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Rus'–Byzantine War (941)

Siege of Constantinople by the Rus
Part of Rus'-Byzantine Wars
Date 941
Location Constantinople
Result Byzantine victory
Byzantine Empire Rus'
Commanders and leaders
Bardas Phokas
John Kourkouas
Igor I of Kiev
15 ships (initially) 1,000 ships, c. 40,000 men[1]

The Rus'–Byzantine War of 941 took place during the reign of Igor of Kiev.[2] The Khazar Correspondence reveals that the campaign was instigated by the Khazars, who wished revenge on the Byzantines after the persecutions of the Jews undertaken by Emperor Romanus I Lecapenus.

The Rus' and their allies, the Pechenegs, disembarked on the northern coast of Asia Minor and swarmed over Bithynia in May 941. As usual, they seemed to have been well informed that the Imperial capital stood defenseless and vulnerable to attack: the Byzantine fleet had been engaged against the Arabs in the Mediterranean, while the bulk of the Imperial army had been stationed along the eastern borders.

Lecapenus arranged a defense of Constantinople by having 15 retired ships fitted out with throwers of Greek fire fore and aft. Igor, wishing to capture these Greek vessels and their crews but unaware of the fire-throwers, had his fleet surround them. Then, at an instant, the Greek-fire was hurled through tubes upon the Rus' and their allies: Liudprand of Cremona wrote: "The Rus', seeing the flames, jumped overboard, preferring water to fire. Some sank, weighed down by the weight of their breastplates and helmets; others caught fire." The captured Rus' were beheaded.

The Byzantines thus managed to dispel the Rus' fleet but not to prevent the pagans from pillaging the hinterland of Constantinople, venturing as far south as Nicomedia. Many atrocities were reported: the Rus' were said to have crucified their victims and to have driven nails into their heads.

In September, John Kourkouas and Bardas Phokas, two leading generals, speedily returned to the capital, anxious to repel the invaders. The Kievans promptly transferred their operations to Thrace, moving their fleet there. When they were about to retreat, laden with trophies, the Byzantine navy under Theophanes fell upon them.

Greek sources report that the Rus' lost their whole fleet in this surprise attack, so that only a handful of boats returned to their bases in the Crimea. The captured prisoners were taken to the capital and beheaded. Khazar sources add that the Rus' leader managed to escape to the Caspian Sea, where he met his death fighting the Arabs.

These reports might have been exaggerated, because Igor was able to mount a new naval campaign against Constantinople as early as 944/945. The Chersonese Greeks alerted the emperor about the approaching Kievan fleet. This time, the Byzantines hastened to buy peace and concluded a treaty with Kievan Rus'. Its text is quoted in full in the Primary Chronicle.


  1. ^ Sources give varying figures for the size of the Rus fleet. The number 10,000 ships appears in the Primary Chronicle and in Greek sources, some of which put the figure as high as 15,000 ships. Liudprand of Cremona wrote that the fleet numbered only 1,000 ships; Liudprand's report is based on the account of his step-father who witnessed the attack while serving as envoy at Constantinople. Modern historians find the latter estimate to be the most credible. Runciman (1988), p. 111
  2. ^ Some scholars have identified Oleg of Novgorod as the leader of the expedition, though according to traditional sources he had been dead for some time. See, e.g., Golb 106-121; Mosin 309-325; Zuckerman 257-268; Christian 341-345.


  • Christian, David (1998). A History of Russia, Central Asia and Mongolia 1. Oxford: Blackwell.  
  • Harris, Jonathan (2007). Constantinople: Capital of Byzantium. London: Hambledon Continuum.  
  • Kendrick, Thomas D. (2004). A History of the Vikings. Mineola, NY: Courier Dover Publications.  
  • Logan, Donald F. (1992). The Vikings in History (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.  
  • Mosin, V. (1931). "Les Khazars et les Byzantins d'apres l'Anonyme de Cambridge". Revue des Études Byzantines 6: 309–325. 
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