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Harald Hardrada: The Universal Empire

By James Turner

Bleak showers lashed dark prows
Hard along the coast-line;
Iron-shielded vessels
Flaunted colourful rigging,
The great price saw ahead
The copper roofs of Byzantium:
His swan-breasted ships sept
Towards the tall-towered city ~ Bolverk Arnorsson

There was, we are assured by wise men and movie characters, once a dream called Rome. To modern observers, the legacy of Rome is, in general, apparent and widely appreciated. What did the Romans do for us? Well, as we all know rather a lot. This recognition has been sharpened and lent definition by both the heroic efforts of the archaeologists and the highly self-conscious attempted mirroring of the classical canon by enlightenment thinkers. Indeed, our conception of Rome as a font of civilization is deeply embedded and has on occasion obscured our understanding of the many advances in art and science that built upon these foundations during the medieval period. For the inhabitants of the eleventh century, Rome was an all-pervasive but diffuse presence. Throughout most of western and central Europe, Rome had left a multifaceted but fragmentary legacy. Like some great fallen colossus sunken into the earth, elements of continuity with the Roman past remained visible and imposing but it was difficult to distinguish the shape of the once cohesive whole.

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The political cessation of the western portion of the Roman Empire is, while not without its points of ambiguity, far easier to identify and speak of definitively than the slow unspooling and evolution of its social and economic structures. Even in the political sphere though, the memory of Rome’s imperial legacy remained influential. Like many contemporary Mediterranean city-states, the Romans of antiquity maintained a highly developed sense of their own identity. Through the institutions and practices of their state religion, again a relatively common feature of city-states during this period, the very concept of Rome was elevated to the sacred, its governance by senate or imperator a sacrament.

With the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the empire in 331, Rome’s conception of itself shifted accordingly, its ideological reserves deepening. The Roman empire became, at least in the minds of its citizens and prelates, an earthly temporal reflection of the kingdom of heaven. This beatification meant that on some conceptual level the empire was universal, its remit encompassing the entirety of the earth. Clad in an ideological raiment such as this any military setbacks or territory deficiencies suffered by the empire, no matter how catastrophic, were temporary aberrations. Political disaster and even disintegration were mortal wounds inflicted upon an immortal host.

The Church came to be the great companion of the late Roman state, flourishing throughout much of western Europe, even as its political counterpart crumbled and collapsed. In contrast to Christianity’s origins as a proscribed and persecuted creed, its official adoption within the Empire radically altered the Church’s structure and purview, transforming it into an appendage of the Roman state. In the minds of the general populace of the late Roman Empire, the concepts of Church and Empire, Christianity and Romaness became on some level inextricably connected. Following the cessation of the Empire as a political entity, the Church proved resilient and embedded enough across the now fractured territories of the west to eclipse and repel Arianism, a rival strand of Christianity favored by the Germanic warrior elite of many of the kingdoms that sprang up in the wake of the Empire’s ruin.

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Indeed, cooperation with the Church, with its structured hierarchy, grassroots community engagement and now near-monopoly on education and literacy, proved to be integral to the successful administration and internal integrity of these early medieval kingdoms and polities. To simplify an extremely complex and anfractuous process for the sake of brevity, by the dawn of the eleventh century, members of the clergy and the general population of Europe were gaining an increased awareness of the Church as a singular monolithic and unified entity. The Church and its ministration of Christian practices was along with the emerging codes of chivalry and aristocratic conduct one of the great cultural unifiers through which medieval Europe connected its constituent pieces and identified itself. The history, form, and rituals of the Church and therefore to an extent the rough but serviceable collective identity of the western Christendom, was anchored deep within its Roman and Imperial heritage.

