Fearless, loyal, and armed with the sharpest ax— the Viking warriors were everything a leader could ask for in his army. For centuries, these Vikings traveled throughout Scandinavia from the 8th to 11th century to raid, pirate, trade, and settle throughout different parts of Europe, to what was known as the Viking Age. Apart from what we commonly understand that the Vikings were, be it the stereotype pointy horn helmets (that, by the way, was not accurate), they also played a significant role in protecting the Eastern Roman Emperor and the city of Constantinople. Hence, these elite Vikings were known as the Varangian Guards.
Birth of the Varangians
At the beginning of the Viking age, while most of them rushed to the shores of England, some decided to go east in search of Arabic silver. So they sailed toward eastern Europe, settled there, and were called Rus or Kievan Rus, which translated to “ones who row” in Old Norse.
Vladimir I of Kyiv, one of Prince Sviatoslav I of Kyiv, summoned 6,000 warriors from Sweden to help him fight for power against his brothers. The warriors came and helped him conquer the region, marking the beginning and establishing the foundation of the Varangian Guard.
Almost a decade after Vladimir I won against his brother, Basil II, Emperor of the Byzantine Empire, asked him for military aid to defeat two future usurpers to his throne. Basil II promised his sister’s hand to Vladimir on the condition that he would convert to Christianity. Without much hesitation, Vladimir agreed to the condition and provided aid. It happened to align with his plans of wanting to “modernize” his people’s religion. He didn’t like that the Islam beliefs restricted alcohol because he said, “Drinking is the joy of the Rus. We cannot exist without that pleasure.”
His 6,000 fearsome fighters fought against Basil’s enemies and “cheerfully hacked them to pieces,” as one chronicler wrote.
Falling Into The Byzantine
As History described,
They were the very picture of swaggering, booze-soaked, hard-living Vikings. One contemporary writer described them as ‘axe-bearing barbarians’, while another recounted how they ‘were frightening both in appearance and in equipment’ and that ‘they attacked with reckless rage and neither cared about losing blood nor their wounds’, in true berserker style.
As a reward for their “service,” they were given immense privileges like “palace pillaging” rights, which means that when an emperor died, the guards were permitted to take as much royal gold and jewelry as they could carry. This is one of the reasons why many Varangian Guards became ridiculously wealthy.
As for the duties, these Varangian Guards’ loyalty was to the throne itself and not the individual sitting on it. That was proven true when in 969 AD, the then-Emperor Nikophoros II was killed by his rival John Tzimiskes during his sleep. It was too late when the Varangian Guards arrived, and instead of attacking Tzimiskes for assassinating the emperor, they immediately vowed loyalty to the new emperor.
Historian John Julius Norwich explained, “Alive they would have defended [Nikephoros] to the last breath; dead, there was no point in avenging him. They had a new master now.”
End of the Varangian and the Byzantine Empire
After the Norman Conquest in 1066, the exiled Anglo-Saxon warriors were brought to Constantinople and became part of the guards. Their inexperienced members were one of the reasons why the Fourth Crusade defeated them while they were defending Dyrrachium in Dalmatia. When Byzantine fell, the Varangian Guards had no choice but to lay down their arms and surrender. Since then, their tasks were merely standing to watch over palaces or prisons and not engaging in combat. As a result, their numbers began to diminish, and their force was not much needed after the Ottoman Sultanate conquered Constantinople in 1453, marking the fall of the Byzantine Empire.
Learn more about the Varangians by watching the documentary below: