Not only did they provide personal security for the Eastern Roman Emperor, but they also conducted warfare and played a pivotal and decisive role in many a battle waged.
Rome wasn't built in a day
Even when studying the history of the so-called "Viking Age" (c. 793 – 1066 CE), it appears that all roads really do lead to Rome.
The history of the Vikings, like so many other early medieval and later medieval peoples, societies, and civilizations, can trace their origin back to the time of the Roman Empire. By the 4th and into the 5th century CE, Rome was collapsing... at least in the western half of the empire.
In 286 CE, the Roman Emperor Diocletian had divided the vast Roman Empire, which stretched from the borders of what is now Scotland to the Sahara, from Palmyra to Porto, into two sections to try and stabilize governance.
For the next century, further divisions took place in part due to severe population pressure as a myriad of different tribes, peoples and groups headed out of Eurasia and set their sights on Roman territory.
In 395 CE, the Empire was officially split into two, with a western half still being ruled from Rome (and later Ravenna) whilst the eastern portion would be governed from Constantinople.
The Queen of Cities
It should be no surprise that Constantinople was chosen as the capital of the eastern half of the Roman Empire.
The city, which straddles two continents and is at the heart of the Bosporus, was believed to have been founded by colonists from the Greek city-state of Megara in the mid-7th century BCE.
Its strategic position at the crossways of several land and sea trade routes saw it become a vital economic hub for the Roman Empire. Not only did it lay astride the overland route connecting Europe to Asia (via some of the so-called "Silk Roads"), but it was also at the heart of maritime trade connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.
By 324 CE, the city had taken on such great importance that the Roman Emperor Constantine named it "New Rome" (Nova Roma) and designed it as the new capital of the Roman Empire.
Some six years later, Constantine renamed the city after himself (Constantinople) in what surely has to be one of the larger acts of hubris committed by a Roman Emperor. Leaders today just don't have that sort of confident arrogance anymore...
The designation of Constantinople as the new Roman capital was just in time as, within a century or so, Rome had been ransacked by a series of Germanic tribes and peoples, including the Vandals and the Goths.
Whilst the western half of the Roman Empire collapsed, and Western Europe went on a civilizational rollercoaster for the next millennium or so, the eastern half, which would still be known as the Roman Empire (though later scholars have termed it either the Byzantine Empire or the Eastern Roman Empire to differentiate from the original undivided Roman Empire) would flourish and thrive.
In her seminal work, River Kings, Dr. Cat Jarman explains how the Viking expansion, which occurred from the late 8th century CE, has traditionally focused on the western routes undertaken but that journeys eastward were just as important.
These Viking traders, raiders, and settlers utilized the Baltic Sea to cross from Scandinavia into the Baltic region, Eastern Europe, and onto the Russian steppes.
What separated people from Viking societies, compared to other adventurers in this part of the world, was their skill in utilizing the many river systems that connected the Baltic to the Black Sea.
Viking merchants and traders soon connected the Scandinavian world, including Viking societies in the British Isles and northern France, through the various river systems of Eastern Europe down towards the Black Sea.
There, it was just a short distance to the preeminent European civilization of the day: the Byzantine Empire.
These Viking warriors and traders soon began to come into direct contact, with a profit motive in mind or a sword in hand, with the Byzantines.
Up until the 11th century CE, the Varangian Guard was mostly comprised of immigrants and mercenaries from Sweden. Illustration: The Viking Herald
From Scandinavia to Greece
By the end of the 8th century CE, a new people, the Rus, had emerged in Eastern Europe.
Scholars may disagree over the minutiae of their exact origin, but the Rus are believed to have been Viking traders, raiders, and settlers originating especially from the eastern Swedish coastline.
Over the following century, they had not only grown rich by exploiting the river trade between the Baltic and the Black Sea but had also played a hand in forging a new empire, the Kievan Rus.
This empire, which straddled huge swathes of modern-day Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, saw a Rus warrior elite rule, govern and dominate a multiethnic and multireligious population.
The Rus, who then founded and settled many cities and towns in Eurasia, especially in what is now European Russia, were a link between the Byzantine Empire, to the south, and their Viking ancestral brethren to the west.
Like the Viking expansion from Scandinavia westward, the Rus too expanded, often violently, from the mid-9th century CE to undergo two centuries of raids, battles, and wars, in between economic trading and commerce, with the much larger Byzantine Empire.
A new guard emerges
The Byzantine Empire was no stranger to foreign mercenaries. In the 9th century CE, the Rus were just the latest in a long line of diverse peoples to serve in its army.
