Who were the Varangians?

Jul 20 2010

Listener William asked who the Varangians were and why they figured so prominently in Byzantine military affairs. 

The Varangians were the elite forces of the Byzantine army- much like the Praetorian Guard of ancient Rome or the Ottoman Janissaries.  They were originally made up exclusively of Vikings (which the empire had been hiring as mercenaries since the 9th century), but after the Norman Conquest of England a rush of exiled Anglo-Saxons were added to the mix.  By the 12th century there were so many English that it was commonly being referred to as the ‘Anglo-Varangian’ Guard.  As the empire declined, the Varangians also fell on hard times.  By the middle of the 14th century they had largely ceased to function and the last mention of them is in the first decade of the 15th century. 

They appeared relatively late in Byzantine history.  In 988, the emperor Basil II, facing a serious revolt, asked the Viking prince of Kiev for some help.  In exchange for an imperial bride, the prince sent along 6,000 warriors and Basil was so pleased by their effectiveness that he made them his permanent bodyguard.  Their oaths were to him personally- a fact that the court was uncomfortably aware of- and they were housed in the Bucoleon Palace where they could keep an eye on things.  Basil made sure they were given a generous salary and he called them ‘Varangians’- literally ‘men of the pledge’. 

Since they were professional fighters they were the most valuable troops in an army made up mostly of mercenaries or levies.  Usually taller and fiercer than their Mediterranean hosts/opponents, they also made good use as propaganda tools to overawe rebellious subjects or frighten opposing armies.  In times of peace they could act as a police force in Constantinople or for ceremonial functions.  In war they were usually held in reserve until the critical phase of the battle- then sent where the fighting was thickest.  Even the Byzantines seem to have been slightly terrified of their berserker rages. 

The opportunities for wealth ensured a steady stream of recruits, and few returned home empty-handed.  At the death of an emperor they had the curious right to raid the treasury and take away whatever they could carry unassisted.  Perhaps because of this they gained a reputation for fierce loyalty to the office- but not necessarily the occupant- of the throne. 

At times the temptations of power were too much to resist and they would lord it over the population of Constantinople- usually in the local wine shops.  Their drinking bouts were almost as legendary as their fighting skills and a visiting Danish king in the 11th century was embarrassed enough to publicly lecture them about their behavior. 

His words do not appear to have had the desired effect.  A century later some brave soul referred to the Varangians as the ‘Emperor’s wine-bags’.

15 responses so far

  1. […] walls of the mighty Constantinople. Apropos to this discussion is the Lars Brownworth’s post: Who were the Varangians? The fact of the matter is that the Vikings owned Russia the way the owned Normandy. […]

  2. This web site is an interesting resource for ancient history. Well written with some good questions asked to start a fresh dialgoue.

    Also, the Varangian armor diagram in this post is brilliant. The artist is Wraith DT? I think he’s at Deviant Art: http://wraithdt.deviantart.com/

    Fleshy Bones

  3. The Vikings did not “own” medieval Russia, they helped kick start their civilizations through trade, but the eastern civilizations were essentially Slavic peoples using military equipment inspired from the vikings.

    One thing that stood apart was the Rus’ use of cavalry, one thing that the Norse armies were not known to heavily rely on.

    The Varangians weren’t Vikings, they were the ancestors of Russians, Ukrainians, and other eastern Slavic nations

  4. Actually, to clarify, the term Varangian may have referred to norsemen, but the Varangian GUARD Was primarily Eastern Slavs, IE Russians.

  5. Thanks for the clarification Matt. There was certainly an important Viking component of the Guard at times- as recounted in the saga of Harald Hardraade- but you’re right, they certainly became almost completely Slavic. As for the Vikings ‘owning’ medieval Russia, it’s the same story there. A Viking crust on top of a Slavic population to start, and assimilation from there.

  6. The Russian empire was founded by Vikings called “The Russ”. The First King of Russia was Rurik, who was definatly a Viking.

    All Russian Noble familys are ruled by a Prince. In order to claim this title you must be a decendant of Rurik.

  7. There are many myths about Vikings and the foundation of Russian Empire. The most popular one is the first dynasty of Russian Kiev Prince was founded by a Viking name Rurik, at that time Viking on Russ land were called “Varjag” or maybe “Varang” (sound familiar?), later historian research say, Rurik was not really a Viking, and Varjag doesn’t need to be a Viking, Varjag were name of professional warriors who serves anyone who pay, they often came from North, thats why Varjags usually associated with Vikings, but they could be any mercenaries who live by their swords. Rurik, was simply a leader of a group of Varjags, who has military power and was respected, in order to setup rules and law, ppl need some one like him to be a ruler and protector, thats why rich people of Kiev has made him the Prince, the same thing happened at Novgorod. All Russ nobles claimed to be a descendant of Rurik because of prestige, since at those times, in order to rule you must have strength, and being a descendant of Varjag, professional elite warriors was a prestige. Varjag sound very similar to Varang and I believe it is a direct connection, and first Byzantium Varangian are actually Slavic Varjags.

  8. Justan American

    He was called Rurik the Rus.Rus means red because he was a redhead! Now you know why the color red is so prominent in Russian history.

  9. The latest DNA studies show that Rurik was Finno-Ugric, so i guess he wasn’t really a viking.

  10. Actually they were mainly english in the end having their own church and some of them settled in the Crimea and Romania

  11. The DNA results for Tsar Nicholas 11 show DYS390 at 24 a indigenous WAMH Briton

  12. could i get a translation please?

  13. […] You can read more about the Varangians in the excellent article by Lars Brownworth. […]

  14. I think first time Rurik for Rus was the manager, and not the prince in the traditional sense.

  15. It seems quite clear that Rus come from a county north of Stockholm call Roslagen, which mean Law of the Ros, as in the Danlaw of Danlagen meaning Law of the Danes in pre-Norman England.
    Law translate as Lag in Swedish.

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