Unraveling the Mysteries of the Varangian Guard

who were the varangians

Who were the Varangians? This elite military force, also known as the Varangian Guard, played a significant role in Byzantine history but remains shrouded in mystery. Their origins, rise to power, and eventual decline continue to fascinate historians and history enthusiasts alike. In this article, we will explore the mysteries of the Varangian Guard, unraveling their story and shedding light on their enduring legacy.

Key Takeaways:

  • The Varangian Guard was an elite military force that played a significant role in Byzantine history.
  • Their origins, rise to power, and eventual decline are shrouded in mystery.
  • Despite their elusive nature, the Varangians continue to fascinate historians and history enthusiasts alike.

Origins of the Varangians

The Varangians, legendary warriors of the Byzantine Empire, trace their origins back to the Scandinavian regions of Europe. In the early medieval period, Vikings from Sweden, Denmark, and Norway began to venture out from their homelands in search of new lands to colonize and conquer. They soon found themselves in the midst of the prospering Greek Empire of the East.

The Byzantine Empire had long established trade and diplomatic ties with the Scandinavians, who were known as the Rus in the East. The Varangians quickly gained a reputation as fierce warriors and mercenaries, and their military skills were highly prized by the Byzantine emperors.

One of the most famous Varangians to arrive in Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, was the legendary warrior and adventurer, Harald Sigurdsson – better known as Harald Hardrada. He would later go on to become King of Norway and fight against the English king, Harold Godwinson in 1066 AD at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

Rise of the Varangian Guard

The Varangian Guard was established in the early 10th century as an elite unit of the Byzantine army. Consisting mostly of Scandinavians, the Guard quickly became known for their exceptional military skills and unwavering loyalty to the Byzantine emperor. The rise of the Varangian Guard came at a time when the Byzantine Empire was facing increasing threats from external enemies, and the need for a reliable and skilled military force was paramount.

The Varangians were initially employed as mercenaries by the Byzantine emperors, but their impressive performance on the battlefield soon earned them a permanent place in the imperial army. The exact process by which the Varangians were recruited and trained is still a matter of debate among historians, but it is generally agreed that these warriors underwent rigorous military training and were well-versed in a variety of weapons and tactics.

The Varangian Guard reached the height of its power during the reign of Emperor Basil II in the late 10th and early 11th centuries. Under Basil II’s leadership, the Varangians played a key role in several military campaigns and gained a reputation as fearsome warriors. The Guard was also heavily involved in imperial politics, and Varangian officers held important positions in the Byzantine court.

The Battle at Kleidion

One of the most significant events in the history of the Varangian Guard was the Battle at Kleidion in 1014. The Byzantine army, led by Basil II and supported by the Varangian Guard, defeated a large Bulgarian force and captured 15,000 Bulgarian soldiers. As a symbol of his victory, Basil II ordered that the eyes of 99 out of every 100 Bulgarian soldiers be blinded, leaving one with a single eye to lead the rest back to Bulgaria. This brutal act earned Basil II the nickname “Bulgar-slayer” and cemented the Varangian Guard’s reputation as a fearsome and loyal military force.

Despite their success and significance, the Varangian Guard began to decline in the 12th century. A combination of internal conflicts and external threats weakened the Byzantine Empire, and the once-mighty Varangians were eventually disbanded in the late 14th century. Nevertheless, the legacy of the Varangian Guard lived on, and their impact on Byzantine history and culture remains undeniable.

Life within the Varangian Guard

The Varangian Guard was a unique military force comprised of Norsemen and other foreign warriors who served as the personal bodyguards of the Byzantine Emperors. A position within the Guard was highly coveted, as it offered significant wealth, prestige, and influence. However, life within the Varangian Guard was not for the faint-hearted.

From the moment a warrior joined the Varangian Guard, they were subjected to rigorous training and discipline. They had to be physically fit and mentally strong, as they were expected to face some of the most formidable opponents in battle. Their duties included protecting the emperor and his family, as well as defending the empire from external threats.

