Varangian Guard of the Byzantine Empire

Varangian Guard of the Byzantine Empire, in order to see it in its proper context, beginning in 988, a few words about the Byzantine Empire itself are needed first.

The Byzantine Empire (also known as Byzantium, as the Eastern Roman Empire, and as the medieval Roman Empire) was the Roman Empire during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. It was centered on the capital of Constantinople but scholars cannot say precisely when the Roman Empire ended and when the Byzantine Empire began. If a date is needed, however, the year 395 can conveniently be used. It was then, after the death of Emperor Theodosius I, that the Roman Empire was divided for the last time and its western and eastern halves were permanently separated.

The western half came to an end in 476, when the Germanic Roman general Odocar deposed the titular Western Emperor Romulus Augustulus. The eastern half, however, would go on to become the most powerful economic, cultural, and military force in Europe. Indeed, it would endure until the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453.

The Byzantine Army was the direct descendant of the Roman army and was among the most effective military forces in western Eurasia for much of the Middle Ages. One of the reasons for its great success is that every time it came up against a strong enemy, it welcomed that enemy as a potential new source of mercenary recruits. Its opponents included Goths; Huns; Vandals; Ostrogoths; Avars; Slavs; Rus, i.e., Vikings from what is now Sweden; Normans; Seljeks; Anatolian beyliks, i.e., the inhabitants of a small Turkish principality; Ottomans; and warriors from Sassanid Persia, the Muslim Caliphate, Bulgaria, and the Crusader states. The Byzantine Empire recruited mercenaries from among its own allies, too. These soldiers included Bulgars, men from the Crusader states, Anatolian beyliks, Khazars, Avars, Rus, and Magyars [Hungarians]. It will be noted that some of the above were both the Byzantine Army’s opponents and its allies, though at different times.

The mercenaries hired by the Byzantines were first known as the foederati (“allies” in Latin—by the 6th century this term came to mean units of non–Roman, as well as Roman, mercenaries brigaded together) and then as the Hetairoi (“Companionships” in Greek). They were mainly assigned to the Imperial Guard. This formidable force was structured into “Great Companionships,” “Middle Companionships,” and “Minor Companionships,” each commanded by their respective “Companionship lords.” Mercenaries may also have been recruited along religious lines, e.g., from the Christian subjects of the Byzantine Empire, from Christian foreigners, and from non–Christians. Mercenary units were organized by their place of origin: Inglinoi (Englishmen), Phragkoi (Franks), Skythikoi (Scythians), and Latinikoi (“Latins,” referring here to Germans and Normans), and Ethiopians. The Skythikoi were often used as a police force in Constantinople.

The Varangian Guard, an elite unit of the Byzantine Army in the 10th to the 14th centuries, was one of the most famous mercenary corps of history and was certainly the most famous of all the Byzantine regiments. It is thought that the term “Varangian” comes from an archaic Norse word variously translated as “confidence,” “vow of fidelity,” or “ally,” and refers to a group of warriors and traders who had sworn allegiance to their leader and fellowship to each other. Interestingly, what is now the Baltic Sea was in earlier times known as the Varangian Sea.

The first clear glimpse of them comes in 988, when the Emperor Basil II (978–1025) asked Vladimir I of Kiev for military assistance to help defend his throne. Vladimir sent 6,000 warriors, known as “Rus,” to the Emperor. The word “Rus” may have come from an Old Norse term meaning “the men who row.” They were such excellent fighters that they soon became the Emperor’s personal bodyguard.

Under Basil II, the Byzantine Empire built up a largely mercenary army, generally abandoning the earlier system under which territorial forces defended the provinces and regulars from Constantinople reinforced them when needed. Because Basil II regarded mercenaries as politically more dependable than regular troops, his reliance on them would persist for a long time. The Varangian Guard greatly profited from his support and was paid very well indeed. The Icelandic Laxdale Saga, for example, gives this report on the homecoming in 1030 of the folkloric hero Bolli Bollason, who went to Byzantium as a mercenary recruit and eventually rose to become a senior officer of the Varangian Guard.

The saga says:

Bolli brought back with him much wealth and many precious things that lords abroad had given him. Bolli was so great a man for show when he came back from this journey that he would wear no clothes but those made of scarlet and fur, and all his weapons were adorned with gold: he was called Bolli the Great….

