Greece Runestones - Historical Background

Historical Background

Scandinavians had served as mercenaries in the Roman army many centuries before the Viking Age, but during the time when the stones were made, there were more contacts between Scandinavia and Byzantium than at any other time. Swedish Viking ships were common on the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea, the Sea of Marmara and on the wider Mediterranean Sea. Greece was home to the Varangian Guard, the elite bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperor, and until the Komnenos dynasty in the late 11th century, most members of the Varangian Guard were Swedes. As late as 1195, Emperor Alexios Angelos sent emissaries to Denmark, Norway and Sweden requesting 1,000 warriors from each of the three kingdoms. Stationed in Constantinople, which the Scandinavians referred to as Miklagarðr (the "Great City"), the Guard attracted young Scandinavians of the sort that had composed it since its creation in the late 10th century.

The large number of men who departed for the Byzantine Empire is indicated by the fact that the medieval Scandinavian laws still contained laws concerning voyages to Greece when they were written down after the Viking Age. The older version of the Westrogothic law, which was written down by Eskil Magnusson, the lawspeaker of Västergötland 1219–1225, stated that "no man may receive an inheritance (in Sweden) while he dwells in Greece". The later version, which was written down from 1250 to 1300, adds that "no one may inherit from such a person as was not a living heir when he went away". Also the old Norwegian Gulaþingslög contains a similar law: "but if (a man) goes to Greece, then he who is next in line to inherit shall hold his property".

About 3,000 runestones from the Viking Age have been discovered in Scandinavia of which c. 2,700 were raised within what today is Sweden. As many as 1,277 of them were raised in the province of Uppland alone. The Viking Age coincided with the Christianisation of Scandinavia, and in many districts c. 50% of the stone inscriptions have traces of Christianity. In Uppland, c. 70% of the inscriptions are explicitly Christian, which is shown by engraved crosses or added Christian prayers, while only a few runestones are explicitly pagan. The runestone tradition probably died out before 1100, and at the latest by 1125.

Among the runestones of the Viking Age, 9.1–10% report that they were raised in memory of people who went abroad, and the runestones that mention Greece constitute the largest group of them. In addition, there is a group of three or four runestones that commemorate men who died in southern Italy, and who were probably members of the Varangian Guard. The only group of stones comparable in number to the Greece runestones are those that mention England, followed by the c. 26 Ingvar runestones raised in the wake of the fateful Ingvar expedition to Persia.

Blöndal & Benedikz (2007) note that most of the Greece runestones are from Uppland and relate it to the fact that it was the most common area to start a journey to Greece, and the area from which most Rus' originated. However, as noted by Jansson (1987), the fact that most of these runestones were raised in Uppland and Södermanland does not necessarily mean that their number reflects the composition of the Scandinavians in the Varangian Guard. These two provinces are those that have the greatest concentrations of runic inscriptions.

Not all those who are commemorated on the Greece runestones were necessarily members of the Varangian Guard, and some may have gone to Greece as merchants or died there while passing by on a pilgrimage. The fact that a voyage to Greece was associated with great danger is testified by the fact that a woman had a runestone made in memory of herself before she departed on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem: "Ingirún Harðardóttir had runes graven for herself; she would go East and out to Jerusalem. Fótr carved the runes." However, Blöndal and Benedikz (2007) state that although there were other reasons for going to Greece, it is certain that most of the runestones were made in memory of members of the Varangian Guard who died there. Still, some runestones tell of men who returned with increased wealth, and an inscription on a boulder in Ed was commissioned by a former captain of the Guard, Ragnvaldr.

Read more about this topic:  Greece Runestones

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