The name of Varangians was given to them by the Greeks, who primarily called the Swedes by this name. However, later on, the name came to include all other Vikings who were roaming in these territories.

How did the Vikings reach these territories?

During the heyday of Viking power, the Vikings had already started exploring the territories of Western and Southern Europe in search of new trading opportunities and riches, so taking the direction towards the east was the next logical step. 

In those times, during the 9th and the 11th century AD, the Varangians started ruling the state of Kievan Rus', which included the territories of today's Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

The Varangians were active in trade, mercenary services, and piracy, and they roamed and controlled the areas of the Black Sea and the trade routes on the Volga river, which connected the Baltic to the Caspian Sea, and the trade routes leading to Constantinople on the rivers Dnieper and Dniester. 

This positioning resulted in the Varangians controlling the most important trading routes that connected the Byzantine Empire with Europe.

Varangian attack on Constantinople

A group of Varangians, known as the Rus', came to Novgorod, and they formed their state there. This process lasted throughout the 9th and 10th century AD until the 11th century AD.  

When they first settled, they were under the leadership of Rurik, a Varangian chieftain of the Rus'. The Rus' were an ethnic community consisting of primarily Norse people and other Slavic, Baltic, and Finnish tribes.

The riches of Constantinople attracted the Varangians, and eventually, this attraction - and the fact that Byzantine engineers constructed a fortress which (directly or indirectly) restricted the trading possibilities of the Rus' Vikings - caused the war, which ended in the siege of Constantinople in 860 AD. 

As the Byzantine Empire was already engaged on another front at the time, it was relatively unprepared for the Viking attack. The Varangians inflicted major losses to the military forces of the Empire and pillaged the city. 

Varangians were recognized as skilled and courageous fighters. Photo: profnshst / Pixabay

The Varangian Guard

The Varangians gained new and advantageous trading conditions through the war with the Byzantine Empire. Furthermore, Varangians started serving as mercenaries in the Byzantine Army. 

Their strength and courage were demonstrated during the attack and the war, so the famous Varangian Guard was formed. Those soldiers who were members of the Guard, a sort of elite group, served as the bodyguards of the Byzantine emperors.

Immigrants from Sweden predominantly, but also from Denmark and Norway, moved to the Byzantine Empire to serve in the Varangian Guard. 

They were characterized by their long hair, dragons sewn on their shirts made of chains, and a sort of an earring set in their left ear, made of red ruby. The Varangian Guard soldiers were also respected (and later on remembered) as brave, faithful, and very loyal fighters - ready to fight to the death, if necessary.

At one point, the emigration from the Scandinavian countries to "Greece" – as the Scandinavians called the Byzantine Empire at the time – was happening on such a large scale that some laws (such as the law of inheritance) had to be changed in order to stop emigration. 

During the emigration crisis of the time, all those who would move from Scandinavia to the Byzantine Empire weren't allowed to inherit the land or other goods back home.

However, Norsemen weren't the only members of the Varangian Guard. It also included Anglo-Saxons, since the conquest of England happened at the time. Later on, the Guard consisted of more Anglo-Saxons than Vikings.

The Varangian Guard was active until the middle of the 14th century, but by that time, it was almost completely assimilated by the Byzantines. In the 15th century, however, some people still identified themselves as "Varangians."
 

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