The Varangian Guard [Documentary]

The Varangian Guard (Greek: Τάγμα τῶν Βαράγγων, Tágma tōn Varángōn) was an elite unit of the Byzantine Army, from the 10th to the 14th centuries, whose members served as personal bodyguards to the Byzantine Emperors.

They are known for being primarily composed of Germanic peoples, specifically Norsemen (the Guard was formed approximately 200 years into the Viking Age) and Anglo-Saxons (after the Norman Conquest of England created an Anglo-Saxon diaspora, part of which found employment in Constantinople).

The Rus’ (Norsemen descended from Sweden living in what is now Ukraine and Belarus) provided the earliest members of the Varangian Guard. They were in Byzantine service from as early as 874. The Guard was first formally constituted under Emperor Basil II in 988, following the Christianization of Kievan Rus’ by Vladimir I of Kiev. Vladimir, who had recently usurped power in Kiev with an army of Varangian warriors, sent 6,000 men to Basil as part of a military assistance agreement. Basil’s distrust of the native Byzantine guardsmen, whose loyalties often shifted, with fatal consequences, as well as the proven loyalty of the Varangians, many of whom had previously served in Byzantium, led the Emperor to employ them as his personal guardsmen.

Immigrants from Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Iceland kept a predominantly Norse cast to the organization until the late 11th century. It is known that most of the Varangians were from what is today Sweden due to the majority of Runestones left there.

According to the late Swedish historian Alf Henriksson in his book Svensk Historia (History of Sweden), the Scandinavian Varangian guardsmen were recognized by long hair, a red ruby set in the left ear and ornamented dragons sewn on their chainmail shirts. In these years, Scandinavian men left to enlist in the Byzantine Varangian Guard in such numbers that a medieval Swedish law, Västergötlagen, from Västergötland declared no one could inherit while staying in “Greece”—the then Scandinavian term for the Byzantine Empire—to stop the emigration, especially as two other European courts simultaneously also recruited Scandinavians: Kievan Rus’ c. 980–1060 and London 1018–1066 (the Þingalið).

Composed primarily of Norsemen and Rus for the first 100 years, the Guard began to see increased numbers of Anglo-Saxons after the Norman conquest of England. By the time of the Emperor Alexios Komnenos in the late 11th century, the Varangian Guard was largely recruited from Anglo-Saxons and “others who had suffered at the hands of the Vikings and their cousins the Normans”.

The Anglo-Saxons and other Germanic peoples shared with the Vikings a tradition of faithful (to death if necessary) oath-bound service, and the Norman invasion of England resulted in many fighting men who had lost their lands and former masters and were looking for positions elsewhere.

The Varangian Guard not only provided security for the Byzantine emperors, but also participated in many wars, often playing a decisive role, since they were usually deployed at critical moments of a battle. By the late 13th century, Varangians were mostly ethnically assimilated by the Byzantine Greeks, though the Guard remained in existence until at least mid-14th century. In 1400, there were still some people identifying themselves as “Varangians” in Constantinople.

References

  • Buckler, Georgina. Anna Komnena: A Study. Oxford: University Press, 1929.
  • Blondal, Sigfus. Varangians of Byzantium: An Aspect of Byzantine Military History. Trans. by Benedikt S. Benedikz, Cambridge: 1978. ISBN 0-521-21745-8.
  • D’Amato, Raffaele. The Varangian Guard 988-1453. Osprey Publishing, 2010. ISBN 1849081794.
  • Davidson, H.R. Ellis. The Viking Road to Byzantium. London: 1976. ISBN 0-04-940049-5.
  • Enoksen, Lars Magnar. (1998). Runor : historia, tydning, tolkning. Historiska Media, Falun. ISBN 91-88930-32-7.
  • Jansson, Sven B. (1980). Runstenar. STF, Stockholm. ISBN 91-7156-015-7.
  • Jakobsson, Sverrir (2008). “The Schism that never was: Old Norse views on Byzantium and Russia”. Byzantinoslavica. Slovanský ústav Akademie věd ČR, v. v. i. and Euroslavica. pp. 173–88.

10 thoughts on “The Varangian Guard [Documentary]”

      1. Ok, point taken. But these guys were renowned for drinking, killing residents on the streets at night and assaulting women. But I take your point, our troops these days and in the past could definitely put a few away!

  1. It’s interesting that the Scandinavian men left to enlist in the Byzantine Varangian Guard, did this group have such a reputation that it was ‘the army to serve in’ even though it was not a Scandinavian army, or were they just blood thirsty loyal to who ever would reward them the most?

    1. The Varangian Guard gained such a notorious reputation across Europe, that young Vikings enlisted in order to gain combat experience, and if they survived ‘glory’. They would often go back to Norway and be regarded as warriors. Ragnvald Ingvarsson, for example, a Viking from Uppland in Sweden, became the Captain of the Varangian Guard in the first half of the 11th century. Very few could return home with the honour of having been the captain of the Varangian guard, and his name Ragnvaldr shows that he belonged to the higher echelons of Old Norse society.

      1. It’s certainly something to aim for, a bit like our SAS I guess but with added glory! Hopefully they used these skills to the benefit of their own country, but maybe by then, they were too ‘old’. Thanks for the explanation Rich, your knowledge of this amazes me!

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