Among the Scandinavian archaeological heritage are the so-called runestones, stelae whose epigraphic content is written -obviously- in runes, with a quite broad chronology, from the 4th century to the 12th. There are about six thousand of them, the majority -three and a half thousand- are in southeastern Sweden and about thirty of them are called Greklandsstenarna, that is, runestones of Greece, because they were erected in memory of some Viking warriors who worked for the Byzantine Empire (then called Grikkland, Greece) and formed a personal guard of the emperor: the Varangian Guard.

These runestones, written in the younger futhark alphabet (with only sixteen runes, which evolved in parallel to the Old Norse language), are concentrated mostly in the province of Uppland, although there are also four hundred in Södermanland. The ones that interest us here are those directly related to the Varangians, mentioning their travels eastward to present-day Ukraine and Russia, but also to Byzantine territory and Langbarðaland (Land of the Lombards, Italy). Places far for them, from where many never returned because they ended up settling there.

The oldest Greklandsstenarna (980-1015 AD) are six of the RAK style, the simplest, lacking the artistic decoration that others like Fp, Pr, or KB present. However, a second group does correspond to these: even to the last, the aforementioned KB, in which the Christian influence is evident -that faith was established in Scandinavia from the 11th century- because the inscriptions take the form of a Byzantine cross (the patriarchal one, with two transverse arms to the vertical, although there are also others derived from the Greek model).

This illustration from the chronicle of John Skylitzes is the only contemporary representation of the Varangian Guard, shown with Byzantine-style armor
This illustration from the chronicle of John Skylitzes is the only contemporary representation of the Varangian Guard, shown with Byzantine-style armor. Credit: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Obviously, the Greklandsstenarna constitute an interesting documentary source to better understand the more human side of the Varangians, but their epigraphic nature is too limited to provide broader data about their history. Therefore, it is necessary to turn to the sagas, that medieval combination of chronicle and literature that informs us about the Viking Age. Most were written in Iceland, although in later times.

Thus, the anonymous Laxdœla Saga, composed around 1245, is the first to mention the presence of a Norseman in the Byzantine Empire. It tells how Bolli Bollason, a descendant of the first settlers of Breiðafjörður (a fjord in northwestern Iceland), flees from blood vengeance between clans and, through Denmark, arrives in Constantinople to join the Varangian Guard, of which he will become one of its most prominent members.

For its part, the Njáls Saga also anonymous and from the 13th century, is considered the best of its genre. It recounts the Christianization of Iceland and here we are interested in the part dedicated to Kolskegg, the first Viking to reach Holmgard (Novgorod). From that city, he went to Constantinople to serve the emperor, remaining there for the rest of his life and becoming a captain of the Varangian Guard.

Trade routes of the Varangians to the east (in red), to the Byzantine Empire (in purple), and others (in orange)
Trade routes of the Varangians to the east (in red), to the Byzantine Empire (in purple), and others (in orange). Credit: Briangotts / Wikimedia Commons

Having clarified where historians obtain the bulk of the information, it is time to explain how this body was born. For this, we have to go back to the expansion carried out by the peoples of what is now Sweden (mainly Gotlanders, but also Angles, Danes, and Finns) to the other side of the Baltic, either in looting raids or on commercial itineraries in search of amber, furs, slaves, and tributes in general. The natives of the Russian and Ukrainian steppes called them varyagui (or varyahy), a term derived from the Norse vaeringjar and adapted to Greek as varangoi (or variagoi).

The first mention of them dates from the year 838, when a group contacted the Byzantines in the Sea of Azov. But they had already been creating mercantile settlements whose inhabitants, forcefully rejecting the sporadic assaults of the steppe nomads, were earning a reputation as fierce warriors. Indeed, those military skills served them to take power in several towns and found principalities that would evolve into states. One of them was Kiev, located at a midpoint between the Black Sea and Constantinople.

According to the Primary Chronicle, the history of the first Eastern Slavic state, a Varangian named Hrörekr, better known today by the Slavic translation of his name, Rurik (“Hawk”), was chosen lord of Novgorod around 860 and founded a dynasty that shook off the Khazar pressure, allowing the city to grow and dominate its surroundings, the Dnieper valley. Two decades later, after federating with other towns, Kievan Rus was born under the leadership of Prince Oleg, who moved the capital to this last city and in 911 dared to attack Constantinople.

Rurik and his brothers on Lake Ladoga, work by Viktor Vasnetsov
Rurik and his brothers on Lake Ladoga, work by Viktor Vasnetsov. Credit: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

In the end, both sides reached an economic agreement, embodied in a trade route that, as often happens, extended to the cultural sphere. It was then that the gentilic rhos (“Russian”) emerged, which the first Byzantine chroniclers identified with the Tauroscythians and which coexisted with “Varangian” until it finally separated to refer exclusively to those from Kiev and their domains. There were Swedes, Norwegians, Danes, and Icelanders, all Norse-speaking; later, Anglo-Saxons would join, as we will see.

The honor of having created the Varangian Guard falls to Emperor Basil II, back in 988 and after a military alliance with Vladimir II of Kiev. He had just come to power through a coup, establishing Christianity by decree and thus formalizing a trend that had already begun decades earlier, in 870, supported by Patriarch Photius of Constantinople. Although other options such as Judaism were considered because they wanted to embrace monotheism, Vladimir, in fact, had baptized himself ad hoc.

This process strengthened the relationship between Kiev and the Byzantine Empire, facilitating the introduction of the Greek language in the Rus and the construction of Orthodox churches. The flow of influences went both ways, and Basil II asked his new friend to send troops because the local ones proved unreliable, as they had often supported various candidates and usurpers to the throne. Moreover, less than a century earlier, about seven hundred Varangians had enrolled in the Byzantine expedition against the Emirate of Crete, and the good outcome encouraged a repeat experience in other campaigns.