But life within the Varangian Guard was not just about military service. Guardsmen had access to the imperial court and were often involved in political affairs. They could own property and engage in trade, and some even rose to positions of great power within the empire.

Despite their high status, however, Varangian Guards were still outsiders in Byzantine society. They were foreigners in a land that was not their own, and they had to adapt to a new culture, language, and way of life. They also faced hostility and prejudice from some of the locals, who resented their presence and saw them as a threat.

Despite these challenges, the Varangian Guard remained a respected and formidable force throughout the Byzantine Empire’s history. They were known for their indomitable spirit, fierce loyalty, and unyielding courage – qualities that made them one of the most revered military units of their time.

Training and Discipline

Life within the Varangian Guard began with a grueling training regimen. Guardsmen had to be physically fit and mentally sharp, as they were expected to face the toughest opponents in battle. They had to master a range of weapons, from swords and shields to spears and axes, and they had to learn various tactical formations and maneuvers.

Discipline was also a crucial part of life within the Varangian Guard. Guardsmen had to obey strict rules and regulations, and any infraction was met with severe punishment. Even minor offenses could result in flogging or banishment from the Guard.

Despite the harsh training and strict discipline, many warriors aspired to join the Varangian Guard because of the prestige and opportunities it offered. A position within the Guard meant access to the imperial court, as well as the chance to serve and protect the emperor himself.

Lifestyle and Culture

Life within the Varangian Guard was not all about military service. Guardsmen had access to wealth, property, and trade, and many of them took advantage of these opportunities to build a comfortable life in the empire.

Guardsmen were also expected to adapt to Byzantine culture and society. They had to learn the language and customs of the locals, and many of them converted to Christianity to better integrate into the empire.

Despite their assimilation, however, guardsmen still maintained a strong sense of their own culture and identity. They spoke their own language and practiced their own customs and traditions, and they often formed close-knit communities within the empire.

“The Varangian Guard was a brotherhood of warriors who shared a common bond of service and sacrifice. It was an honor to be part of such a revered and respected unit, and we were proud to defend the empire and its people.” – Harald, former Varangian Guardsman.

Tales of Valor and Honor

The Varangian Guard was renowned for their bravery and loyalty, and their tales of valor and heroism have become the stuff of legend.

One such tale tells of a group of Varangian Guardsmen who, during the siege of Constantinople in 1204, single-handedly defended a wall against a much larger force of Crusaders. Despite being outnumbered and outmatched, they held their ground until reinforcements arrived, earning them the admiration and gratitude of the Byzantine citizens.

In another account, a Varangian Guard named Harald Hardrada, who would later become king of Norway, saved the life of Emperor Michael IV during a battle against the Bulgarians. In recognition of this act of valor, Michael granted Harald the title of proedros and appointed him as commander of the Varangian Guard.

These tales of courage and selflessness are just a few examples of the valor and honor that defined the Varangian Guard and earned them their reputation as one of the greatest fighting forces in history.

Varangian Guard and Byzantine Emperors

The close relationship between the Varangian Guard and Byzantine Emperors was a significant aspect of the Guard’s history. The emperors trusted the Varangians as experienced and reliable warriors, often granting them special privileges and honors.

One such honor was the right to bear their own banner, the drakkar, during imperial processions. This banner symbolized the Varangians’ loyalty and dedication to the emperor, and was a testament to their important role in the Byzantine Empire.

Varangian Guard and Emperor Basil II

Emperor Basil II was particularly fond of the Varangian Guard, and relied heavily on their military expertise. The Guard played a crucial role in many of his campaigns, including the successful reconquest of Bulgaria.

In recognition of their service, Basil II granted the Varangians a range of privileges, including the right to marry local women and own land. Many Varangians settled in Constantinople and became integrated with Byzantine society. Some even rose to positions of power and influence, both within the military and the imperial court.

Varangian Guard and Emperor Alexios I

Emperor Alexios I also had a close relationship with the Varangian Guard, relying on them during his reign to defend the empire from external threats.

The Varangians’ reputation as skilled warriors allowed them to play a key role in many of Alexios’ military campaigns. They fought on the front lines alongside other Byzantine troops, and helped to secure many important victories for the empire.