In addition to, or rather as an adjunct of, the Papacy’s increasing concerted efforts to exert its own authority over a unified and coordinated Church hierarchy the Pontificate was a deep reservoir of imperial connections and continuity. Again, to grossly oversimplify the issue, the Pope’s claim to supremacy within the Church drew heavily upon the principle of Apostolic Succession under which the Popes, the Bishops of Rome, could be regarded as the direct heirs and successors of St Peter and to a lesser extent St Paul. Implicit within this claim and the earliest historical discussions within the Empire and Church on the position and authority of the Papacy is the idea that Rome is the first city of the Empire, its spiritual if not political heart, and that the position and status of its bishop should naturally reflect this.

On top of their Apostolic credentials, medieval popes bore an ancient, originally pagan title, the Pontifex Maximus, the high priest of Rome. As we have seen, the definition of Rome in late antiquity was malleable, encompassing simultaneously a single city and a world-spanning universal empire. The close conflation between, Rome, Empire and Christendom gave the Popes of the tenth and eleventh centuries all the ammunition they needed to advance the cause of Papal sovereignty and supremacy. Another imperial boon that had by the eleventh century worked itself into the very edifice of Papal authority and identity was the Donation of Constantine. In reality a forgery, probably dating from the eighth century, the Donation purportedly recognized the Papacy as the Church’s governing institution as well as invested it with authority over the western portion of the Empire in general and Italy far more specifically, granting it an extraordinary array of temporal powers and territorial claims.

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The authenticity of the Donation went largely unquestioned until the early fifteenth century and was almost certainly regarded as genuine by successive generations of Popes, although they were obviously disincentivized to closely investigate the issue. Regardless of its less than reputable origins, the acceptance of the Donation in the eleventh century meant that much of the authority and power of the newly forceful and resurgent Papacy was not only theological but intrinsically Roman and Imperial in nature.

Outside of a collection of miscellanea such as the retention and adaption of Roman military and governmental positions into titles of nobility, political continuity between the Roman Empire and eleventh century western and central Europe was closely connected with and mediated through the Papacy. In 800, Pope Leo III crowned the Frankish king Charlamagne, Emperor of the Romans. The exact remit and implications of this title and if it was ever intended to be hereditary remain opaque to historians, as indeed they probably were to most of Leo’s contemporaries. It is ambiguous if, in crowing Charlamagne, Leo was merely acknowledging Charlamagne’s position as the premier ruler of western Christendom, attempting to restore in some form the defunct Western Roman Empire or more dramatically yet laying claim to an undivided and universal imperial legacy. Certainly, the latter two explanations, even shorn of the traditional forms and mechanisms of Imperial power, would have greatly strengthened the Papacy in attempts to assert its political independence and extricate itself from involvement with a group we shall come to shortly.

Charlamagne’s successors ended up retaining this new imperial title although with minimal recourse to or input from the Papacy. Adhering to Frankish inheritance practices, the constituent kingdoms and territories of the Carolingian Empire were divided amongst the family’s numerous heirs while the Imperial title was retained by the senior branch, indicating their nominal position as first amongst equals. The endemic internecine warfare that irrupted as members of the Carolingian family competed to reestablish the empire of Charlemagne, which resulted in multiple claimants for the imperial title and eventually to the disintegration of the Carolingian hegemony. The empire was briefly reunited more or less by chance under Charles the Fat as the various branches of the Carolingian family were extinguished by war or misfortune but in 887 he was overthrown in a place coup. Following this brief Carolingian swan song, the still prestigious but increasingly politically hollow title of Emperor was awarded to successive Kings of Italy. A distinction they achieved simply by dint of most easily and effectively being able to exert pressure upon the Papacy.

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Meanwhile, the Dukes of Saxony had been busy securing control of the Kingdom of East Francia. After dealing with a series of extended rebellions and fighting a number of wars on his eastern border, most notable his conquest of Hungary, in 961 Otto I invaded Italy in response to the Italian king’s encroachment upon the Papal States. Otto proved victorious in this war, absorbing Italy into his own realm, and was crowned Emperor by Pope John XII the following year. Despite the Synod convened in the aftermath of the imperial coronation to define and delineate the relationship between Pope and Emperor, such relationships were often turbulent and awash with ambiguity.

