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Varangian |
Mighty men of the North

Varangian is drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 146, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit www.TheChristians.info.

Formidable Viking warriors from Kiev, the Varangians served as trusted and elite bodyguards for generations of Byzantine emperors

Varangian - Mighty men of the North

Varangian – Mighty men of the North
Taken into Constantinople’s army as mercenaries, the Norse Varangians proved to be fearless and loyal. A gift to the emperor Basil from Vladimir, Prince of the Kievan Rus, they were transformed into the elite Varangian Guard, the imperial bodyguards. The excellent pay attracted mercenaries from all over Europe, who often returned home wealthy at the end of their service.

The emperor Basil II was in trouble. His Byzantine army had just crawled back to Constantinople, after a thorough trouncing by the Bulgars, when a rebellion broke out. Worse followed. Phocas, the disgruntled former general sent to quash the revolt, entered instead into negotiations with the rebels and agreed to lead them. Declaring himself emperor, with the support of nearly all the officers in the imperial army, Phocas prepared to march on Constantinople.

There remained one last, desperate chance, and Basil took it. He sent an envoy to Kiev to forge a treaty with the barbarian Vladimir, ruler of the Kievan Rus. The result was an offer from Vladimir of six thousand lusty Viking mercenaries. That would do it. In the year 989, Basil led the imperial troops still loyal to him, reinforced by these Northmen, to a resounding victory. That this force of Vikings had been instrumental in defending Byzantium was a notable first; it would not be the last.

The Scandinavian barbarians who began appearing in northeastern Europe late in the eighth century were known to the Byzantines as Varangians.1 Formidable warriors and capable merchants, they came to dominate the land between the Dnieper and Volga rivers, along with the Slavic tribes they found there. This particular contingent was made up of relatively recent imports, needed by Vladimir to secure his ascendancy over his brothers. Nestor, a chronicler of early Russian history, notes that Vladimir warned Basil not to keep them all in Constantinople, “for then they will only give you trouble, as they have given me, but divide them up into many places, and do not let one man come back here again.”

Basil had no desire to send them back. He soon realized, writes historian Sigfus Blondal in The Varangians of Byzantium, “what a treasure he had gained in these mighty men of the North.” From the victory against Phocas onwards “no hand was raised against Basil inside the empire, nor could any hostile foreign power withstand him to the uttermost.” Wherever he went, a picked contingent of Northmen went with him. Basil’s Varangian Guard, as they were known, became the heart of the imperial army, spearheading some of its greatest victories.

Moreover, these warriors, who were too hot for the formidable Vladimir to handle, swiftly transformed themselves into an elite and trusted bodyguard for Basil. Why not for Vladimir? The explanation is likely found in the magnetism of Byzantine culture, and at least equally significant, the promise of wealth and prestige. Military historian Tim Newark in The Barbarians describes a company of Varangian mercenaries returning home to Sweden from service in Constantinople:

Their leader wore a tunic and trousers of silk, over which hung a cloak of scarlet. His sword hilt was ornamented with gold thread wound round the grip. On his head, he wore a gilded helmet and he carried a scarlet shield. Wherever they stopped, native Nordic women could not keep their eyes off the brilliant warriors.

However, the Varangians were never completely cured of their natural unruliness. During a Syrian campaign in 999 they set fire to the fortified Monastery of St. Catherine, then comprehensively plundered it, stripping even the lead and copper from the roof. Blondal also cites an incident in Armenia the following year, when a Greek soldier allegedly stole some hay from a Varangian. In the ensuing skirmish the Varangian was killed, “whereupon the whole Viking force, some six thousand men, mobilized for a fight … armed with spears and shields.” The outcome is not recorded.

The Varangian Guard was used in campaigns against the Bulgars, Khazars, Georgians and Normans. In Georgia, it was they who carried out Basil’s merciless order to kill every man, woman and child within twelve districts. The job took them three months, Blondal writes, and they were particularly brutal about it. On the other hand, they were not without honor. When they wintered in Thrace in 1034, one soldier tried to rape a local woman, and in defending herself she killed him. His comrades “gathered together and honored the woman by giving her all the possessions of the man who had attempted to rape her, and they threw his body away without burial.”

Although never again used quite so effectively as under Basil II, the Guard remained for two hundred years a vital component of the imperial army. One notable who served in its ranks was Harald Hardrada, later King Harald of Norway (killed at Stamford Bridge in 1066 while attempting an invasion of England, see page 113).

Long after Harald Hardrada returned to Norway, covered in wealth and honor, the Guard got some unexpected recruits in another seemingly hopeless situation. Constantinople was under siege by the Turks and expected to fall at any time, when one day the harbor filled with some three hundred and fifty ships. Hordes of warriors charged ashore, the Muslim attackers quickly faded away, and Emperor Alexius Comnenus welcomed the rescuers.

The rescuers, it turned out, were Saxons. Driven from England by the Normans who invaded that island in 1066, they had made the long journey into and through the Mediterranean. “The English were much distressed by their loss of liberty,” the chronicler Ordericus Vitalis explains, “…A number of them, with the fresh bloom of youth upon them, went to distant lands.” The grateful emperor offered them whatever they wanted, and they wanted two things: land, and membership in the famed Varangian Guard. From then on, the Guard was no longer composed solely of Vikings.

Its ultimate demise coincided with two developments. One was the launching of the Crusades. In the mid-twelfth century, many Varangians joined the European crusaders. The other was the decline of Constantinople. The Guard was entirely attached to the person and the city of the emperor. That its splendor should dim along with his was entirely predictable and appropriate. When Constantinople was sacked by the Franks in 1204, says Blondal, only “the ghost of the regiment” remained.

1. The historian Sigfus Blondal defines the word Varangian as “a companion, a man who has entered into a contractual fellowship of merchants and soldiers, and gives security, accepts responsibility towards his companions, as they accept responsibility for him.”

This is the end of the Varangian category article drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 146, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City. To continue reading more about Varangian from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at www.TheChristians.info