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Who were the Varangian Guard?

Varangian Guardsmen, an illumination from the Skylitzis Chronicle
The Varangian Guards, an illumination from the Skylitzis Chronicle

One of the most spectacular buildings on the planet is Hagia Sophia. With its vast dome and majestic minarets piercing the sky over Istanbul, this Byzantine masterpiece has stood for many hundreds of years, serving first as a cathedral and then as a mosque. Yet, while everyone’s eyes are drawn to the lavish flourishes of the architecture, deep within its ornate interior there also happens to be a particularly fascinating patch of graffiti. It’s not a spray-painted tag left by some rude tourist, but it may as well be.

Vikings in Turkey

Carved into the marble is a runic inscription, most of its slashes rendered illegible by the passage of time. What we can make out is part of the impertinent visitor’s name – Halfdan. Historians believe the short, cheeky message left here basically translates as “Halfdan was here”, and is reminder of the unlikely population of Viking warriors who once lived it up in the heart of Constantinople.

Viking Runes found in the Hagia Sophia
Halfdan was here

Putting it very simply, the Byzantine Empire was the Eastern wing of the old Roman Empire. As the Western original fell into decline, the “New Rome” of Constantinople thrived as the buzzing, cosmopolitan epicentre of trade and intrigue. One of its greatest rulers was Basil II, a man as cunning as he was ruthless – which was just as well, because he had to deal with a messy, blood-soaked power struggle with rebellious generals who sought to topple his reign.

This struggle led Basil II to seek help from an unlikely source: the Norse settlers of Kievan Rus’. This was a territory which encompassed parts of modern-day Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, and was presided over by Vladimir I, the latest in a line of rulers of Viking descent. These Vikings, who had come east to exploit the rich trade routes of Eurasia, were known as Varangians.

Vladimir was keen to bring his people in line with the modern world by casting aside pagan beliefs and embracing one monotheistic religion – either Judaism, Islam or Christianity. As the story goes, Vladimir almost opted for Islam, but was put off by the ban on alcohol, saying “Drinking is the joy of the Rus, we cannot exist without that pleasure”. After much mulling and pondering, he eventually decided on Christianity, partly because his envoys were wowed by the Byzantine grandeur of Hagia Sophia.

Drinking is the joy of the Rus, we cannot exist without that pleasure

Russian Viking leader Vladmir I on why he couldn't convert to Islam

When Basil II approached Vladimir for military assistance against his troublesome generals in 988 AD, it paved the way for a new alliance – and for the conversion of Vladimir and the Varangians to Christianity. As part of the deal, Vladimir gave 6,000 troops to Basil – a vast army of fearsome Viking fighters who faced Basil’s enemies on the battlefield and, in the words of one chronicler, “cheerfully hacked them to pieces”.

After helping Basil overcome the rebels and reign supreme, these mercenaries stuck around, becoming known as the Varangian Guard. They, and the warriors who enlisted afterwards for centuries to come, had the sworn duty to protect the Byzantine Emperor and also to go to war if their terrifying presence was required on the battlefields on the fringes of the Empire.

They attacked with reckless rage and neither cared about losing blood nor their wounds

Contemporary accounts of the Varangian's ferocity

From the sounds of things, they were the very picture of swaggering, booze-soaked, hard-living Vikings. One contemporary writer described them as “axe-bearing barbarians”, while another recounted how they “were frightening both in appearance and in equipment” and that “they attacked with reckless rage and neither cared about losing blood nor their wounds”, in true berserker style. For their efforts, they were awarded huge privileges, one of the weirdest being “palace pillaging” rights. In effect, whenever an emperor died, the guards were allowed to help themselves to as much royal gold and jewellery as he could carry. Thanks to these perks, as well as generally being indulged by the grateful emperors, many Varangian Guards became vastly wealthy.

When it came to bodyguard duties, the Varangian Guards were faithful to the throne itself, rather than to the man who sat there. A grisly example of this very specific loyalty was the assassination, in 969 AD, of the Emperor Nikephoros II. He was slaughtered in his sleeping quarters by his rival John Tzimiskes, and by the time the Varangian Guards got there it was too late. Yet, instead of attacking the assassin, they pledged immediate loyalty to him, as he was now the emperor. As the historian John Julius Norwich puts it, “Alive they would have defended [Nikephoros] to the last breath; dead, there was no point in avenging him. They had a new master now.”

As time went on, the cultural make-up of the Varangian Guards changed. Anglo-Saxon fighters, who’d been sent into exile after the Norman Conquest of 1066, joined their ranks, so by the time the organisation faded out in the 14th Century it looked very different. Despite this, it’s their initial phase as the Viking shock troops and dedicated henchmen of the Byzantine court that has made the Varangian Guards such figures of awed fascination today.

As time went on, the cultural make-up of the Varangian Guards changed. Anglo-Saxon fighters, who’d been sent into exile after the Norman Conquest of 1066, joined their ranks, so by the time the organisation faded out in the 14th Century it looked very different. Despite this, it’s their initial phase as the Viking shock troops and dedicated henchmen of the Byzantine court that has made the Varangian Guards such figures of awed fascination today.