The Varangian Guard - Constantinople's Vikings
Updated: Mar 14, 2021
This article is based on a theme in the brand new book by Simon Vincent: KINGDOM OF VIKINGS - the Rise and Fall of Norway. Now available worldwide on Amazon.
One of the most fascinating facts about the Vikings was their surprising relationship with Constantinople. For almost five centuries, the Vikings served as the personal bodyguard of the Emperor of the Byzantine Empire. They were known as the Varangians - Men of Oath. This left a unique imprint the Vikings, the Nordic world and the Byzantines.
(Note, this article uses the modern term "Byzantine Empire" for what would otherwise be called the Eastern Roman Empire).
Article based on the Book KINGDOM OF VIKINGS: Kingdom of Vikings: The Rise and Fall of Norway: Amazon.co.uk: Vincent, Simon: 9781527280175: Books
"[They were] terrible in aspect, and huge in body." - Michael Psellos, 11th century scholar.
The Vikings first arrived with their usual motive - to plunder. This city was tempting for all who desired power and wealth: the Islamic caliphate had already tried to take it in 710, but were soundly defeated. Constantinople was extremely well fortified, and it did not take long before the Vikings found it futile to besiege it. Therefore, they turned to raiding the countryside.
Byzantine rulers soon realized that these Northern brutes did not have any ideological or religious reason to fight Byzantium. They simply desired gold and loot. So, in the 870s, the Byzantines bought them out by recruiting them as mercenaries at a high wage. This way, they turned a notorious enemy into a strong ally.
Grekerriket - the Norse name for the Byzantine Empire, meaning "the Greek Empire" - attracted scores of Norse warriors, merchants and travellers. They were overwhelmed by the beauty of Constantinople, a city they called Miklagard, meaning “the Glorious City”. Additionally, the Byzantine world offered everything the Norse desired: true adventure, wealth, renown and - best of all - endless opportunities to fight valiantly and leave a legacy of bravery. These motives were deeply rooted in Norse culture. Even as baptised Christians, the warrior-mentality remained firm.
By the early 10th century, the Vikings made up an increasing portion of the Byzantine Navy, playing an important role in the reconquest of Crete in 945. In the 950s, Vikings distinguished themselves while fighting Arabs in Syria. The Byzantines began to regard them as elite warrior units, worthy for the toughest combat.
The decisive moment came in 988 A.D, when Emperor Basil II needed aid to defeat the rebellious general Bardas Phokas. Basil's Russian ally, Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev, responded by sending 6000 Norse warriors. When these Vikings arrived at the field of battle, they terrified their opponents. Records claim that Bardas Phokas died of stroke when they appeared. As the rebels eventually routed, the Vikings hunted them down and "cheerfully hacked them to pieces".
Basil II, realizing the potential of what he had before him, wasted no time. He officially formed the Varangian Guard - the Emperor's own Imperial bodyguard and elite fighting division based on these Vikings. Varangian means "Man of Oath". These Vikings were therefore sworn in by oath to always protect the Emperor at all costs.
Wars of the Varangians
"Scandinavians were frightening both in appearance and in equipment, they attacked with reckless rage and neither cared about losing blood nor their wounds." - L.M. Enoksen.
As guardians of the Emperor, Varangians rarely left Constantinople. However, they were sometimes deployed on the frontier if combats became very tough. One of their first uses was the defence of Southern-Italy against invading Lombards and Normans. Basil II deployed them here in 1018 - and the results were just as anticipated: the Varangians routed the Lombards and Normans at the dramatic battle of Cannae. They would also be deployed on Sicily to fight the Arabs, and in Thrace to defend against the Bulgarians.
Varangians were sometimes loaned out to the Navy for special sea-battles. They were excellent repellents of pirates due to their exceptional nautical and maritime skills, and rowing endurance. The double-sided broadaxe - the Varangians' favorite tool - also made its mark on Byzantine warfare. They were actually often dubbed axe wielding brutes in Byzantine writings.
In 1071, the Varangians accompanied the Emperor Romanos to the infamous battle of Manzikert against the Seljuk Turks. Here, the Byzantine army was crushed - but the Varangians refused to surrender. They held the last stand, and fought valiantly to the last man. Despite the disastrous outcome, this saved the Emperor from death as he was captured alive.
One of the most famous Varangian moments came at Beroia in 1122. Here, the main Byzantine army fled, but the Varangians stubbornly held their ground. Then, they went on the advance. They hacked their way through the enemy defenses, charged their leader and routed the army, securing victory for Byzantium.
By the 13th century, the Guard got a more symbolic and ceremonial function than practical. Yet, their final hour came in 1453. Here, the last Varangians fought to the end while defending Constantinople from the Ottoman Turks.
"[The Varangians] regard loyalty to the emperors and the protection of their persons as a family tradition, a kind of sacred trust...they preserve inviolate, and will never brook the slighted hint of betrayal."
- Byzantine Princess Anna Comnena, author of the Alexiad, 11th century.
As the Emperor's bodyguards, the Varangians were loyal to the person, not the title, of the Emperor. As foreigners, they didn't care much of Greek lineages or ancestral disputes. Quarrels between the nobles was a bore. The safety of the Emperor was the prime task. If they detected treachery, they would be the first to arrest and avenge the conspirators (often by brutal means).
