The Varangians or Varyágs (from Old Norse: Væringjar; Greek: Βάραγγοι, Βαριάγοι, Varangoi, Variagoi; Russian and Ukrainian: Варяги, Varyagui/Varyahy) were mostly Swedish Vikings who went eastward and southward through what is now Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and the Balkans toward the Byzantine Empire, mainly in the 9th and 10th centuries.
However, according to some scholars (including such famous ones as M. V. Lomonosov) the term "Varangians" was used to refer to all sea travelers, merchants and pirates, regardless of their origin.
The term was used in connection with Vikings and Slavic troops who traveled between the important trading centers of the time and sometimes participated in warfare.
A related term in the Russian language is Nemets (немец), which was applied to almost all foreigners from European countries, but mostly with respect to Germans. In present-day Russia this term has only one meaning: 'a German'.
According to the Nestor Chronicle, or First Chronicle of the Medieval State of Kievan Rus, compiled in about 1113, the Varangian groups included the Scandinavians known as Rus, as well as some known as Swedes, Normans, Angles, Goths, and so on.
But largely due to geographical considerations, most of the Varangians who traveled and settled in the eastern Baltic, Russian and southern territories came from the area of modern Sweden.
They were engaged in trade, piracy and mercenary activities and were often active in the river systems and ports of Gardariki (later Russia), reaching as far as the Caspian Sea and Constantinople.
According to the most widespread opinion, their name comes from the Old Norse Væringjar, a supposed plural form of várar, 'promise, word of honor'.
The East Slavs and Byzantines, however, did not distinguish the Scandinavians from other Germanic peoples when they used this term. In the Nestor Chronicle it is also used to include the Danes and Angles.
The word variag means in modern Russian "hawker," a reference to the trading past of the Vikings.
The Varangians (varyagui, in Old Slavic) are the first people mentioned in the Chronicle of Nestor who demanded tribute payments (the so-called danegeld or 'Danish gold' in the British chronicles) from the Slavic and Finno-Ugric tribes of central and northern present-day Russia around 859.
In 862 these tribes rebelled against the Varangians, but soon began infighting, which led them to invite the Norsemen to rule them and bring peace to the region.
Led by Riúrik and his brothers Sineús and Trúvor, they settled around the city of Novgorod, Beloozero and Izborsk respectively. Upon the death of his brothers, Rúrik dominated the region as the sole chief warlord and delegated the local government of the settlements of Polatsk, Rostov and Beloozero to his followers.
These Varangians were also known as Rus' or Rhos and whose origin is mentioned in contemporary chronicles along with Svie (Swedes), Normane (Norwegians), Angliane (Anglians) and Gote (Gotlanders).9
The Annales Bertiniani mention the arrival of a delegation from Emperor Theophilus at the court of Ludovico Pio where they were well received.
Among the contingent was a group of men called Rhos whom the Byzantine emperor requested from Ludovico free passage through the Frankish empire so that they could reach their destination, discovering in conversations that they were Swedes (comperit eos gentis esse Sueonum), those hostile men from the north accustomed to plunder in his domains and he held them for a while until he was convinced of their honesty and that they were not spies to better know the weaknesses of the Carolingian empire.
Western historiography holds that these Scandinavians were the ones who founded Kievan Rus, giving the country its name. Many Slavic researchers oppose this theory of Norse influence, presenting alternative theories for this stage of Russian history.
The name by which the early inhabitants, mostly Finns and later also Slavs, knew these Varangians was precisely the Rus, perhaps coming from the same root by which the Finns know Sweden today, Ruotsi.
Unlike Normandy or the British Isles, where Scandinavian influence was crucial, the Varangian culture did not survive in the East. On the contrary, the Varangian ruling classes of two of the most powerful city-states, Novgorod and Kiev, were Slavicized, although Old Norse was spoken in Novgorod until the 13th century and a Scandinavian mercenary force continued to serve the Byzantine emperors.
The Varangians had been trading in the Baltic since the 7th century, but it was in 839 when they appeared in the Byzantine world as mercenaries hired by Emperor Theophilus, who negotiated with the so-called rhos (rus) to supply soldiers for his army.
The Varangians then began to carry out attacks all along the Baltic Sea, founding Novgorod in 859 and later taking control of Kiev. In 860 the Varangians, starting from the latter city, launched their first attack on Constantinople.
This incursion was a failure, but they persevered in their efforts by crossing the Dnieper River. Although they normally maintained peaceful trade relations with the Byzantines, there were successive aggressions against Constantinople in 860, 907, 911, 941, 945, 971 and 1043.
The princes of Kiev and Novgorod hired Varangians as mercenaries from the 9th to the 11th century. The last mention of Varangian mercenaries in Russia dates from 1043.
Whether they stopped calling them because they were no longer needed or because the mercenaries themselves had been assimilated into Russian society and were no longer considered Varangians or Vikings is still speculation today.
They also served together with the Dalmatians as sailors in the naval expeditions against the island of Crete in 902 and 949 under the reign of Constantine VII.
As early as 911, Vikings are mentioned as part of the Byzantine army; it is also documented that there were Varangian contingents among the forces that fought against the Arabs in 955. In fact, this service raised its rank from members of the Great Mercenary Companies (Μεγάλη Εταιρεία in Greek), to Imperial Guard.
It was this widespread use of Varangians in the empire and the desperation of Basil II that finally brought more Scandinavians to Byzantium. In 988 this emperor asked Vladimir I of Kiev, prince of Kievan Rus, for mesnads to help him defend his throne.
Because of the treaty signed by his father, Vladimir was forced to send 6000 men to Basil and in return Basil gave him his sister, Anna, to swell the list of four wives and 800 concubines.