Popes remained essential to the process of crowing emperors, compelling prospective claimants to negotiate and campaign within Italy in pursuit of the title. Conversely, however, various Emperors claimed the power and authority to appoint Popes and did so at various points throughout the tenth and eleventh century, a state of affairs that generated a great deal of tension and sporadic conflict between the two institutions. In actuality, the tenor of Imperial-Papal relations and the boundaries of temporal and spiritual authority depended entirely upon the often-transitory strength of the participants relative to one another. The latent legitimacy and edification of Rome’s imperial and intellectual legacy ultimately resided in the Papacy, while successive generations of German monarchs gained access to it by means fair or foul.

Similarly, while the Holy Roman Emperors imperial title and special, if dysfunctional, relationship with the Church enabled them to maintain some claim to temporal primacy in western Christendom there were numerous kings and princes that lay outside of their effective or traditional authority. The emperor’s special status as a historical and emotive claim rather than a legal or political reality and had to be underwritten by military power and diplomatic influence.

In Eastern Christendom, the matter of imperial continuity and legacy was in many ways simple and self-evident. The empire never fell. It persisted altered but unbroken, a line of Emperors and Empresses that ruled from Constantinople, a second Rome, consecrated as the new capital of the universal empire by the first Christian emperor. For the sake of convenience, historians commonly refer to this polity, the medieval continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire, as the Byzantine Empire after the area surrounding Constantinople. In addition to the eminently reasonable concerns of categorization and distinction behind the adoption of this appellation, such as linguistic and cultural shifts or the emergence of a distinct religious identity and practices, we can also probably add a splash of jealousy and resentment. The historians and thinkers of Enlightenment Europe, who coined and popularized the term, were more than happy to see themselves as the true heirs of Rome and the Classical traditions. Regardless of the niceties and foibles of terminology, when in 1034 Harald Hardrada and his newly established military retinue traveled to Constantinople, they were in a very real sense entering into the service of the Roman Empire.

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The challenges of the Byzantine Empire

The Byzantine Empire of the early eleventh century was a dynamic powerful state which as we have discussed is not a term to be used lightly during this period. It enjoyed an almost unrivaled cultural and technological sophistication, having preserved many of the aspects and institutions of urban life that had been lost in the west. More than that, the Empire was a wealthy maritime power, its strategically located Capital controlling not only access from Europe to Asia but from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean as well. Unsurprisingly given its great longevity, the power of the Byzantine Empire waxed and waned over the course of the early Middle Ages. Their possessions in Europe and the Balkans had been intermittently threatened by various incoming Slavic and Turkic groups with Constantinople itself coming under siege more than once. Meanwhile, their control over their extensive provinces in the middle east was contested first by the Sassanids, a successor kingdom of Rome’s perennial enemies the Parthians, and then far more successfully and dramatically by the Arabs in the seventh century.

The Arabs’ dramatic expansion during this period and their sense of identity were inextricably connected with the emergence and propagation of Islam. The precipitous loss of the vast majority of their wealthy eastern provinces to the formerly supremely obscure firebrand adherents of this new religion created a crisis of faith within the Byzantine Emperor. With the empire’s rhetorical and theological underpinnings grievously undermined by its flagging political fortunes and catastrophic territorial forfeitures, members of the Byzantine elite cast about for a way to secure and reaffirm the Empire’s universality and acclaimed status as the earthy reflection of the kingdom of heaven. In order to do so, they drew upon elements of the still crystallizing Islamic cultural and theological structures, the logic being that their recent meteoric rise and military success meant they must be doing something right.

