Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), "Sailing to Byzantium."
"Then we must go higher. We must go to him whose office is to put down tyrants and give life to dying kingdoms. We must call on the Emperor."
"There is no Emperor."
"No Emperor..." began Merlin, and then his voice died away. He sat still for some minutes wrestling with a world which he had never envisaged."
C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), That Hideous Strength, 1945, Scribner, 2003, p.290; see discussion of King Arthur here.
Usually, when I go to a movie these days, especially during the previews, I fantasize about the movie I would like to see. This would be a movie based on the great Norse epic, King Harald's Saga, by Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241) -- or Haralds Saga Sigurðarsonar. This is available in a translation by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson [Penguin Books, 1966, 2005]. Unlike what Monty Python actually did with Njals Saga, I'll talk about what is in King Harald's Saga.
The story is about King Harald III Hardråde -- or Haraldr Sigurðarson, Haraldr Harðráði -- of Norway (1047-1066). The bookends of the epic are two battles, the first of Stiklestad, in 1030, and the last, where Harald dies, of Stamford Bridge, in 1066, while Harald was invading England.
|Olav den Helliges død, the "Death of St. Olaf,"|
killed by Tore Hund, Battle of Stiklestad, 1030;
by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831-1892), 1859
Similarly, Stamford Bidge is a significant event in English history, since Harald had landed to dispute the throne with King Harold II Godwinsson. Although Harold defeated and killed the King of Norway, he would march south to be defeated and killed by William the Bastard, then William the Conqueror, of Normandy. There are few more formative events in English history.
Harald is often called "the last Viking." But, since he was a Christian, he made a somewhat unusual Viking. It is noteworthy that while the legend and the romance of the Vikings is still a part of popular culture -- I was entranced by The Vikings , which I saw at Holloman Air Force Base in 1962 (I was twelve), and there have been recent series about Vikings on television (e.g. Vikings, The History Channel, 2013-2019, five seasons) -- and most people retain an image of Viking barbarians fighting, looting, slaughtering, drinking, and raping (this is romance?), such awareness, interest, or enthusiasm promply shuts down when the Norsemen convert to Christianity -- a recent documentary I saw about a Viking burial in Denmark said that the Vikings suddenly "disappeared" around 1000! Presumably, they stop (mostly) the looting and raping, and the reaction, as from Hollywood, is "You're no fun anymore!" or even "Where did you go?" (except for a movie like Ingmar Bergman's Virgin Spring ).
But even as Christians, many Russians, Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, and Icelanders were still looking for a good fight; and to find it they traveled to the greatest and most famous Christian monarch: The Emperor of the Romans, ὁ τῶν Ῥωμαίων Βασιλεύς, whose Varangian Guard, τάγμα τῶν Βαράγγων, consisted of the Russians, Norsemen, and, later, Englishmen. Since they kept joining the Guard for centuries, the word of mouth about their experiences must have been positive. It was a good fight, if not always a successful one. Yet this is completely off the radar, not only in popular culture, but even for a lot of academic scholarship. So when an incompetent documentary says that the Vikings "disappeared," the answer actually might be, "They went to Constantinople."
This is what Harald Hardråde did. He fled the battle with about 500 retainers and traveled up the Baltic Sea and across Russia. He was only fifteen at the time of Stiklestad, and it took about four years to make his way to Constantinople. The Saga recounts his adventures along the way. So when he joined the Guard he would have been nineteen, old enough to fight in any war. He remained in the Guard from 1034 to 1044.
Snorri Sturluson's Saga, of course, was written much later, and it contains fabulous, fanciful, or confused features, but with sufficient detail to pin down their historical origins. Harald is said to have fought in Serkland, i.e. Islamic lands (where the "Saracens," Σαρακηνοί, are), and in Lakbarþland, i.e. Langobardia (Λαγουβαρδία), "Italy." Since we know that the Guard was used in Syria and Italy, this is entirely believable. Sturluson has details of Harald fighting in Sicily; and, indeed, he likely was with George Maniaces (Γεώργιος Μανιάκης), who invaded Sicily in 1037-1038. Maniaces seemed to be on his way to reconquering the island from the Muslim Amirs before a mutiny by Norman mercenaries, and a revolt by the Lombards, ruined the project. After the Normans had established themselves in Italy, they reconquered Sicily themselves (1061-1091). Norman success may have all begun with William de Hauteville, then called "Iron Arm," killing the Amir of Syracuse in single combat, in 1040. Harald may have witnessed this fight himself. Unfortunately, by 1042 the Normans, led by the de Hauteville brothers, had established themselves as the Counts of Apulia.
