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This webpage reproduces a chapter of

in Foreign Comments
and Descriptions

by Volodymyr Sichynsky

published by
Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, Inc.
New York,

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 2

 p27  Chapter One

Ukraine from the VIth to the XIIth Centuries

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 (p31)  1. A part of the map of the world by Beatus of the XIth century. Between the Danubius and Eusin Pontus lies Alania.​a

[A larger version, in which the text is fully readable,
opens here (811 kB).]

This chapter lists some of the reports and comments on Ukraine that appeared between the VIth and the XIIth centuries, the period when the Ukrainian nation was taking shape and when the old Ukrainian culture began to develop and evoke considerable interest in the then-known world. They come almost exclusively from Byzantine Greek writers and Arab geographers.

The early Byzantine sources deal primarily with the relations between the Byzantine emperors and the Kievan princes in the pre‑Christian era, and they reflect the military strength and the political and economic expansion of the old Rus-Ukraine.

The Slavs under various names invaded the Byzantine Empire and they were well-known to such writers as Procopius in the second half of the VIth century. Thus he says:

The peoples of the Sclavines and the Antae are not ruled by one man, but they have lived from of old under a democracy, and consequently everything which involves their welfare, whether for good or for ill, is referred to the people. These two barbarian peoples have had from ancient times the same institutions and cultures. For they believe that one god, the maker of the lightning, is alone lord of all things and they sacrifice to him cattle and all other victims, but as for fate, they neither know it nor do they in any wise admit that it has any power among men. . . . They reverence, however, both rivers and nymphs and some other spirits, and they sacrifice to them also, and they make their divinations in connection with the sacrifices.

(Procopius, History of the Wars, VII.14.22, Loeb Classical Library.)​b

More information about the same Sclavines and Antae is given by another Byzantine writer, Emperor Maurice (582‑601 A.D.):


"The Sklaveni and Antae have a uniform mode of life and uniform characteristics; they are free and never would they suffer the yoke of an alien power, especially on their own territory. They are numerous and sturdy, adapting themselves with equal ease to heat and cold, sleet, nudity of body and hunger. They are kind to those who visit them, and escort them courteously from one place to another. If through the negligence of the host a guest would suffer harm, the previous host, who had passed the guest on to the deficient one, would start a war, for these people consider it their sacred duty to revenge wrong-doing to their guests. Those who are captured in battle are not kept, as is done by other peoples, but after a certain time are able to choose between returning to their own land after having paid a ransom and remaining as free men and friends . . . Their women are extremely virtuous, and many of them consider the death of their husbands as their own death; they willingly kill themselves, believing that widowhood no longer means life . . . They are altogether breakers of faith and unstable in treaties. They will retreat before force rather than before gifts. Once they have quarrelled among themselves, they can never agree again, and never can stick to a common decision. For everyone of them has his own mind and none wants to yield to the other. Because they have many princes who quarrel among themselves, it would benefit us to play one against the other whether through negotiation or through gifts, especially those who live in the border zone."​c

By the middle of ninth century, when the dynasty became settled in Kiev under Oleh and the Rus-Ukrainians began their attacks upon Constantinople, the Byzantine authors are more sure of their ground and they are able to give us clear pictures of the actions and life of the Rus.

Patriarch Photius (died 891) who was an eye‑witness of the siege of Constantinople by the Rus‑Ukrainians, has this to say about them:

"They are savage and severe and fearless people who ruin and destroy everything . . . Do you remember this unbearable time when the barbarian ships came to our shores, breathing  p29 something wild, severe and destructive . . . When they marched alongside the city, carrying pointed spears as if to threaten the city with death by swords . . . Do you remember when the terror and darkness had robbed your reason, and your ear could hear only the alarming news; the barbarians have penetrated the walls, the enemy is conquering our city! And what a city! A city adorned with trophies from many nations, yet look at the people who would capture you! You, who have captured many trophies from enemies out of Europe, Asia and Levant, are now threatened by a spear held by a brutal, barbarian hand which would make a trophy of you!"

