Varangians: Vikings in Medieval Russia
Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
The Varangians or Varyags, sometimes referred to as Variagians, were Vikings, or Norsemen who went eastwards and southwards through what is now Russia, Belarus and Ukraine mainly in the ninth and tenth centuries.
Initially, they engaged in piracy and trade, navigating through the waterways. These Varangians first settled in Ladoga, then moved southward to Novgorod eventually reaching Kiev, finally putting an end to the Khazars’ collection of tribute from Kievans. The Primary Chronicle claims that a Varangian (Viking) named Rurik first established himself in Novgorod, located in modern Russia (he was selected as common ruler by several Slavic and Finno-Ugric tribes) in about 860 C.E. before moving south and extending his authority to Kiev. The chronicle names him as the progenitor of the Rurik Dynasty.
They have generally been credited with the founding of Kievan Rus’. According to the Russian Primary Chronicle, Kiev was founded by prince Oleg of Kiev, a Varangian prince, (Helgu in Khazarian records) about 880 C.E., moving the capital from Novgorod to Kiev.
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”.
Having settled Aldeigja (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 Grobin 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 Holmgård (Novgorod).
In the ninth 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, Gnezdovo and Gotland were major centers 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’ (people) 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 Isles, 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 Kiev were thoroughly Slavicized by the end of the tenth 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 Saint 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 River into the Black Sea. 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.
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 Basil 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. In the eleventh century, there were also two other European courts that recruited Scandinavians: Kiev Rus c. 980-1060 and London 1018-1066 (the Þingalið). Steve Runciman, in “The History of the Crusades,” noted that by the time of the Emperor Alexius, 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.”
As early as 911, the Varangians are mentioned as fighting for the Byzantines and not just against them. About 700 Varangians served along with Dalmatians as marines in Byzantine naval expeditions against 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 known as the Great Companions (Gr. Μεγάλη Εταιρεία).
With the decline of the Byzantine Empire, the emperors increased their reliance on the Varangian mercenaries. In 988 Basil II requested military assistance from Vladimir of Kiev to help defend his throne. In compliance with the treaty made by his father after the Siege of Dorostolon (971), Vladimir sent 6000 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 the Varangian guard, led by Basil II himself, landed at Chrysopolis to defeat the rebel general Bardas Phocas. On the field of battle, Phocas died of a stroke in full view of his opponent; upon the death of their leader, Phocas’ troops turned and fled. The brutality of the Varangians was noted when they pursued the fleeing army and “cheerfully hacked them to pieces.”
The Varangian Guard 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 Maniaches in 1038. Here, they fought alongside Normans recently arrived in Italy seeking adventure and Lombards from Byzantine-held Apulia. The Guard was at this time led by Harald Hardrada, later King of Norway. However, when Maniaches ostracized 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 Bari. On 16 March 1041 they were called up to fight the Normans near Venosa and many drowned in the subsequent retreat across the Ofanto. In September Exaugustus Boioannes was sent to Italy with only a small contingent of Varangians to replace the disgraced Doukeianos. On September 3, 1041 they were defeated in battle by the Normans.
Many of the late 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 Otranto. Twenty years later, in 1067, the last Byzantine catepan in southern Italy, Mabrica, arrived with Varangian auxiliaries and took Brindisi and Taranto. At the disastrous Battle of Manzikert, 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 5000 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.
The Varangians relied on a long axe as their main weapon, although they were often skilled swordsmen or archers as well. In some sources they are described as mounted. The guard was stationed primarily around Constantinople, and may have been barracked in the Bucoleon palace 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 Beroia 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.
Furthermore, they were the only element of the army to successfully defend part of Constantinople 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.” Although the Guard was apparently disbanded after the city’s capture in 1204, there are some indications that it was revived either by the Empire of Nicaea or by the Palaeologid emperors themselves, though it is not likely that they lasted long after Michael VIII.
In Russia, Varangian remained a synonym for Swedes until the late sixteenth century.
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.
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 (Constantinople).
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 Nicephorus 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 Tzimisces, Nicephorus’ 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.”
According to the Kievan Rus’ Primary Chronicle, the earliest chronicle of Kievan Rus′ compiled in about 1113 C.E., groups of Varangians included the Swedes, the Rus, the Normans, the Angles and the Gotlanders These Varangians were Vikings,. 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 Sweden.
Engaging in trade, piracy and mercenary activities, they roamed the river systems and portages of Gardariki, reaching the Caspian Sea and Constantinople. During the next 35 years, Oleg and his warriors subdued the various Eastern Slavic and Finnic tribes.
According to the Primary Chronicle:
Upon year 6367 (859 C.E.): Varangians from over the sea had tribute from Chuds, Slavs, Merias, Veses, Krivichs ….Upon year 6370 (862 C.E.): [They] Drove the Varangians back beyond the sea, refused to pay them tribute, and set out to govern themselves. But there was no law among them, and tribe rose against tribe. Discord thus ensued among them, and they began to war one against the other. They said to themselves, “Let us seek a prince who may rule over us, and judge us according to custom.” Thus they went overseas to the Varangians, to the Rus. These particular Varangians were called Rus, just as some are called Swedes, and others Normans and Angles, and still others Goths [Gotlanders], for they were thus named. The Chuds, the Slavs, the Krivichs and the Ves then said to the Rus, “Our land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come reign as princes, rule over us.” Three brothers, with their kinfolk, volunteered. They took with them all the Rus and came.
After moving their center of power from Novgorod to Kiev, they are generally credited with establishing the progenitor to the Russian state in Kievan Rus’, which became an important power in the early tenth century. In 907 C.E. Oleg led an attack against Constantinople, and in 911 C.E. he signed a commercial treaty with the Byzantine Empire as an equal partner. The new Kievan state prospered because it had an abundant supply of furs, beeswax, and honey for export and because it controlled three main trade routes of Eastern Europe: the Volga trade route from the Baltic Sea to the Orient, the Dnieper trade route (from the Varangians to the Greeks) from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, and the trade route from the Khazars to the Germans.
Given the postulated pro-Scandinavian bias of the Russian Primary Chronicle, some Slavic historians have debated the role of the Varangians in the establishment of Kievan Rus′. By the reign of Sviatoslav I, Prince of Kiev (r. 945-972) Kievan rulers had adopted Slavic religion and names, but their druzhina still consisted primarily of Scandinavians.
While the Varangians are represented in Walter Scott’s novel Count Robert of Paris as the fiercest and most loyal element of the Byzantine forces, this is probably exaggerated. However, the exaggeration was begun by Byzantine writers themselves, who treated the Varangians as “noble savages.” Many Byzantine writers referred to them as “axe-bearing foreigners,” or pelekyphoroi barbaroi, rather than Varangians. While many writers praised their loyalty to the emperors (and ascribed their loyalty to their race), the frequent usurpations that disrupted Byzantine rule suggest that the Guard was either less loyal or less effective than the sources would lead us to believe.
One notable exception to the legendary Varangian loyalty to the throne occurred in 1071. After Emperor Romanus Diogenes was defeated by Sultan Alp Arslan, a palace coup was staged before he could return to Constantinople. His stepson, Caesar John Ducas, 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 twelfth century description of them as “the Emperor’s wine-bags.”
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 many of which 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 C.E. 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 most recent runestones, in the style Pr5, such as Ed runestone U 104 (presently in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford), 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 a Byzantine cross carved on the early eleventh century Risbyle runestone U 161 testifies, and which today is the coat-of-arms of Täby. 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 England.
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. Traveling 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:
Bolli rode from the ship with twelve men, and all his followers were dressed in scarlet, and rode on gilt saddles, and all were they a trusty band, though Bolli was peerless among them. He had on the clothes of fur which the Garth-king 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.
The Varangian Guard is mentioned also in Njal’s Saga in reference to Kolskegg–an Icelander said to have come first to Holmgard (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 18 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 spatharocandidatos. 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 Bridge while invading England in 1066. The exiled English prince Edgar Ætheling may also have served with the Guard around 1098.
The Varangian Guard regained some of its old Scandinavian flavor 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.
