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!]