Constantine Porphyrogenitus (905‑959 A.D.), a Byzantine Emperor, in his writings devotes much space to Rus‑Ukraine, especially in the chapter entitled, "About the Rus Who Travel by Boats from Rus to Constantinople." Although it is true that the authenticity of his writings has been questioned by some, his accounts of the Ukrainians as reported by eye‑witnesses have considerable historical value. He writes:

"Boats arrive at Constantinople from the far‑flung Rus, namely, from Nemogarda where Svyatoslav ruled, son of Ihor, Prince of Rus, with castles in Mylynsky, Lubechi, Chernihiv and Vyshehorod. All travel down the Dnieper River and stop at the Castle of Kioava (Kiev), also known as Samvatas. Their Slav subjects, some of whom are called Kryvyteiny (Kriviches) and Lenzaniny (Luchans, Volhynians), and the other Sclavinians in the winter fell trees in the mountains for boats, and when the time comes, that is, when the ice melts, they float hulls into nearby lakes. Once the boats have entered upon the Dnieper River, they sail down to Kioava; there they pull the boats out upon the land and sell them to the Rus. The Rus buy these hulls and, having destroyed their old boats, save for oars, rings and other supplies, prepare new ones."

(Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Imperio Administrando, Chap. IX
Corpus Scriptorum Byzantinae Historiae, Vol. XI, p74).​d

Further on follows a detailed description of the daring sea raids of the Kievan princes and their armies upon the western shore of the Black Sea all the way to Constantinople itself.

 p30  Leo the Deacon of Asia Minor, which maintained very active relations with Ukraine, in his writings about 990 A.D. describes the inhabitants of Ukraine thus:

"A people impetuous, bellicose and strong who attack their neighbors; they never, even if defeated, fall into the hands of the enemy; and if they see no chance of escaping alive, they pierce themselves in the stomach with a sword, thus killing themselves."

Of Prince Svyatoslav, Leo records that he is "ardent, brave, daring and active." When the Byzantine Emperor suggested that he retreat from Moesia (-and‑day Bulgaria), which he had occupied, the Prince replied that "if the Romeans (Byzantines) do not reimburse him (for his damages), then they should leave Europe, where they do not belong, and move to Asia." When the Emperor sent another proposal, Prince Svyatoslav retorted even more sharply:

"I see no reason why the Roman Emperor should come to us; let him save the effort of coming to our country. We ourselves shall soon set up our tents before the gates of Byzantium and shall encircle her with a strong wall, and when he dares come out, we shall accept the challenge and by our deeds prove that we are not piddlers and little bondsmen, but people of blood who can fight their enemies with arms in their hands, even if they out of ignorance considers the strength of Rus as that of a woman, reared somewhere behind the stove, and tries to scare us with threats as one scares children with grotesque masks."

(Leo Diaconus, Historia, Book VI, p106, 18).º

As the campaign against the Emperor became more and more arduous and the army chieftains began to think of surrender, Prince Svyatoslav declared:

"Our glory, which sprang from the Ruthenian army that conquered the neighboring peoples and kept their lands in captivity without shedding a drop of blood, will die away, should we shamelessly surrender to the Romeans. We inherited our valor from our ancestors; let us remember how invincible our strength has been up to now and let us fight for our salvation. It is not in our nature to run home, but to live with victory and to die gloriously, having proved ourselves brave men."

(Book IX, 151, 12).

 p31  Here we also find a physical description of Prince Svyatoslav, perhaps the only one extant of this remarkable Kievan prince:

"Of medium height, not too tall, yet not too short either, he had bushy eyebrows, blue eyes, a short nose, and a trimmed beard; on the upper lip was grown long, bushy hair, while his head was completely shaven save for a curly lock of hair (chub), which denoted nobility; of a strong neck and wide shoulders, he was, all in all, a well-built man."

(Book IX, 165, 14).

The Arab sources of the IXth and the Xth centuries, composed by Arab geographers and merchants who travelled to  p32 various lands for the purpose of trade, contain unique and priceless data on the Ukraine of that period.