In 989, the Varangian guard, led by Basil II himself, docked at Chrysopolis to engage their adversary, Bardas Phocas.
Once on the battlefield, Phocas died of cardiac arrest at the sight of his opponent's massive army, whereupon his own troops, seeing their dead leader, turned and fled. The brutality of the Varangians became apparent when they pursued the defeated army and "gleefully cut them to pieces".
Basil was impelled to hire his personal guard from among the Varangians because of the little confidence he had in the Byzantine natives themselves, whose loyalty often danced from one leader to another with fatal consequences, and also because of the more than proven loyalty of the Varangians.
This new elite force was known as the "Varangian Guard" (Τάγμα των Βαραγγγίων, Tagma ton Varangion, in Greek).
Over the years, new recruits joined from such far-flung areas as Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, giving the organization a predominantly Scandinavian feel until the late 11th century.
Composed mainly of Scandinavians for the first 150 years, the guard began to be augmented by Angles and Saxons after the invasion of England by the Normans.
By that time a large number of Anglo-Saxons and Danes had already migrated to the Byzantine Empire via the Mediterranean. One source records more than 5000 Norsemen, who would have arrived in 235 ships. Those who did not enter the service of the Empire tended to settle in the Black Sea, but those who did, were so vital to the Varangians that from that time they were commonly called Englinbarrangoi ('Anglo-Varangians').
In fact, they were so capable that they were able to fight against the Normans commanded by Robert Guiscard in Sicily and southern Italy, who had already tried unsuccessfully to invade the Balkans. They thus played a key role during the Norman conquest of Southern Italy.
The duties and obligations of the Varangian Guard were similar, if not identical, to those of the Kievan druzhinas, the Norwegian and Swedish hird or the Anglo-Saxon and Danish huscarls.
The Varangians served as the Emperor's personal guard, under oath of loyalty to his person; they had ceremonial duties and performed police duties, especially in cases of treason and conspiracy.
Unlike the native Byzantine guards to whom Basil II was so reluctant, the loyalty of the Varangian guards depended on the title of Emperor, not on the person occupying his throne.
This became clear when in 969 the guard did not protect Nicephorus II from his assassins and consequently did not avenge his death: "Alive, we would have defended him to the last breath; dead, there was no reason to avenge him. Now they have a new master."
Although Walter Scott presented them in his novel Count Robert of Paris as the fiercest and most loyal of all Byzantine forces, this is probably an exaggerated view.
However, such exaggeration did not begin with the British Romantics, but with Byzantine writers themselves, who applied the epithet "good savage" to them.
Many of these writers referred to them as "barbarians with axes" or pelekuphoroi barbaroi, rather than calling them Varangians.
Although many writers extolled their loyalty to the emperors (and attributed this loyalty to their race), the government was almost always occupied by usurpers, indicating that the Guard was either less loyal or less effective than the sources tell us.
One notable exception to the legendary Varangian loyalty to the throne occurred in 1071: after being defeated by Sultan Alp Arslan, Roman Emperor IV Diogenes was sent back to rule in Constantinople, but his rivals at court had other plans.
Having decided that his mistakes as emperor had been too many, a coup was carried out before he had returned.
His stepson, Caesar John Ducas, used the Varangian guard to overthrow the absent emperor and split it into two factions: one went to the palace to proclaim his brother Michael VII as emperor, while the other sent it to arrest his own mother, Empress Eudocia.
Instead of defending their absent emperor, the Varangians joined the usurpers.
Like their distant cousins, the main weapon of the Varangians was the long axe, although they often wielded the sword or bow with precision and are described in some sources as horsemen. The guard was stationed mainly in Constantinople and may have lived in barracks in the Bucoléon Palace complex.
They also accompanied the armies on the battlefield: many Byzantine (and also Western and Arab) chroniclers described their destructive power in battle, especially when compared to the local barbarian peoples.
They were present with Emperor John II Comnenus at the Battle of Beroia in 1122. Moreover, they were the only army corps that successfully defended part of the capital during the Fourth Crusade.
Although the Guard was apparently disbanded after the capture of Constantinople in 1204, some sources indicate that it was reborn during the Nicene Empire or with the emperors of the Paleologos dynasty.
Aside from their iron loyalty, the most recognized attributes of this guard during the 11th century were their long axes and penchant for drinking.
There are countless stories about the drunkenness or binge drinking of the Varangian Guard. In 1103, during a visit to Constantinople, King Erich I of Denmark himself "exhorted the members of the guard to lead a more sober life and not to indulge in drink."
Not surprisingly, given that the Varangians indulged in this vice, a description of them has been found, dated in the 12th century, calling them "the emperor's barrels".
Probably the most famous member of the Varangian Guard was the future King Harald Sigurdsson III of Norway, also known as Harald Hardrada, 'the Indomitable'.
After fleeing his homeland, Harolda went first to Russia and then to Constantinople, where he arrived in 1035. He participated in 18 battles, fighting against Arabs in Anatolia and Sicily under the command of General George Maniakes, as well as in southern Italy and Bulgaria.
During his time in the Varangian Guard, he earned the title of Akolouthos (from the Greek ἀκόλουθος, 'he who follows or accompanies'; "Acolyte" was the title of the commander of the Guard), but this position was short-lived, as he was imprisoned for seizing booty belonging to the emperor.
He finally escaped from the cell where he was confined and returned home in 1043. The exiled English prince Edgar Atheling may also have served there in 1098.
The Varangian Guard is mentioned in the saga of Njál, when Kolskegg, who is said to have arrived first in Novgorod and then in Constantinople, is named.