VIKING - 6: IN THE PAY OF EASTERN EMPERORS - Varangian Guard From Early Times

"Wise is he who wields power sparingly. With brave men he finds none is foremost or outdoes the others in all things".

Havamal

Miklagard runes.'Graffiti' in the upper gallery of the cathedral of Santa Sofia (now Hagia Sofia) was scratched onto the railing in runes.,
Miklagard runes.'Graffiti' in the upper gallery of the cathedral of Santa Sofia (now Hagia Sofia) was scratched onto the railing in runes., | Source
The 'Golden Horn' - Miklagard laid out strategically between the Black Sea and the eastern Sea of Marmara
The 'Golden Horn' - Miklagard laid out strategically between the Black Sea and the eastern Sea of Marmara | Source
Topographic overview of the Byzantine Empire in Asia Minor during the early Middle Ages to the end of the empire in 1453
Topographic overview of the Byzantine Empire in Asia Minor during the early Middle Ages to the end of the empire in 1453

From Beginnings... an early alliance with Constantine's successors

From the end of the 9th Century the Vikings who had secured their own corner of Russia were casting around again for new horizons.

The Svear (Swedes) were striving for gains from the east, having been bottled up in the Baltic region by their western neighbours. Few of the Svear came west into the Atlantic, the West Norsemen (Norwegians) in their Atlantic-facing fjords and Danes on their islands having secured the region between them and jealous of their conquests. So it was 'Go East Young Man' for the Scandinavians of the east.

At the time the Byzantine Empire was the richest and most efficiently run state within Europe. Their holdings ranged from Sicily, Apulia and Calabria on the Italian peninsula via Dyrrachium (the eastern Adriatic shore) and Cyprus to Asia Minor - all of what is now Turkey. Trade routes crossed on the Bosphorus, the Venetians and Genoans increasingly frustrated by the success of their neighbours the Eastern Roman Empire. The Pontificate state was also jealous. They were almost impoverished in comparison with the empire established by Constantine 'the Great', and also jealous of its standing, but there was as yet no way of redressing the balance.

At the end of the 9th Century Oleg had united Kiev and Novgorod by his capture of the latter. Traders from the river routes northward of the Black Sea, taking in tow fighting men from Scandinavia and Russia. According to the Russian Primary Chronicle, they followed the 'road of the Varangians to the Greeks' - also covered by the Emperor Constantine VII (reigned AD913-959) known as 'Porphyrogenitus' in his journal De Administrando Imperio.

These East Norse wanderers had made their way along the river network from Holmgard (Novgorod) by way of the Duna, the Neva, Lake Ladoga, the Volkhov and Lake Ilmen. They had rolled their ships over logs between riverheads to put their ships back onto water at the head of the River Lovat, followed the Volga to Koenungagard (Kiev) and down the Dniepr, from there fighting their way over the Seven Cataracts, heading off attacks by Pecheneg or Patzinak tribesmen to reach Berezany and the Black Sea. Another way was by way of the River Ditzina and the region of Mesembria from which they reached the Great City, Miklagard (known to us as Constantinople). Its wonders were set down in saga literature from the onset of the 10th Century.

By the name of their lands these Scandinavians were known as Rus or Rhos. Eastern Slavonic and Byzantine sources tell us they were Varjag, Varegu or Vaeringjar*. The etymology has been questioned but the belief is that the terms come from var (plural: varar) meaning mean whose oaths of loyalty were binding (the Proto-Norse term is vaeringr, therefore the description Vaeringi applies to their loyalty to one another and to their employer, the southerly Germanic prototype being Wareganga).

Initially contact between these Norsemen and the Eastern Roman Empire was through trade or conflict. A number of attacks by the Rus/Rhos between AD800-1043 failed in their mission. The Norsemen mixed with their Slavonic neighbours and their cultures merged, but the Vkings themselves fought as plunderers but could be persuaded to fight for generous pay. It was the descendants of the early Svear colonists in northern Russia who would progress to be the most renowned corps of soldiers in European history (the term soldier means one who fights in return for pay, or sold) .

By the late 11th Century the make-up of the emperor's Varangian Guard changed radically. For a time during the earlier 11th Century you had the likes of Harald Sigurdsson leading them, as I have mentioned elsewhere, and West Norse leaders as well as Jomsviking hirelings were nothing new on the scene, but later - after the reign of King William I took hold by 1071/1072 - Englishmen began to show up in ever-increasing numbers. Some were given land in the Crimea, then a Byzantine holding in the Black Sea region, such as Siward 'Barn' with a retinue of Englishmen, Anglo-Danes and Danes who had fought across England between Caldbec Hill near Hastings, Hereford, York and Ely and left England later in the reign of William I after a brief period of imprisonment along with (Earl) Morkere for their part in resisting the king at Ely. As late as the 12th Century, in the reign of Henry II Englishmen served in the Varangian Guard, were noted for their bravery and devotion to duty against the Normans under Bohemond de Hauteville, nephew of Robert 'Guiscard' ('foxy', on account.of his ginger hair).

The Varangian Guard defended the emperors of Constantinople from the 10th until the Turks finally overran the Byzantine Empire in the mid-15th Century with their attack on Constantinople in 1453, by which time they were no longer Northern European but of mixed ancestry.

They had no answer to the Turks' use of cannon (gunpowder was brought from its original source in China and turned to weapons technology by the Mongol hordes under Genghiz Khan).

One of a series of Osprey Warrior books, the Varangian Guard came about when the Byzantine emperor Basil II 'the Bulgar Slayer' realised the Rus or 'Vaeranger' held together and kept to their oath regardless. Colour illustrations, diagrams, photographs and exhaustive research go into these books to make them market leaders.

A time of stress for the empire

The Byzantine Empire at the time of Zoe, when Harald Sigurdsson captained the Varangian Guard - see Sturlusson: 'King Harald's Saga'
The Byzantine Empire at the time of Zoe, when Harald Sigurdsson captained the Varangian Guard - see Sturlusson: 'King Harald's Saga' | Source
The empire around 1180 - the time of the Crusades when Rome 'permitted' crusaders to ransack Constantinople on their way to the Holy Land
The empire around 1180 - the time of the Crusades when Rome 'permitted' crusaders to ransack Constantinople on their way to the Holy Land | Source

The Varangians

Varangian guard parading
Varangian guard parading | Source
Close-up of leather plate armour - as effective if not more than iron ring mail
Close-up of leather plate armour - as effective if not more than iron ring mail | Source
Arm guard and weaponry - the knife seems to be either drawn or missing
Arm guard and weaponry - the knife seems to be either drawn or missing | Source
A recreated Varangian guardsman in heavy armour
A recreated Varangian guardsman in heavy armour | Source

War Engine - the chronology of a new corps and famous leaders

The Rus Vikings' raids on Constantinople progressed to alliance and enlistment in the service of the emperors over a period of just under four centuries to when the Turks finally overran the empire:

860 First Rus attack on Constantinople;

874 Treaty agreed between Oleg and Basil I, 'the Macedonian';

902 Seven hundred Rus in Byzantine naval raid on Arabs in Crete;

907 Second Rus attack on Constantinople, followed by Treaty including provision of Norse mercenaries for Byzantine military;

910/911 Seven hundred Rus led by Imperios in raids on Crete, Cyprus and coasts of Syria;

911 September 2nd Treaty between Byzantium and Rus acknowledges right of latter to be enlisted in Imperial Army 'at whatsoever time they may come, and whatsoever their number;

935 Seven Rus ships and 415 men take part in Byzantine expedition to Italy;

941 Third Rus attack on Constantinople - Rus fleet destroyed by Greek Fire (phosphorus);

949 Rus ousiai used as coastguard ships at Dyrrachium and along Dalmatian coast, around 630 men sail with expedition against Cretan Arabs;

954-5 Rus serve in Syrian campaign under general Vardhas Phokas against Arabs; Syrian poet Mutanabbi writes of Rus amongst Byzantine troops at battle of Hadath on November 12th, 955;

964-5 Rus among forces sent to Sicily under Manuel and Niketas Phokas defeated by Arabs at Rametta - others involved in raids on Crete;

967-8 Two Rus and two Frankish (Norman) ships serve in Byzantine fleet aiding Byzantine provincial governor in southern Italy (Apulia, Calabria);

988 Presumed date of establishment of permanent body of Rus/Varangians as elite mercenary guardsmen attached to Emperor Basil II 'the Bulgar Slayer';

988-9 Campaigns of Basil II against rebellion of Vardhas Phokas - Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev sends 6,000 men to help Basil;

994 & 999 Rus in Basil's campaigns against Syrian Arabs;

1000-01 Rus in Basil's Georgian and Armenian campaigns;

1001-18 Rus form heart of Basil's forces against Bulgars;

1009-11 Rus sent against rebel Melos of Bari, recapturing city in June 1011;

1016 January, combined Byzantine and rus naval forces under Sfengos (Sveinki), brother of Vladimir sent against Khazars of Black Sea - successfully capture territories of Georgios Toulos;

1018 Second campaign against Melos of Bari - rus foremost in victory at Cannae;

1021 Basil's second Georgian campaign;

1025 Rus, Vandals, Turks, Bulgars, Vlachs and Macedonians serve under Byzantine emperor's commander Orestes in Sicily;

1033 Rus/Varangians embark in expedition under Theoktistos in Egypt;

1034-43 Harald Sigurdsson (later king in Norway known as 'Hardradi', the Hard Ruler) serves in Varangian Guard under Michael IV, Michael V, Empress Theodora and Constantine IX;

1041 Varangians with troops of Katepano Dokeanos fighting against Normans under Robert Guiscard at Monte Maggiore;

1043 Attack on Constantinople by Rus under Vladimir, son of Jaroslav 'the Wise' - their fleet destroyed by Greek Fire

1045 Constantine IX 'Monomachos' (Empress Zoes' third husband) sends 3,000 Varangians to help in Armenia;

1054 Campaign against Seljuq Turks in Armenia;

1070-80 Strong contingents of English and Danes recruited into Varangian Guard to serve Michael VII 'Doukas' , Romanos IV 'Diogenes' and Nikephoros III 'Botaneiates';

1071 August 19th Battle of Mantzikert lost under Emperor Romanos IV, captured by Seljuqs when fighting amid his Varangians;

1077 Varangians serve in armies of both Bryennios and Komnenos at Battle of Kalouryta;

1078 Varangians serve in army of usurper Vasilakes;

1081 March: Varangians and Athanatoi hold walls of Constantinople against advance of Alexios Komnenos; October: Varangians suffer heavy losses at battle of Dyrrachium fighting for Alexios against Robert Guiscard's Normans;

1087-91 Varangian units serve in army of Alexios I Komnenos at battles of Drastar (Drista) and Levunium against Pechenegs/Patzinaks;

1122 English Varangians make decisive attack on Pechenegs in victory of Eski Zagra (Beroe);

1149 Varangian contingents defend Thebes against Normans;

1154 Three hundred Varangians foil assassination attempt on Emperor Manuel I, Komnenos;

1155-58 Varangians defeat Normans under Renault of Chatillon in Cyprus;

1176 September 11th Most of Manuel's Varangians wiped out by a Turkish force at disastrous defeat of Myriokephalon;

1179 Varangians victorious at Claudiopolis;

1200 During usurpation of Alexios III Angelos Komnenos - Varangians put down two attempts to topple him from throne;

1203-04 Fourth Crusade: Varangians try to defend Constantinople during attacks by Normans and Venetians;

