The uses of the Varangian Guard

by Timothy Dawson

In the year 987 Prince Vladimir of Kiev sent a force of six thousand men to aid the emperor of the Romaioi Basil II against the usurper, Bardas Phocas. In an army that had a thousand-year history of using foreign levies and mercenaries this force earned itself an unique place. Its survivors became the nucleus of the imperial bodyguard which became known as the Varangian Guard. The Varangian Guard 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 Guard from its founding to 1204; for while there is evidence for some survival of the unit in name after the Fourth Crusade,1 it is, as Sigfus Blondal put it, no more than “the ghost of the regiment”,2 a purely ceremonial entity with nothing like the prestige or military effectiveness of the earlier period.

Despite their fearsome reputation the “Varangians of the City” probably saw much less action than the army as a whole. Their duty was to stand behind the Emperor, and since he usually had many able generals to conduct ordinary campaigns and was often content to use them,3 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 evidenced by John II’s initial refusal to “waste his Treasures” at the battle of Beroë even in the face of imminent stalemate or defeat.4

A task of the Varangian Guard in barracks at Constantinople was civil policing. 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 native troops.

The regiment probably also had a dampening effect on court intrigue, making it less likely to erupt into open revolt. The evidence for this is limited, but the Alexiad reveals that the Guard was a major consideration in Alexios’ strategy in his rebellion once underway,5 and it is a reasonable inference to conclude that the Guard’s 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, Varangian disaffection, and the presence of a highly legitimate replacement. The clearest example of this was the overthrow of Michael V in 1042, wherein the Guard became the spearhead of widespread discontent caused by Michael’s policies and attempts to purge the upper bureaucracy and the royal family. In this uprising the Guard reinstated the Dowager Empress Zoe, whom Michael had stripped of her position and consigned to a monastery on false charges of treason. The final punishment of blinding was inflicted by the Varangian Commander, Harald Sigurdsson, later as 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.6 The prodigious quantities of loot that Harald sent home and took with him when he returned to Norway themselves became legendary.7 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 encumbancy.8

The uses of the Varangian Guard had another less tangible side. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries it 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 Comnena 9 in the late eleventh century and Cinnamus 10 and others in the twelfth were able to hark back in a fanciful fashion to Britain’s 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.11

For propaganda purposes it was desirable that the Emperor’s 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.12 The Varangian Guard 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 1052.13 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 Beroë. Norse sources say that this church was dedicated to Saint Olaf Haraldsson, and that his sword hung above the altar,14 but more reliable accounts indicate that it was dedicated in typical Byzantine manner to the Theotokos, Mary.15

Thus far I have dealt with the uses of the Varangian Guard to the Emperor, but the existence of the Guard 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.16 Besides that, his time in the Guard became a major part in his royal mythology. King Harald’s 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 Harald’s companions and incorporated into his mythology within his lifetime.17 I have mentioned the hierarchy of kings embraced in Norse literature, and King Harald’s Saga and other treatments of his life make much use of the transferred glory of the Basileus 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.18

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 Beroë, and especially of the miracles worked by Olaf’s sword which brought his sanctity to the notice of the Emperor.19 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 20 originating in Iceland in its surviving example, and probably dating from the fourteenth century but perhaps earlier. 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 have given us such familiar stories and Robin Hood and Ivanhoe.

The Varangian Guard was thus more than a military bulwark for the Byzantine Emperor, and formed an element of the ideological foundations for rulers East and West, and grist for the mills of national folklores.


1 For example in the fourteenth century court ceremony manual of Pseudo-Kodinos. Jean Verpeaux Pseudo-Kodinos: Traitédes Offices, Paris, 1966 p. 179, 183, 184 and further.

2 Sigfus Blondal, The Varangians of Byzantium revised by Benedikt S. Benedikz, Cambridge, 1978 Chapter 7.

3 The exception which might be cited amongst the Comneni, Alexios I, John II and Manual I, have had their exploits somewhat exaggerated byclassicising biographers who felt compelled to depict them in a similar light to the heros of ancient Greek literature.

4 Snorri Snorrasson’s account cited in Blondal (n. 2 above) p. 149.

5 Anna Comnena, Alexiad, translated by E.R.A. Sewter, Harmondsworth, 1985 p. 95f.

6 Blondal (n. 2 above) p.77-87.

7 Ibid. p. 78 and H.R. Ellis Davidson The Viking Road to Byzantium London, 1976 p.226-8.

8 Blondal (n. 2 above) p.113.

9 Alexiad (n. 5 above) p. 95.

10 Quoted in Blondal (n. 2 above) p. 150.

11 King Eric’s position is depicted as lower in Eirics drapa by Magnus Skeggjason, quoted in Blondal, p. 134. Numerous references confirm it for example the “Great King” of Thjodolf Arnorsson’s Sexstefja (Blondal,p. 93) and especially “Lord of Kings” in Einar Skularsson’s Geisli (Blondal, p.186). Thorvald Kodransson’s Thattr gives a tributary position to Kiev (Blondal, p.198).

12 Blondal, p. 44 and Ellis Davidson, p. 179f.

13 Steven Runciman, The Byzantine Theocracy, Cambridge, 1977, p.106-7.

14 Blondal, p.148ff

15 Ibid., p.185.

16 Ellis Davidson (n. 7 above) p. 227.

17 Ibid., p. 214ff and Blondal, p. 71.

18 Blondal (n. 1 above) p. 132ff.

19 Ibid., p. 148ff.

20 Cf. Leslie Rogers “Anglo-Saxons and Icelanders in Byzantium”, in Byzantine Papers, Canberra, 1981.