Sturluson next has Harald going to Palestine and essentialy conquering the place, visting Jerusalem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and even bathing in the Jordan River, "as is the custom of all pilgrims" [p.59]. Now, it is possible that Harald could indeed go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, something generally allowed by the Muslim rulers (and Constantine IX contributed to repairs of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, after it was largely destroy by the Fatimid Caliph al-Ḥâkim in 1009), but no Roman army had been in Palestine since the 7th century, except, perhaps, for John Tzimisces.
So we get the impression that Harald's accomplishments in the Guard have been exaggerated in the retelling. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how it could have been otherwise. Harald would have enjoyed telling his stories the rest of his life; and such stories tend to grow in the retelling. And poets wrote versions of the stories, even of the conquest of Palestine. Sturluson quotes "the poet Stuf Thordarson":
With courage sharp as a sword-edge
The all-triumphant warrior
Left Greece to conquer Palestine --
An easy task for Harald.
With his overwhelming power
The land fell to his army
Unscorched and undisputed;
May the Almighty protect him. [ibid.]
Certainlty "Stuf the Blind" was no witness to this conquest, for which, of course, Harald had no army. Without an army, it is not surprising that his conquest was said to have been bloodless. So, as with several things in the Saga, we should keep in mind the possibility of confusion, exaggeration, or confabulation in the stories passed on by Harald.
Of greatest interest, however, are two significant events, of undoubted historicity, in Constantinople which occurred while Harald was, or is likely to have been, present.
The first was the 1042 coup by Michael V
|Zoë Porphyrogentia (1028-1050), contemporary mosaic in Sancta Sophia|
The role of Harald in this is seriously muddled in his Saga. We are told that Michael had put him in prison, which perhaps is no less than what we might expect from the "Caulker." However, the explanation we get is that Harald had asked Zoë to marry her (non-existent) niece, Maria, and return to Norway. Zoë wanted him for herself. This is more or less preposterous; but we might accept that Harald was imprisoned by the paranoid and tyrannical Emperor.
Being taken to the prison, Harald had a vision of his brother Olaf, who promised help. We are told that a chapel was later built on the spot of that vision [op.cit., Penguin, p.61]. Now, in time, the Norse recruits to the Varangian Guard did obtain their own church in Constantinople. It was not built, however, in Harald's day; we are left to guess if this was supposed to be the church mentioned in the Saga.
In Greek sources, the Varangian Church is said to have been erected by the Emperor John II, in thanks for the Varangian role at the Battle of Beroë in 1122 against the Pechenegs, the latest ferocious nomads off the steppe, when the Varangians, outnumbered and with the day seemingly lost, with the main army retreating, defeated the enemy in a final, furious charge (the familiar Furor Normannorum). The Church was dedicated to the Virgin, who consequently became known there as the Παναγία Βαραγγιώτισσα, Panagía Varangiôtissa, the "All Holy Lady of the Varangians" [cf. The Varangians of Byzantium by Sigfús Blöndal and Benedikt S. Benedikz, Cambridge University Press, 1978, 1981, 2007].
The connection we, or anyone, might make between Harald and the later church is that, according to many Norse sources, the Varangian Church was also dedicated to St. Olaf of Norway. The church actually held Olaf's own sword, called Hneitir. Now, we might have expected the sword to have been brought by Harald himself, but we have a story in some detail that at Stiklestad the sword was recovered by a Swede, who took it home with him. Several generations later, perhaps around 1152 (122 years after Stiklestad), a descendant of the Swede was in the Varangian Guard. He found, while encamped with the Army, that the sword seemed to move of its own volition during the night. When this was brought to the attention of the Emperor, now Manuel, and its history explained, the Emperor purchased it "in gold three times the value of the sword" and placed it in the Varangian Church "above the altar" [according to Snorri Sturluson; Blöndal & Benedikz, p.150].
There are now also claims, without any real evidence I am aware of, that the Madonna Nicopeia icon, currently in Venice, was originally at the Varangian Church, until looted in the Fourth Crusade. That would be a nice touch, and it could mean that the Nicopeia is the Βαραγγιώτισσα that the Varangians carried into battle; but I am afraid that it is no more than speculation.
In any case, we do not have very good evidence that Harald's vision of Olaf had anything to do with the later Varangian Church. But it was all part of memorable and formative events -- events that are actually absent from King Harald's Saga. Thus, it is said that Harald was broken out of prison by a "distinguished lady" who had been healed by Olaf (in his lifetime? or later through prayer?). Harald went straight to the Varangians, who accompanied him to seize the Emperor and blind him. Harald then fetched the princess Maria and escaped from Constantinople.
