What was the Varangian Guard? A brief history of the Viking warriors of the Byzantine empire

Bodyguards to the Byzantine emperors, the Varangian Guard was a military corps in which Norsemen and later Anglo-Saxons made unlikely comrades. But how did the regiment begin, and why was it considered so formidable? Noah Tetzner investigates…

The Varangian Guard as depicted in the illuminated 12th-century manuscript known as the Madrid Skylitzes. These Viking warriors became the Byzantine emperors' personal bodyguard

During the Viking Age there existed, within the army of the Byzantine empire, an elite company of mercenaries mostly from Scandinavia. This group was known as the Varangian Guard, a regiment of warriors renowned for their ruthless loyalty and military prowess. Lured by wealth and glory, these were Vikings who had travelled the long road to Constantinople (or Miklagarðr, in Old Norse).

Advertisement

These men sought only to serve, and for this they were handsomely rewarded. Adorned in Byzantine silk, expensive and brilliantly coloured, Old Norse sagas emphasise the lavish appearance of Varangian homecomings. Members of the guard were the highest-paid mercenaries in Byzantine service, and received frequent gifts from the emperor himself.

Illustrious figures such as Harald Sigurðarson (later Harald Hardrada) and the far-travelled Icelander Bolli Bollason followed a long tradition of Scandinavian service in Byzantium. Indeed, Harald’s eventual (and successful) bid for the Norwegian crown was financed by the riches he acquired as a Varangian.

From c989–1070, scores of Scandinavians joined the regiment, and by the end of the 11th century the guard had caught the interest of Anglo-Saxons, who fought alongside their unlikely Viking comrades.

Vikings Season 6 arrives on Amazon Prime on 30 December: catch up on what’s happened so far

Alexander Ludwig as Bjorn Ironside, son Ragnar Lothbrok and king of Kattegat

How did the Vikings reach Constantinople?

Although some Swedes followed Danish and Norwegian voyages to England and beyond, countless others set their sails eastward in search of Arabic silver. The allure of the dirham, a silver coin minted in the Abbasid Caliphate and other Muslim states, enticed the Scandinavians to try to discover its source. By the late eighth century, these coins had been appearing in trading places along Lake Ladoga (in today’s northwestern Russia) and the Baltic, where they came into the hands of Swedish merchants.

The legendary Varangian (Viking mercenary) Rurik and his brothers arrive in Staraya Ladoga. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
The legendary Varangian (Viking mercenary) Rurik and his brothers arrive in Staraya Ladoga. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Expeditions were organised, and the ‘Volga Vikings’ began exploring the rivers of eastern Europe. The Swedes may have been driven by trade, but their legacy in the east was no more peaceful than the Danish and Norwegian expansion west. Through slave-raiding and tribute-gathering, these Vikings extorted trade goods. They founded settlements or captured existing ones on widely travelled trade routes. Along the way, these Swedes who settled in Eastern Europe, acquired a new name: the ‘Rus’.

The origins of this word, from which Russia gets its name, are ambiguous. Among scholars, it is widely accepted that ‘Rus’ is derived from the word Ruotsi, the Finnish name for the Swedes. Ruotsi, in turn, probably derives from the Old Norse word róðr, meaning ‘a crew of oarsmen’.

Vladimir, overlord of Holmgard (Novgorod), would become the eventual ruler of the Kievan Rus. In c978-80, the Rus prince placed his bid for pre-eminence in a power-struggle against his brothers. Holmgard’s northerly position placed Vladimir closest to Sweden, where he mustered 6,000 recruits, and with this newly formed army he returned east, killed his brothers, and conquered the realm.

Some nine years later, these 6,000 warriors would become the founding members of the Varangian Guard.

The formation of the Varangian Guard

In distant Constantinople, c989, the Byzantine emperor badly needed help. Basil II was up against no less than three challengers and appealed to the Rus ruler for military aid. In exchange for marriage to the emperor’s sister, Vladimir obliged, pledging his army of Swedes. These men turned the tide of Basil’s war, and it was Basil who named them the Varangian Guard.

Why Varangian? Like many Viking Age terms, the etymology of the word is debatable. A widely accepted notion is that it derives from the Old Norse word vár (plural várar) meaning ‘confidence (in)’, ‘faith (in)’ or ‘vow of fidelity’ – therefore, a company of men who had sworn oaths of allegiance and loyalty.

Basil II gained a national treasure in these valorous men of the north. No sword was drawn against him within the empire, nor could any foreigner withstand his might. Revelling in his new-found protection, the emperor founded an imperial bodyguard, thoroughly disciplined and ruthlessly loyal. The Varangian regiment came to replace his disloyal Greek lifeguards.

Keepers of Constantinople

As imperial bodyguards, the Varangians kept close to the emperor, forming the ‘Varangians of the City’, who guarded Constantinople. They stood sentry at the bronze doors of the Great Palace and protected the emperor’s other properties. The guardsmen also performed police duties and were able to carry out delicate tasks (arresting people of high status, for example) because of their imperial loyalty and external origin. For the same reasons, Varangians also acted as jailers, frequently operating at the dreaded prison of Nóumera that was attached to the Great Palace. These guardsmen never left the capital unless the emperor himself required it.

Byzantine emperor Basil II, who created the Varangian Guard, stands dominant over the prostrate figures of conquered Bulgarians in this psalter frontispiece
Byzantine emperor Basil II, who created the Varangian Guard, stands dominant over the prostrate figures of conquered Bulgarians in this psalter frontispiece (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Varangians accompanied their monarch wherever he went, serving him while he attended church and standing near his throne during receptions. The presence of Varangians in Byzantine churches is illuminated by the graffiti they left in Hagia Sophia during the 11th century. On the marble balustrade in the southern gallery of the cathedral, one suspected Varangian used his axe to carve a mostly illegible inscription including the name ‘Halfdan’. Another inscription in the south gallery denotes a man called ‘Are’, a common name in medieval Iceland.

