The Varangian Guard: Berserkers of the Byzantine Empire

Depiction of the Byzantine Army in full force

The tale of the Varangians continues in its prime in the form of the Varangian Guard, a prominent and selective Byzantine army arising in the tenth century.  Composed of the Scandinavian marauders in the beginning, the Varangian Guard survived until the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries as the Byzantine Emperor’s elite sentinel.  Dressed in battle armor of blue tunics and crimson cloaks, with man-high battle axes gilded with gold, the bright colors of the Varangian Guard did nothing to quell the terrible berserking power, which they laid against all those who threatened their Byzantine leader. (Berserkers were Old Norse warriors who fought as unchecked, frenzied shock troops who, when deployed, appeared so mad that neither “fire nor iron” frightened them.)

Much of what is known about the Varangian Guard comes down through the centuries from scholars such as Princess Anna Komnene, daughter of Emperor Alexios I, and Michael Psellos, a monk from Constantinople—both writing in the eleventh century AD.  It is believed that the Varangian Guard had been formed around the year 874 when a treaty between the Rus’ and Byzantine Empire dictated that the Rus’ had to send warriors to the aid of the Empire as necessary.

Though it was initially a forced military draft, the practice later became voluntary, undoubtedly in part to ensure the Varangians did not revolt against their new Byzantine leaders.  However, it was not hard to keep the foreign warriors working in the Empire, as the Empire reportedly treated the Varangians far more generously than the leaders of Rus’, who tended to withhold payments and ignore promises of land and status.

Portrait of the Princess Anna Komnene, unknown artist or date.

Portrait of the Princess Anna Komnene, unknown artist or date. (pinterest.com)

It was Emperor Basil II, also known as Basil Porphyrogenitus, who truly brought the Varangians to the forefront of Byzantine culture in the tenth century.  Born of Macedonian stock, Basil II reigned from 976 to 1025, and is in large part remembered for stabilizing the eastern empire against foreign threats.  The stabilization, however, was in large part due to Varangian aid, given to him by Vladimir I of the Kievan Rus’, and cemented because of Vladimir’s marriage to Basil’s own sister, Anna.  With this wedding, the Varangian forces became a interchangeable unit between Rus’ and the Byzantine Empire, and they were uniquely tied for as long as the Empire remained. This is how the Varangians became Christianized (see Part 1).  Part of Basil’s agreement to allow Vladimir to wed his sister was that Vladimir had to accept Anna’s religion.  Thus, Vladimir was baptized and Rus’ was Christianized not long after.

Initially, the Varangian Guard was utilized as extra fighting power in skirmishes between Byzantium and some of her eastern foes.  However, as history shows, with usurpers such as Basil II’s own namesake Basil I, the native protectors of the city and of the Emperor could easily be swayed to shift loyalties.

Thus Emperor Basil II came to actually trust the Varangians more than his own people, and they were therefore given a more critical role in his armed forces.  Princess Anna even notes in her work The Alexiad, the Varangians were uniquely known for their loyalty to the ruling emperor. (This is in reference to her father’s own seizing of the Byzantine throne).  Eventually, they became the personal protectors of the emperor himself: an elite, close knit force that remained near the emperor’s side at all times.  Accompanying him to festivals and parties, religious activities and private affairs, the Guard remained at all times close to the emperor and his family.  They were the guardians of his bedchambers in the evenings, remaining barracked within the palace to ensure they were always nearby, and went so far as to provide crowd control at illustrious gatherings to ensure the emperor was always protected and always had a way to escape.

Basil II was known as the Bulgar Slayer, is depicted in full armor at the Georgian Camp, 1020.

Basil II was known as the Bulgar Slayer, is depicted in full armor at the Georgian Camp, 1020. (pinterest.com)

Within a short time, it became quite a prestigious endeavor to be one of the emperor’s elite defenders.  Though initially comprised of Scandinavian descendants, the Varangian Guard grew over the years to include most of the races of the British Isles: Anglo-Saxons, Irishmen, Scotsmen, etc.  A fee of seven to sixteen pounds of gold was charged to allow entrance into the army, oftentimes on a loan basis from the Byzantine emperor himself.  The warriors then quickly repaid their debt with the large salary they were provided for their services, on top of the booty they were allowed to take after the success of decisive battles.  Furthermore, modern author Lars Magnar Enoksen claimed that, upon the death of each Byzantine Emperor, it was customary for the Varangians to pillage the palace treasury in an Old Norse rite.  This act made the warriors even wealthier, and in showing off this wealth to their own families, many other Scandinavians were eager to pay the fee to become part of the Guard.

The berserkers of the Byzantine Empire, the Varangian Guard allowed the Viking name to survive well into the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries as protectors and warriors of the eastern empire.  It can be postulated that without the Varangian Guard the Byzantine Empire could have taken a vastly different turn.

The unyielding protection they provided their emperors helped prevented the vicious usurpations that had plagued the Roman Empire that preceded them.  Though even this defense eventually came to an end with the Fourth Crusade’s siege of Constantinople in the year 1204 AD, the Varangians survived long beyond their Viking ancestors as a strong, elite force, rich in both wealth, as well as power.

The fall of Constantinople in 1204. Painting of Mehmed II and the Ottoman Army approaching Constantinople with a giant bombard, by Fausto Zonaro.

The fall of Constantinople in 1204. Painting of Mehmed II and the Ottoman Army approaching Constantinople with a giant bombard, by Fausto Zonaro. (Wikpedia)

Featured Image: Depiction of the Byzantine Army in full force. (zumaworld.blogspot.com)

By Ryan Stone

References

Cross, Samuel Hazzard and Olgerd P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor. The Russian Primary Chronicle: Laurentian Text (Medieval Academy of America: NY, 2012.)

D’Amato, Raffaele and Giuseppe Rava. The Varangian Guard 988-1453 (Men-at-Arms) (Osprey Publishing: Oxford, 2010.)

Davidson, H.R. Ellis. The Viking Road to Byzantium (George Allen & Unwin Ltd.: London, 1976.)

Duczko, Wladyslaw. Viking Rus: Studies on the Presence of Scandinavians in Eastern Europe (Brill: Leiden, 2004.)

Sturluson, Snorri. Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway. trans. Lee M. Hollander (University of Texas Press: Texas: 1991.)

Winroth, Anders. The Age of the Vikings (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2014.)

“Suggested Chronology of Events in the pre-Kievan and early Kievan Periods.” University of Washington. Accessed May 20, 2015. http://faculty.washington.edu/dwaugh/hstam443/K-chron2.html

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