VARANGIAN GUARD: ELITE WARRIORS OF BYZANTIUM
In the East, the Scandinavian’s who settled in what became Russia were known as the Rus. In the 9th century, they had become the ruling military elite in Russia and northern Ukraine; founding principalities at such places as Novgorod, Smolensk, Ryazan, Chernigov, and Kiev. From the beginning, they developed close trading ties with the Byzantine Empire; and occasionally went to war against it. Throughout the 10th century, small bodies of Scandinavian/Rus warriors took military service under the Byzantines; mostly serving as marines in Byzantine naval expeditions.
Though the Byzantines used the word Varangian to indicate any Scandinavian/Rus warrior, the word likely derives from the Old Norse, ‘var’, meaning “pledge”. Thus the Varangians were the “pledged men” of the Emperor’s guard.
Thereafter, the Emperors of Byzantium maintained this Viking guard. They were particularly prized for three reasons: first, they were superb fighting men, tall and strong and intimidating in the extreme (the contemporary historian, Michael Psellos, describes them as “terrible of aspect and huge of body”)! Just as with a bouncer at a bar, bodyguards are all the more effective when their formidable size and appearance discourage would-be trouble-makers and assassins in advance. Secondly, they had a reputation for loyalty to their employers (though, as Alfred the Great learned time-and-again, the Viking’s were past-masters of manipulating the fine print of any agreement to their advantage). Finally, and most importantly, they were mostly indifferent to the political intrigues that swirled around the palace, as the great Byzantine families maneuvered to place their own candidates on the throne.
They are described by contemporary Greek sources as “the axe-bearing barbarians”. Alternately and less flatteringly, they are called “the Emperor’s wine-sacks”, in reference to the prodigious quantities of alcohol they consumed in the wine-shops and taverns of Constantinople when off duty!
Wherever the Emperor went, the Varangians were in attendance. They accompanied him in formal ceremony; they guarded his palace, offices, and in his great reception hall they stood guard about the throne. There commander was called the Akolouthos (“The Acolyte”) due to his constant proximity to the Emperor; and his place was to stand immediately behind the Emperor in processions or behind the throne at formal audience.
The standard of the Varangians might have been the late Roman “draco”; a bronze dragon head to which a silk windsock was attached to form the body of the dragon. (Interestingly, the Bayeux Tapestry shows the Anglo-Saxon Huscarls, both contemporary to the Varangians and, as will be seen later, a progenitor as well; carrying just such a draco-standard at the Battle of Hastings!) According to some historians, the Varangians replaced one of the oldest Guard units, the Excubitors; whose history goes back to the late Roman Empire. As the draco had been the standard of this older Guard unit, it is suggested that the Varangians inherited this standard for themselves (as well as the Excubitors' barracks in the Palace). Carvings on the wall of an Albanian church, where a Varangian force was quartered before the Battle of Durazzo, appears to be of a draco; perhaps carved by a Varangian during their stay there.
As the fortunes of the Empire waned in the 13th through 15th centuries, the Varangians served on; ever drawing new men to this storied regiment. As late as 1402, the Byzantine Emperor John VII wrote to King Henry IV (first of the Lancastrian kings of England) about the “axe-bearing men of the British race” that guarded both Constantinople and his person.
With the end of the Varangian Guard a chapter in history was closed. One that began with the Jomsvikings, continued with their descendents, the Anglo-Saxon Huscarls, and came to fruition in the Varangian Guard. For 500 years, these elite warriors of the North were the most feared infantry in Europe, if not in the world entire.
For more Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages series, see:
Dark Ages Elite: The Bucellarius of Belisarius
Dark Ages Elite: Caballarii of Charlemagne
Jomsvikings: Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages
Anglo-Saxon Huscarls: Dark Ages Warrior Elite
Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages: Norman Knight