An Englishman in Byzantium: Political Motivations for Ethnic Change in the Varangian Guard

An Englishman in Byzantium: Political Motivations for Ethnic Change in the Varangian Guard

By Thomas Lecaque

Apprentice Historian (2010)

Introduction: In the early twentieth century an Irish poet wrote:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

Of the many strange twists in Byzantine history, one that has particular interest to students of English history is the voyage to and presence of a substantial body of Englishmen in Byzantium. These Englishmen served in the Varangian Guard, a fluid unit originally named for the “Russian” mercenaries who began to serve the empire under Basil II (958/1025). This Anglo-Varangian Guard cannot be understood, however, in a vacuum; the history of the imperial bodyguard is a long one, a tradition that stretched back to the Praetorian Guard and evolved into a string of ethnically-based bodyguards employed by the Byzantine emperors from the eighth to the thirteenth centuries. It is through this history that the reasons for English involvement in Byzantium become clear; they served as one manifestation of shifting ethnic identities, including internal groups like Greek Byzantines and Armenian minorities to nearby external groups like the Rus’. The Anglo-Varangian Guard was the finest product of this ethnic shift, the end of a long chain of groups poisoned by intrigue, betrayal and regional politics. The emperors required an imperial guard that was completely loyal, unmoved by internal or external politics, skilled in battle, and willing to follow the Emperor blindly in all situations. The eventual establishment of the Anglo-Varangian Guard in Byzantium provided the Emperor with such an ideal bodyguard.

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