1205-61 Regiments od Varangians serve the exiled Nicaean Empire and Despotate of Epirus;

1261 Restoration of imperial authority to Constantinople under the Palaiologos dynasty;

1265 Varangian garrison defends Ainos against Bulgars;

1341 Kantaouzenos picks 500 Varangian axe-bearing bodyguards;

1351 Varangian Guard recorded by Pseudo-Kodinos as taking part in imperial Byzantine ceremonies.

...And see the shining splendour of their paymasters

The emperor Nikophoras II Phokas, ruled  963-969 prior to Basil II
The emperor Nikophoras II Phokas, ruled 963-969 prior to Basil II | Source
Emperor Basil II 'the Bulgar slayer' with attendants
Emperor Basil II 'the Bulgar slayer' with attendants | Source
The Empress Zoe, said to have been 'taken' with Harald Sigurdsson - she had three husbands in quick succession
The Empress Zoe, said to have been 'taken' with Harald Sigurdsson - she had three husbands in quick succession
Alexios I Komnenos, eldest son of John I Komnenos
Alexios I Komnenos, eldest son of John I Komnenos | Source
Emperor John II Komnenos, son of Alexios
Emperor John II Komnenos, son of Alexios | Source
A frieze of the Emperor Romanos IV and his consort Eudoxie receiving blessing on his coronation from Christ
A frieze of the Emperor Romanos IV and his consort Eudoxie receiving blessing on his coronation from Christ

How the East was won

The core of the Byzantine Empire at the end of the 10th Century at the time of Basil II
The core of the Byzantine Empire at the end of the 10th Century at the time of Basil II
 Rus merchant with the eastern style of fur hat and loose clothing
Rus merchant with the eastern style of fur hat and loose clothing
The mouth of the Dniepr on the Black Sea. The Crimea lies to the east. The whole territory now lies within the Ukraine
The mouth of the Dniepr on the Black Sea. The Crimea lies to the east. The whole territory now lies within the Ukraine
Viking sword-power. A man's word was his bond, the basis of a Varangian's ethos
Viking sword-power. A man's word was his bond, the basis of a Varangian's ethos
The Varangian Guard, beginning with Svear, going on to West Norse and Anglo-Danes after the Norman Conquest of England
The Varangian Guard, beginning with Svear, going on to West Norse and Anglo-Danes after the Norman Conquest of England
Norsemen leaving Miklagard with Harald - story was he saw the ghost of his uncle Olaf tell him his life was in danger if he stayed. He was helped by a local woman out of jail to escape with his men
Norsemen leaving Miklagard with Harald - story was he saw the ghost of his uncle Olaf tell him his life was in danger if he stayed. He was helped by a local woman out of jail to escape with his men | Source

The paymasters' chronology

Some of the Byzantine emperors' names may be familiar, such as Basil II 'the Bulgar-slayer' from my Hunding saga, and Alexios Komnenos whose daughter Anna Komnena wrote of her father's meetings with the 'Franks' (Norman) leaders Robert Guiscard and Bohemond, the self-styled 'Prince of Antioch'. Then there was the Empress Zoe, whose three husbands succeeded to the throne in fairly rapid succession at around the time Harald Sigurdsson fought in the Varangian Guard in the mid-11th Century before returning to Norway. This, then, is a list of the Paymasters until the onset of the 12th Century, the zenith of the Viking Age :


Basil 'the Macedonian', a former Imp. officer, reigned from 861 - until August 886

Leo VI 'the Wise' .............................................reigned 886 - until May 912

Alexander III, son of Basil I............................. reigned 912 - until 913

Constantine VII (Regent 908-913) 'Porphyrogenitos' reigned 913 - until 959

[Romanos I 'Lekagenos', senior Emperor...... reigned Dec 920 - until Dec 944]

