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Skylitzes Varangians

Varang re–enactment

Templar re–enactment

“Varangian rhomfaia”

Varangian “uniform”

What is “Byzantine”?



Beyond re–enactment

“Middle” Ages?

Re–enactment issues

Uses of the Varangians

The “other Varangians” of the illustrated Skylitzês Chronicle

This article was previously published in the Varangian Voice last century. This version is somewhat revised.

Sylitzes Varangians

InVarangian Voice number 23 of February 1992 Peter Beatson drew our attention to another illustration of Varangians in the Madrid manuscript of Skylitzês’ Synopsis HistoriĆ“n, one which had some curious characteristics. That article can still be found on the website of the Sydney branch of the New Varangian Guard, here. In view of this, I looked again at the illustration in order to make a critical assessment of its quirks and context and its value to our picture of Varangians.

The question hinges upon how and when the Madrid Skylizês manuscript was made. This manuscript is unique in the context of Byzantine literature. There are some twenty copies of Skylizês’ Synopsis surviving. The Madrid volume is the only illustrated one. Although there are some hints of much earlier illustrated histories, illumination was not applied to secular narrative within the Roman empire in the middle period.

This fact taken with the usual range of palaeolographical analyses led in 1978 to the conclusion which has become accepted as the most plausible explanation of the origin of the Madrid Skylizês, when Nigel G. Wilson proposed that the book was made in Sicily between 1130 and 1150.1 Wilson observed that the models used for the pictures were diverse, Byzantine, Franko-Norman and Arabic2 yet he nevertheless decided that it was copied from a single illustrated prototype which had come from Constantinople. In 1981 Ihor Shevchenko overturned this idea.3 He argued that the original copy came to Sicily as text only, in accord with the normal Byzantine habit, and thereafter, the task of illuminating it was designed and executed in keeping with European preferences. In doing so, the illuminators drew not on one manuscript as a source, but on diverse sources drawn on at different times.4 The very detail of the various pictures confirms this theory, and brings us to the pictures of the Varangians.

For most of the pictures the illustrators had Byzantine material to draw upon. Thus they were able to render common Byzantine subjects with much accuracy, although Shevchenko observes cases where they clearly had to make up major detail for which they had no model, and with which they were not personally acquainted. This even included Hagia Sophia in Constantinople!5

In the better known picture of Varangians involved in the deposition of an Emperor, the guardsmen are shown as generic Roman soldiers, with addition of big axes, which derived from mentions in Psellos and Comnena. For the precise detail of those axes they used the form which by the middle of the twelfth century had become ubiquitous in Franco-Norman use throughout Europe.

Coming to the incident of the Varangian rapist, the illuminators encountered a difficulty. They had no idea of what these Varangians looked like as people or what their habitual dress might have been, although if they had read Psellos or Komnênê’ as I suggested earlier, they could have known them to come from somewhere in Europe. The illustrators fell back again upon what they knew. They depicted the axe-bearers with a physiognomy common to many other men in the volume irrespective of their nationality:6 long dark hair and ample beards, rather than the fair hair that would have been typical of the Norse and Saxons who made up the guard. The Varangians’ tunics in this picture are also entirely nondescript, again identical to many other commoners shown in the history. Peter Beatson himself remarked upon the peculiarities of their legwear and apparent lack of footwear.7 This can be simply explained as footed hose, becoming high fashion in Norman Europe at the time the manuscript was made, but by no means typical of Saxons or Norse even in the twelfth century.

On closer inspection we have to conclude that the picture of the Varangian rapist incident of the Madrid Skylizês tells us nothing useful about actual Varangians. It is a generic sketch in basic Skylizês style, almost a period Osprey plate, and cannot be taken as giving any real details of their appearance or dress.


In a later edition of Varangian Voice (number 52 of August 1999) Peter Beatson also noted an eleventh–century ivory which showed a man bearing an unusually big axe. (Link) Peter was entirely correct in hypothesising that the anomalous big axe was probably inspired by the stereotypical motif of Varangians. The fact that the man holding it is naked apart from a loincloth shows him as an expression of the whimsical trend that was often in evidence in tenth to twelfth-century Byzantine ivories, as discussed in the Maguires’ volume Other Icons. Thus, it to tells us nothing about actual Varangians.

Timothy Dawson


  1. Nigel G. Wilson ‘The Madrid Skylizês’, Scrittura e Civilita, number 2 (1979).
  2. Wilson p. 209.
  3. In a paper given to a symposium on Art in Norman Sicily at Dumbarton Oaks, ‘The Madrid Manuscript of the Chronicle of Skylizês’. Republished in Byzance und der Westen, Vienna 1984 pp. 117-130.
  4. Shevchenko p. 125ff.
  5. Shevchenko p. 127.
  6. The most accessible source for typical pictures is Philip Sherrard, Byzantium, in the time-life “great ages of man” series 1966 pp. 63—73
  7. Beatson p. 18