The result was the Iconoclasm, a religious movement that emulated Islam by mandating the removal and eschewing of the icons and portraiture which had previously been prevalent in Byzantine worship and religious artwork. This theological reforming impulse devolved almost immediately into a series of religious pogroms and sectarian conflicts which lasted more than a century.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given its retention of many of the characteristics and institutions of Roman urban life, the Byzantine Empire’s urban residents were highly engaged with political and doctrinal matters. In the sixth century the chariot racing teams, the Greens and Blues, which competed within Constantinople’s Hippodrome, formed a binary division of identity that was not only adopted by the city’s general population but also reflected factionalism within the imperial palace and administration. For example, the broad conglomeration of people who came to identify as Greens, came to share and self-reinforce specific theological and political positions, its members tending to hold some degree of Monophysite sympathies. The Monophysites, so named for their contention that Christ was a singular divine entity; a belief which had been rejected by consecutive imperial-backed ecumenical councils that maintained Christ was simultaneously divine and mortal. Far more than the preserve of senior Churchmen, such nuanced matters of religious doctrine were eagerly advocated for and fought over by the general population. Indeed, the historian Procopius characterizes religious debate and conflict as one of the defining features of life within the empire during the reign of Emperor Justinian.

The population of Constantinople was every bit as engaged and motivated to participate in doctrinal matters in 726 as it had been in 532, the Iconoclasms in many ways echoed this earlier period of theological motivated conflict and political dissent. The issues at stake were so incendiary and fundamental to the character and form of worship within the Byzantine Empire they could be little compromise found between them. The Iconoclasm and its surrounding theological issues cut across and divided every stratum of the empire’s rarefied social structure. Factionalism was endemic, with mob violence and the mutiny of military units unfolding contiguously with palace coups as the imperial throne flip-flopped between iconoclast and iconophile candidates.

In addition to the internal instability caused by the Empire’s injurious soul searching, the Iconoclasm and the instability it unleashed both motivated and enabled the Papacy to slip the leash of imperial control in the 730s which further spurred the growing divergence between eastern and western Christendom. As we have seen, this loss of influence over the most significant imperial appendage in the former western empire and the reorientation of the Papacy towards Italy and Europe eventually led to the creation of a line of rival emperors.

Rome casts a long shadow, however, and by 1034 the Byzantine Empire was resurgent and secure, dominating the horizon of Europe and much of the Mediterranean world. The second period of sustained imperial support for the Iconoclasm came to an end decisively in 843 when Empress Theodora restored the use of icons on the condition that her iconoclast husband was not posthumously condemned by the growing iconophile majority.

In 867 Basil I, an ethnic Macedonian, had come to the throne at a time of profound crisis and was faced with both Slavic revolts in the Balkans and renewed Abbasid aggression on his eastern borders. He and his descendants, the Macedonian Dynasty, did much to restore the empire’s military fortunes and diminished territorial holdings. In the late tenth century successive Byzantine emperors campaigned personally deep within former imperial territories, recapturing Cyprus, Antioch and the Levant. The decades that immediately preceded Harald’s arrival in Constantinople saw the conquest and subjugation of the Bulgarians, the Byzantine’s historic rival for hegemony within the Balkans, as well as Byzantine armies successfully campaigning within the Caucuses.

In addition to the stout walls of Constantinople and the still unspent reserves of Byzantine martial valor, the empire was protected by its enormous wealth. As a direct institutional continuation of the Roman Empire, the Byzantines maintained, despite the linguistic supplantation of Latin by Greek, a great deal of classical Roman learning and education. A consequence of this, in addition to their continuing engagement with science and high culture, was that the empire was able to maintain a highly developed administrative infrastructure.

The power of the Byzantine Empire

The Byzantine Empire was in the early eleventh century a highly centralized state that retained both significant elements of Roman administrative practice and an awareness of the concept of statehood itself in a way that none of its European contemporaries had. When properly directed and maintained, this formidable administrative apparatus allowed emperors to efficiently tax their diverse territories and commercial interests making them fabulously wealthy by the standards of other eleventh-century monarchs. The Emperors of Byzantium, who let us not forget thought of themselves as the rulers of a universal Roman Empire, were less than thrilled by the imperial pretensions of the Papacy and the Holy Roman Emperors they created. Diplomatic relations never broke down completely, however, and several marriage pacts were negotiated between the rival imperial traditions, primarily because the European nobility’s lust for silk and the other eastern luxuries was so incredibly lucrative for the Byzantines.

