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The Varangians or Varyags ( ; Greek: Βάραγγοι, Βαριάγοι, Varangoi, Variagoi; Russian and Ukrainian: Варяги, Varyagi / Varyahy ), sometimes referred to as Variagians, were Vikings, Norsemen, who went eastwards and southwards through what is now Russiamarker, Belarusmarker and Ukrainemarker mainly in the 9th and 10th centuries. However, according to some scholars (including those as famous as M. V. Lomonosov) the term "Varangians" was used to refer to any sea travellers, merchants and pirates irrespective of their origin. The term was used in relation to Vikings as well as to Slavic troops shuttling between major trade centres of the time and occasionally engaged in warfare. A similar term in the Russian language is "nemets" (немец), which was used with respect to almost all foreigners from European countries, but primarily with respect to Germans. In modern Russian this term has only one meaning - "a German".

According to the Kievan Rus' Primary Chronicle, compiled in about 1113, groups of Varangians included Norsemen known as Rus, just as some were known as Swedes, Normans, Angles, Gotlanders and so on. However, due largely to geographic considerations, most of the Varangians who traveled and settled in the eastern Baltic, Russia and lands to the south came from the area of modern Swedenmarker.

Engaging in trade, piracy and mercenary activities, they roamed the river systems and portages of Gardariki, reaching the Caspian Seamarker and Constantinoplemarker.

Etymology

Greek Várangos and Old East Slavic varęgŭ are derived from Old Norse væringi, originally a compound of vár "pledge" and gengi "companion", i.e. "a sworn person" or "a foreigner who has taken service with a new lord by a treaty of fealty to him, or protégé".. Some scholars seem to assume a derivation with the common suffix -ing-. Yet, this suffix is inflected differently in Old Norse, and furthermore, the word is attested with -gangia- in other Germanic languages in the Early Middle Ages: Old English wærgenga, Old Frankish wargengus, Langobardic waregang. The reduction of the second part of the word is parallel to that seen in Old Norse foringi "leader" = Old English foregenga, Gothic fauragangja "steward".

Varangian Rus'

Having settled Aldeigjamarker (Ladoga) in the 750s, Scandinavian colonists were probably an element in the early ethnogenesis of the Rus' people, and likely played a role in the formation of the Rus' Khaganate. The Varangians (Varyags, in Old East Slavic) are first mentioned by the Primary Chronicle as having exacted tribute from the Slavic and Finnic tribes in 859. It was the time of rapid expansion of the Vikings in Northern Europe; England began to pay Danegeld in 859, and the Curonians of Grobinmarker faced an invasion by the Swedes at about the same date.

According to the Primary Chronicle, in 862, the Finnic and Slavic tribes rebelled against the Varangian Rus, driving them overseas back to Scandinavia, but soon started to conflict with each other. The disorder prompted the tribes to invite back the Varangian Rus "to come and rule them" and bring peace to the region. Led by Rurik and his brothers Truvor and Sineus, the invited Varangians (called Rus) settled around the town of Holmgårdmarker (Novgorod).

In the 9th century, the Rus' operated the Volga trade route, which connected Northern Russia (Gardariki) with the Middle East (Serkland). As the Volga route declined by the end of the century, the trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks rapidly overtook it in popularity. Apart from Ladoga and Novgorod, Gnezdovomarker and Gotlandmarker were major centres for Varangian trade.

Western historians tend to agree with the Primary Chronicle that these Varangians organized the existing Slavic settlements into the political entity of Kievan Rus' in the 880s and gave their name to the land. Many Slavic scholars are opposed to this theory of Germanic influence on the Rus' and have suggested alternative scenarios for this part of Eastern European history because the author of the Primary Chronicles, that is a monk named Nestor, worked in the court for the Varangians.

