poor time for cities, when they shrank in size and significance. Certainly, there weren’t supposed to be any new ones. The Visigoths, who dominated the Iberian Peninsula from the late fifth century to the Arab Conquest of 711, don’t seem to have got the memo on this urban moratorium. Their kingdom was defined by urban centres, most notably the capital of Toledo, where great synods were held and kings chosen, but also places like Mérida, Seville, Córdoba, Zaragoza and Narbonne. Not content with the cities they had inherited from the Romans, they also founded new ones. While many of these are simply names in sources dubiously connected to physical sites, Reccopolis had been securely located by the 1890s to the site known as Racupel in sixteenth-century records. Serious excavations began in the 1940s, with a certain amount of political motivation. Plans were made to display the site to Goebbels on a visit to emphasise the supposed shared ‘Aryan’ heritage between the Spanish and German nations. Since then, a lot of superb work has been conducted, bringing Reccopolis to life.

I confess that I came to the site with some scepticism. In his Chronicle, John of Biclaro informs us that the city was founded in 578 by King Liuvigild (r.568-586) and named in honour of his son Reccared (r.586-601). What I expected was a vanity project, a collection of monumental but unused architecture hastily assembled at an unsuitable site and quickly abandoned when royal attention and funds were directed elsewhere. This assumption was prompted both by a general suspicion of artificial cities and by lingering doubts concerning the planning and resources that early medieval monarchs were capable of wielding. What I found surprised and impressed me.

Let’s begin with the Visigothic city. The majority of the site, both in the upper city on top of the hill and the suburbs below, remains in private hands and has not been excavated, although recent geomagnetic surveying suggests relatively dense occupation. What has been unearthed indicates a substantial settlement, with a population of several thousand. Ascending the upper city via the grand western ‘Toledo’ gates, still imposing today as a nest for thousands of sparrows which wheel out in formation when disturbed, a seventh-century visitor would have looked up and seen an enormous palace and heard the bells from the neighbouring church[1] forming a great plaza at the end of a monumental road. But they would have had to walk through streets filled with ordinary people. They would also have smelled the industry from the glass furnace, the mint and the goldsmith, no doubt primarily patronised by the palace and church, but speaking to the wide range of functions carried out in this settlement. Not the least impressive was the aqueduct bringing fresh water into the centre of town, possibly built by engineers from Byzantium. On our visit, Javi guided us up into the hills, following the track of the aqueduct amid newly planted pine trees, showing us the sometimes strikingly large remains.

Perhaps even more important to me was the longevity of the settlement. Reccopolis continued to expand during the Visigothic period, with more domestic buildings in the seventh century. Its proximity to Toledo down the navigable Tagus gave it a role as source of agricultural products for the capital, as well as being a formidable base to control the local area. The aqueduct shows signs of prolonged use. The mint was producing coins into the early eighth century. The settlement adapted to the Muslim conquest as Madinat Raqquba, with the fortification of the palace and the establishment of a smithy and buried granaries indicating changing uses. One of the buildings revealed by geomagnetic surveying has been identified as a mosque on the basis of its orientation, but we may want to be cautious of such a label until excavation is possible.

The decline of Reccopolis should probably be linked to the establishment by 812 of a Berber settlement across the river, which is the modern village of Zorita de los Canes. Stone from Reccopolis was used in the building of the settlement, which is beautiful and well worth a visit (I can recommend the restaurant located in the remains of the old bridge tower as a place for lunch). The extraordinary castle there was begun on the order of Emir Muhammad I (r.852-886) in order to control the Tagus. You can still see the Umayyad work below the enormous walls raised by the Knights of Calatrava in the thirteenth century. The Roman columns placed in the church in Reccopolis are now in the gates of the walls there. Even this was not the end of Reccopolis. The church building that now stands on the site is mostly eleventh-century Romanesque, with sixteenth-century elements speaking to continued use, before it became the hermitage of Racupel. Reccopolis was a settlement that died slowly, at least as much because of competition with a more politically favoured rival than because it was an inherently flawed enterprise.

Having my expectations overturned at Reccopolis has been immensely useful to me. First it confirmed the size of the resources and ambitions of early medieval monarchs. Liuvigild could build at scale and this was not his only city, with another named Victoriacum in 581, which may or may not be modern Vitoria in the Basque Country. The peopling of the site would have involved moving populations. The walls, gates and aqueduct are architecturally sophisticated and required considerable technical knowhow. Further, the site suggests that the urban habit did not die in Western Europe with the Roman empire. Cities continued to matter and could be founded and grow in the right conditions, with the right support. More speculatively, I wonder how much the idea of Reccopolis, reported by Isidore of Seville in his History of the Kings of the Goths, Vandals and Suevi, might have influenced other early medieval city foundations. While Constantinople and Ravenna probably loomed larger in the imagination, I suspect that the Visigoths also served as a model for rulers such as Charlemagne. With their synods, laws and emphasis on correctio, kings such as Reccared offered an example for Carolingian-style kingship, which the numerous Gothic figures at court such as Theodulf of Orléans would have been familiar with. I can’t help wondering if the spectre of Reccopolis looms behind initiatives such as Aachen and Karlesburg.

[1] Because of its founder, this is one of the few we can be certain was established as an Arian church. It looks pretty identical to a Catholic one to me.