Their close relationship with the emperor and their prowess in battle cemented the Varangians’ position as one of the most powerful and respected military forces in the Byzantine Empire.

The Varangian Guard’s Impact on Byzantine Society

The Varangian Guard’s impact on Byzantine society was far-reaching and multifaceted. These foreign warriors played a vital role in shaping the empire’s military tactics and defending its borders.

However, their impact extended far beyond the battlefield. The integration of the Varangian Guard into Byzantine society helped foster cultural exchange and promote economic prosperity.

Integration into Byzantine Society

The Varangian Guard’s integration into Byzantine society was a gradual process that took place over several decades. These foreign warriors were initially viewed with suspicion and mistrust, but their loyalty and martial prowess soon won over the hearts and minds of the Byzantine populace.

The Varangians’ close association with the Byzantine Emperors helped facilitate this integration process. As the emperors entrusted the Varangians with increasingly important tasks, they became more deeply ingrained in Byzantine society and culture.

Influence on Military Tactics

The Varangian Guard’s impact on Byzantine military tactics was profound. Their expertise in hand-to-hand combat and siege warfare helped shape the empire’s approach to battle.

The Varangians were also responsible for introducing new weapons and tactics to the Byzantine army. Their use of the longbow, for example, revolutionized Byzantine archery and became a mainstay of the empire’s military arsenal.

Contribution to the Empire’s Defense

The Varangians’ contribution to the defense of the Byzantine Empire cannot be overstated. These fearless warriors stood at the forefront of the empire’s defense, protecting its borders from invaders and raiders.

Their presence sent a clear message to would-be aggressors: the Byzantine Empire was not to be trifled with. The Varangians’ reputation for bravery and loyalty helped deter attacks and maintain the empire’s security.

In conclusion, the Varangian Guard’s impact on Byzantine society was profound and far-reaching. Their integration into Byzantine culture, influence on military tactics, and contribution to the empire’s defense helped shape the course of Byzantine history.

Varangians in Trade and Diplomacy

The Varangians of the Byzantine Empire were not just renowned for their military might. They were also skilled traders and diplomats, who facilitated cultural exchange and helped forge economic ties between the East and West.

As early as the 9th century, Varangians were active in the trade routes that connected the Black Sea with the Baltic and beyond. They traded in fur, honey, wax, and slaves, among other commodities, and established trading posts along the way.

However, it was after their arrival in Byzantium that their role in trade and diplomacy truly flourished. The Varangians acted as intermediaries between the Byzantine Empire and their northern European counterparts, facilitating the exchange of goods and ideas.

Trade Diplomacy
Varangians traded in fur, honey, wax, and slaves, among other commodities Formed personal relationships with Byzantine emperors and helped negotiate alliances
Established trading posts along the trade routes that connected the Black Sea with the Baltic and beyond Acted as intermediaries between the Byzantine Empire and their northern European counterparts, facilitating the exchange of goods and ideas
Helped forge economic ties between the East and West, contributing to the prosperity of both Played a significant role in imperial diplomacy, representing the Byzantine Empire abroad and strengthening its influence in Europe

The Varangians were also valued for their skills as bodyguards and mercenaries, which made them ideal candidates for diplomatic missions. They formed personal relationships with Byzantine emperors and helped negotiate alliances, playing a significant role in imperial diplomacy. Their loyalty and reputation for valor made them highly sought after by other European monarchs, who sought their services as mercenaries.

Overall, the Varangians’ involvement in trade and diplomacy helped connect the East and West and contributed to the prosperity of both. Their unique position as foreign warriors in a foreign land gave them a valuable perspective that helped them navigate the complex networks of politics and commerce.

Decline and Legacy of the Varangian Guard

The Varangian Guard’s illustrious history came to a close with its eventual disbandment in the late 14th century. The decline of the Guard was attributed to a combination of factors such as external threats, internal dissent, and changes in the Byzantine Empire’s military and political structure.