This turns out to be entirely a fantasy version of the events of 1042, and the Emperor is even misidentified. Harald is said to have blinded Constantine Monomachus (1042-1055), who was not even Emperor yet, but who became Zoë's third husband after the failure of Michael V's coup. Reading Harald's Saga, we would not even know there was a coup.
Thus, the larger and real events were Michael's coup, the revolt of the people of Constantinople, together with the Varangian Guard, and the deposition and blinding of Michael. Zoë had been sent into exile on an island in the Sea of Marmara, and for critical hours it was not clear what had happened to her. Thus, her sister Theodora was brought out of her convent and was raised to the Throne (1042-1056).
|Constantine IX Monomachus (1042-1055), contemporary mosaic in Sancta Sophia|
We can imagine that Harald Hardråde was intimately involved with these events; and, for all we know, he may have indeed been the one who personally blinded Michael (not Constantine). Snorri Sturluson quotes the poet Thorarin Skeggjason:
Harald won glowing gold,
But the Emperor of Byzantium,
Lost the sight of his eyes. [p.62]
But there is no hint of the real nature of the events from the Saga. Instead, we get Harald effecting an escape from Constantinople with the otherwise unattested niece of Zoë.
This is a very strange story in its own right, since Harald, having kidnapped a woman in true Viking fashion, puts her back ashore, with an escort, to return home. Come again? He tells "Maria" that this is all just to show Zoë that he was able to do what he wanted. But if he wanted Maria, and got away with her, why not then go ahead and marry her? We were told that was the original proposition. Nothing was left to prevent him. So we are left to conclude that such bizarre behavior conceals the non-existence of the event, the non-existence of Maria, and the fact Zoë probably could not have cared less whether Harald went home or not, as members of the Guard, including companions of Harald himself, regularly did.
But Harald leaving Constantinople with a princess raises possibilities. This involved the next major events in Constantinople. First was a revolt by George Maniaces in 1042. At about the same time, there was some sort of altercation involving Russian merchants in Constantinople, where some of them were killed. Compensation was offered to Yaroslav the Wise of Kiev (1016-1018, 1019-1054), but it was refused. This raises suspicions among historians that the Russians had some sort of contact or agreement with Maniaces ("Russian collusion"!). However, when Maniaces unexpectedly died in 1043, Yaroslav decided to go through with an attack on Constantinople anyway. This was repulsed with serious losses.
What Harald Hardråde had to do with this, if anything, depends on when he left Constantinople. This seems to have been anywhere between 1042 and 1044. With the earlier date, he was already gone from the scene, and some speculation is that he advised Yaroslav on how he might attack the City. If so, Harald's advice does not seem to have been very good. Yaroslav lost a lot of ships and men. Also, even as King of Norway Harald retained contacts and exchanges with Constantinople, which hardly seems likely if he was involved, even if just as an advisor, in an attack on the City.
If Harald was still in the Varangian Guard in 1043, then he would have been involved in the fight with the Russians. This would be the most visually dramatic part of any movie. The Roman fleet came out against the Russians and sprayed the Russian ships with Greek Fire. I don't think anything like this has ever been on film. To Hollywood's loss. We've seen Hollywood battles at sea involving galleys, but only from much earlier periods, as in Ben-Hur  or Cleopatra . And certainly we have never seen galleys, the δρόμωνες, with flamethrowers, going up against what are going to look like Viking ships. It is about time we saw what this would have looked like.
It is the sequel that may provide us a clue about Harald. A peace was patched up; and it seems to have been sealed, according to Russian sources but not Greek, with a marriage. Yaroslav was able to marry a Roman princess to his son Vsevolod I (Grand Prince, 1077, 1078-1093). This princess is variously named Irene (Εἰρήνη) or Anastasia (Ἀναστασία), and some historians express skepticism about her existence. However, Vsevelod then had a son, Vladimir II Monomakh (Grand Prince, 1113-1125). Now, it seems unlikely to impossible that Vladimir II would have the epithet "Monomakh," Мономахь, unless this was a tribute to his grandfather, Constantine IX Monomachus (Μονομάχος). More remarkable, Vladimir married a daughter, Gytha, of King Harold II of England -- whom we will see again shortly. Harold, whose direct line ended in England, is nevertheless the ancestor of Scottish and English royalty, down to the present, through Vladimir and Gytha -- as we see in this genealogical popup.