Almost all the Arab writers distinguish between the Slavs and "Rus," and consider Kiev (they called it "Kuyab") the principal city of the Slavs, and it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to determine the exact meaning of the two words in some of their remarks. Yet it is obvious that they are alluding to some difference within the inhabitants of Ukraine and while their accounts are often contradictory, we can feel that they reflect the growing unification of that state which was to emerge as Rus‑Ukraine, the earliest of the East Slavic peoples to develop an organized and stable government. They characterize the people as devoted to agriculture and in part to cattle-raising, stern and bellicose.

"If a son is born unto a family," writes Ibn‑Dast in the Xth century, "the father takes a naked sword, places it before the newly-born infant, and says: 'I leave you no inheritance except this sword, and you will have but that which you will be able to conquer with it.' They have a great number of cities which are quite dispersed."

Al‑Massudi, a writer of the first half of the Xth century, provides not only geographical data on Ukraine, but lists the Slavic tribes and their characteristics.

"They are divided into many peoples," he writes, "some of whom are Christians and some are pagans who worship the sun as their god." Apart from these people he refers to "Rus." In another part of his account, wherein he treats of the "pagans in the country of the Khozar emperor," he writes that "some of the tribes are Slavs." Of these he says:

"Heretofore we mentioned a king to whom in times past were subjected other kings. This king was Madzak, King of Valynania (Volhynians or Poliany), a people who were one of the principal Slav peoples and who, held in high esteem by the other peoples, were commonly regarded as the strongest of all. But, when dissension spread among their people, their power was destroyed. They declined in strength and were divided, each tribe electing  p33 its own king (as mentioned before), the reasons for all of which are too lengthy to recount here."

With respect to "Rus" the scribe says:

"Rus is composed of numerous peoples who are subdivided into various tribes. Among them are the people called Ludana, who are most numerous of all. Their trade extends to Andalusia (Spain), Rumia (Rome, Italy or the Byzantine empire), Cunstantinia (Constantinople) and the Khozars. The 300th year after the Hegira (912‑913 A.D.), it happened that some 500 ships, each carrying 100 men from Rus, entered the Bay of Naitas, which is linked with the Khozar River (the Khozar Sea?)."

Further on he writes that the people of Rus success­fully conducted wars with the various peoples on the shores of the Caspian Sea and even reached Baku.

Another Arab writer, Ibn‑Chaukal (the eighth decade of the Xth century) writes in his book, Book of Roads and States, that Rus conquered all its neighbors:

"Now not a trace is left of the Bulgars, Burthas and Khozars, because Rus destroyed all of them, overran their lands and annexed them."

Ibn‑Dast writes more extensively than anyone else on Ukraine and its customs:

"Between the country of the Badzhaks (Pechenegs) and the country of the Slavs there is ten days' distance; at the beginning of the Slav country is the city of Kuyab (Kiev). The road to their country leads through steppes, brooks and dense woods. The country of the Slavs is a flat and woody land; they live in the woods, too. They have no vineyards nor arable lands. Out of wood they make boxes which serve as bee‑hives and also in which to keep honey. Called ulihidzh, each such box contains about 10 pints. They also raise pigs and sheep. When a man dies, his corpse is burned and the widow mutilates her hands and face with a knife. The day after the burning of the corpse, all gather at the same place, collect the ashes into a receptacle and place it atop a hill. A year later, armed with about twenty goblets of honey, they and the family of the deceased gather atop the same hill, eat, drink, and then go home.

 p34  "What they cultivate most is millet. During the harvest they put kernels of millet in a bucket, raise it to the heavens and cry: 'God, you have given us food; please keep on giving!'

"They have various musical instruments, such as kobzas, huslis, and dudkas; the dudkas are about two elbows long, while a kobza has eight strings. Drink is prepared from honey.

"As far as Rus is concerned, they live on an island in a lake. This island where they live has a distance of about three days' travel, and is covered with woods and marshes, unhealthy and so saturated with water that the ground trembles under one's tread. They have a king who is called Khanan‑Rus; they make raids upon the Slavs, come in their boats, disembark, take their captives to Kharvan (Khazran) and Bulgar (on the Volga) and sell them there. They have no arable lands, but live on what they bring from the Slavs.

