Constantinople was the crossroads of many cultures, so it is unsurprising that the Vikings made their way there as well. Vikings came originally as traders or raiders, depending on which would give them the most profit. Then they settled in what would become Russia founding the settlements of Novgorod and Kiev. They intermarried with the native Slavic tribes to consolidate their power base. The Slavs called the Vikings “Rus”, which eventually lent its name to the region which became Russia. However, the Greeks and eastern Slavs called them Varangian. Varangian meant a stranger who had taken military service. Eventually, it came to mean he foreign warriors still arriving from Scandinavia to trade, or offer their swords for hire to the Rus. These mercenaries made their way south and found the rich city of Constantinople, where they could they could sell their swords at exorbitant rates. The Byzantines were no stranger to mercenaries, and often hired Normans, Hungarians, Turks, Lombards, Georgians, Armenians, Arabs, Slavs and many others. The first Varangians in the service of Constantinople were mentioned in 902 as an expedition to Crete.
Emperor Basil II to Varangian aid from Vladimir I to stabilize the Eastern Empire. In return, Vladimir married the emperor’s sister, Anna, and converted to Christianity. From then on, the Varangians, or the “axe-bearing barbarians”, formed the core of the Imperial Bodyguard. Basil was said to trust the Varangians more than his own people, and began to depend on them more and more. It was a close knit elite group and all Norsemen coming to Constantinople were not automatically inducted. The group had higher pay, could be among the first to loot after a victory, and even had the privilege of plundering the emperor’s palace after his death. Plus, the guard had the ear of the emperor so they could influence policy or bring down favorites. Princess Anna Komnene wrote in her history The Alexiad, the Varangians were known for their fanatical loyalty to the emperor and seemed to pass this down from generation to generation. They remained at the emperor’s side at all times, accompanying him to festivals and parties, religious activities and private affairs. The Varangians were barracked within the imperial palace to make sure they were nearby at all times and even guarded the emperor’s bedchamber when he slept. They were in charge of crowd control and always made sure there was an escape route out of any gathering.
Although originally only Norsemen, the Varangian Guard expanded to include men from the British Isles. A fee of seven to sixteen pounds of gold was charged to allow entrance into the army, but it was recouped very quickly with all the opportunities for plunder. In fact, the best recruitment tool was tales of the vast wealth the Guard could be expected to win. The Icelandic Laxdaela Saga tells of a certain Bolli Bollason who went to Byzantium and there climbed the ranks to become an officer of the Varangian Guard. His homecoming in 1030 is described in the following way: “Bolli brought back with him much wealth, and many precious things that lords abroad had given him. Bolli was so great a man for show when he came back from this journey that he would wear no clothes but those made of scarlet and fur, and all his weapons were bedight with gold: he was called Bolli the Great. […] Bolli rode from the ship with twelve men, and all his followers were dressed in scarlet, and rode on gilt saddles, and all were a trusty band, though Bolli was peerless among them. He had on the clothes of fur which the Garth-king (Emperor) had given him, he had over all a scarlet cape; and he had Footbiter girt on him, the hilt of which was dight with gold, and the grip woven with gold; he had a gilded helmet on his head, and a red shield on his flank, with a knight painted on it in gold. He had a dagger in his hand, as is the custom in foreign lands; and whenever they took quarters the women paid heed to nothing but gazing at Bolli and his grandeur, and that of his followers.”
However, it wasn’t all plunder and glory. In the disastrous battle of Manzikert in 1071, the regular troops mutinied and fled. The Varangians stayed and died to a man defending the emperor. And like the Pretorians before them, the Varangians began to fall to corruption. After the fourth crusade, there is no additional mention of the Varangian Guard or Norsemen guarding the emperor. However, it was good while it lasted and the Varangians survived longer than their Viking cousins.
Sources available on request