Learn more about Varangians
The Varangians or Varyags (Russian: Варяги, Varyagi) were Scandinavians who travelled eastwards and southwards. Engaging in trade, piracy and mercenary activities, they roamed the river systems and portages of Gardariki, reaching the Caspian Sea and Constantinople. By the most common opinion, their name came from Old Norse Væringjar, which may have come from the Old Norse plural noun várar = "pledge, troth". The East Slavs and the Byzantines did not distinguish Scandinavians from other Germanic peoples when they used this term. In the Russian Primary Chronicle, this term includes people from Scandinavian countries and England.
 The Varangian Rus
The Varangians (Varyags, in Old East Slavic) are first mentioned by the Russian Primary Chronicle as having exacted tribute from the Slavic and Finnic tribes in 859. It was the time of rapid expansion of the Vikings in Northern Europe: England was forced to paid the Danegeld in 859 and the Curonians of Grobin faced an invasion by the Swedes about the same date.
Having settled Aldeigja (now Staraya Ladoga) back in the 750s, Scandinavian colonists were probably an element in the early ethnogenesis of the Rus' people, and likely played a role in the formation of the Rus' Khaganate. In 862, the Finnic and Slavic tribes rebelled against the Varangian Rus, drove them overseas, but soon started to conflict with each other. The disorder prompted the tribes to invite the Varangian Rus "to come and rule them" and bring peace to the region. Led by Rurik and his brothers Truvor and Sineus, the invited Varangians (called Rus) settled around the town of Novgorod.
In the 9th century, the Rus' operated the Volga trade route which connected Northern Russia (Gardariki) with Middle East (Serkland). As the Volga route declined by the end of the century, the Trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks rapidly overtook it in popularity. Apart from Ladoga and Novgorod, Gnezdovo and Gotland were major centres for Varangian trade.<ref>A massive majority of all eastern coin finds in Scandinavia dated on the Viking Era has emerged from Gotland. Next come Skåne, Öland and Uppland. Other Scandinavian areas have only scattered finds. See Arkeologi i Norden 2. Författarna och Bokförlaget Natur & kultur. Stockholm 1999.</ref>
The Primary Chronicle and Western historians have it that these Scandinavians founded Kievan Rus' in the 880s and gave their name to the land. Many Slavic scholars are opposed to this theory of Germanic influence and have suggested alternative theories for this part of East European history.
In contrast to the intense Scandinavian influence in Normandy and the British Isles, Varangian culture did not survive to a great extent in the East. Instead, the Varangian ruling classes of the two powerful city-states of Novgorod and Kiev were thoroughly Slavicized by the end of the 10th century. Old Norse was spoken in one district of Novgorod until the 13th century, and a Varangian mercenary force continued in the service of the Byzantine Emperors.
 Rus and Byzantium
The Varangians first appear in the Byzantine world in 839, as mercenaries hired by the emperor Theophilus. He negotiated with the foreigners, whom he called Rhos, to provide a few mercenaries for his army.
It was in 860, from Kiev, that the Rus under Askold and Dir launched their first attack on Constantinople. The result of this initial attack is disputed, but the Varangians continued their efforts as they regularly sailed on their monoxylae down the Dnieper into the Black Sea. The Rus' raids into the Caspian Sea were recorded by Arab authors in the 870s, 910, 912, 913, 943, and later. Although the Rus had predominantly peaceful trading relations with the Byzantines, the rulers of Kiev launched the 907 naval expedition, apparently successful, and 941 abortive campaign against Constantinople, followed by Sviatoslav I's large-scale invasion of the Balkans in 968-971.
|860 – 907 – 941 – 968–71 – 988 – 1024 – 1043|
These raids were successful only in causing the Byzantines to re-arrange their trading arrangements; militarily, the Varangians were usually defeated by the superior Byzantine forces, especially by the use of Greek fire. Many atrocities were reported by Greek historians (not wholly impartial) during such raids: the Rus' were said to have crucified their victims and to have driven nails into their heads.
The Varangians served along with Dalmatians as marines in Byzantine naval expeditions against Crete in 902 and again in 949 under Constantine Porphyrogenitus (700 and 629 troops, respectively). As early as 911, the Varangians are mentioned as being in the Byzantine army. A unit of 415 Varangians was involved in the Italian expedition of 936. It is recorded that there were Varangian contingents among the forces that fought the Arabs in Syria in 955. This service elevated their rank from members of the Great Companions (Gr. Μεγάλη Εταιρεία) of mercenaries to the Imperial Guard.