Varangians could be found guarding the Imperial palace and the Emperor's other properties. Besides this, they often operated the prisons and worked as a police force/hitmen for delicate matters. Varangians accompanied the Emperor to Church, celebrating the Divine Litrugy alongside him on Sundays. Quite interestingly (and humorous) two Varangians by the name Halfdan and Are had the audacity to carve their names in the stones of Hagia Sophia (that can still be found today). When off-duty, Varangians would fill the city's taverns and drink till the morning, giving rise to their popular nickname: the Emperor's winesacks.
This personal relationship granted them many rewards. They were given an extraordinary high wage, and always given the lion share of the army loot. The Captain of the Guard had the honor of standing directly behind the Emperor during victory processions. In other ceremonial events, he would always be seated besides the Emperor. Furthermore, upon the death of an Emperor, they were ritually given right to take as much gold from the Treasury as they could carry with two hands - the Emperor's last gift to his loyal guards.
Rumors of the dazzling Miklagard, the high wages and generous fringe benefits of joining the Guard naturally made it extremely popular among Northmen to go fight for Constantinople. In 1088, 235 ships filled with thousands of Anglo-Saxons and Danes came sailing into the city, all offering their services to the Emperor. In 1110, King Sigurd the Crusader arrived with thousands of Norwegian Crusaders who joined the Guard.
The legacy of the Varangians is much felt across the North Apart from countless Orthodox churches built by Varangians in Scandinavia, they also brought with them the veneration of Saint Nicholas - their patron Saint. St. Nicholas therefore became a highly venerated Saint in Scandinavia, Russia, Iceland and other Norse lands (this "Northification" of St. Nicholas may have helped develop the Santa Claus concept).
Legends of the adventurous careers of the Varangians spread across the Norse world. The most famous Varangian of them all is, without question, Harald Hardrada.
Harald Hardrada - the most famous Varangian
"[Harald] dyed the vultures with bloody specks; And where he raided, the wolves were fed."
- Norse poem on Harald Hardrada's combats in Sicily.
Around 1032, a restless, young Norwegian came sailing into Constantinople. He was a refugee Prince of his own country, and had served the Grand Prince Yaroslav of Kiev for some years. But when his marriage proposal to the Yaroslav's daughter, Elizaveta, was rejected, he sailed South on the quest for the wealth and renown. His name was Harald Sigurdsson.
Harald first entered the Byzantine Navy out of Cyprus, before fighting as a mercenary in Syria. Already, his brutal approach to war was noticed: medieval records claim he captured 80 enemy fortresses in the Levant. He then fought pirates around Jerusalem, before being dispatched to Sicily as a Varangian Commander to fight the Arabs.
Again, his reputation preceded him. Contemporary Byzantine chronicles describe him as Araltes - a ruthless berserker, known as the "wolf feeder". In typical Viking style, he brutally punished his enemies and severely plundered their lands. He also applied a great deal of Norse ingenuity. For instance, in the siege of a Sicilian city, he faked his death to lure himself behind the town walls in a coffin for a ceremonial burial (a trick the TV Series Vikings depict Ragnar Lodbrok perform in Paris).
The restless "wolf" soon became the Captain of the Varangian Guard and a close friend of Emperor Michael IV the Paphlogian. He led campaigns into Bulgaria, and returned in a triumphant procession alongside the Emperor. However, the success would not last.
Around 1041, the Emperor died and the new ruler, Empress Zoe, despised the Norwegian. Apparently, Harald had a romantic affair with a court princess called Maria. He was also accused of embezzlement by his former superior, General Maniakes. He was arrested and thrown in prison.
But after some weeks behind bars, a coup against Zoe threw the entire city into anarchy. Some of Harald's friends in the Guard rushed to his prison and helped him escape. Seizing advantage of the chaos, Harald and his men plundered some of Zoe's treasures and filled two galleys with the loot. The Byzantines attempted to trap them by closing the port with a chain, but Harald made his men run to the back of their galleys to tip it gently over the chain, then run forward to slip over (a trick depicted in Pirates of the Caribbean). One of the galleys cracked under pressure, but Harald's escaped.
As Harald returned to Kiev, he was finally considered worthy to marry Elizaveta, the daughter of the Grand Prince. Not only had he a galley of treasures and years of Varangian wages, but he had secretly smuggled a portion of all his loot in the Mediterranean for safekeeping in Kiev. This was now a huge vault of riches - easily making him perhaps the wealthiest Norwegian at the time.
This became known as Harald Hardrada's Byzantine Gold in Norse chronicles. He used it to finance his return to Norway - where he seized the throne and became one of Norway's most famous and important Kings. His last sting of battle came at Stamford Bridge in England in 1066.
KINGDOM OF VIKINGS
This is an article written in association with the RELEASE OF THE NEW BOOK: Kingdom of Vikings, the Rise and Fall of Norway.
The Varangians are a significant theme in this book, especially in the rich chapter on Harald Hardrada. To read more on Harald Hardrada, the Varangians, BUY THE BOOK HERE:
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