This Irene would not have been a Porphyrogenita, Πορφυρογέννητος, a "Born in the Purple" princess. Constantine had been married twice before marrying the Empress Zoë. He must have had children, one of whom would have been just the thing for peace with the Russians. This had happened before, when the Emperor John Tzimisces married one of his nieces, Theophano Scleraena, unrelated to the Imperial Family, to the future Otto II of Germany. The Germans were unhappy about Theophano, but the marriage went through. Unfortunately, Theophano filled her son, Otto III, with inappropriate ambitions for Italy, which led, not only to his early death, but to the actual end of the Saxon dynasty.
And so Harald Hardråde could well have left Constantinople with a princess -- if, that is, he had been charged with escorting Irene to Russia. This would combine the story of his return to the North with the strange business about a princess. Somebody escorted Irene to Russia. Why not a trusted member of the Varangian Guard who was headed that way anyway? Makes sense to me.
One question may remain about Harald's "Maria" Imperial princess. Why this name? Was there an actual Maria involved in these events who might have attracted the attention of a 27-year-old Harald Sigurðarson? Well, yes. There was Maria Scleraena, Μαρία Σκλήραινα, the mistress in 1042 of the new Emperor Constantine Monomachus. Constantine had been married twice, and he would have married Maria; but third marriages were prohibited in the Orthodox Church. The third marriage Constantine then contracted with Zoë was without the participation of the Patriarch; and, in terms of raison d'état, it may have been understood to be in name only.
So, even after marrying Zoë, Constantine kept visiting Maria. It turned out that Zoë didn't mind. Constantine brought Maria, with Zoë's consent, right into the palace and lived with her openly the rest of her life (she predeceased Zoë). Zoë even granted Maria the title Σεβαστή. This is usually translated "Augusta," but, in Greek, it may be a cut below Αὐγοῦστα, which is the transcription from Latin and is used for Empresses.
If we wonder what kind of effect Maria may have had on Harald, we have the story from the historian Michael Psellus of what happened when Maria first went to the theater (ἐπὶ θέατρον). Walking with the Emperor and Empresses, one of the courtiers saw Maria and quietly said, οὐ νέμεσις, ou némesis, "No blame" [or "It were no shame," Michael Psellus, Twelve Byzantine Emperors, Penguin, 1966, p.185]. This was a quotation from a line in the Iliad (3:156), where the Trojan elders see Helen come out on the wall and say to themselves:
"Small blame [sic] that Trojans and well-greaved Achaeans should for such a woman long time suffer woes; wondrously like is she to the immortal goddesses to look upon." [Homer, The Iliad, 3:156-158, Loeb Classical Library, A.T. Murray translation, Harvard, 1924, 1988, p.129]
This then seems to be a "Maria" who could get the attention of our (perhaps lusty) Norwegian Harald. So his own story of kidnapping "Maria" and spiriting her out of Constantinople could have been no more than an eleaborate sexual fantasy, one that, in relating later, he had the sense or sensibility not to carry to its logical conclusion. But if this is indeed the "Maria" of Harald's fantasy, then it does mean that he did not leave Constantinople as part of the deposition of Michael V but remained for the elevation of Constantine and, in her own way, Maria Scleraena. Previously, he would have had no occasion to see her, since, as Constantine had been, she was living in exile.
If Harald left Constantinople in 1044, rather than 1042, it would still be three years before he became King of Norway, initially ruling with his nephew, Magnus I the Good (1035-1047) -- who himself had been in exile is Russia before being recalled to Norway. The Saga recounts Harald's adventures along the way, and as King, for a while, he kept fighting the Danes, who, after all, had helped kill his brother.
After the death of Edward the Confessor of England, who was childless, not everyone was happy when Edward's brother-in-law, Harold, seized the Throne. In Norway, King Harald was urged by Harold's own brother, Tostig Godwinson, to dispute the succession. With some success at his initial landing, and the capture of York, Harald was then, on September 25th, defeated and killed by Harold at Stamford Bridge. Unaware that Harold was in the area, and without his full force or equipment, Harald charged the English without even wearing body armor. This is a tribute to his bravery and self-confidence, but the Furor Normannorum was not enough. Harald's son Olaf, now King of Norway (Olaf III "the Peaceful," 1066-1099) was allowed under truce to return to the Norwegian ships. Olaf would be the ancestor of subsequent Norwegian Kings (with some uncertainties).
