Volume 6, issue 1 (summer 1998)
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
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
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
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.
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
Sigfus Blondal, The Varangians of Byzantium revised by
Benedikt S. Benedikz, Cambridge, 1978 Chapter 7.
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.
Snorri Snorrasson's account cited in Blondal (n. 2 above) p.
Anna Comnena, Alexiad, translated by E.R.A. Sewter,
Harmondsworth, 1985 p. 95f.
Blondal (n. 2 above) p.77-87.
Ibid. p. 78 and H.R. Ellis Davidson The Viking Road to
Byzantium London, 1976 p.226-8.
Blondal (n. 2 above) p.113.
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,
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,
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