The Varangian Legend: Testimony from the Old Norse sources

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The Varangian Legend: Testimony from the Old Norse sources

By Sverrir Jakobsson

Byzantium and the Viking World (Studia Byzantina Upsaliensia, 16), eds. Fedir Androsjtsjuk, Jonathan Shepard and Monica White (Uppsala: Uppsala Universitet, 2016)

Introduction: In the eleventh century there existed, within the great army of the Byzantine empire, a regiment composed mainly of soldiers from Scandinavia and the Nordic countries. This regiment was known as the Varangian Guard (tagma tōn Varangōn). The purpose of this paper is to assess the impact the existence of this regiment had on prevailing attitudes towards the Byzantine empire within the Old Norse linguistic and cultural community.

The Varangian Guard is well known from Byzantine sources of the period. John Skylitzes’ chronicle Synopsis historiarum contains one of the earliest references to the term ‘Varangian’, connected with the events of the year 1034. From then on, Varangians appear in various sources. According to Michael Psellos’ Chronographia, the founding of the Varangian Guard took place during the reign of Basil II (976–1025), although Psellos calls these soldiers “Tauroscythians” rather than Varangians. This has often been connected with the evidence of Arabic and Armenian sources, according to which the nucleus of this regiment was formed by 6,000 mercenaries despatched by Prince Vladimir of Kiev in 989 to help the emperor Basil II quash a rebellion. From then on, Scandinavians formed the bulk of the guard, until expatriate Anglo-Saxons began to join in large numbers as a result of the Norman invasion of England in 1066. From the 1070s onwards, the Varangian Guard became predominantly English. Among notable Varangians serving the empire during the initial stage, when the force was predominantly Scandinavian (i.e. from 989 to the 1070s), was a certain Araltes, “son of the king of the Varangians [basileōs men Varangias ēn uios]”, who is mentioned in the Strategikon of Kekaumenos. This Araltes has commonly been identified with King Harald Hardrada of Norway (1046–1066). From sources such as these, it is possible to gain some insight into contemporary Byzantine attitudes about the Norsemen, i.e. the view from the centre to the periphery.

The view from the other side is more murky. Almost all our reliable knowledge about the Varangians stems from contemporary Greek sources. There is a distinct lack of Latin or Old Norse sources with the same validity. And our Slavonic sources, which have mostly been the focus of research into the history of the Varangians before 989, pose their own problems of interpretation. Yet there is no dearth of material relating to the Varangians in Old Norse sources from a later period. In this paper I shall focus on Old Norse sources from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and on how they should be interpreted as representations of the contemporary Byzantine empire. These sources can be divided into two groups. The first consists of the Kings’ Sagas (Konungasögur), narratives dealing with the history of Scandinavian kings, in which there are sections about their relations with the Byzantine empire during the period between the First and the Fourth Crusades (1096–1204). The second consists of the Kings’ Sagas dealing with an earlier period (the tenth and eleventh centuries), as well as Sagas of the Icelanders (Íslendingasögur). The second group of narratives are set in the heyday of the Varangian Guard; but their problem as sources is that they were composed no sooner, and very often much later, than the Kings’ Sagas of the first group.

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