Monday, May 5, 2008

Military History and Warfare: Byzantium: The Varangian Guard of Constantinople


The Byzantine Empire employed mercenaries throughout its long history. Perhaps the most famous of these mercenary units were the elite Varangian Guard. Armed with double edged swords and battleaxes, these fearsome Nordic warriors served as the Emperor’s personal bodyguard from the tenth century onwards. Many different ethnic groups sought temporary employment in the empire and worked for the imperial administration or court in particular capacities. As the Empire’s reach expanded from the tenth century onwards, a larger orbit of regions and cultures became linked to it. Eventually, this would come to include Scandinavia and reach as far as Iceland.

The term ‘Varangian’ comes from an old Norse word meaning ‘plighted faith’ and was given to those Russianised Vikings whose forefathers had sailed across the Baltic and up the rivers of northern Russia, dominating the slav tribes of the interior as they advanced. They first appeared in Constantinople as a fighting unit sometime in 989 AD. The emperor Basil II was at war with the pretender Bardas Phocas. After inflicting a series of military defeats upon Basil, Bardas’ rebellion was seriously threatening Basil’s future as ruler. By 988, the rebel army lay encamped on the coast of the Bosphorous opposite Constantinople. Only constant active patrolling by the Imperial navy prevented Bardas from crossing the straits and finishing off the remnants of Basil’s army. Desperate for any kind of military assistance, Basil turned to Vladimir, Prince of Kiev. Vladimir agreed to dispatch a force of six thousand fully-equipped Varangian Vikings to assist Basil. In exchange he asked only for the hand of Emperor’s sister. Basil had no choice but to agree. This incident marked a major turning point both in Byzantine and Russian history. Never before had a full princess of the blood been sent off to marry a ‘barbarian’. Even more significantly, Anna’s arrival in Kiev marked the beginning of the conversion of Russia to Christianity.

In early 989 AD a Viking fleet arrived with the promised 6000 Norseman. A few weeks later they crossed the straits of the Golden Horn under the cover of darkness and took up positions a few hundred yards from the rebel camp. At first light they attacked, while a squadron of imperial flame-throwers sprayed the shore with Greek fire. Phocas’s men awoke to the terrifying sight of the Varangians swinging their swords and battleaxes. The result was a massacre. Basil with the aid of the Varangians soon crushed the rebellion entirely.

After the rebellion, the Varangians were immediately established as the emperor’s personal bodyguards. Anna Komnena writing in ‘the Alexiad’ claimed that the Guard were far more reliable and trustworthy as bodyguards than native Byzantine troops.

“They regard loyalty to the Emperors and the protection of their persons as a family tradition, a kind of sacred trust and inheritance handed down from generation to generation; this allegiance they preserve inviolate and never brook the slightest hint of betrayal”

Anna Komnena, a princess of their blood herself, knew the workings of the imperial household intimately. It is clear that she held the Guard in particularly high esteem.

Nevertheless, the Varangians were not always so infallible in their duties. In 1079, a drunken band of guardsman on duty in the palace attacked the Emperor Nikephoros III Botaniates. In 1204, when the armies of the Fourth Crusade were besieging the city, the Varangians agreed to fight for the new Emperor only on the condition that he paid them at an exorbitant rate.
The salary of the Varangians was in fact considerably higher than that of other mercenary troops. They seem to have received as much as ten to fifteen nomismata per month (one and two-thirds to two and a half pounds of gold per annum) as well as special gratuities and a large share of the booty taken on campaigns. These privileges reflect the importance that the emperors placed in having a reliable body of troops that he could always rely upon to guard his person. On many occasions it was the Varangians who proved the most reliable in battle.



an illumination of the Varangian Guard from the Chronicle of John Skylitzis in the eleventh century





At Manzikert in 1071, even after the left and right flanks of the Byzantine army had broken in disorder, the centre remained firm with the Varangians crowded around the emperor. In 1081, Alexius I used the Varangians as the core of his newly reconstituted Byzantine army. Finally in 1204, it was the axe-swinging Englishmen and Danes of the Varangian guards (rather than native troops) who beat back the first few waves of attacking crusaders, before being overwhelmed themselves.

One of the most famous Varangians was Harold Sigurthorson (also known as Hardrada). After leaving Norway in 1030 following the Battle of Sticklestand, where his brother King Olaf was killed, Harold found himself wondering in Russia. He eventually headed for Constantinople and enlisted with his followers in the Varangian guard. Harold took part in Byzantine campaigns in the Aegean, in Bulgaria and in Sicily. In recognition of his achievements, he was made a senior commander in the guard and invested by the emperor with the title of ‘Spathorokandidates’. By the time he left Constantinople in 1044, he had become a wealthy man. He eventually reclaimed his throne in Norway and died in 1066 Stanford Bridge leading an invasion of England.

The commander of the Guard was sometimes called the ‘the leader of the axe-bearing Guard’, but his official title was ‘Akolouthos’ or the Acolyte. This clearly illustrates the high regard and level of responsibility that the emperor placed in his senior Guards officers. After completing their period of service as guardsman, most went home with Byzantine arms, silks, weapons and distinctive clothing. According to the Laxdaela Saga, Bolli Bollason came back dressed in a gold embroidered costume with a purple cloak. As a result of these cross-cultural exchanges, Byzantine influence in Church architecture, manuscript illumination and ivory carving became widespread throughout Scandinavia. Runic stones were raised in memory of those who had travelled to Byzantium as merchants, pilgrims or mercenaries and their exploits are commemorated in Icelandic and Scandinavia sagas.

Towards the end of the eleventh century, the composition of the Guard began to change. In the first few decades following the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, a steady stream of Anglo-Saxon émigrés began to take service under the emperors of Constantinople. By 1204, it appears that many of the Guardsman were from England and Denmark. However, there is little evidence to suggest that the Varangian Guard unit continued after the first fall of Constantinople in 1204. For over two-hundred years, this unique and well-trained battle unit had served the Byzantine emperors and the Empire well. The recruitment of the Varangians, who often travelled great distances to join, is proof of the cosmopolitan nature of Constantinople during the early to mid medieval period.


John Jules Norwich, Byzantium: The Apogee (London, 2003)

John Jules Norwich, Byzantium: the Decline and Fall (London, 1996)

Ian Heath, Byzantine Armies 886-1118 (Oxford, 1979)

Jonathan Harris, Constantinople: Capital of Byzantium (London, 2007)

Judith Herrin, Byzantium: the surprising life of a medieval empire (London, 2007)

Warren Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society (Stanford, 1997)

Anna Komnena, The Alexiad (available from Penguin Publishers)

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