Basil II crowned by angels in a miniature from the Venice Psalter
Basil II crowned by angels in a miniature from the Venice Psalter. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Furthermore, many Nordics joined the ranks of the Hetaireia, a unit of the imperial guard composed of foreigners, possibly derived from the ancient foederati. Thus, Vladimir, fulfilling a promise made by his father in 971 in the context of the siege of Dorostopol, sent Basil a contingent of six thousand men who replaced the unreliable native Byzantine guards or, at least, a good part of them. In return, he gave his counterpart the hand of his sister, Anna Porphyrogenita, for whose marriage Vladimir did not hesitate to embrace the Christian faith, as we mentioned.

After the corresponding oath of fidelity, the Varangians served as bodyguards (just as happened with the Druzhina in the Kievan Rus, the hird in Scandinavia, or the huscarls in England), although they also participated in ceremonies and even police security tasks (the so-called Varangians of Miklagarðr, that is, of the Great City). Led by an akolouthos, a commander who did not have to be Varangian and who only answered to the emperor (he even kept the keys to Constantinople when he was absent), they also had a megalodihermeneutes (“great interpreter”) who had several translators and subordinate officers under his command.

The weapon par excellence of these warriors was a double-edged axe, which they kept even after adopting the sword as well. They were heavy infantry that also included archers, a cavalry section, and a naval section that took advantage of their renowned seafaring skills, embarking on light ships called ousiai, specialized in combating piracy. They were not always six thousand; their number varied according to the era and circumstances, though they never dropped below one and a half thousand, and the average usually hovered around three thousand, divided into a dozen allaghiao (companies) of five hundred soldiers each.

The christening of Prince Vladimir II, by Viktor Vanetsov
The christening of Prince Vladimir II, by Viktor Vanetsov. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

The most notable one, called Manghlavítai, was equivalent to the Roman lictors: they paraded in important events wielding their axes (“barbarians with axes”, described Princess Anna Comnena in her work The Alexiad), commanded by the protospatharios, a rank held by some of the most famous Varangians in history. Among them was the Norwegian Harald Sigursson, better known as Harald Hardrada, to whom we have already dedicated an article and who ended up crowning himself king of Norway after achieving several conquests for the Byzantine Empire (Bulgaria, Lombardy, Sicily…).

However, despite the fact that the Varangian Guard escorted the emperor also on the front line, they usually did not engage in battle unless the situation became desperate. In such cases, they unleashed their proverbial ferocity, and there are numerous testimonies from chroniclers referring to the behavior of the berserkers. In the service of Basil, they quelled the insurrection of Bardas Phocas in 988, defeating his army. Later, in 1018, they were sent to suppress the Lombard revolt of Melus of Bari, achieving another victory.

They also collaborated in the reconquest of Sicily from the Muslims in 1038; fought against the Normans in 1041; took Brindisi and Taranto in 1047; were decimated by the Seljuks in Manzikert defending Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes; took part in the Fourth Crusade led by the Norwegian king Sigurd I Magnusson (only a hundred returned); crushed the Pechenegs in Beotia in 1122; excelled in the defense of Constantinople in 1204; and rescued the prince of Achaea in Pelagonia in 1259…

Double-edged Varangian axe found in Shekshovo (Russia)
Double-edged Varangian axe found in Shekshovo (Russia). Credit: Shakko / Wikimedia Commons

Furthermore, if the emperor perished, they had the right to take whatever they could from the imperial treasury of Constantinople, following the old Scandinavian tradition of polutasvarf (“palace plunder”). Thanks to this and the generous salaries they received, many Varangians were able to return to their homeland enriched… and encourage others to enlist. Doing so was considered an honor, and they developed a strong sense of camaraderie that rivaled other corps composed of local or foreign troops, often ending up at odds with each other.

However, it was not easy to join the Varangian Guard, as in addition to proving their worth, they had to pay an entrance fee. Once achieved, maintaining loyalty was considered a point of pride, and they rarely broke their well-earned reputation: in 1071, they supported the coup of John Doukas against his brother Romanos IV Diogenes (taking advantage of his absence), deposing Empress Eudokia and elevating Michael VII to the throne; and in 1078, they supported the failed proclamation of Nikephoros Bryennios in Adrianople against Nikephoros III.

Except for these exceptions, their loyalty to the emperor allowed them to remain active for three centuries, until the mid-fourteenth century. However, during that time they experienced some changes. The most notable was that the number of Anglo-Saxons (English and Scots) in their ranks began to increase after the Norman conquest of England in 1066; thousands of them (and also Danes) arrived in Constantinople in 1098 led by Edgar Atheling, son of Edward the Confessor and claimant to the English throne, putting themselves at the service of Alexios I Komnenos both in Constantinople and on the Black Sea coast.

The Varangian Guard then changed its name to Englinbarrangoi (Anglo-Varangians), but, although it retained the reference, eventually there were no more Scandinavians and Russians.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on June 6, 2024: Guardia Varega, la escolta vikinga de los emperadores bizantinos


Carlos Canales y Miguel del Rey, Demonios del Norte. Las expediciones vikingas | Manuel Velasco Laguna, Breve historia de los vikingos | G. Ostrogorsky, Historia del estado bizantino | Sigfús Blöndal, The Varangians of Byzantium | Raffaele D’Amato, The Varangian Guard, 988-1453 | Muriel Press (trad.), The Laxdaela Saga | Robert Cook (trad.), Njal’s Saga | Ana Comneno, La Alexiada | Wikipedia

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