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The Varangian Guard

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the June 2003, A.S. XXXVIII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

One of the more legendary elite units of the Middle Ages is the Varangian Guard. At a time that Vikings elsewhere were ravaging the products of civilization, this unit of Scandinavians was the body guard of the Byzantine Emperors. Among the Vikings to be a member of the Guard in Mikligaror was a singular high honor, among the Byzantines they were the “emperor’s axe-bearing barbarians.” It this contrast of simplicity of the Norse culture amid to sophistication of the Byzantine culture rather then spectacular military success that forms the legend of this unit.

The word varangian derives from the Old Norse word ‘var’ meaning pledge. And that pledge was each other. Thus the Varangians were not a specific ethic group, though the Byzantines used it to indicate any Norseman. While most Varangians came from the Rus, that Swedish contingent that controlled the lands now known as Russia, others came from all across Scandinavia.

The first record of Vikings in Byzantium is in 839 when a delegation had to return home via Germany. A more forceful encounter occurred in 860 when a large raiding force terrorized Constantinople for ten days. Trading treaties were made in 907 and 911. An interesting element of these treaties is that they gave the Rus unlimited free baths. Another large raid was attempted in 941, but was turned back with heavy losses.

The origins of the Varangian Guard lie in the Byzantine succession crisis of 976. The emperor John I had unexpectedly died of typhoid, succeeded by the son of the previous emperor: Basil II. Almost immediately, a general revolted with support of most of the aristocracy. After almost succeeding, the revolt was put down after three years. However, after a failed campaign against the Bulgarians in 986, the revolt was renewed. This time, the general that put down the revolt the first time switched sides and took over the revolt.

Basil II appealed to the Kievian prince Vladimir for troops in 988. This was not unprecedented as Varangian mercenaries had fought in the Byzantine army since as early as 911. Vladimir sent a troop of roughly six thousand, and in the course of the next year defeated the rebel armies. As the price for these troops, Vladimir received the Princess Anna for his wife, the first imperial princess to be married to a foreigner. In return for this concession, Vladimir agreed that he and the rest of the Kievian state convert to Christianity. Thus starting the Russian Orthodox Church and tying Russian culture to that of the Byzantines.

Even after the end of the revolt, Basil II continued to use these troops as he battled his external enemies. By around 1000 they had become his primary body guard, though the earliest mention of the Varangian Guard as such does not occur until 1034. That the Varangians became the bodyguard unit was the result of two things. The first was the sense of loyalty that the core value of Viking culture. But more importantly in the Emperor’s eyes was that the recruits came from far away lands and had no desire to permanently stay. Thus they were indifferent to the political intrigues that swirled around the throne.

While the nominal strength of the Varangian Guard was 6000, it was rarely used as a single unit, but was deployed in units of 500 throughout the empire. They were most frequently used to carry out orders that were particularly brutal, destructive, or dealing with politically sensitive individuals that other units might be sympathetic to.

Except for some names on rune stones and passing references in various Icelandic sagas, little is known about the members of the guard, but for one exception: Harold Hardradi. As a boy, Harald had to leave Norway when his half-brother was overthrown. He made his way to Kiev where his brother-in-law Yaroslav ruled. In 1034, at the head of 500 men, he joined the Varangian Guard. He served till 1042 fighting in Asia Minor, Sicily, and Bulgaria, and rising to lead the Guard. In the political turmoil in the spring of 1042, it is Harald who is credited with blinding the deposed Emperor Michael V. Harald had already decided to leave Constantinople having heard that his nephew was now on the throne of Norway, but had to sneak out because of accusations of misappropriating booty. While Harald gained the throne of Norway, none of his other campaigns came to fruition including, of course, his England campaign where he died at Stamford Bridge.

William of Normandy’s conquest of England also had an effect on the Varangian Guard. In the years following 1066, Anglo-Saxons unwilling to live under Norman rule migrated away and found their way to Constantinople and joined the guard. The result was that by 1100 the composition of the guard was almost entirely Anglo-Saxon.

The Fourth Crusade all but destroyed the Varangian Guard. In the first siege the Varangians first defended the tower that guarded the chain across the Golden Horn. When that fell, they defended the bastion at the Balchernae Palace on the landward wall, and threw back and threw back the main land assault. The siege ended with the flight of the Emperor Alexius III. That was their last hurrah however. When the Crusaders broke through during the second siege, which led to the sacking of Constantinople, the guard resisted little and eventually surrendered.

In the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade, some members of the Varangian Guard fought for the Latin Emperors while others joined the Greek Emperors as they fought to regain the Empire. But they cease to be a military unit and were mostly employed as guards of prisoners and treasury as well as ceremonial duties. By the middle of the 14th century they disappear from the Greek records.

The Varangian Guard was but just another example of foreign mercenaries employed as guards, from the Praetorian Guards of Rome to the Swiss Guards of the Vatican. While their military prowess is unquestioned, their influence on history is limited to the circumstances of their origin. Their importance lies not in their achievements, but as an example of how history is full of interesting contrasts.

 

Bibliography

Blöndal, Sigfus. The Varangians of Byzantium: An Aspect of Byzantine Military History. Translated, revised, and rewritten by Benedikt S. Benedikz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Obolensky, Dimitri. The Byzantine Commonwealth: Eastern Europe 500-1453. London: Phoenix Press, 1971.

Ostrogorsky, George. History of the Byzantine State. Revised ed. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1969.

Sturluson, Snorri. King Harald's Saga: Harald Hardradi of Norway. Trans. Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson. New York: Penguin (Classics) Books, 1966.

Treadgold, Warren. Byzantium and Its Army, 284-1081. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.

 

Copyright © 2003 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

 

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