“So, you wanna be a Varangian?”

I field more emails and more online questions about the Varangian Guard than I do actual Byzantine personae. I lifted most of the information below from my Byzantine Personal Basics page above, but I’ve included a bibliography to hopefully help those on the path find what they’re looking for.

I’m going to preface this by saying that I have nothing against Varangian personae, but I’m about to be very blunt: Varangians are not Byzantine.

The Romans viewed them as barbarians and outsiders, and despite the fun tales from the Norse Sagas, chances are, they weren’t well liked in the City. The truth of the matter is that there are currently more Varangians in the SCA than there ever was serving an emperor at one point in time due to the fact that it gives Norse personae an excuse to wear lamellar when it’s hot (which is fine, we don’t need anybody dropping dead at war, please). Not everybody could show up at the Blachernae Palace steps from somewhere up North and demand they be admitted into service to the Purple. It was a bit more complicated than that, and each emperor had different requirements. Not to mention, Varangians were only predominantly Norse for a short period of time in the mid 11th Century if we assume what the Sagas say is true.

The first Varangian Guard was not established until the late 10th Century (around 980) when Basil II was given thousands of Kievan soldiers in exchange for marriage of a Byzantine princess to the Prince of Kiev in order to defeat the Bulgarians. The Kievan Rus were not Norse, they were Slavic, potentially with Norse ancestry, but the term “Viking” itself is a particular Norse occupation. The “Viking Age” was pretty much over at this time. We do have record of plenty of Norse travelers coming to Constantinople prior to this, but the “Viking raid” in 860 was actually Rus that had come down into the Black Sea from what is now Ukraine.

To further screw things up, the term “Varangian” itself was used by both the Romans and the Rus to refer to Norse Vikings prior to the 10th Century. So, if this is the route you desire to go, determining if you’re just a Norse traveler from early period, or an actual member of the Emperor’s elite guard is important.

If you do decide to go Varangian GUARD, here is a list of “waves” of ethnicities that served at specific times. This is by no means set in stone, but it provides a guide for those that want to pinpoint a specific time period that suits their goals:

988 – 1020ish: Kievan Rus

1020-1070ish: Scandinavian (Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish) Bolli Bollason and Harald Hardrada served at this time.

1070-1204ish: Danish and English (Anglo-Saxon). The term “Danes” comes up in Byzantine literature often to describe the Varangians, and the English were escaping Norman rule in England at this time. This is documented in the saga of Edward the Confessor. Siward Barn served at this time. Normans were NOT permitted to be apart of the Varangian Guard, but some may have served as mercenaries in other capacities.

The Fourth Crusade has probably some of the best documented accounts of the Varangian Guard in action protecting Constantinople. After the retaking of Constantinople and re-establishing the empire, however, there didn’t appear to be as formal of a guard unit, and those that were a part of it, had fully assimilated into the Roman culture. It is unclear if the Varangian Guard really remained a thing until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.

There are a lot of myths surrounded what they actually wore, especially in the SCA. The “red is for the Emperor’s service” and “green is for the Empress’s service” is totally a SCAdianism as far as I’ve found. It looks like the on-duty color for the guard was blue or red, while off-duty, you see them in nothing more than plain tunics and slim-fitting trousers or hose, which was typical for men’s casual wear throughout the empire. Earlier travelers would have continued to wear the clothing of their culture, versus picking up stuff along the way. Clothing was expensive and difficult to carry and launder, so the other SCAdianism of having a diverse wardrobe boasting the latest fashions of every exotic port of call you visited is also inaccurate. They would, however, assimilate over time if they decided to stay put in an area. This does not include trade goods, but items that were exchanged in business were not necessarily the same as the clothes you wore on your back.

As far as religion goes, during the period of the active guard, most serving were already Christian, or converted to Orthodoxy from Arian Christianity which was more common in Eastern Europe and the Scandinavian countries early. Please, remember that Arianism IS NOT THE SAME THING as Aryanism. Mind your i’s and y’s! Either way, the idea of your persona dripping in lovely Asatru regalia would be incorrect as a guardsman, but as a very early Norse traveler to Constantinople, still possible.

I totally just ganked these images off of Wikipedia since I know they’re there, but you can check out the Madrid Skylitzes here: https://www.wdl.org/en/item/10625/

the_body_of_leo_v_is_dragged_to_the_hippodrome_through_the_skyla_gate
“On Duty” Varangian Guardsmen in the gold armor with blue garments beneath. They are armed with rhomphaioi (axes), and shields. Note the round and teardrop shields. From the Madrid Skylitzes, 12th Century.