It was this common employment of the Varangians within the Byzantine empire, and the desperation of Basil II that would eventually see even greater numbers of Varangians utilized in Byzantium. In 988 Basil II requested men from Vladimir of Kiev to help defend his throne. Bound by the treaty made by his father, Vladimir sent 6,000 men to Basil. In exchange, Vladimir was given Basil's sister, Anna, as wife, and converted his country to Christianity.
 The Varangian Guard
In 989 the Varangian guard, led by Basil II himself, landed at Chrysopolis to defeat the rebel general Bardas Phocas. On the field of battle, Phocas died of a stroke in full view of his opponent; upon the death of their leader, Phocas' troops turned and fled. The brutality of the Varangians was noted when they pursued the fleeing army and "cheerfully hacked them to pieces."
It was because of Basil's distrust of the native Byzantine guardsmen, whose loyalties often shifted with fatal consequences, as well as the proven loyalty of the Varangians that led Basil to employ them as his personal bodyguards. This new force became known as the Varangian Guard (Gr. Tagma ton Varangion, Τάγμα των Βαραγγίων) Over the years, new recruits from as far abroad as Sweden, Denmark, and Norway gave a predominently Scandinavian cast to the organization until the late 11th century.
Composed primarily of Scandinavians for the first 100 years, the guard began to see increased inclusion of Anglo-Saxons after the successful invasion of England by the Normans. At this time a large number of Anglo-Saxons and Danes immigrated to the Byzantine Empire by way of the Mediterranean. One source has more than 5,000 of them arriving in 235 ships. Those who did not enter imperial service were settled on the Black Sea, but those who did became so vital to the Varangians that it was commonly called the Englinbarrangoi from that point. In this capacity they were able to war against the Normans under Robert Guiscard in Sicily, who unsuccessfully sought to invade the lower Balkans as well.
The duties and purpose of the Varangian Guard were similar to — if not identical — to the services provided by the Kievan druzhina, the Norwegian and Swedish hird, and the Anglo-Saxon and Danish huscarls. The Varangians served as the personal bodyguard<ref>It is neither unusual nor particularly Byzantine that a foreign unit would gain such access and prestige. Augustus himself had a personal guard of Germans, the Collegium Custodum Corporis or Germani Corporis Custodes, to protect himself from the native Praetorians. This guard was revived by Tiberius and continued until Nero.</ref> of the emperor, swearing an oath of loyalty to him; they had ceremonial duties as retainers and acclaimers and performed some police duties, especially with regard to cases of treason and conspiracy.
Unlike the native Byzantine guards so mistrusted by Basil II, the Varangian guards' loyalties lay with the position of Emperor, not the man that sat in the seat. This is clear when, in 969, Varangians serving as his guard failed to protect Emperor Nicephorus II from assassins and did not subsequently avenge his death. "Alive they would have defended him to the last breath: dead there was no point in avenging him. They had a new master now."
While the Varangians are represented in Walter Scott's novel "Count Robert of Paris" as being the fiercest and most loyal element of the Byzantine forces, this is probably exaggerated. However, the exaggeration was begun not by Scottish romantics but by Byzantine writers themselves, who applied a "noble savage" identity to the Varangians. Many Byzantine writers referred to them as "axe-bearing barbarians," or pelekyphoroi barbaroi, rather than Varangians. While many writers praised their loyalty to the emperors (and ascribed their loyalty to their race), the Byzantine rule was marred by usurpations, which indicates that the Guard was either less loyal or less effective than the sources would lead us to believe.One notable exception to the legendary Varangian loyalty to the throne occurred in 1071. After having been defeated by Sultan Alp Arslan, Emperor Romanus Diogenes was sent back to rule in Constantinople. His rivals at court had other ideas. Having decided that his failures as emperor were too many, a palace coup was staged before he could return. His stepson, Caesar John Ducas used the Varangian guard to remove the absent emperor. He divided the guard into two factions, one went to the palace to proclaim his brother, Michael VII, as emperor, the other was sent to arrest his mother, Empress Eudoxia. Instead of defending their absent emperor, the Varangians were used by the usurpers.