The Varangian Guard at war

When a Byzantine emperor rode out to battle, a detachment of Varangians accompanied him. Contingents were often deployed as shock troops with field armies, as fort garrisons, and on naval duties. In distinction from the Varangians who guarded Constantinople, these units were known as ‘Varangians outside the city’. On the battlefield, they fought as elite infantry, usually in a defensive function. The Varangians were often kept to the rear of the main battle line, held in reserve until the conflict reached a critical point.

The fact that they used Scandinavian equipment along with Byzantine issue is evident in 10th- to 12th-century Norse swords, axe and spearheads found in Bulgaria and Romania. The two-handed broadaxe was a favoured weapon of the Varangians. Along with the contemporary Rus, these weapons gave rise to the epithets by which they were commonly known: the ‘axe-bearers’ or ‘axe-bearing barbarians’.

Byzantine sources provide various examples of Varangians being sent to battlefields across the empire. Some 300-500 guardsmen were commanded by Emperor Alexios Komnenos in northwestern Macedonia, against the Norman attack of 1081. During the Byzantine-Venetian War of 1171, imperial ships carrying ‘men who bear on their shoulders single-edged axes’ followed Venetian ships escaping Constantinople.

Besides these land battles, Varangians were employed for suppressing piracy and other naval matters, because of their seafaring backgrounds. The Heimskringla (the chronicle of the Kings of Norway), written in the 13th century, relays that the Varangian guardsman Harald Sigurðarson, later Harald Hardrada of Norway, was to pay the emperor 100 marks for every pirate vessel he captured.

Famous Varangian Guards

Harald Hardrada is without question the best-known Viking to have joined the ranks of the Varangian Guard. Following the dethronement and death of his half-brother Olaf II of Norway during the battle of Stiklestad in 1030, Harald fled to Kiev, where he held some kind of military post. From Kiev, he went on to the Byzantine empire and joined the Varangian Guard.

Harald served as an officer from 1034 to 1043, campaigning far and wide. From Sicily and Bulgaria to Anatolia and the Holy Land, Harald’s time as a Varangian has been considered the climax of his military career. While the Heimskringla probably exaggerates the favours shown to Harald, it is clear that he made enough money as a Varangian to finance his successful bid for the Norwegian throne.

Fortunate members of the guard were not limited to Norwegian royalty. Ordinary Varangians such as the Icelander Bolli Bollason (who died c1067) returned to their northern homelands bearing the splendours of Byzantium. The Laxdæla Saga, an Icelandic saga written during the 13th century, recounts that Bolli returned to Iceland carrying a gilded sword and wearing the gold-embroidered silk given to him by the emperor. According to the saga, Bolli’s 11 companions were all wearing scarlet and rode in gilded saddles. Wherever the men took shelter, the saga recounts, womenfolk gazed at Bolli and his companions, for they had been Varangians, still covered in the glory of the Byzantine empire.

What happened to the Varangian Guard?

While Scandinavians dominated the ranks during the initial stage of the regiment from c989–1070, the Varangians were destined to become as diverse as the empire that employed them. Following the Norman Conquest in 1066, Anglo-Saxons flocked to the Byzantine empire, eager to join the Varangian Guard.

In 1071, the Byzantine army suffered a disastrous defeat against the Seljuq Turks at the battle of Manzikert. Emperor Romanos IV was captured, and many Varangians were killed while defending the emperor after most of the army had fled. The depleted ranks of the guard were filled, in part, by Anglo-Saxons, though Scandinavians continued to join the regiment.

The Fourth Crusade saw Constantinople besieged in July–August of 1203. During the battle, some 6,000 Varangians manned the city walls, achieving several victories against the invaders. On 17 July, when crusaders destroyed a portion of the seawall with their battering ram, it was a contingent of axe-wielding Varangians who did well to repulse them.

In March–April of 1204, crusaders and Venetians attacked Constantinople once more. The Varangians fought bravely, but after a gate was forced open on 11 April, crusaders rushed in and the Byzantine defenders panicked. On 12 April, the emperor fled, and the Byzantines laid down their arms. Lacking a legitimate ruler to defend, the Varangians followed suit, submitting to the invading army.

The crusaders subjected Constantinople to a brutal three-day sacking, after which the city became part of a crusader state, the Latin empire. The remaining Byzantine leaders created their own successor states, such as the empire of Nicaea, which would recapture Constantinople in 1261 and reinstate the Byzantine empire. There are indications that a company of Varangians served the ‘exiled Byzantine empire’ in Nicaea. The Latin ruler of Constantinople managed to have a personal regiment of Varangians as well.

The primary references to Varangians in the 14th century are linked to ceremonial court and guard duties. Early in the 15th century, English Varangians were denoted in a letter from Byzantine emperor John VII to King Henry IV of England, but aside from this letter and a few obscure references, the Varangian Guard was virtually extinct (and barely Scandinavian). In 1453, the Byzantine Empire would perish at the hands of the Ottoman Sultanate, sealing the fate of this famous mercenary corps.

Noah Tetzner is the host of The History of Vikings podcast, which features scholarly discussions about the history of medieval Scandinavia. His book Viking Warrior vs Frankish Warrior: Francia 799-950 is due to be published by Osprey in 2021

Advertisement

This content was first published by HistoryExtra in 2020