Bolli rode from the ship with twelve men, and all his followers were dressed in scarlet, and rode on guilt saddles, and were a trusty band, though Bolli was peerless among them. He had on the clothes of fur which the Garth-king [i.e., the Emperor] had given him, he had over all a scarlet cape; and he had Footbiter [the name of his sword] girt on him, the hilt of which was adorned with gold, and the grip woven with gold; he had a gilded helmet on his head, and a red shield on his flank, with a knight painted on it in gold. He had a dagger in his hand, as is the custom in foreign lands; and whenever they took quarters the women paid heed to nothing but gazing at Bolli and his grandeur, and that of his followers.

Anna Comnena wrote of the 11th century Varangian Guardsmen:

They regarded 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 will never brook the slightest hint of betrayal.

The commander of the Varangian Guard was awarded the title of Akolouthos. Literally, this meant the “Follower” of the Emperor, but in practice it meant the man who stood closest to the Emperor on formal occasions and who served as his most important bodyguard. The tall, fierce men of the Varangian Guard were initially of Scandinavian origin but after the Norman Conquest of 1066, many displaced Anglo-Saxons joined the Varangian Guard, too.

The Varangian Guard demonstrated its worth in the battle of Beroia in 1122 in what is now Bulgaria. Led by Emperor John II Komnenos of the Byzantine Empire, the Varangian Guard won that fight against the Pechenegs. These were men from the Russian steppes who had invaded the Byzantine Empire by crossing the Danube frontier and entering Byzantine territory. The Pechenegs fought as waves of horse archers, shooting arrows continuously and using their laager [wagon fort] as an arrow-depot; as a rallying-point; and, if necessary, as a holdout for a last stand.

After a very hard fight, the Byzantines forced the Pechenegs to take refuge in their laager, but there they put up such a stiff resistance that the Byzantines could not overrun them until the Varangian Guard arrived and used their broad-axes (also known as Danish axes) with shafts up to 6 feet long to hack their way through the circle of wagons, forcing the Pechenegs to flee for their lives. Rather than massacring the surviving Pechenegs, however, the Varangian Guard simply took them prisoner and enrolled them in the Byzantine army.

In 1167 in what is now Serbia, the Byzantine Empire decisively defeated the Kingdom of Hungary at the battle of Sirmium. According to the contemporary Byzantine historian John Kinnamos, the Byzantine army then consisted of one-third foreign and two-thirds native units. This battle involved regular Byzantine troops, Turks, Cumans, Imperial guard units (including the Varangian Guard), Italian mercenary lancers from Lombardy, Serbian infantry and cavalry, German mercenaries, and even some Western mercenary knights. The net result was that the Hungarians were forced to sue for peace on Byzantine terms; to recognize Byzantine control over Bosnia, Croatia, and related areas; and to pay tribute to Byzantium and to provide troops for it whenever so requested.

The Varangian Guard was also instrumental in repelling the Crusader assaults of the First Crusade (1096–1099). In 1204, however, combined Crusader armies of Franks and Venetians besieged and captured Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade (1202–1204). Bad weather had delayed the initial Crusader attack on the city but later a strong north wind and good seamanship allowed Venetian ships to moor right alongside the city’s wall. This feat enabled the attackers to seize some of the towers along the wall. After short but sharp battle, about 70 Crusaders managed to fight their way into Constantinople itself. At the same time, other Crusaders were busy knocking holes through the wall—just big enough for a few knights at a time to scramble through them. The Venetians also managed to scale the wall from the sea, in the face of extremely bloody fighting with the Varangians.

The victorious Crusaders burned, looted, and vandalized Constantinople. Under the terms of a prearranged treaty, the Byzantine Empire was then divided between Venice and the Crusader leaders, and what was called the Latin Empire of Constantine was thus established. Much of the Byzantine aristocracy, which was exceedingly unpopular with the common people of the city, fled from the city. The contemporary Byzantine historian and eye-witness Nicetas Choniates (himself an aristocrat) says:

The peasants and common riff-raff jeered at those of us from Byzantium and were thick-headed enough to call our miserable poverty and nakedness equality…. Many were only too happy to accept this outrage, saying “Blessed be the Lord that we have grown rich,” and buying up for next to nothing the property their fellow-countrymen were forced to offer for sale….

After the loss of Constantinople, the Varangian Guard was disbanded as a permanent major fighting force and subsequently performed only secondary or ceremonial duties. Some of its men served the Nicean Empire and the Despotate of Epirus in 1205–1261. Others defended Ainos against the Bulgarians in 1265 and were bodyguards for Emperor John V in 1351. The Varangian Guard was mentioned as participating in imperial ceremonies in Byzantium in 1351. Finally, there is some evidence that English mercenaries and mixed-blood descendants of Varangians served together. For example,” axe-bearing soldiers of British race” are mentioned by Byzantine envoys in Rome in 1404.


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