Uses of the Varangians
In the year 987 Prince Vladimir of Kiev sent a force of six thousand men to aid the Emperor of the Rômaioi Basil II against a usurper, Vardas Fôkas. In an army that had a thousand year history of using foreign levies and mercenaries this force earned itself a unique place. Its survivors became the nucleus of the imperial bodyguard which became known as the Varangians (Βαράγγοι).1 The Varangians had a reputation as en elite fighting force, but in a nation which was the most prosperous and militarily sophisticated in the world at the time the unit may be seen to have had uses perhaps surpassing the military ones. This essay will concentrate on the heyday of the unit from its founding to 1204, when it was a genuine military force. Varangians are mentioned as a ceremonial unit in the Treatise on the Offices, a court manual of about 1338, along with another ceremonial guard unit called the Rhomfaiokratores.2 Sigfus Blondals description of the Palaiologian Varangians as the ghost of the regiment, is evocative, but not very accurate.3 A close reading of the source shows that these units were, in effect, re-enactments based upon muddled impressions taken from middle Byzantine literature.4
Despite their fearsome reputation, the Varangians of the City probably in fact saw much less action than the army as a whole. Their duty was to stand with the Emperor, and since he usually had many able generals to conduct ordinary campaigns, and was often content to use them,5 they would only leave the City for those major enterprises of attack or defence that the Emperor oversaw personally. Even then they might not actually take part in the fighting, as is suggested by John IIs initial refusal to waste his treasures, as he put it, at the battle of Beroê, even in the face of imminent stalemate or defeat.6
One task of the Varangians at home in Constantinople was civil policing when situations had political overtones or involved persons who had social status. Their character as foreign mercenaries untainted by the political and religious passions that stirred the local population, and solely loyal to the Emperor, must have made them especially useful in performing such risky and delicate tasks as arresting, imprisoning and punishing people who held some religious or aristocratic standing and who might otherwise have been able to work on sympathies existing in the City Watch or native troops.
The regiment probably also had a dampening effect on court intrigue, making it less likely to erupt into open revolt. There seems to be no explicit evidence for this, but the Alexiad reveals that the Varangians were a major consideration in Alexios strategy in his rebellion once it was underway,6 and it is a reasonable inference to conclude that the units existence and character would have made him think very carefully before he took military steps. The Varangians were almost always uncompromisingly loyal to the incumbent Emperor. The exceptions to this occur in situations manifesting a combination of popular discontent, disaffection amongst the Varangians themselves, and the presence of a closely legitimate replacement. The clearest example of this was the overthrow of Michael V in 1042, wherein the Varangians became the spearhead of widespread discontent caused by Michaels policies and attempts to purge the upper bureaucracy and the royal family. In this uprising the guard reinstated the Dowager Empress Zôê, whom Michael had stripped of her position and consigned to a monastery on false charges of treason. The final punishment of blinding was supposedly inflicted by the Varangian Commander, Harald Sigurdsson, later when King of Norway to become known as the Stern-ruler (Hardrada). This episode does not entirely paint the regiment as pillars of virtue, because one major cause of its ire was the imprisonment of Harald and two close associates on the probably justified charges of misappropriation of imperial booty and tax-farming.8 The prodigious quantities of loot that Harald sent and took home when he returned to Norway themselves became legendary.9 Returning to the original topic, episodes such as that of the succession of Constantine VIII show that the Guard valued legitimate succession in the western manner almost as much as simple incumbency.10
The uses of the Varangians had another less tangible side. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries the unit became an important pillar of imperial ideology. Byzantine chroniclers make much of the warriors having come from what were to them the farthest edges of the world lured by far-flung tales of the glory of New Rome and its ruler. The depictions of the Varangians imposing stature and combative prowess were undoubtedly true, but even their truth was probably somewhat a matter of contrivance. To enter the regiment it was necessary to purchase a position for a substantial sum of gold. Hence, an aspiring Varangian had to have been successful enough to have made the perilous journey to the Great City with cash in hand, and is likely then to have had to pass some kind of selection criteria designed to maintain the quality of the company, with the unsuccessful applicants being shunted off to the provincial Varangian regiments. The influx of Saxons in the wake of the Norman Conquest, and those who followed in later centuries, was especially useful to the propagandists. Anna Komnênê in the late eleventh century11 and John Kinnamos12 and others in the twelfth century were able to hark back to Britains time as a Roman province and imply a continuity of fealty there. Curiously, Norse sources almost seem willing to accede to Byzantine political theory, explicitly conceding the Emperor of Constantinople a higher status than local rulers. Even if they do not profess any notional fealty, an echo of the Oecumenical Empire and the Family of Kings was plainly heard in Scandia.13
For propaganda purposes it was desirable that the Emperors elite should manifest some piety reflecting the sacrality of the Purple. The common image of Viking adventurers is that of heathen raiders despoiling monasteries and churches in the British isles, Neustria and Aquitaine, but the kingdoms of the North had all been thoroughly christianised by the first decade of the eleventh century. The original force of Varangians may well itself have been mostly Christian, since its despatch to Constantinople had been part of the manoeuvring that saw Vladimir receive the Byzantine Princess Anna as wife, and more, in exchange for imposing Christianity on the Principality of Kiev.14 The Varangians had the distinction of its own churches, something not associated with other military units in the empire. The earliest of these seems to have been set up early in the eleventh century, but got caught in the crossfire of the struggle between Patriarch and Pope and closed in 1052.15 More is known of its successor, which was established not far from Hagia Sophia. In familiar fashion it was built in fulfilment of a supplicatory vow that was supposed to have turned the tide of the battle of Beroê. Norse sources say that this church was dedicated to Saint Olaf Haraldsson, and the his sword hung above the altar,16 but more reliable accounts indicate that it was dedicated in typical Byzantine manner to the Theotokos, Mary.17 Following this precedent there was a scattering of churches across Byzantine lands established by the provincial Varangians.
