Fire and Blood: Grand Princess Olga of Kiev

Gabriel Kuhl |

Kiev’s Dynamic Proto-Czarina Warrior Princess — In Latin!

Olga was the first woman to rule Kievan Rus, serving as regent for her infant son Sviatoslav after her husband, Grand Prince Igor, was ambushed and murdered by his treacherous Drevlian vassals. Rather than kowtow to these upstart traitors, she chose instead to make an example of them. Her later conversion to Christianity, being the first of Kievan Rus’ leaders to do so, paved the way for the complete conversion of the Eastern Slavs under her grandson, Grand Prince Vladimir, in 988. She became a saint in 1547. (By Bob Venables).
Olga was the first woman to rule Kievan Rus, serving as regent for her infant son Sviatoslav after her husband, Grand Prince Igor, was ambushed and murdered by his treacherous Drevlian vassals. Rather than kowtow to these upstart traitors, she chose instead to make an example of them. Her later conversion to Christianity, being the first of Kievan Rus’ leaders to do so, paved the way for the complete conversion of the Eastern Slavs under her grandson, Grand Prince Vladimir, in 988. She became a saint in 1547. (By Bob Venables).

The Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii (Notes on Muscovite Affairs, Notes on the Muscovites, or Notes on Russia), written by the Austro-Slovene diplomat Sigismund von Herberstein in 1549, was the first authoritative historical and ethnographic account of East Slavic civilization to be published in Western Europe. Herberstein had twice served (1517–1518 & 1526–1527) as the Holy Roman Empire’s ambassador to the Grand Duchy of Moscow, or Muscovy. His high-level position there in the Moscow court, coupled with his command of Slavic languages, gave him a level of access to Russia beyond the reach of the region’s previous western visitors. Herberstein wrote in the spirit of Herodotus and Pliny the Elder, compiling the history, politics, culture, religion, geography, military affairs, and natural history of the Russian world together with an account of his own time there as imperial ambassador. The best-selling work marked a watershed in Russian historiography and remained a western European authority on the Russian world for decades.

Herberstein wrote on many topics, and here is one of them: the exploits of the regent Olga of Kiev.

The following selections from the Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii are from Herberstein’s biographical sketch of Grand Princess Olga of Kiev, an important figure in the history of Kievan Rus (c. 880 A.D — 1240 A.D), the first unified East Slavic state. The English translation used was completed in 1851 by Richard Henry Major for the Hakluyt Society. His edition, published in two volumes, has been digitized by Google Books and is also available in physical form from Cambridge University Press. The Latin text was transcribed by me from a 16th-century codex of the Commentarii digitized by Google Books.

GRAND PRINCESS OLGA OF KIEV (c. 900–969)

VENGEANCE ON THE DREVLIANS I: “Sit vobis terra gravis.”

 

Igor, ducta ex Plescovia uxore Olha, imperare cepit, qui cum exercitu suo longius progrediens, Heracleam et Nicomediam usque pervenisset, tandem bello superatus aufugit. Post a Malditto Drevulianorum principe, in quodam loco Coreste nomine, ubi etiam sepultus est, occiditur. Filius autem Svuatoslaus, quem infantem reliquit, cum per aetatem imperare non posset, interim mater Olha regno praefuit. Ad quam cum Drevuliani viginti internuntios misissent cum mandatis ut eorum principi nuberet, Olha nuntios Drevulianorum vivos obrui iussit suosque interim legatos ad eos misit, nimirum si se principem et dominam expectarent, ut plures atque praestantiores procos mitterent.

Igor, who had married a wife from Plescov named Olga, took the reins of government. This prince proceeded with his forces still further than his predecessor and reached Heraclea and Nicomedia. At length, however, he was overthrown in battle and fled. He met his death subsequently at the hand of Maldittus, a prince of the Drevlians, at a place called Ciresti and was there buried. As his son Sviatoslav, whom he left an infant, could not reign on account of his tender age, his mother Olga became regent in the interim. And on one occasion, when the Drevlians sent twenty messengers to her with commands that she should marry their prince, Olga first ordered the messengers of the Drevlians to be buried alive and then dispatched messengers of her own to them to say that if they wished her to be their princess and mistress, they should send a greater number of wooers and of higher rank.

 

VENGEANCE ON THE DREVLIANS II: “… balneus flammis urit torrentibus magnus”

 

Mox alios selectos quinquaginta viros ad se missos in balneo combussit aliosque legatos iterum misit, qui adventum suum annunciarent iuberentque apparare aquam mulsam aliaque ex more ad parentandum marito defuncto necessaria. Porro ad Drevulianos cum venisset, maritum deplanxit Drevulianos inebriavit, quinque milia illorum occidit. Mox Chiovu reversa, exercitum conscripsit, contra Drevulianos progressa, victoriam reportavit: fugientes in castra persecuta, obsidione ad integrum annum pressit.

 

“Mox
“Mox alios selectos quinquaginta viros ad se missos in balneo combussit.” From the Primary Chronicle (c. 1134)

After this, she scalded to death in a bath fifty picked men that had been sent to her and again sent other messengers to announce their arrival and ordered that they should prepare some aqua mulsa and other things which were usually considered necessary in providing for the obsequies of a deceased husband. Moreover, when she came to the Drevlians, she held a mourning for her husband and, having made the Drevlians drunk, slew five thousand of them. She then returned to Kiev, raised an army, and, proceeding against the Drevlians, oppressed them with a siege which lasted a whole year, during which she persecuted those who fled to her camp and finally obtained the victory.

 

VENGEANCE ON THE DREVLIANS III: “Passer, deliciae meae …”

 

Post, interpositis conditionibus, tributum illis de qualibet domo tres videlicet columbas totidemque passeres imperat. Acceptasque in tributum aves, continuo alligatis sub alas igneis quibusdam instrumentis, dimittit. Advolantes columbae ad aedes consuetas redeunt revolantque castrum incendunt. Inflammato iam castro diffugientes aut occiduntur aut capti venduntur. Occupatis itaque omnibus Drevulianorum castris, ulta mariti mortem Chiovuiam revertitur.

 

“Advolantes columbae ad aedes consuetas redeunt revolantque castrum incendunt. Inflammato iam castro diffugientes aut occiduntur aut capti venduntur.” From the Primary Chronicle (c. 1134)
“Advolantes columbae ad aedes consuetas redeunt revolantque castrum incendunt. Inflammato iam castro diffugientes aut occiduntur aut capti venduntur.” From the Primary Chronicle (c. 1134)

Terms of peace being afterwards agreed upon, she demanded a tribute from every house of three pigeons and as many sparrows and, upon receiving the birds, she sent them back with various combustible materials fastened under their wings. The birds, being released, made their way for their accustomed homes, and, flying back to the fortresses, set fire to them while those who fled from the conflagration were either slain or taken prisoners and sold. When she had taken possession of all the fortresses of the Drevlians and revenged the death of her husband, she returned to Kiev.

Gabe Kuhl holds a B.A. in Classics from Randolph College. He worked as a Rome Fellow with the Paideia Institute (2017–2018) and later taught in Macedonia with the Peace Corps. He currently lives and works in Arlington, Virginia.

Gabriel Kuhl

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