Romanos II 'Porphyrogenitos' , son Constantine VII, reigned Nov 959 - until Mar 963

Nikephoros II 'Phokas' .................................. reigned Aug 963 until 969

John I 'Tzimiskes', brother-in-law Romanos II, reigned Dec 969 until Jan 976

Basil II 'Bulgar-slayer', son Romanos II......... reigned Jan 976 until Dec 1025

Constantine VIII, son Romanos II.................. reigned Dec 1025 until Nov 1028

Zoe, daughter of Constantine VIII ................ reigned Dec 1028 chiefly through her three husbands until dying 1050

Romanos III 'Argyos', 1st husband of Zoe... reigned Nov 1028 until Apr 1034

Michael IV 'the Paphlagonian', 2nd husband reigned Apr 1034 until Dec 1041

Michael V 'the Caulker', nephew Michael IV...reigned Dec 1041 until Apr 1042 (died Aug 1042)

Theodora, daughter Constantine VIII..............reigned Jan 1042 until (see below)

Constantine IX 'Monomachos', Zoe's 3rd husband reigned Jun 1042 until Jan 1055

Theodora.........................................................reigned again Jan 1055 until dying Aug 1056

Michael VI 'Bringas' ........................................reigned Sep 1056 until Jun 1057, died Aug 1057

Isaac I 'Komnenos' .........................................reigned Jun 1057 until Nov 1059

Constantine X 'Doukas' ..................................reigned Nov 1059 until May 1067

Michael VII 'Doukas', eldest son Constantine X, reigned May 1067 until Mar 1078

[Romanos IV 'Diogenes', senior Emperor.......reigned Jan 1068 until Oct 1071]

Nikephoras III 'Botaneiates' ............................reigned Mar 1078 until Apr 1081

Alexios 'Komnenos', nephew Isaac I ..............reigned Apr 1081 until Aug 1118

John II 'Komnenos', eldest son Alexios .........reigned Aug 1118 until Apr 1143

Manuel I 'Komnenos', youngest son John II ...reigned Apr 1143 until Sep 1180

Alexios II 'Komnenos' .................................. reigned Sep 1180 until Oct 1183

AndronIkos 'Komnenos'..................................reigned 1183 until Sep 1185

The 'Angelid' dynasty followed from 1185 until 1204, followed by

the 'Laskarid' dynasty (Empire of Nicaea), 1204-1261, then

the 'Palaiologan' dynasty succeeded, reigning again from Constantinople 1261-1453 when the Turks overran the city. The same dynasty, claimants in exile 'ruled' from 1453 until 1502



This hub was written to provide background and substance to parts of the Saga of Hunding Hrothulfsson, when Hunding and his friends 'served' Basil II, the Bulgar-slayer - and then took one of his crowns!

Next - 7: Formation Fighting

More by this Author


Comments 2 comments

Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

Wesman Todd Shaw 4 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

It's strange that so few here in America seem to even know that Russia got it's name from the Vikings.

I'm so fascinated by the entire history of Europe that I could easily get lost in it forever.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

There is a view that 'Rhos/Rus' comes from the Greek 'rusioi' meaning 'blonde men'. Another view is the term comes cfrom the Ugric (Finnish) derivation of the Norse 'rodr' meaning crew of oarsmen. The Varangians, or Rhos/Rus were hired as 'policemen' by the Slav princes of Kiev and Novgorod to control their underlings. Later princes had Scandinavian blood coursing through their veins as a result of inter-breeding with Danish, Swedish and (to a lesser extent) Norwegian royals in the early middle ages. One young prince Vladimir wedded Harold's daughter Gytha, her son Msistislav Harold paved the way for a dynasty that ran through Denmark and Hanover... Get

where this leads to? Elizabeth II has some of King Harold's blood in her veins (ref. Edwin Tetlow's book THE ENIGMA OF HASTINGS pub. Peter Owen 1974)

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Click to Rate This Article
    working