"They possess no landed property nor cities nor arable fields; their only occupation is trade in sable, squirrel and other furs. Money which they get in exchange for the merchandise is tightly put in their belts . . . They treat their slaves with humanity and care about their clothing because the slaves are used in connection with their trade. Especially esteemed highly are guests and foreigners who seek protection; those given shelter are not permitted to be mistreated. In case a foreigner is mistreated, they go to his defense . . . If one of their families seeks help in defense, they all go to battle, and without dissension they fight until the enemy is defeated. Controversies among them are tried by their king; once the king issues his verdict, all abide by it. If both parties are dissatisfied with the king's verdict, then upon his order they have to seek a decision with arms in their hands: whose sword is sharper gets the upper hand. Also the armed families of both parties come to participate in the fight. Whoever emerges victorious wins the case.

"They are brave and strong. When they attack the other peoples they fight until they completely subdue them; they capture the defeated and make them their slaves. They are of tall stature, handsome in looks and brave in war, but their bravery  p35 is manifested more on ships than on horses. They wear extremely wide trousers made of 100 elbows of material. When they don these, they usually bunch them up and tie them beneath the knee. All always carry swords at their sides, because they do not trust one another and because a ruse is a commonplace among them. If one succeeds in acquiring an estate, immediately his brother or friend becomes envious and attempts either to kill him or rob him."

Ibn‑Yakub, another Arab writer, in his Memoirs which date back to the seventh decade of the Xth century and which were found in a compilation of Al‑Bekri, a Spanish Arab of the second half of the XIth century, thus characterizes the Slavs:

 p36  "in general, the Slavs are a brave people, capable of making enduring military raids, and if it would not be for the dissension that exists among the various tribes, no people in the world could resist them. They inhabit lands richest in settlements and means for livelihood. They apply themselves to agriculture and as far as gaining a livelihood is concerned, they surpass all the peoples of the north. Their wares are sent by land and sea to Rus and Constantinople."

It was only natural that references to Rus‑Ukraine by Western authors were very scattered. The culture of Kiev was far higher than that of the West and few persons travelled except on ecclesiastical and political missions. Yet there still exist a few references from the few who did make their way across Europe.

One of the first European travellers in Ukraine was Bruno von Querfurt, born in 976. A Western bishop who was called to do missionary work and spread Christianity among the Pechenegs, Bruno spent much time in Ukraine. In a letter from Kiev to Emperor Henry II, Bishop Bruno wrote in, or about, 1008:

"The Prince of the Rus (Rusorum) is a mighty and rich ruler, who kept me against my will over a month in his palace and tried to dissuade me from going to preach among the Pechenegs, who, he said, would kill me rather than allow me to save their souls."

Bruno's host, of course, was Prince Volodymyr the Great, who baptized Ukraine in 988 and was a great patron of Christianity in eastern Europe. Bruno concluded his letter by noting that, after his long stay at the court of the Prince, "he took his troops and accompanied me on the two‑day journey to the border of his state, where, because of enemy raids, he ordered the erection of a strong and extensive fence."

Some information on Kiev is found in The Chronicle of Thetmar von Merseburg (975‑1018), dated 1017:

"The City of Chitau (Kiev), capital of the Ruthenian Regent Vlodemiri (Ruscorum Regentis Vlodemiri), is extremely well fortified. The hostile Pedeni (Pechenegs) frequently raid it upon the incitement of Boleslav (Prince of Poland) . . . In this  p37 great city are over 400 churches and 8 market places, and a great multitude of people."

The wide dynastic connection between the Kievan princes and the western European courts contributed to the preservation of historiographical sources pertaining to the strength, wealth and culture of the Kievan princes.

Princess Anna, a daughter of Yaroslav the Wise, is mentioned in many French historical documents. The second wife of Henry I of France, she outlived her husband and became the regent for her minor son Philip I, took part in political councils and signed her name "Queen Anna" in Cyrillic characters.

