Varangians or Varyags was the name given by the Greeks and East Slavs to the Vikings.  These Vikings between the 9th and 11th centuries ruled the medieval state of Rus’.  According to early Kievan Rus’ history, a group of Varangians under the leadership of Rurik settled in Novgorod in 862 A.D.  These people formed the descendants of Russia.  The Varangians roamed river systems and controlled the Volga trade route which connected the Baltic to the Caspian Sea (Varangians to the Arab Caliphate), as well as the Dnieper trade route leading to the Black Sea and Constantinople (Varangians to the Greeks).

These wealthy trade routes connected Dark Age Europe to the well developed and civilized Arab world.  Initial forays between the Rus’ Varangians and the Byzantines resulted in a number of trade treaties that enticed the early Varangians to join the military service of the Byzantine Empire, chasing wealth and fame.  Two attacks (860 A.D. and 907 A.D.) resulted in said treaties being formed between Rus-Byzantine Empire.  These treaties involved the provision of Viking mercenaries for the Byzantine army.  The first records of Varangian mercenaries fighting for the Empire are during a Naval operation in 902 A.D. against the Muslims of Crete.

In 911 A.D. after formation of the 2nd treaty between Byzantium and Rus’ the latter was allowed official rights to join the imperial army at whatever time and however many chose to come.  This paved the way for the official formation of the Varangian Guard later on.

The Varangian Guard was an elite mercenary force based in Constantinople with sworn fealty to the Emperor of the Byzantine Empire.  The Guard was formed by the Emperor Basil II in 988 A.D. after the Grand Price Vladimir I of Kiev took control of the Kievan Rus’ in Kiev.  As part of a military assistance agreement, Vladimir sent 6000 Varangian Warriors to the Emperor.  This was Vladimirs opportunity to “free himself” of these unruly warriors who since 980 A.D. had become increasingly frustrated at his inability or unwillingness to pay their wages.  On their way to Constantinople the Varangians surprised a rebel army who was feasting, killing many and putting the rest to flight.

Aside from this new force, many Varangians had previously fought for the Emperor.  The Byzantine Empire had been recruiting Rus and Norse mercenaries to protect the North-western borders from nomadic raiders.  Due to his distrust of the native Byzantine guardsmen and their growing respect of the Varangians as a feared military unit they formed the new core of the Emperor’s personal bodyguard.  This ensured that they would be unrelated to the machinations of the royal court as long as they were paid and rewarded.

The Emperor sent Varangians en masse on several occasions during reign of the Byzantine Empire, quelling rebellions and annexing territories.  They even managed to foil several assassination attempts of the lives in individual Emperors, Manuel I Komnenos and later Alexios III Angelos Komnenos twice during his usurpation of the throne (D’Amato 2010).  The Varangian Guard proved itself time and time again during this period of several hundred years.  On one such occasion, during the Battle of Beroe (1122 A.D.) against the Pechenegs, all other troops had failed to penetrate the circled wagon train that was the Pechenegs’ defences.  The officers of the Byzantine Army shouted for “The Emperor’s wineskins” sending in his feared mercenary force.  The Varangians, although heavily outnumbered, broke the circle and slaughtered the enemy.

As the Varangians grew in wealth, fame and notoriety, stories of their military prowess and the riches of the Byzantine Empire flooded to all parts of the known world.  Mercenaries from as far away as Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Iceland soon made their way to the Empire.  Several famous men of the Viking Era fought as members of the Varangian Guard including Bolli Bollason who is recorded in the Icelandic Laxdaela Saga and Harald Sigurdsson (Hardrada) the future King of Norway.  It is said in the Icelandic Sagas that “after Bolli reached the rank of Officer in the Varangian Guard, he returned to Iceland with tremendous wealth.  After he returned, he refused to wear any clothes other than those made of scarlet or fur and all his weapons were inlaid with gold.  He brought with him twelve men, all dressed in scarlet and rode on gilt saddles… though Bolli was peerless among them, he was called Bolli the Great…”

The Varangian Guard remained as the personal bodyguard for the Byzantine Emperors from this point forward and continued until at least the mid 14th century.

Continue on to Membership


Ellis Davidson H.R. 1976 , The Viking Road to Byzantium, pages 177 – 192

D’Amato R 2010, The Varangian Guard 988 – 1453, Osprey Publishing

Dixon D.F  1998, Varangian – Rus Warrior – Merchants and the Origin of the Russian State, Journal of Macromarketing, Vol 18, Pages 50 – 61