The Varangian Guard was an elite unit of the Byzantine Army, whose members served as personal bodyguards to the Byzantine Emperors.
They were also Vikings.
The very term Varangian derives from Old Norse væringi, which is a compound of vár ‘pledge or vow of fidelity’ and gengi ‘companion or fellowship’. Simply put, the term Varangian can be roughly translated to ‘sworn companion’ – which proved to be an apt categorization, as later history was witness to their glorious feats.
Exotic, ferocious and heavily armored, they were one of the most famous military units in history. Extremely loyal, they were responsible for the protection of the Byzantine emperor. The Varangians would occasionally also took the field, carving a fierce reputation for themselves in both European and Asian theaters of war.
The origins of the Varangian Guard date back to the year 987 AD. At the time, the Eastern Roman Empire was facing a civil war between Emperor Basil II against the rebel Vardhas Phokas – who audaciously marched on to Constantinople with his army. Desperate for reinforcements, Basil II called for aid from Vladimir the Great, the Grand Prince of Kievan Rus. At the time, the Kievan Prince Vladmir had then just officially converted the Rus to Christianity, a change that was not universally well received by the practitioners of the Old Religion, who held Odin and Thor in their hearts as their Gods. When Basil II asked for assistance Vladimir saw an opportunity to rid himself of the most “Berserker” kinds of individuals in Kiev, thus helping him solidify his power base, and he promptly send away around 6,000 men to the Roman emperor’s aid. According to old sources (like the Russian Primary Chronicle, compiled in 1113 AD), these men were supposedly unruly and unpaid (which might be interpreted as unemployed), another evidence of their status as “undesirable” in the newly christian Kiev.
The “undesirable” berserkers sent away from Kiev soon prove their inestimable valor in battle during the battle of Chrysopolis. At the time, Basil II himself was leading the army against the rebel Phokas, when he first witnessed the brutality and effectiveness of the newly formed Guard, who after pursuing the fleeing army “cheerfully hacked them to pieces”.
By the end of the 10th century (and the beginning of the 11th century), Basil II wholeheartedly made use of his ‘Varangians’, and successfully campaigned far and wide, ranging from the Levant to Georgia. The undeniable success in battle was promptly recognized by the emperor, who bestowed upon the Varangian Guard an elite status, tempering the ‘foreign’ Rus warriors into a disciplined body of troops who formed the core of the imperial forces.
The recruitment for the guard outside of the Empire's borders was a sound decision, as it ensured that the Varangian Guard were loyal to the emperor alone, with no connection to any other faction in the intricate Byzantine politics. It also ensured that the members of the guard did not held any personal political ambition that could be a threat to the Emperor, both common issues with the Praetorian guard of the Western Roman Empire.
One of the runic inscriptions in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul – Probably carved by a member of the Varangian Guard
Over the next 100 years, the guard’s ranks would include Norseman from Scandinavia establishing an identity that would become dominant of the guard’s ranks until the late 11th century. The Laxdœla saga, informs that the Icelander Bolli Bollason was the first known Icelander or Norwegian in the Varangian Guard.
One other notable member of the guard was the future King Harald Sigurdsson III of Norway, also known as Harald Hardrada. During his service, Harald earned the titles of manglavites and spatharokandidatos, reserved for the personal bodyguards of the emperor. Harald would later leave his post to become the Norwegian King in AD 1046. After the death of the English King Edward, the Confessor, Harald laid claim to the English throne and led a full-scale invasion but was defeated at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.
By the reign of Emperor Alexios Komnenos in the late 11th century AD, the guard began to see increased numbers of Anglo-Saxons (called the Englinbarrangoi – meaning Anglo-Varangians) after William the Conqueror had taken the throne of England during the Norman conquest, resulting in many Anglo-Saxon warriors losing their lands and seeking position elsewhere.
A resurgence of Norseman swelled the guards ranks when Harald Hardrada’s grandson, Sigurd I of Norway, went on the Norwegian Crusade to the Holy land and allowed his men to join the guard around AD 1110.
With their Viking heritage and Rus tradition of distant seafaring, it was expected of the Varangians to have maritime skills. So beyond battlefield maneuvers and palace duties, some of the younger (or less experienced) members of the Varangian Guard were chosen to actually hunt down pirates. These guardsmen were deployed in specially-made light marine crafts called the ousiai, and they worked in unison with the other Norse and Russian mercenaries.
Other than glorious feats in battles and adventurous sea-raids, the Varangian Guard was also involved in slightly more mundane duties, like policing the streets of Constantinople. They rather carved up a brutal reputation for themselves – who were known to enforce strict laws and arrest the political opponents of the emperor.
The trademark of the Varangian Guard was the imposing large axe they carried, similar to the Dane Axe. Most of the time they wore heavy armor, often chainmail shirts that were sometimes reinforced with lamellar or scale armor.
The often used mail shirt over an hauberk, which was kept close to the body with a chest harness that also helped distribute its weight, called the Varangian Bra. Usually made of leather, the harness consisted of a breast strap with two shoulder straps going over each shoulder, connecting the front and rear end of the strap. This harness helped hold their armor in place which allowed for better mobility on the battlefield.
Dane axe and armor reproduction, including hauberk, chainmail and the Varangian Bra
The last mention of the guard is in the Greek version of “The Chronicle of the Morea”, which states that a Varangian unit escorted the Prince of Achaia away to prison after the Battle of Pelagonia in AD 1259, although people who identified themselves as Varangians were mentioned in Constantinople as late as AD 1400.
Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall.
Jesse Byock (2005) Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda. 1st. edition. London, England: Penguin Books Ltd. ISBN-13 978-0-140-44755-2
Blondal, Sigfus. Varangians of Byzantium: An Aspect of Byzantine Military History. Trans. by Benedikt S. Benedikz, Cambridge: 1978. ISBN 0-521-21745-8.
Jakobsson, Sverrir, The Varangians: In God's Holy Fire (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), ISBN 978-3-030-53796-8