THE VARANGIAN GUARD: ELITE WARRIORS OF BYZANTIUM

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The 10th century was the zenith of the Viking Age. The warriors of Scandinavia, renowned for their ferocity, cunning, and fighting prowess 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 had become the ruling military elite in Russia and northern Ukraine; founding principalities at such places as Novgorod, Smolensk, Ryazan, Chernigov, and Kiev. From the beginning, they developed close trading ties with the Byzantine Empire; and occasionally went to war against it. Throughout the 10th century, small bodies of Scandinavian/Rus warriors took military service 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 Emperor, young Basil II, appealed to Vladimir the Great, Prince of Kiev for assistance. In return for the hand of Basil’s sister, Anna, in marriage the Rus sent 6,000 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 guaranteeing Basil’s reign.

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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 at 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 mention does not occur until 1034, some forty five years later).

Though the Byzantines used the word Varangian to indicate any Scandinavian/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 Emperors of Byzantium maintained this Viking guard. They were particularly prized for three reasons: first, they were superb fighting men, tall and strong and intimidating in the extreme…

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