Viking warriors headed one of the most legendary elite fighting units in history, the Varangian Guard. The Varangian Guard was a specialist fighting force in the Byzantine army, when the Byzantine Empire was the most powerful economic, cultural and military force in Europe. Viking warriors also formed the personal bodyguard to the Emperor of Byzantium, which became Constantinople, then later Istanbul, the most populated city in Turkey.
At a time when most Vikings were busy conquering or plundering in Europe, this unit of Scandinavian warriors was protecting Byzantine emperors, and fighting for the Byzantine Empire in the many wars it was involved in. Here, the Varangian guard often played a decisive role, as they were typically used at critical moments of a battle. These Viking warriors were tough and capable. They had weapons, armor, and organized training in order to function as the elite mercenary fighting unit in dangerous and decisive battles around the Middle East.
From the 9th to 14th century, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and Icelandic warriors were part of this exclusive guard. The Varangians were not a specific ethic group, though the Byzantines used it to indicate any Norseman. The word Varangian is from the Old Norse word ‘var’ meaning pledge, and that pledge was to each other.
Norsemen who arrived in Byzantium did not automatically enter the Imperial Guard. This was a highly prized and very exclusive unit. The Varangian Guard received higher pay, and had the privilege to be among the first to loot and plunder after a victory. For the Viking warriors, who were members of the Varangian Guard, it was a singular high honor, to be called the “emperor’s axe-bearing barbarians.”
The first record of Vikings in Byzantium is in the year 839, when they were on their way home to Scandinavia via Germany. In 860, Byzantines faced a large Viking raiding force that terrorized Constantinople for ten days. In the year 874, Swedish warriors, called Rus, the Old Norse word for route, became the earliest members of the Varagian guard. As early as 911, the Varangian guard is mentioned in records, as mercenaries fighting for the Byzantine Emperors.
Around the year 1000, Vikings had become the primary body guard of the Emperor Basil II, who also used the Scandinavian warriors in his battles. While the Varangian Guard comprised of about 6000 warriors, it was rarely used as a single unit. Most often, units of 500 men were used, frequently to carry out orders that were particularly brutal, destructive, or dealt with political situations.
There are two main reasons that the Varangians became the bodyguard unit to the Emperor. The first was the sense of loyalty that was the core value of Viking culture. The second was that the Varangians came from distant lands and were indifferent to the political intrigues that enveloped the Emperor. The Norsemen were especially appreciated for their loyalty, and according to , the Greek princess Anna Comnena, a major source of information regarding Byzantine history, Norsemen in the Varangian Guard passed down this loyalty from generation to generation almost like a sacred heritage.
The connection between Byzantium and Scandinavia proved ideal for the recruitment of mercenaries. The rich empire had constant need for reliable troops, and Scandanavia’s warrior population looking to make their fortune, was the perfect match. In battle, the Varangian Guard proved itself constantly, and quickly earned a reputation for being the elite of the Byzantine army. A Byzantine chronicle tells of battles in southern Italy in 1018 against Lombards and Normans: "When the Emperor learned that brave knights had invaded his country, he sent his best soldiers against them. In the first three battles the Normans were victorious. But when they encountered the Rus, they were defeated and their army was completely destroyed."
Except for some names on rune stones, and small passages in some Icelandic sagas, very little is known about members of the Varangian guard. The exception is Harald Sigurdsson, who became known as Harald Harðráði, which means ‘hard ruler’ in Old Norse.
As a boy, Harald was forced to leave Norway, when his half-brother was overthrown. Harald made his way to Kiev in Russia, where his brother-in-law Yaroslav ruled. In the year 1034, Harald led 500 men to Byzantium to join the Varangian Guard, and eventually became leader of the guard.
After learning that his nephew was now on the throne of Norway, Harald decided to leave the guard and return home. In the year 1042, political turmoil overtook Byzantium, and Harald is credited with blinding the deposed Emperor Michael V. After being accused of misappropriating booty, Harald and his men had to sneak out of the city. Not long afterwards, Harald took the throne of Norway, and then tried to take the throne of England.
The Fourth Crusade that took place in the years 1202–04, all but destroyed the Varangian Guard. In a siege the Varangians defended the Balchernae Palace, until the siege ended with the flight of the Emperor Alexius III and the sacking of Constantinople. The Varangian Guard resisted little and eventually surrendered.
After the Fourth Crusade, some members of the Varangian Guard fought for Latin and Greek Emperors as they fought to regain the Empire. By the middle of the 14th century the Varangians ceased to be a military unit and were mostly employed as mercenaries before disappearing from records.
The prowess of the Varangian Guard is unquestioned and they are an exciting and interesting part of World history.