On the supposed “Uniform” of the Varangian Guard

This article was originally published as ‘The Myth of Purple Pants’ in the Varangian Voice no. 37 (November 1995) pp. 24-6. It has been slightly revised.

The Varangians of Constantinople, personal bodyguard to the Emperors of Byzantium, are one of the most legendary military units of the middle ages. Popular militaria literature long ago promoted the idea that they had a very specific uniform, consisting of a red tunic trimmed with gold, purple pants adorned with gold motifs and white boots decorated with a Z. This notion is unknown to scholars who have studied the Varangians, and long overdue for critical attention.

The idea originated in The Vikings by Frank R. Donovan published in 1964. The author presented the picture and ventured the opinion that Varangians were “probably dressed in the style of the hooded guardsman” in the mosaic of the Crucifixion in the Church of Nea Moni on the island of Chios. In the late nineten-seventies Ian Heath for the Wargames Research Group (Armies of the Dark Ages) and Osprey Men at Arms Series (Byzantine Armies 886—1118), and Terrence Wise also for Osprey Men at Arms (Armies of the Crusades), took up the idea and turned Donovan’s cautious statement of analogy into a definite hypothesis, which has continued in use to the present (Stephen Turnbull, The Walls of Constantinople AD 324—1453). A couple of other Crucifixion Centurions were seen to have some similar characteristics, purple pants and all, and enroled in the ranks. In popular publishing repetition can be as good as proof, and idea made its way into coffee-table books on Byzantium. More recently it was proposed that two more Crucifixion Centurions, one enamel and one carved, might be considered to be Varangians, along with an enamel of Saint Theodore who was included because of some similarities to the other enamels.

The original speculative formulation was fair enough. Varangians who had been resident in Constantinople long enough to wear out their Viking or Saxon dress, or to want a change of clothes, probably were dressed “in the style of“ the Nea Moni Centurion, but there is no evidence to support making the notion any more definite than that. The Nea Moni Centurion is dressed in stereotypical idealised Byzantine military style from head to foot and is likewise depicted with stereotypical idealised Byzantine physiognomy. Nothing about that man, nor any of the others added to his company, suggests a barbarian.

Still, having acknowledged that, let us consider the merits of this outfit in its own right and consider the innate probabilities of the various garments. Byzantine dress codes and the issuing of clothing to troops bears some analysis at this point. Byzantine military manuals, as we might expect, are very detailed about the equipping of the troops. Where they do talk about clothing at all, the concerns are of comfort and practicality, and do not mention colour or hint at uniformity.
The context of court is, perhaps, more relevant to considerations of Varangian practice, as they were imperial life guards. There, we do find intricate regulations of dress set out the Book of Ceremonies attributed to Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennêtos of the early tenth century and the Treatise on the Offices of Pseudo-Kodinos of the late fourteenth century. In both of these works headwear and footwear are the two areas which get the most attention. Torso garments are not so often mentioned in these sources and when they are, they apply only to the highest titled court officials. Nevertheless, al-Marvazi, who visited Constantinople in the eleventh century, describes the Emperor coming to the the Hippodrome with all his “intimates and attendants” dressed in red, while all those of the Empress were dressed in green, and this would presumably have included guards. Hence a red tunic cannot be faulted. Red is one of the easiest colours to dye with kirmiz which was plentiful in Byzantine territory and Armenia, and widely traded throughout the region. It is a much superior dyestuff to the European madder, and it is widely praised and depicted in both Byzantine and Islamic sources. Yet by these very facts red tunics were hardly likely to be unique to Varangians. Archaeological finds at Birka, and lavish descriptions in the Sagas illustrate the Vikings love of ostentation, so it is likely that a Varangian would have adorned his favourite dress tunic with gold embroidery or gold tablet-braid, if it had come to him undecorated just as any man with money to spare could.

The legwear on the supposed Varangian figures is a major difficulty. Such garments are hardly ever mentioned in the court manuals. When they are, only the hose of the Despot and Sevastokrator are specified in the later manual. Therefore, while there would have been quite some degree of similarity of legwear amongst the Varangian Guard simply because they would mostly have been drawing from imperial workshops, we have no reason to suppose that Varangians were issued with a particular type or colour of trousers or hose. The Varangians in civilian dress shown in the only pictorial source which explicitly depicts them, the twelfth-century Skylitzes Chronicle in the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid, is no help as it shows them wearing footed hose in the style typical of European in that century rather than anything that might relate to Rômania.
Finally, the simplest argument against purple pants or hose is their very colour. Purple had been a colour strictly restricted to Imperial use in Byzantium from Justinian's law code of the sixth century. To forestall any evasion the Code stated the restriction applied to “any colour resembling the imperial purple”. Emperor Leo “the Wise” legalised the sale of off-cuts of purple cloth for use as trimmings, but it is simply not possible that those restrictions should have been varied on such a scale merely to clothe the legs of barbarian mercenaries.

The question may remain in some readers’ minds as to why these figures would be depicted in such a manner if it was so unrealistic. Byzantine art was highly conventional. The higher up the social scale the patronage and the more it dealt with religious themes, the more conventionally constrained it was. The most important religious figures, Christ, Mary, the Evangelists and so on, could only be depicted in particular ways, using particular colours. The Crucifixion Centurion had a little more leeway since he was a less important character. Purple was a luxurious colour which occurred in the palettes of mosaicists and enamellers and had to be used, but where? To have used it on any figure’s head, feet or body would have been a blatant contravention of sumptuary laws, and would have made such a figure into an imperial personage. The only place left was on a garment regarded as of little importance and generally ignored by vestiary regulations — the Centurion’s legwear. The resemblance of the icon of Saint Theodore mentioned previously, to the centurions can simply be ascribed to the fact that it, too, followed the conventions of luxury religious enamels in form, gesture and opulent use of colours. One of the other crucifixions mentioned previously along with Saint Theodore is an anomaly in this discussion, for for it is a lower class product carved from steatite (soapstone). As such it is in some ways a more interesting and useful source because it is less constrained by the sorts of conventions which determine the luxury pieces. The centurion in that crucifixion scene is depicted with realistic dress and arms, but still entirely Byzantine in character.

Byzantine culture and art were formed by social and ideological forces quite unlike those of medieval Europe. A great deal of work is still to be done to gain a clear picture of its soldiery, both native and foreign.

Timothy Dawson

Select Bibliography

Alice V. Bank, Byzantine Art in Soviet Collections, Leningrad 1981
George T. Dennis, Maurice’s Strategikon, Philadelphia Pa. 1984
George T. Dennis, Three Anonymous Treatises, Washington D.C. 1985
Deno John Geanakoplos, Byzantium: Church, society and civilisation seen through contemporary eyes, Chicago 1984
Eric McGeer, Sowing the Dragon's Teeth, Washington D.C. 1995
S.P. Scott, The Civil Law, Cincinatti 1932