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This article is part of the
Scandinavia series
Viking Age
Kalmar Union
Monetary Union
Defense union
History of Sweden
History of Norway
History of Denmark

The Varangians or Variags were Vikings who travelled eastwards from Sweden and Norway. Promoting trade, piracy and mercenary militarism, they roamed the river systems and portages of what later became Russia, reaching the Caspian Sea and Constantinople.

The Slavs and the Byzantines, however, did not distinguish between Scandinavians and closely related Germanic subsets, when they used this term. In the Russian Primary Chronicle, this term also includes the people of Denmark and England (Англяне).

The Varangian was a glacial episode approximately 700 million years ago.


The Varangian Rus'

The Varangians (Varyags, in Russian) are first mentioned by the Russian Primary Chronicle as having arrived from beyond the Baltic Sea around the mid-9th century, invited by the warring Slavic and Fennic tribes to bring peace to the region. On this account, the 18th-century German historians credited the Vikings with establishing the first Russian state. On the other hand, the Slavic historians contend that the account of "invitation" was borrowed from the Norse sagas and that the chronicle's account implied the prior existence of the East Slavic state. See Rus' article for more information.

According to the Chronicle, the invited Varangians called Rus' were led by Rurik and his two brothers Truvor and Sineus, who settled around the Slavic town of Novgorod. [1] . Many historians hold that these Varangians of 9th century were legendary, but a real Viking settlement, Aldeigjuborg (now Staraya Ladoga), associated with the name of Rurik, was established around Lake Ladoga in the 8th century.

In contrast to the intense Viking influence in Normandy and the British Isles, Varangian culture did not survive to a great extent in the East. Instead, it was rapidly assimilated into the Slavic substrate.

The Varangian Guard

Varangians first appear in the Byzantine world in 839, when the emperor Theophilus negotiated with them to provide a few mercenaries for his army. Although the Rus' often had peaceful trading relations with the Byzantines, their raiders sometimes attacked from the north. Such attacks came in 860, 907, 911, 941, 945, 971, and finally 1043. These raids were successful only in causing the Byzantines to re-arrange their trade treaties; militarily, they were always defeated by the superior Byzantines, especially by the use of Greek fire.

The Varangian ruling class of the two powerful city-states of Novgorod and Kyiv eventually was Slavicized, but the Varangian mercenary force continued in their service. The Byzantines also soon acquired an official mercenary force that became the Varangian Guard. This occurred in 988, when Kyivan Prince Vladimir the Great converted to Orthodox Christianity. In exchange for a marriage to Basil II's sister Anna, Vladimir gave Basil 6,000 Varangians to use as his own personal bodyguard. The Varangian Guard was one of the fiercest and most loyal elements of the Byzantine army, as described in Anna Comnena's chronicle of the reign of her father Alexius I, the Alexiad. Their main weapon was a long axe, although they could also be skilled swordsmen and archers. They were the only element of the army to successfully defend part of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, although the Guard was apparently disbanded after the city's capture in 1204. By this time, the term Varangian referred to any mercenary from northern Europe, and the Guard was probably composed more of English, Scottish and Norman mercenaries than Russians or Scandinavians.

One of the most famous members of the Varangian Guard was the future king Harald III of Norway, also known as Harald Hardrada ("Hardreign"), who arrived in Constantinople in 1035. He participated in eighteen battles and became Akolythos, the commander, of the Guard before returning home in 1043. Exiled English prince Edgar Atheling may also have served with the Guard around 1098.

See also

External links

  • Who Were the Varangians?

Further reading

  • Sigfus Blondal. Varangians of Byzantium: An Aspect of Byzantine Military History. Trans. by Benedikt S. Benedikz, Cambridge: 1978. ISBN 0521217458
  • H.R. Ellis Davidson. The Viking Road to Byzantium. London: 1976. ISBN 0049400495

Last updated: 02-07-2005 02:15:01
Last updated: 02-27-2005 18:56:35