The 10th century was the zenith of the Viking Age. Renowned for their ferocity, cunning, and fighting prowess, the warriors of Scandinavia were feared throughout Europe.
In the East, the Scandinavian’s who settled in what became Russia were known as the Rus. In the 9th century, they became the ruling military elite of Russia and northern Ukraine; founding principalities at such places as Novgorod, Smolensk, Ryazan, Chernigov, and Kiev. From the beginning, the Rus developed close trading ties with the Byzantine Empire; though occasionally going to war against it.
Throughout the 10th century, small bodies of Scandinavian and Rus warriors took military service as mercenaries under the Byzantines; mostly serving as marines in Byzantine naval expeditions.
In 988, the Byzantine Empire was convulsed in one of its all-too-frequent civil wars. The young Emperor, Basil II, appealed to Vladimir the Great, Prince of Kiev for assistance. In return for the hand of Basil’s sister, the princess Anna, the Vladimir sent 6,000 Rus warriors to assist Basil against his enemies. At the battles of Chrysopolis and Abydos, Basil’s Varangians played a key role in defeating the rebel armies and securing Basil’s reign.
Not trusting the traditional Byzantine guard units to keep his person safe, Basil retained these fierce warriors as his new bodyguard, quartering them at the Imperial Palace in Constantinople. Basil christened this new unit the Tágma tōn Varángōn, the “Varangian Guard”. (Though there is some dispute as to when this name actually came into use: the first written account identifying this unit as the “Varangian Guard” does not occur until 1034, some forty-five years later).
Though the Byzantines used the word Varangian to indicate any Scandinavian or Rus warrior, the word likely derives from the Old Norse ‘var’, meaning “pledge”. Thus the Varangians were the “pledged men” of the Emperor’s guard.
Thereafter, the Byzantine emperors maintained this force of Viking guards; their numbers maintained at or near the original 6,000. They were particularly prized for three reasons: first, they were superb fighting men, tall and strong and intimidating in the extreme: the contemporary historian, Michael Psellos, describes them as “terrible of aspect and huge of body”. Just as with a contemporary bar bouncer, bodyguards are all the more effective when their formidable size and appearance discourage in advance would-be trouble-makers and assassins. Secondly, they had a reputation for loyalty to their employers (though, as Alfred the Great learned time-and-again, the Viking’s were past-masters of manipulating the fine print of any agreement to their advantage). Finally, and most importantly, they were for the most part indifferent to the political intrigues that swirled around the palace, as the great Byzantine families maneuvered to place their own members on the throne.
They are described by contemporary Greek sources as “the ax-bearing barbarians”. Alternately and less flatteringly, they are called “the Emperor’s wine-sacks”, in reference to the prodigious quantities of alcohol they consumed in the wine-shops and taverns of Constantinople when off duty!
Wherever the Emperor went, these Varangians were in attendance. They accompanied him in formal ceremony. They guarded his palace offices, and in his great reception hall they stood guard about the throne. There commander was called the Akolouthos (“The Acolyte”) due to his constant proximity to the Emperor. His place was to stand immediately behind the Emperor in processions or behind the throne at formal audience.
Varangians overcome Pechenegs at Eski Zagra, 1122
While the nominal strength of the Varangian Guard was 6,000, its numbers waxed-and-waned depending on need and availability of recruits. The full 6,000 men accompanied Basil on his Armenian Campaign in 999-1000. But at the 1122 Battle of Eski Zagra/Beroia (near the ancient Roman city of Augusta Traiana), the Emperor John II Comnenus may have had as few as 500 (though, few as they were, these were the storm-troops whose attack gained the Byzantines victory, hacking their way over and through the Pecheneg wagon-burg).
Though their armor changed with the fashion of the day, the Scandinavian great axe remained the ubiquitous weapon of the Varangian Guard. Sometimes called by Byzantine sources a “rhomphaia” (in memory of the ancient curved cutting scythe of the Thracians), this weapon was no doubt the two-handed ax used by both the Rus and the warriors of Scandinavia. A fearsome weapon, it was capable of splitting a man from breastbone to crotch; or hacking off a horse’s head with a single crashing blow! It is a perfect weapon for defending a wall, a palace corridor, or the gunwale of a ship.
The standard of the Varangians may have been the late Roman “draco”; a bronze dragon head to which a silk windsock was attached to form the body of the dragon. (Interestingly, the Bayeux Tapestry shows the Anglo-Saxon Huscarls, both contemporary to the Varangians and, as will be seen later, a progenitor carrying just such a draco-standard at the Battle of Hastings.) According to some historians, the Varangians replaced one of the oldest Guard units, the Excubitors; whose history goes back to the late Roman Empire. As the draco had been the standard of this older Guard unit, it is suggested that the Varangians inherited this standard for themselves when they were created by Basil (as well as the Excubitors’ barracks in the Palace). Carvings on the wall of an Albanian church, where a Varangian force was quartered before the Battle of Durazzo, appears to be of a draco; perhaps carved by a Varangian during their brief stay.
In Scandinavia, Russia, and later in Anglo-Saxon and Norman England, service in the Varangians was considered as both honorable and lucrative; and for centuries the Guard drew a steady stream of new men from the north. Their rate of pay was extraordinarily high, with opportunities for pillage and loot among the remunerative “fringe benefits”. After one battle in 1016, the Emperor gave them a full third of the captured booty; retaining one-third for himself and the final third distributed to the rest of the army! Also, at the accession of a new Emperor, the Varangians were granted the privilege of ritually “looting” the treasury: they were allowed to file in and carry off as much coin as they could carry in their two hands. The giant Harald Sigurdson, the Norse prince and future king (who would be known to history as Harald Hardrada) served as a high-ranking officer in the Guard for many years during the 1030s. While in the Guard he amassed such a fortune that he returned to Norway with the greatest personal wealth ever seen to date in Northern Europe.
The Norman conquest of England had a profound and lasting effect on the Varangian Guard. In the years following 1066, the traditional military elite of the Anglo-Saxons found their place taken by the émigré Norman knightly aristocracy. Rendered redundant and unappreciated by William and his heirs, and in any case smarting under Norman rule, many Englishmen emigrated and took service in the Varangian Guard. By 1100, these English newcomers outnumbered both Scandinavians and Rus in the Guard. (Though many of these “Englishmen” were Anglo-Danes themselves, descendants of the Vikings who had settled in the “Danelaw”; that eastern portion of England settled by Danes during the various Danish invasions of the 9th–11th century). Even so, Scandinavian warriors from Norway, Denmark, and Sweden continued to trek to Miklagard, the “City of Gold”, to make their fortune as their grandfathers had.
As the fortunes of the Empire waned from the 13th century onward, the Varangians continued to give valued service, ever drawing new men to their storied regiment. As late as 1402, the Byzantine Emperor John VII wrote to King Henry IV (first of the Lancastrian kings of England) about the “axe-bearing men of the British race” that guarded both Constantinople and his person.
It is likely that the last members of the Varangian Guard died fighting in the breaches of the walls of Constantinople in 1453; attempting to ward the last Emperor of the Romans in his heroic final stand. Perhaps Varangian and Janissary battled there in ferocious hand-to-hand combat. While they did, a torch was passed from one age to the next: from the elite warriors of the Dark Ages, the Vikings; to the elite Renaissance-era vanguard of the Ottoman Empire, the Janissaries.
With the end of the Varangian Guard a chapter in history was closed. One that began with the Jomsvikings, continued with their descendents, the Anglo-Saxon Huscarls, and came to fruition in the Varangian Guard. For 500 years, these elite warriors of the North were the most feared infantry in Europe, if not the world entire.