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2. The signature of Anna (Anna Reina), daughter of Prince Yaroslav the Wise of Kiev, on an official French Document of 1063.​e

Envoys of King Henry I, headed by Bishop Gautier Saveraux, came to Kiev to beg Prince Yaroslav for his daughter Anna's hand. The mission was a success, and the wedding took place on May 14, 1049 in the city of Rheims, France. The French historian Levesque, in writing about this marriage, quotes Bishop Saveraux' description of Ukraine:

"This land is more unified, happier, stronger and more civilized than France herself."

In addition to the so‑called Rheims Gospel, written in the Kiev Cyrillic characters of the first half of the XIth century, there is preserved an official document of the year 1063 of the French King Philip I on which appears the signature of Queen Anna Yaroslavna ("Anna Reina"), and beside her signature her signature are a series of crosses, inscribed by French statesmen unable to write their own names.

Another daughter of Prince Yaroslav the Wise, Elizabeth, was married to the Crown Prince of Norway, Harold the Bold, a famous warrior who lived a long time in Ukraine and who later became King of Norway. He was known for his poetry extolling the beauty of his wife.

We find further information about the princely family of Kiev in the writings of the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus (c. 1150‑1206), who prepared a long history of the Danes from the earliest times to his own day. In Book XI, he wrote:

"After the death of Harold, (the King of the English killed at the battle of Hastings in 1066), his two sons immediately fled  p38 with their sister to Denmark. Sweno, forgetting the deserts of their father, as a relative received them under the custom of piety and gave the daughter in marriage to the king of the Ruthenians (Ruthenorum) Waldemarus (who was also called Iarizlauus by his own people). He obtained from the daughter a grandson who after the manner of our time became his successor both by lineage and by name. Thus the British and the Eastern blood being united in our prince caused the common offspring to be an adornment to both peoples."

(Saxo Grammaticus, Historia Danica, Book XI, ed. Holder, Strassburg, 1886, p370).

Thayer's Notes:

a East is to the top, as can be gathered from the nearly grammatical Latin at the left edge.

Properly, Eusinus Pontus (Black Sea); the editor failed to transcribe the at the end of the word, partly effaced (whether on the map itself or just in this reproduction): it was a standard scribal abbreviation for ‑us.

The area east of the mouths of the Danube ("ostia Danubii"), labeled Alania, closely corresponds to today's Right-Bank Ukraine, Moldova, and eastern Romania. The next river eastward, unlabeled, is the Dnieper, the mouth of which is more or less accurately put at the western end of the Sea of Azov; after that, correctly flowing into that sea, the Don, labeled "Tanais"; eastward again, the third river flowing into the Sea of Azov at more or less the correct place, is the Volga.

It is interesting to note that the Dnieper is taken by the 11c mapmaker as the boundary between Asia above ("hic fines asiae", here is the end of Asia) and Europe below ("hic capud europae", here is the beginning of Europe). Throughout the history of Ukraine, the Dnieper has served rather to cleave the land in two than to unite it: Right-Bank Ukraine — Galicia, Podilia, Volynia — has been far more influenced by Europe, especially Poland, than Left-Bank Ukraine which has very often been more under the sway of the Asian country of Russia.

It should also be noted that, in the Middle Ages, Alania was in fact a region more or less corresponding to the Kuban and northern Georgia, i.e., well east of the label on the map. It was an important kingdom in the 11c and was not a name for Ukraine or any part of it. But Beatus is not following contemporary geography so much as carefully following Isidore, who around the turn of the 7c does say that Alania touches on the Maeotian swamps and extends to Dacia (Etym. XIV.4.3).

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b The quote differs, in some respects significantly, from the actual text of the L. C. L.'s translation, q.v.

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c (ps)‑Maurice, Strategikon, XI.4 (in a more modern translation).

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d The full original Greek text, of which this is a rather small excerpt, is online at Archive.Org, accompanied by a more recent translation.

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e The monogram above Anna's signature is that of the 11‑year‑old King Philip her son.

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Page updated: 6 Aug 22