Thus far I have dealt with the uses of the Varangians to the Emperor, but the existence of the unit was useful to other monarchs as well. I have already referred to the wealth Harald Hardrada obtained during his sojourn in Byzantium. The largesse and ostentation that this permitted him did much to acquire and strengthen his rule.18 Besides that, his time in the Guard became a major part in his royal mythology. King Haralds Saga contains a number of common folk motif stories along with the more factual accounts, These tales are known to predate Harald’s period in the East, and scholars have surmised that these tales were brought back by Haralds companions and incorporated into his mythology within his lifetime.19 I have mentioned the hierarchy of kings embraced in Norse literature, and King Haralds Saga and other treatments of his life make much use of the transferred glory of the Vasilevs by exaggerating his position and the favour in which he was held. A similar use is made of reflected imperial glory in the story of King Eric of Denmark who passed through Constantinople on pilgrimage. He is said to have gained high favour and lavish gifts from the Emperor for his wise and humble advice to members of the Guard.20
There are two other examples of how the Varangian Guard was invoke to posthumously glorify rulers, enhance the sacrality of kingships and add lustre to national folklores. I have already referred to the cult of Saint Olaf. The thirteenth century saga writer Snorri Sturlusson gives a long account of the events that turned the tide battle of Beroê, and especially of the miracles worked by Olafs sword which brought his sanctity to the notice of the Emperor.21 Snorri draws on a source not far removed in time from the battle, but the religious aspects of the tale are not corroborated in other sources, Norse or Greek, there is not record of any sword having hung above the altar of any church in the City. It seems certain that this is a hagiographical concoction. The other example of the Saga of Saint Edward the Confessor, a much debated composition originating in Iceland in its surviving example, and probably dating from the fourteenth century but perhaps earlier.22 This is a partisan account of events surrounding the Norman Conquest of England, which includes a tale of a mass migration of Saxons to Byzantium, some to settle on the Black Sea and others to join the Varangian Guard. Many of the events are confirmed by other evidence, but the Saga falls clearly into the genre of Saxon mythology that ave us such familiar stories and Robin Hood and Ivanhoe.
The Varangians were thus more than a military bulwark for the Byzantine Emperor, but also formed an element of the ideological foundations for rulers East and West, and grist for the mills of national folklores.
1) The expression Varangian Guard is a modern usage which has no period precedent. It will not be used in this article.
2) Jean Verpeaux, Pseudo-Kodinos: Traité des Offices, Paris 1966, p. 179, 183, 184 and further.
3) Sigfus Blöndal, The Varangians of Byzantium, revised by Benedikt S. Benedikz, Cambridge, 1978 Chapter 7.
4) An explanation of this observation will be found in the authors By the Emperors Hand: court regalia and military dress in the Eastern Roman Empire
5) The exception which might be cited amongst the Komnêni – Alexios I, John II and Manual I – have had their exploits somewhat exaggerated by classicising biographers who felt compelled to depict them in a similar light to the heroes of ancient Greek literature.
6) According to Snorri Snorrasons account cited in Blöndal, p. 149.
7) Anna Comnena, Alexiad, Translated by E.R.A. Sewter, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books 1985 p. 95f.
8) Blöndal, p. 77-87.
9) Blöndal, p.78 and H.R. Ellis Davidson, The Viking Road to Byzantium, London, Allen and Unwyn 1976 p. 226-8.
10) Blöndal, p. 113.
11) Alexiad, (tr. Sewter) p. 95.
12) Quoted in Blöndal, p. 150.
13) King Erics position is depicted as lower in Eiricsdrapa by Magnus Skeggjason, quoted in Blöndal, p. 134. Numerous references confirm it for example the Great King of Thjodolf Arnorssons Sexstefja (Blöndal, p. 93) and especially Lord of Kings in Einar Skularssons Geisli (Blöndal, p. 186). Thorvald Kodranssons Thattr gives a tributary position to Kiev (Blöndal, p. 198).
14) Blöndal p. 44, and Ellis Davidson p. 179f.
15) Steven Runciman, The Byzantine Theocracy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 1977 p. 106-7.
16) Blöndal, p.148ff.
17) Blöndal, p.185.
18) Ellis Davidson, p. 227.
19) Ellis Davidson, p. 214ff and Blöndal, p. 71.
20) Blöndal, p. 132ff.
21) Blöndal, p. 148ff.
22) cf. Leslie Rogers, Anglo-Saxons and Icelanders in Byzantium, Byzantine Papers, Canberra, 1981.
© Timothy George Dawson 2019