Varangian: Norse Influences Within the Elite Guard of Byzantium

Varangian: Norse Influences Within the Elite Guard of Byzantium

By Travis Shores

Master’s Thesis, Dartmouth College, 2013

Varangian Guardsmen, an illumination from the 11th century chronicle of John Skylitzes.

Introduction: Middle Eastern and European relations, before, during, and after the Crusades are often depicted as a clear delineation between Frankish and Muslim armies in struggle over spiritual and physical control of the Levant and near-eastern city centers such as Constantinople. Whilst this is true in many respects, much of the historiographic details surrounding migratory and refugee movements from Northern Europe to Byzantium have been egregiously glossed over and left out of the Crusade discussion in favor of categorizing the neglected material as solely a Byzantine historical issue; not central to the discussion of the Crusades and the eventual outcomes of each one. The concept of explicating the make-up of the alleged mercenary armies conscripted to serve in various capacities within the Byzantine Empire and Constantinople proper, is vital to the understanding of why certain Crusader and Muslim led events came to pass. Knowing bout who was involved in various travels, negotiations, and struggles, aids to more adequately portray the disaffected, dislocated, and potentially opportunist migrants throughout the European continent. Furthermore viewing a more complete perspective of the whole of Europe and the near East is necessary in order to more clearly understand the complexity of Frankish, Arab, and Byzantine relationships.

Constantinople maintained hundreds of years of dutiful employment of what has been often referred to by scholars as a mercenary force. The elite of which was charged with the primary duty of defending the seat of the Byzantine Emperor and defense of the realm at the emperor’s order. This group of elite mercenaries known throughout the West as the Varangians, gained notoriety and fame as an axe wielding barbarian force. Comprised of northern European Viking, Russian and Norse descendants, Varangians maintained a lengthy history of fierce battle and conquest. That the Greek army from Byzantine controlled lands didn’t have a history of sole participation in battles leading up to and during the Crusades, nor did they comprise such a force of elites, presents a significant difference to the commonly accepted notion that the army of Byzantium was made of the Byzantine Greeks purely and that the forces of the Emperor were reflective of the historical peoples of the immediate geographical areas, despite any call for mercenary forces following the Battle of Manzikert.

I present here, an examination of the role of Byzantine influence by way of the Emperor’s own Varangian Guard. It remains my interest to highlight that not only were the forces of the Byzantine Emperor comprised of Northern European Vikings and Eastern Rus, they were vastly populated by Saxon, Norwegian, Swedish and Danish refugees and migrants, seeking a colony in Constantinople and the surrounding areas. My central argument concerns validating the alleged Anglo-Saxon generational settlement and employment within the Varangian Guard as well as the proposition that Varangians were positioned to directly oppose Frankish and Norman forces due to 1) religious differences and the prospect for greater plurality in Constantinople, 2) the outcome of the Battle of Hastings on Saxons and their prospects for power, and 3) the Byzantine-Norman previous territorial conflict in the Mediterranean area. I intend to challenge oversimplified, sweeping conclusion, and current historiographic position, that the European travel to the levant and engagement in warfare activities during the time of the Crusades was not an opportunist land grab for non-inheriting sons of lords. I endeavor to show evidence depicting Viking, Scandinavian, and subsequent Saxon-Danish as multi-generational settler, and as a consistent hired army rather than purely mercenaries that history has belittled their importance to be portrayed as.

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