The decline of the Guard was further catalyzed by the weakening of the Byzantine Empire itself, which was facing economic, social, and political turmoil. The Guard, which was once a symbol of the Empire’s strength and military might, could no longer sustain its prestige and influence in the face of a changing world.

Despite its ultimate end, the Varangian Guard left behind a lasting legacy that endures to this day. Their reputation as formidable warriors and loyal protectors garnered them great respect, and their stories and legends continue to inspire awe and fascination.

Moreover, the Varangians’ integration into Byzantine society facilitated the exchange of ideas and cultures between the East and West. Their legacy can be seen in the military tactics, techniques, and strategies that were adopted by subsequent armies in Europe and beyond.

The Varangian Guard remains a testament to the enduring power of loyalty, bravery, and sacrifice. Their contribution to history and society will forever be remembered as a shining example of the indomitable spirit of human courage and resilience.

Varangian Guard in Modern Culture

The Varangian Guard, with their legendary reputation and rich history, have had a significant impact on modern popular culture. From books to movies and games, the intrigue and mystery surrounding these elite warriors continue to captivate audiences around the world.

One popular representation of the Varangian Guard can be found in the video game, Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. In this game, the player gets to experience the life of a young Viking who joins the ranks of the Varangian Guard, protecting the Byzantine Emperor and uncovering conspiracies.

Another notable reference to the Varangian Guard can be found in the book, “The Varangian” by Bruce Macbain. This historical fiction novel follows a Varangian warrior as he embarks on a journey throughout the Byzantine Empire and becomes embroiled in political intrigue and dangerous battles.

The Varangian Guard has also inspired numerous movies and tv shows, such as the 2016 Russian film, “Viking,” which follows the story of Prince Vladimir the Great and his recruitment of the Varangians for his army. The popular tv show, “Vikings,” also features a storyline involving the Varangians, with characters joining their ranks and engaging in epic battles.

Overall, the Varangian Guard has left an indelible mark on modern culture. Their heroism, loyalty, and bravery continue to inspire and captivate audiences, reminding us of the enduring fascination with these legendary warriors.

The Varangians: Guardians of History

The Varangian Guard’s legacy goes beyond their military prowess and heroism. They were also guardians of history, preserving their own cultural traditions and that of the Byzantine Empire. Their integration into Byzantine society and their influence on military tactics and defense strategies made them an essential part of the empire’s history.

Today, the study of the Varangians and their impact on history continues to fascinate and intrigue historians and enthusiasts alike. Their story is a testament to the enduring spirit of adventure and courage in the face of adversity. By studying their history, we can gain a deeper understanding of the cultural exchange between different nations and the role of foreign warriors in shaping the course of history.


From their mysterious origins to their legendary tales of valor and honor, the Varangian Guard remains one of history’s most intriguing military units. Through our exploration of their history, we have uncovered the origins of these fierce warriors, their close relationship with Byzantine emperors, and their lasting impact on society and culture.

Despite their eventual decline and disbandment, the legacy of the Varangian Guard lives on. Their enduring fascination is evident in their representation in modern culture, from books to movies to games. As guardians of history, their story serves as a reminder of the powerful impact that foreign warriors can have on the history of nations.

In conclusion, the Varangian Guard continues to inspire and captivate us today, proving that the allure of their mystery and legend is as strong now as it was centuries ago.


Q: What is the Varangian Guard?

A: The Varangian Guard was an elite military unit composed of Viking warriors who served as bodyguards to the Byzantine emperors.

Q: Where did the Varangians come from?

A: The Varangians originated from the Scandinavian regions, particularly Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.

Q: What was the role of the Varangian Guard?

A: The Varangian Guard served as the personal bodyguards of the Byzantine emperors and played a crucial role in protecting the imperial family and the empire.

Q: How did the Varangian Guard impact Byzantine society?

A: The Varangian Guard had a significant influence on Byzantine society, contributing to military tactics, trade, diplomacy, and cultural exchange.

Q: What is the legacy of the Varangian Guard?

A: The Varangian Guard left a lasting legacy in history, symbolizing bravery, loyalty, and the unique relationship between the Byzantine Empire and the Viking warriors.