- H.S. Falk & A. Torp. Norwegisch-dänisches etymologisches. (Wörterbuch, 1911), 1403-1404; J. de Vries. Altnordisches etymologisches Wörterbuch. (1962), 671-672; S. Blöndal & B. Benedikz. The Varangians of Byzantium. (1978), 4
- Falk & Torp, 1403; other words with the same second part are: Old Norse erfingi “heir,” armingi “beggar,” aumingi “beggar,” bandingi “captive,” hamingja “luck,” heiðingi “wolf,” lausingi / leysingi “homeless,” cf. Falk & Torp, 34; Vries, 163
- A massive majority (40,000) of all Viking-Age Arabian coins found in Scandinavia were found in Gotland. In Skåne, Öland and Uppland together, about 12,000 coins were found. Other Scandinavian areas have only scattered finds: 1000 from Denmark and some 500 from Norway. Byzantine coins have been found almost exclusively in Gotland, some 400. See Arkeologi i Norden 2. (Stockholm: Författarna och Bokförlaget Natur & kultur. 1999). See also Carl JohanGardell. Gotlands historia i fickformat. (Stockholm: Bokbörsen, 1987).
- The Russian Primary Chronicle: Laurentian Text, Translated by O. P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor. Samuel H. Cross, Editor. (Cambridge, MA: Medieval Academy of America, 1968) (in English)
- Jansson 1980:22
- Pritsak 1981:386
- Stephen Lowe, Battle Honours of the Varangian Guard Retrieved February 20, 2009.
- Stephen Turnbull. The Walls of Constantinople, AD 324–1453. (London: Osprey Publishing]])
- It is neither unusual nor particularly Byzantine that a foreign unit would gain such access and prestige. Augustus himself had a personal guard of Germans, the Collegium Custodum Corporis or Germani Corporis Custodes, to protect himself from the native Praetorians. This guard was revived by Tiberius and continued until Nero.
- Lars Magnar Enoksen, (1998). Runor: historia, tydning, tolkning. (Lund, Sweden: Historiska Media, Falun), 135
- John Julius Norwich. A Short History of Byzantium. (Viking, 1997)
- Wladyslaw Duczko. Viking Rus. (Leiden: BRILL, 2004), 10–11. Chapter I: The Rus and Scandanavia. books.google. Retrieved February 20, 2009.
- R. R. Milner-Gulland. Atlas of Russia and the Soviet Union. (Phaidon Press), 36 . books.google. Retrieved February 20, 2009.
- Sydney Schultze. Culture and Customs of Russia. (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000), 5 . Retrieved February 20, 2009.
- Angelo Forte, Richard Oram, and Frederik Pedersen. Viking Empires. (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005), 13-14.
- Mats G. Larsson. 2002. Götarnas Riken : Upptäcktsfärder Till Sveriges Enande. (Stockholm: Bokförlaget Atlantis AB), 143-144.
- The dating is provided by the Rundata project in a freely downloadable database.
- Sagas of the Icelanders, Penguin Group Retrieved February 20, 2009.
- OMACL: The Laxdaela Saga: Chapter 73 Retrieved February 20, 2009.
- OMACL: The Laxdaela Saga: Chapter 77 Retrieved February 20, 2009.
- OMACL: The Story of Burnt Njal Retrieved February 20, 2009.
- Philip Dixon. Barbarian Europe. (Salem House Publishing, 1976. 978-0525701606)
- Blondal, Sigfus. Varangians of Byzantium: An Aspect of Byzantine Military History, Trans. by Benedikt S. Benedikz, Cambridge University Press: 1979. (in English)
- Davidson, Hilda R. Ellis. The Viking Road to Byzantium. London: Allen & Unwin, 1976.
- Dixon, Philip. Barbarian Europe. Topsfield, MA: Salem House Publishing, 1976.
- Enoksen, Lars Magnar. 1998. Runor: historia, tydning, tolkning. Lund, Sweden: Historiska Media, Falun.
- Forte, Angelo, Richard Oram, and Frederik Pedersen. Viking Empires. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005.
- Larsson, Mats G. 2002. Götarnas Riken : Upptäcktsfärder Till Sveriges Enande. Stockholm: Bokförlaget Atlantis AB.
- Jansson, Sven B. 1980. Runstenar. Stockholm: STF.
- Norwich, John Julius. A Short History of Byzantium. New York: Viking Press, 1997.
- Schultze, Sydney. Culture and Customs of Russia. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000.
- Turnbull, Stephen. The Walls of Constantinople, AD 324–1453. London: Osprey Publishing.
Originally published by New World Encyclopedia, 01.15.2016, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.