A treaty, in 874 CE, between the Rus and the Byzantines, under Emperor Basil II, was signed after a series of bloody skirmishes and battles. Part of the terms of this treaty forced Rus men to serve in the Byzantine Army.
Following more hostilities over the next 40 years, a new treaty was eventually signed in 911 CE that simply gave Rus men the option to serve if they wanted to.
During the first half of the 10th century CE, there is recorded evidence of a significant amount of the Rus serving alongside Byzantines on campaigns in Dalmatia (700 men), Crete (629), Italy (415), and finally, a small number in Syria in 955 CE.
However, these numbers would remain relatively small until the very end of the century.
In 988 CE, Byzantine Emperor Basil II requested military assistance from Vladimir I of the Kievan Rus to help defend his throne and secure the empire under constant attack.
Already obliged by a previous treaty between the two polities, Vladimir sent some 6,000 warriors, mostly ridding himself of unruly and troublesome men. Academics point to this event as the creation of the Varangian Guard.
It would not take the new guard long to see action. The men that Vladimir had sent to aid Basil were a mixture of Rus and Viking warriors, especially from Norway and Sweden.
Already renowned for their martial skills and ferocity in battle, these men saw action as Basil II tried to subdue a rogue general, Bardas Phokas, in 989 CE.
When the two sides lined up, Phokas apparently died of a stroke, and his men fled the battle. Yet the Varangian Guard was not in a mood for tolerance, and Byzantine records describe how they went about "hacking" Phokas men to death with glee.
All members of the Varangian Guard had to swear an oath of loyalty to the Emperor. Illustration: The Viking Herald
What did the Varangian Guard look like?
Up until the 11th century CE, the Varangian Guard was mostly comprised of immigrants, adventurers, and mercenaries from Sweden, with a smaller element from Denmark, Norway, and other Viking societies, as well as other Germanic peoples).
Yet following the Norman conquest of England (see below), the Varangian Guard would see Anglo-Saxons and Vikings from the British Isles also join its ranks.
Members of the guard were said to be instantly recognizable with long hair, a ruby earring set in their left ear, and ornamented dragons on their chain mail shirts.
Scholars have pointed out that the guard played a somewhat similar role to the housecarls in Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian societies.
They swore an oath of loyalty to the Emperor and performed some security duties but were ultimately headed by an officer who was ethnically a Greek Byzantine.
Their weapon of choice was said to be a battle axe. Still, they were also said to be skilled archers and swordsmen.
They barracked at the Bucleoan Palace in Constantinople, right at the heart of the empire and a stone's throw from the Imperial Palace.
Harald Hardrada - the most famous Varangian Guardsman?
The most famous Varangian Guardsman was Harald Sigurdsson, better known as Harald Hardrada.
Before becoming the King of Norway, in 1046 CE, he spent more than fifteen years in exile. During this time, he served not only as a military commander in the Kievan Rus but took more than 500 of his men to serve in the Varangian Guard.
Hardrada saw action all over the Byzantine sphere of influence, fighting against Arab pirates in the Mediterranean Sea, saw action in Sicily and Anatolia, and even skirmished along the Euphrates River.
He was also said to have fought a series of campaigns against the Pechenegs, a nomadic Eurasian steppe people.
Yet he eventually fell foul of the Byzantine court and its famous machinations when Emperor Michael IV died in 1041 CE.
According to Snorri Sturluson, the 13th century CE Icelandic compiler of sagas and Viking history, Hardrada was said to have been accused of defrauding the Imperial treasury and imprisoned for a time.
Acquiring a huge war chest during his time under the Byzantines, he eventually fled Constantinople, headed back to the Kievan Rus to regroup, and would then go on to seize the Norwegian throne.
Somewhat ironically, it was his death at Stamford Bridge in 1066 CE that would have two consequences for the Varangian Guard.
Firstly, many of his defeated men would eventually wind up back in Constantinople as members of the Guard.
However, despite his death, the fact that Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson then had to race from the north of England, where he subdued Hardrada's invasion, to the south to meet the Norman William the Conqueror, in a short space of time, ultimately led to his downfall and the end of the Anglo-Saxon period of British history.
After their defeat at Hastings, many of Godwinson's men would also wind up in the Guard, serving alongside the very men they had tried to kill at Stamford Bridge.
Some fallen members of the Varangian Guard are memorialized on a series of runestones in Sweden, with our article available to read here.
Heritage Daily has an article on the Varangian Guard available to read here.
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