In contrast to the intense Scandinavian influence in Normandy and the British Islesmarker, Varangian culture did not survive to a great extent in the East. Instead, the Varangian ruling classes of the two powerful city-states of Novgorod and Kievmarker were thoroughly Slavicized by the end of the 10th century. Old Norse was spoken in one district of Novgorod, however, until the thirteenth century.

Rus' and the Byzantine Empire

The earliest Byzantine record of the Rus' is written prior to 842, preserved in the Greek Life of St. George of Amastris, speaking of a raid that had extended into Paphlagonia .

In 839, emperor Theophilus negotiated with the foreigners, whom he called Rhos, to provide a few mercenaries for his army.

It was in 860, from Kiev, that the Rus under Askold and Dir launched their first attack on Constantinople. The result of this initial attack is disputed, but the Varangians continued their efforts as they regularly sailed on their monoxylae down the Dnieper into the Black Seamarker. The Rus' raids into the Caspian Sea were recorded by Arab authors in the 870s and in 910, 912, 913, 943, and later. Although the Rus had predominantly peaceful trading relations with the Byzantines, the rulers of Kiev launched the relatively successful naval expedition of 907 and the abortive campaign of 941 against Constantinople, as well as Sviatoslav I's large-scale invasion of the Balkans in 968-971.

These raids were successful in the sense of forcing the Byzantines to re-arrange their trading arrangements; militarily, the Varangians were usually defeated by the superior Byzantine forces, especially in the sea and due to the Byzantines' use of Greek fire. Many atrocities were reported by (not wholly impartial) Greek historians during such raids: the Rus' were said to have crucified their victims and to have driven nails into their heads .

Varangian Guard

Varangian Guardsmen, an illumination from the Skylitzis Chronicle
Basil II's distrust of the native Byzantine guardsmen, whose loyalties often shifted with fatal consequences, as well as the proven loyalty of the Varangians, led him to employ them as his personal bodyguards. This new force became known as the Varangian Guard (Gr. Tagma ton Varangion, Τάγμα των Βαραγγίων) Over the years, new recruits from Sweden, Denmark, and Norway kept a predominantly Scandinavian cast to the organization until the late 11th century. So many Scandinavians left to enlist in the guard that a medieval Swedish law stated that no one could inherit while staying in "Greece" - the then Scandinavian term for the Byzantine empire. In the eleventh century, there were also two other European courts that recruited Scandinavians: Kievan Rus' c. 980-1060 and Londonmarker 1018-1066 (the Þingalið). Steven Runciman, in The History of the Crusades, noted that by the time of the Emperor Alexios Komnenos, the Byzantine Varangian Guard was largely recruited from Anglo-Saxons and "others who had suffered at the hands of the Vikings and their cousins the Normans".

History

As early as 911, Varangians are mentioned as fighting as mercenaries for the Byzantines. About 700 Varangians served along with Dalmatians as marines in Byzantine naval expeditions against the Emirate of Crete in 902 and a force of 629 returned to Crete under Constantine Porphyrogenitus in 949. A unit of 415 Varangians was involved in the Italian expedition of 936. It is also recorded that there were Varangian contingents among the forces that fought the Arabs in Syria in 955. During this period, the Varangian mercenaries were included in the Great Companions (Gr. Μεγάλη Εταιρεία).

In 988 Basil II requested military assistance from Vladimir I of Kiev to help defend his throne. In compliance with the treaty made by his father after the Siege of Dorostolon (971), Vladimir sent 6,000 men to Basil. In exchange, Vladimir was given Basil's sister, Anna, in marriage. Vladimir also agreed to convert to Christianity and to bring his people into the Christian faith.

In 989 these Varangian, led by Basil II himself, landed at Chrysopolis to defeat the rebel general Bardas Phokas. On the field of battle, Phokas died of a stroke in full view of his opponent; upon the death of their leader, Phokas' troops turned and fled. The brutality of the Varangians was noted when they pursued the fleeing army and "cheerfully hacked them to pieces."