Similar to their distant brethren, the Varangians' main weapon was a long axe, although they were often skilled swordsmen or archers as well. In some sources they are described as mounted. The guard was stationed primarily around Constantinople, and may have been barracked in the Bucoleon palace complex. The guard also accompanied armies into the field, and Byzantine chroniclers (as well as several notable Western European and Arab chroniclers) often note their battlefield prowess, especially in comparison to the local barbarian peoples. They were vital to the Byzantine victory under the emperor John II Komnenos at the Battle of Beroia in 1122. The Varangians hacked their way through the enemy's circle of Pecheneg wagons, collapsing the Pecheneg position and causing a general rout in their camp.
Furthermore, they were the only element of the army to successfully defend part of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. Although the Guard was apparently disbanded after the city's capture in 1204, there are some indications that it was revived either by the Empire of Nicaea or the Palaeologid emperors themselves.
Other than their fierce loyalty, the most recognizable attributes of the Varangian guard during the 11th century were their large axes and their penchant for drinking. There are countless stories of the Varangian guard either drinking in excess or being drunk. In 1103 during a visit to Constantinople, King Eric of Denmark "exhorted members of the guard to lead a more sober life and not give themselves up to drunkenness." It is not surprising, due to this Varangian vice to find a 12th century description of them as "the Emperor's wine-bags."
 Varangian Guard in Norse sagas
The Varangian Guard is mentioned in Njal's Saga in reference to Kolskegg. A Dane, Kolskegg is said to have come first to Holmgard (Novgorod) and then onto Miklagard (Constantinople): "and there took service with the Emperor. The last that was heard of him was, that he had wedded a wife there, and was captain over the Varangians, and stayed there till his death day."
Perhaps the most famous member of the Varangian Guard was the future king Harald Sigurdsson III of Norway, known as Harald Hardråde ("Hardreign", which means "ruthless"). Having fled his homeland, Harald went first to Gardariki and then onto Constantinople, where he arrived in 1035. He participated in eighteen battles and during his service fought against Arabs in Anatolia and Sicily under General George Maniakes as well as southern Italy and Bulgaria.
During his time in the Varangian guard Harald earned the titles of manglavites and spatharocandidatos. But his service ended with his imprisonment for misappropriation of imperial plunder taken during his command. He was released upon the dethronement of the Emperor Michael V, and saga sources suggest he was the one sent to blind the Emperor when he and his uncle fled to the church of Studion Monastery and clung to the altar.
 See also
- For the Scandinavians who travelled westward, see Vikings
- Rurik, Rulers of Kievan Rus
- Roslagen, Svealand, Svear
- Byzantine aristocracy and bureaucracy
 Primary sources
- Russian Primary Chronicle
- The Strategikon by Kekaumenos
- The Alexiad by Anna Komnene
- The Historia ecclesiatica by Ordericus Vitalis
- The Chronicon universale anonymi Laudunensis
- The Jatvardar saga
- The Heimskringla
- Sigfus Blondal. Varangians of Byzantium: An Aspect of Byzantine Military History. Trans. by Benedikt S. Benedikz, Cambridge: 1978. ISBN 0-521-21745-8
- H.R. Ellis Davidson. The Viking Road to Byzantium. London: 1976. ISBN 0-04-940049-5
 External links
- English Refugees in the Byzantine Armed Forces: The Varangian Guard and Anglo-Saxon Ethnic Consciousness by Nicholas C.J. Pappas for De Re Militari.org
- In the 1990’s group of medieval re-enactors in Australia organized an association known as the New Varangian Guard, which works toward recreating elements of Varangian history. It publishes a quarterly journal entitled Varangian Voice, which includes historical information, as well as news regarding the activities of the association and practical information on reproducing armor, costume and weaponry.
|Volkhov-Volga trade route: Lyubsha | Aldeigja | Álaborg | Hólmgarðr | Sarskoe | Timerevo|
|Dvina-Dnieper trade route: Pallteskja | Gnezdovo | Chernigov | Kænugarðr|
|Other locations: Bjarmaland | Khortitsa | White Shores | Miklagarðr | Særkland|
|Varangians | Rus' | Slavs | Merya | Bulgars | Khazars|