Harold, of course, had only a brief respite. He was defeated and killed by William of Normandy at Hastings, on October 14, 1066, not a month after Stamford Bridge. A little noted sequel to this is that thousands of the English fled England, as many as 4350, in from 235 to 350 ships, according to different sources. After investigating different destinations, they arrived at Constantinople in the day of the Emperor Alexius I Comnenus (1081-1118). Initially, Alexius settled them on their own land, as was their wish, which then became Nova Anglia, a "New England" very far from Plymouth Rock. It was not unusual for this to be done. Nor was it unusual that we don't hear about Nova Anglia again. As the English assimilated to Roman society, they would gradually lose their original identity. However, this general process was derailed by the need of Alexius for warriors. The English exiles began to join the Varangian Guard and, as it happened, to fight the Normans who had themselves come to Southern Italy from Normandy.
The most remarkable thing, I think, about the history of the English in the Varangian Guard -- who came to be called Ἐγκλινοβάραγγοι, Egklinováraggoi (singular Ἐγκλινοβάραγγος, Egklinováraggos -- Enklinobarangi in Latin, singular Enklinobarangus) -- is that, while the initial recruits were Saxon refugees fleeing the Norman Conquest of England, we find before long that Norman nobility from England themselves begin to journey to Constantinople and join the Guard.
|Letters from Emperors|
about English Varangians
|Manuel I||Henry II||1176|
|Michael VIII||Henry III?||1272|
|John VII||Henry IV||1402|
So if we return to Stamford Bridge, we must imagine the Norwegians, like King Harald, who had been in the Guard, facing their English opponents, who themselves might shortly be journeying to Constantinople to escape the Normans. What sort of conversations might there have been, as the Norwegians were getting ready to leave? An epigraph for this page is from the novel That Hideous Strength, by C.S. Lewis [1945, Scribner, 2003], where the sorcerer Merlin, having been called back from death, is informed of the events for which his help is solicited. First, however, Merlin suggests other recourse, ending with an appeal to the Emperor. In Merlin's day, of course, there were not yet German Emperors, and the only Emperor in Christendom was the one in Constantinople, perhaps Justin or Justinian, depending on the Arthurian chronology that we pick. Merlin is then informed, to his dismay, that there is no longer such an Emperor.
|The Battle of Stamford Bridge,|
by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831–1892), 1870
All this could make for a very dramatic movie or mini-series. I have no idea about how to flesh it out into a screenplay, either with the form that would take or how the scenes would be written. And incidents need to be chosen from the Saga to transition from Norway to Constantinople, and back again. Somebody else would need to do that, hopefully someone who would not mutilate the story with their own ideas about the Vikings, the Middle Ages, Christianity, or the "Byzantine" Empire. And, of course, I have no connections in Hollywood to round up screen writers, producers, or directors. My childhood neighbor Brian Grazer is in the business of producing movies, often very successful ones, but I've not seen or heard from him since about 1981, despite a couple efforts to get in touch (there is a villainous "Dr. Ross" in Splash, 1984). Grazer has a reputation, written up in the Wall Street Journal, for interviewing diverse people to get ideas for movies. Evidently, I am not interesting enough for that.
So I expect that King Harald's Saga, the Movie will remain a fantasy -- perhaps like Harald Hardråde's own fantasy of Maria Scleraena -- "wondrously like is she to the immortal goddesses to look upon." But I do have casting suggestions. Christopher Hemsworth, having played the god Thor several times, has to be the one to be Harald Sigurðarson, and Helen Mirren should be the Empress Zoë. Scarlett Johansson is Maria Scleraena. People like Michael V or Constantine Monomachus, I'm not sure. I would have liked Max von Sydow for Constantine, but he is now way too old, at 90. Sean Bean is certainly St. Olaf -- or perhaps, for him to avoid being killed again (as in Lord the Rings, Games of Thrones, etc.), he could be Constantine himself. Nicholas Cage might be fun as Michael V. Beyond that, a casting call may be needed.
I do have a disinterested motive, which is that people should know more about Mediaeval Romania (an expression that hardly occurs in either academic or popular literature), the Varangian Guard, the naval battle with the Russians in 1043, and the English Varangians. When Harald dies, this can be regarded as the end of the Viking age, whose last years involve a lot more than the stereotype of Vikings simply raiding, fighting, looting, etc. Visions of St. Olaf in Constantinople, Harald restoring an aging Empress Zoë, or Harald conveying a princess to Russia, do not sound like any earlier Viking story. The business has gotten larger, and there should be some sense of this, not just in popular culture, but among academics and intellectuals, who are generally no better informed about Romania, to their shame, than Hollywood is.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), "Sailing to Byzantium," alluding to the mechanical birds reported by Liutprand at the Macedonian court.
Philosophy of History