These men formed the nucleus of the Varangian Guard, which saw extensive service in southern Italy in the eleventh century, as the Normans and Lombards worked to extinguish Byzantine authority there. In 1018, Basil II received a request from his catepan of Italy, Basil Boioannes, for reinforcements to put down the Lombard revolt of Melus of Bari. A detachment of the Varangian Guard was sent and in the Battle of Cannae, the Greeks achieved a decisive victory.

The Varangians also participated in the partial reconquest of Sicily from the Arabs under George Maniakes in 1038. Here, they fought alongside Normans recently arrived in Italy seeking adventure and Lombards from Byzantine-held Apuliamarker. A prominent member of the Guard at this time was Harald Hardrada, later King of Norway. However, when Maniakes ostracised the Lombards by publicly humiliating their leader, Arduin, the Lombards deserted and the Normans and Varangians followed them.

Not long after, the catepan Michael Doukeianos had a force of Varangians stationed at Barimarker. On 16 March 1041 they were called up to fight the Normans near Venosamarker and many drowned in the subsequent retreat across the Ofantomarker. In September Exaugustus Boioannes was sent to Italy with only a small contingent of Varangians to replace the disgraced Doukeianos. On 3 September 1041 they were defeated in battle by the Normans.

Many of the last catepans were sent from Constantinople with Varangian units. In 1047 John Raphael was sent to Bari with a contingent of Varangians, but the Bariots refused to receive his troops and he spent his term at Otrantomarker. Twenty years later, in 1067, the last Byzantine catepan in southern Italy, Mabrica, arrived with Varangian auxiliaries and took Brindisimarker and Tarantomarker. At the disastrous Battle of Manzikertmarker in 1071, virtually all the Emperor’s Guards fell around him.

Composed primarily of Scandinavians for the first 100 years, the guard began to see increased inclusion of Anglo-Saxons after the successful invasion of England by the Normans. In 1088 a large number of Anglo-Saxons and Danes emigrated to the Byzantine Empire by way of the Mediterranean. One source has more than 5,000 of them arriving in 235 ships. Those who did not enter imperial service settled on the Black Sea coast, but those who did became so vital to the Varangians that the Guard was commonly called the Englinbarrangoi (Anglo-Varangians) from that point. In this capacity they fought in Sicily against the Normans under Robert Guiscard, who unsuccessfully sought to invade the lower Balkans as well. Writing about the unit as it was in 1080, the chronicler and princess Anna Komnene refers to these "axe-bearing barbarians" as being "from Thule", likely a reference to the British Isles.

The Varangians relied on a long axe as their main weapon, although they were often skilled swordsmen or archers as well. Michael Psellus writes that all Varangians without exception used the weapon called rhomphaia. In some sources, such as Anna Komnene's The Alexiad, they are described as mounted. The guard was stationed primarily around Constantinople, and may have been barracked in the Bucoleon palacemarker complex. The guard also accompanied armies into the field, and Byzantine chroniclers (as well as several notable Western European and Arab chroniclers) often note their battlefield prowess, especially in comparison to the local barbarian peoples. They were vital to the Byzantine victory under the emperor John II Komnenos at the Battle of Beroiamarker in 1122. The Varangians hacked their way through the enemy's circle of Pecheneg wagons, collapsing the Pecheneg position and causing a general rout in their camp.

They were prominent in the defence of Constantinoplemarker during the Fourth Crusade. Of the role of the guard, then composed of the English and Danes, it is said that "the fighting was very violent and there was hand to hand fight with axes and swords, the assailants mounted the walls and prisoners were taken on both sides". The Varangian guard was still operating at least as late as the mid-fourteenth century, and people identified as Varangians were to be found in Constantinople around 1400.

In Russia, Varangian remained a synonym for Swedes until the late 16th century.