 

a_thracesian_woman_kills_a_varangian
A woman kills her Varangian would-be rapist, and then is presented with his belongings from the other guardsmen. Note how they don’t look very “Norse” or Scandinavian – Dark hair and eyes, probably Eastern European, though at the time the manuscript was produced, they would have been mostly English (Anglo-Saxon). Plain tunics and slim-fitting trousers with boots- Typical of a Byzantine common man instead of a fancy hodgepodge of Norse and Byzantine that is common in the SCA.  Also from the Madrid Skylitzes.

And for those that want to actually do homework, here are the goods:

Suggested Readings

Primary Sources

Of Aguilers, Raymond. Historia Francorum Qui Ceperint Jerusalem. Translated by John H, and
Laurita L. Hill. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society. 1968; Medieval
Sourcebook, 1997. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/raymond-cde.asp

Choniates, Niketas. O City of Byzantium. Translated by Harry J. Magoulas. Detroit: Wayne State
University Press. 1984.

de Clari, Robert. The Conquest of Constantinople. Translated by Edgar Holmes McNeal.
New York: Columbia University Press. 2005.

of Edessa, Matthew. The Chronicle of Matthew of Edessa. Translated by Ara Edmond
Dostourian. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms. 1972.

Komnene, Anna. The Alexiad. Translated by E.R.A. Sewter. London: Penguin Books. 2009.

The Laxdaela Saga. Translated by Muriel Press. London: The Temple Classics, 1899. The Online Medieval and Classical Library, 1996. http://www.omacl.org/laxdaela/

Porphyrogénnētos, Constantine. De Admininstrando Imperio. Translated by  R.J.H. Jenkins.
Budapest: Pázmány Péter Tudományegyetemi Görög Filológiai Intézet. 1949-1962.

——. De Ceremonii. Translated by Ann Moffatt and Maxeme Tall. Canberra: Byzantina
Australiensia. 2012.

Psellus, Michael. Chronographia. Translated by E.R.A Sewter. New Haven: Yale University
Press, 1953; Medieval Sourcebook, 1999.
http://origin-rh.web.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/psellus-chronographia.asp

The Saga of Edward the Confessor. Translated by George Dasent. 1894.

http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/ice/is3/is324.htm.

Sturleson, Snorri. Heimskringla (Saga of the Kings.) Translated by Samuel Laing. London: 1844;
         The Online Medieval and Classical Library, 1996. http://omacl.org/Heimskringla/

de Villehardouin, Geoffrey. Chronicle of The Fourth Crusade and The Conquest of
Constantinople.
Translated by Frank T. Marzials. London: J. M. Dent. 1908; Medieval
Sourcebook, 1996. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/villehardouin.asp

 

Books and Articles

Blöndal, Sigfús. The Varangians of Byzantium. Translated by Benedikt S. Benedikz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1978.

D’Amato, Raffaele. The Varangian Guard: 988-1453. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. 2010.

Madden, Thomas F. The New Concise History of the Crusades. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield. 2006.

Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Decline and Fall. New York: Knopf. 1995.

Queller, Donald E. and Thomas F. Madden.  The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 1999.

Runciman, Steven. A History of the Crusades. 3 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1987.

Dawkins, R.M. “The Later History of the Varangian Guard: Some Notes.” The Journal of
Roman Studies Parts 1 and 2.
1947. http://www.jstor.org/stable/298453.

Doxey, Gary B. “Norwegian Crusaders and the Balearic Islands.” Scandinavian Studies.
            http://www.jstor.org/stable/40919854.

Madden, Thomas. “Outside and Inside the Fourth Crusade.” The International History Review.
1995. http://www.jstor.org/stable/401107441.

Pappas, Nicholas C. J. “English Refugees in the Byzantine Armed Forces: The Varangian Guard
and Anglo Saxon Ethnic Consciousness.” De Re Militari.
http://deremilitari.org/resources/articles/pappas1.htm

Shepard, Jonathan. “The English and Byzantium: A Study of Their Role in the Byzantine Army During the Later Eleventh Century.” Traditio Vol. 29 (1973): 53-92. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27830955.

Broken images

Apparently, WordPress decided to go full iconoclasm, and I’ve lost a lot of images in posts. I don’t know how many, but I’m trying to repair posts as I see them. Please, be patient while I work on this. It’s going to take some time.