Barbarian Bodyguards: the Varangian Guard of Byzantium

Emperors have always feared their own bodyguards. It’s ironic, but there’s much to fear from the people who provide the monarchs with security. After all, they are the closest armed men to the Emperor, often surrounding him; if the loyalty is ripped away, an assassination might be in the coming. Especially so in the Byzantine Empire, where the local Byzantines, full of intrigue and private interests, were tellingly mistrusted by their Emperor, Basil II of the Macedonian Dynasty. Basil soon found a solution to his problem, however: instead of a guard of treacherous Byzantines, he would instead have a guard of ferocious, barbaric Northmen to form the Varangian Guard.

Basil II

Another irony, of course, that the Emperor of New Rome, the light of civilization, should be surrounded himself by barbarians who had more than once raided into Byzantine territory. It’s a funny fact: it’s not like the Byzantine Emperor was some tribal upstart; he’s the very heir to emperors like Augustus and Constantine, but here he was, using barbaric berserk Vikings as his bodyguard. But it was not by random that the Northmen became the bodyguards of Basil II. In 988, around a little more than half a century before the end of the Viking Age, Vladimir I, ruler of the city of Kiev in modern-day Ukraine struck a deal with Basil, where the people under Vladimir’s rule would convert to Christianity, and troops were to be sent to Constantinople to help serve in the Byzantine army. Soon after the deal was struck, 6000 Varangians arrived from the Kievan Rus’. Basil soon made them his bodyguard, for he wanted a replacement to his native treacherous Byzantines. These Varangians, foreigners with no ties and interests in Byzantium; would they prove more loyal to the Emperor than the Byzantines?

Before their loyalty could be tested, however, Basil decided to see their worth in war. He needed to defeat the rebel general Bardas Phocas, and he brought the Varangians to the battle. The battle did not prove a hard task, because Phocas would die of a stroke in the middle of the battle, making his troops flee; the Varangians began pursuing the soldiers, “cheerfully hacking them to pieces”. Basil was undoubtedly satisfied. These Varangians, cruel and barbaric as they were, were great soldiers.

Soon enough the Varangians became the elite core of the Byzantine army. They would only be used in the critical moments of a battle, or where the fighting was hardest. According to a contemporary description, the Varangians “were frightening both in appearance and equipment; they attacked with reckless rage and neither cared about losing blood nor their wounds”. Now, take a moment to imagine these Varangians. They’re Viking-style people with the potential of becoming berserk and going on an axe-rampage through the enemy army. Sending out this sort of force against any enemy would certainly raise the probability of breaking and routing them. Not many armies can stand against such energy.

The local Byzantine troops recognized this. In the Battle of Beroia, where the Byzantines could not break the enemy, they began to cry to the Emperor, John II Komnenos to release “the Emperor’s wineskins”. (The Varangians, in typical Viking fashion, drank a lot). The Emperor ordered the Varangians into the battle, who proceeded to hack their way through the enemy and routed the enemy army.

Their loyalty to the Emperor was also proven. They were ferociously loyal to the reigning Emperor, regardless of who it was, as long as he wore the imperial crown. But they were loyal to the crown, not the person itself. Vikings have served in the Byzantine guard before; just two decades before Basil II struck an alliance with Vladimir, in 969, when the Emperor Nicephorus II Phocas was being hacked to death, a servant called for the Guard to come help. It’s interesting to note the nature of their loyalty here. When the Varangian guards arrived, they found Nicephorus already lying dead on the floor; standing before him was the assassin, a man named John Tzimisces. Now that the old Emperor was dead, it was no use doing anything; they would simply hail the new Emperor, and so they kneeled down to Tzimisces, who had become their new master. A Byzantine wrote that “alive they would have defended him [Nicephorus] to the last breath; dead, they was no point in avenging him. They had a new master now.”

This is in stark contrast to other imperial bodyguards. Take, for instance, the Praetorian Guard of the early imperial era. These

Varangian soldier drawing

Guards were probably the least trustable; deposing and executing Emperors and selecting new ones were almost a part of their job description during the Crisis of the Third Century. The Varangians, on the other hand, were supremely loyal to their masters. Anne Komnena, the daughter of an Emperor, wrote that they “regard loyalty to the Emperors and the protection of the persons as a family tradition, a kind of sacred trust.”

It’s unsurprising, then, that the Guard should be in existence from Basil’s reign up to the 14th century. Although the character of the guard would change; they would become more and more Anglo-Saxon than Scandinavian, they still upheld their values of loyalty. Although they did not remain undefeated; for example, the entire Guard would be wiped out while battling the Normans, they proved too valuable to the Emperors to consider disbanding. Only after the Fourth Crusade when Constantinople was sacked did the character of the Varangian Guard start to fade, and by the 14th century, only a few people continued to refer to themselves as ‘Varangians’, and after that they disappear from the records.

That is the story of the Varangian Guard, the bodyguard unit of the Byzantine Empire that was so different both in character and attitude to the ones of early Rome.

Thanks for reading.

-Ken

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5 Comments

  1. Hi Ken, Love your posts ! I am a fellow blogger. Just started a history page myself. I am also on Google+ I have a community page called The History of the Byzantine Empire. Might be something that may interest you. I too did a short post on the Varangian Guard. They were definitely an awesome fighting unit !!!!

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