Function

The duties and purpose of the Varangian Guard were similar—if not identical—to the services provided by the Kievan druzhina, the Norwegian hird, and the Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon housecarls. The Varangians served as the personal bodyguard of the emperor, swearing an oath of loyalty to him; they had ceremonial duties as retainers and acclaimers and performed some police duties, especially in cases of treason and conspiracy. They were headed by a separate officer, the akolouthos, who was usually a native Byzantine.

The Varangian Guard was only used in battle during critical moments, or where the battle was most fierce. Contemporary Byzantine chroniclers note with a mix of terror and fascination that the "Scandinavians were frightening both in appearance and in equipment, they attacked with reckless rage and neither cared about losing blood nor their wounds". The description probably refers to berserkergang since this state of trance is said to have given them superhuman strength and no sense of pain from their wounds. When the Byzantine Emperor died, the Varangians had the unique right of running to the imperial treasury and taking as much gold and as many gems as they could carry, a procedure known in Old Norse as polutasvarf ("palace pillaging"). This privilege enabled many Varangians to return home as wealthy men, which encouraged even more Scandinavians to enlist in the Guard in Miklagarðr (Swedish = Miklagård) (Constantinople).

The loyalty of the Varangians became a trope of Byzantine writers. Writing about her father Alexius's seizing of Imperial throne in 1081, Anna Komnene notes that he was advised not to attack the Varangians who still guarded the Emperor Nikephoros for the Varangians "regard loyalty to the emperors and the protection of their persons as a family tradition, a kind of sacred trust." This allegiance, she noted, "they preserve inviolate, and will never brook the slighted hint of betrayal." Unlike the native Byzantine guards so mistrusted by Basil II, the Varangian guards' loyalties lay with the position of Emperor, not the man that sat on the throne. This was made clear in 969 when the guards failed to avenge the death by assassination of Emperor Nikephoros II. A servant had managed to call for the guards while the Emperor was being attacked, but when they arrived he was dead. They immediately knelt before John Tzimiskes, Nikephoros' murderer and hailed him as Emperor. "Alive they would have defended him to the last breath: dead there was no point in avenging him. They had a new master now."

Reputation

While the Varangians are represented in Walter Scott's novel Count Robert of Paris as being the fiercest and most loyal element of the Byzantine forces, this is probably exaggerated. However, the exaggeration was begun by Byzantine writers themselves, who applied a "noble savage" identity to the Varangians. Many Byzantine writers referred to them as "axe-bearing foreigners", pelekyphoroi barbaroi, rather than Varangians.

One notable exception to the legendary Varangian loyalty to the throne occurred in 1071. After Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes was defeated by Sultan Alp Arslan, a palace coup was staged before he could return to Constantinople. His stepson, Caesar John Doukas, used the Varangian guard to depose the absent emperor, arrest Empress Eudoxia, and proclaim his brother, Michael VII, as emperor. Thus, instead of defending their absent emperor, the Varangians were used by the usurpers.

Other than their fierce loyalty, the most recognizable attributes of the Varangian guard during the 11th century were their large axes and their penchant for drinking. There are countless stories of the Varangian guard either drinking in excess or being drunk. In 1103 during a visit to Constantinople, King Eric the Good of Denmark "exhorted members of the guard to lead a more sober life and not give themselves up to drunkenness." It is not surprising, therefore, to find a 12th century description of them as "the Emperor's wine-bags."

Runestones

The great losses that the Varangian Guard suffered is probably what is reflected by the largest group of runestones that talk of foreign voyages in Sweden, i.e. the Greece Runestones of which many were raised by former members of the Varangian Guard, or in their memory. A smaller group consists of the four Italy Runestones which are probably raised in memory of members of the Varangian Guard who died in southern Italy.

The oldest of the Greece runestones are six stones in the style RAK, a style which is dated to the period before 1015 AD. The group consists of Skepptuna runestone U 358, Västra Ledinge runestone U 518, Nälberga runestone Sö 170 and Eriksstad runestone Sm 46.

