For nearly 500 years, the purple-clad emperors of Byzantium were guarded on the battlefield and in their porphyry palace by an axe-wielding body of fierce Viking warriors: The Varangian Guard!
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 the Rus 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.
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 ton Varángon, 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 (the contemporary historian, Michael Psellos, describes them as “terrible of aspect and huge of body”). Just as with a bouncer at a bar, bodyguards are all the more effective when their formidable size and appearance discourage would-be trouble-makers and assassins in advance. 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 mostly indifferent to the political intrigues that swirled around the palace, as the great Byzantine families maneuvered to place their own candidates on the throne.
They are described by contemporary Greek sources as “the axe-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, the 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, and his place was to stand immediately behind the Emperor in processions or behind the throne at formal audience.
Varangians overcome Pechenegs defending their wagonburg 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 Georgian-Armenian Campaign in 1021. But at the Battle of Eski Zagra/Beroia (near the ancient Roman city of Augusta Traiana) in 1122, the Emperor John II Komnenos 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).
Varangian Guardsman (r) and Rus mercenary
Though their armor changed with the fashion of the day, the Scandinavian long-hafted axe remained the ubiquitous weapon of the Varangian Guard. Sometimes called by Byzantine sources a “rhomphaia” (in memory of the ancient curved two-handed cutting scythe of the Thracians), this weapon was no doubt the two-handed axe of the Rus and the Vikings. A fearsome weapon, it was capable of splitting a man from breastbone to crotch, or (as recorded on several occasions, hacking off a horse’s head with a single mighty blow. It is a perfect weapon for defending a wall, a palace corridor, or the gunwale of a ship.
The standard of the Varangians might 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, another elite unit contemporaneous to the Varangians, carrying just such a draco standard at the Battle of Hastings. According to some historians, the Varangians replaced one of the oldest Byzantine 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 for themselves (as well as the Excubitors‘ barracks in the palace complex). Carved into the wall of an Albanian church, where a Varangian force was quartered before the Battle of Durazzo, appears to be of a draco; perhaps scratched by a bored Varangian during their stay there.
In Scandinavia, Russia, and later in England service in the Varangians was considered as both honorable and lucrative; and the Guard drew a steady stream of new men from the north. Their pay rate was extraordinarily high, and pillage and loot were 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 in the 1030s; during which time he amassed such a fortune that he returned to Norway with the greatest personal wealth ever seen in Northern Europe before.
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 migrated away and took service in the Varangian Guard. By 1100, the English outnumbered both Scandinavians and Rus in the Guard. (Though many of these “Englishmen” were of Anglo-Danes heritage, descendants of Vikings who settled in that eastern portion of England that in the 9th and 10th century was called the “Danelaw“). 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 in the 13th through 15th centuries, the Varangians served on, ever drawing new men to this 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; and 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 descendants, 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 in the world entire.
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Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.