One of the more notable of the later runestones in the style Pr4 is Ed runestone U 112, a large boulder at the western shore of the lake of Ed. It tells that Ragnvaldr, the captain of the Varangian Guard, had returned home where he had the inscriptions made in memory of his dead mother.

The youngest runestones, in the style Pr5, such as Ed runestone U 104 (presently in the Ashmolean Museummarker in Oxfordmarker), are dated to the period 1080-1130, after which runestones became unfashionable.

The Varangians did not return home without a lasting imprint of Byzantine culture to which testifies a Byzantine cross carved on the early eleventh century Risbyle runestone U 161, and which today is the coat-of-arms of Täbymarker. Somewhat ironically, however, it was made by the Viking Ulf of Borresta who commemorated on the Orkesta runestone U 344 that he had taken three danegelds in Englandmarker.

Norse sagas

According to the sagas, the West Norse entered the service of the Guard considerably later than the East Norse. The Laxdœla saga, informs that the Icelander Bolli Bollason, born c. 1006, was the first known Icelander or Norwegian in the Varangian Guard. Travelling to Constantinople via Denmark, he spent many years in the Varangian Guard; "and was thought to be the most valiant in all deeds that try a man, and always went next to those in the forefront." The saga also records the finery his followers received from the Emperor, and the influence he held after his return to Iceland:

The Varangian Guard is mentioned also in Njal's Saga in reference to Kolskegg - an Icelander said to have come first to Holmgardmarker (Novgorod) and then on to Miklagard (Constantinople), where he entered the Emperor's service. "The last that was heard of him was, that he had wedded a wife there, and was captain over the Varangians, and stayed there till his death day."

Perhaps the most famous member of the Varangian Guard was the future king Harald Sigurdsson III of Norway, known as Harald Hardråde ("Hard-ruler"). Having fled his homeland, Harald went first to Gardariki and then on to Constantinople, where he arrived in 1035. He participated in eighteen battles and during his service fought against Arabs in Anatolia and Sicily under General George Maniakes, as well as in southern Italy and Bulgaria.

During his time in the Varangian Guard Harald earned the titles of manglavites and spatharokandidatos. But his service ended with his imprisonment for misappropriation of imperial plunder taken during his command. He was released upon the dethronement of the Emperor Michael V, and saga sources suggest he was the one sent to blind the Emperor when he and his uncle fled to the church of Studion Monastery and clung to the altar.

Harald then sought to leave his post, but was denied this. He eventually escaped and returned home in 1043, eventually dying at the Battle of Stamford Bridgemarker while invading England in 1066.

The Varangian Guard regained some of its old Scandinavian flavour when Harald Hardråde's grandson, Sigurd I of Norway, went on a crusade to the holy land. After fighting battles against the Muslims, King Sigurd let the rest of his force, who originally numbered 6000 men, join the Varangian Guard. King Sigurd returned home with less than a hundred of his personal Guard.

In popular culture

Finnish Folk Metal band Turisas' second album, The Varangian Way, is based on the Varangians' discovery of Constantinopole.

A song on Swedish Viking Metal band Amon Amarth's album Twilight of the Thunder God called "Varyags of Miklagaard" describes the Varangians' service to the emperor.

See also



Notes

References

Bibliography

Primary sources



Secondary sources

  • Sigfus Blondal. Varangians of Byzantium: An Aspect of Byzantine Military History. Trans. by Benedikt S. Benedikz, Cambridge: 1978. ISBN 0-521-21745-8
  • H.R. Ellis Davidson. The Viking Road to Byzantium. London: 1976. ISBN 0-04-940049-5
  • Jansson, Sven B. (1980). Runstenar. STF, Stockholm. ISBN 91-7156-015-7
  • Enoksen, Lars Magnar. (1998). Runor : historia, tydning, tolkning. Historiska Media, Falun. ISBN 91-88930-32-7


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