Money is of course the sinew of war, and the Byzantine emperors used this wealth to construct a formidable navy to protect vital trade routes and contest Arab naval supremacy. They also maintained robust military garrisons and a defense-in-depth strategy in the form of the much-debated Themes system. I will refrain from going into any detail on the Themes here, for fear of invoking the ire of any military historians and because the martial success of proactive emperors in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries had emphasized the importance of a more centralized element of the imperial military. The wealth of the Byzantines, while often inspiring jealously and making them a tempting target for would-be raiders, also allowed them to hire outside groups to enhance their military defense.

This included the direct incorporation of non-Byzantine troops into the army, either as standing units or as part of the muster for individual regional campaigns. Certainly, the most famous and clear-cut example of the former was the Varangian Guard who we will return to imminently. A good example of, if you’ll excuse the pun, more freelance mercenaries would be the Norman knights who fought alongside Byzantine armies in Sicily and across the Mediterranean before coming into conflict with them over control of southern Italy. Indeed, a frequent stipulation found within the treaties Byzantium signed with its rotating cast of neighbors throughout its long history was that in exchange for access to Byzantine money, not to mention and the spiritual and political benefits of the Church, client kingdoms would contribute warriors to the Byzantine military.

The Byzantines constructed a commonwealth of surrounding polities as a way of exerting influence over their neighbors and creating militarily powerful buffers zones between themselves and invaders. However, the fluctuation of Byzantine fortunes and military capabilities meant that such relationships were fluid. At various points in their history, emperors were compelled to gift enormous stipends, but the empire would and could never pay tribute, to its former clients and vassals most notably the Bulgarians.

As well as directly incentivizing allies and outright bribing potential enemies to stay home, the splendor and sophistication generated by Byzantine wealth provided them with other “soft power” means of projecting authority. Envoys and visiting dignitaries from the dozens of kingdoms and polities that were connected to the Empire through geographical, cultural and mercantile ties, who visited the Imperial Palace during the tenth and early eleventh century, were confronted by a bizarre and breathtaking sight. The magnificence of the imperial court was meticulously reinforced by the gilded and painstaking rituals which were designed at every stage to emphasize the prestige and mystique of the Imperial title and its bearer. In turn, these elaborate protocols were accompanied and punctuated by the wonderous automata of the court, the appropriate use and purpose of which were laid out in De Ceremoniis, a book of ceremonial protocols formulated by Emperor Constantine VII.

Bishop Liutprand of Cremona returned to Italy and the Papacy with tales of roaring golden lions, a gilded tree filled with singing mechanical birds and a throne capable of elevation and descent. The latter of which, in addition to being a niffy way to scare unprepared ambassadors, represents a clear biblical allusion to the throne of King Solomon. As the purported founder of the first temple and the beneficiary of a personal covenant with God, it is easy to see why successive Emperors would see the benefit in drawing comparisons between themselves and a biblical king whose name is synonymous with wealth and wisdom. The meaning of the automata and the other resplendent trappings of the Imperial court was clear, how could any one ruler hope to treat as equals with the Roman Emperor? How could any people hope to compete with an empire capable of creating such wonders?

This process of leveraging the empire’s intellectual and material profundity into political prestige and influence extended far beyond the boundaries of the Imperial court. By the standards of the eleventh century, Constantinople was a vast city, the most populous in Europe and replete with marvel including the great domed Hagia Sophia built by Emperor Justinian in 532. Recall that Vladimir the Great elected to convert to Christianity and adopt Byzantine rather than Latin modes of worship in 987 at least in part because of the ornate spectacle and magnificence of the Eastern Churches. While the representatives Vladimir dispatched to Germany and the Holy Roman Empire were unimpressed by the Germanic Cathedrals which they felt to be rather gloomy, the Russian Primary Chronicle records that when the envoys sent to Constantinople entered the Hagia Sophia, they no longer knew if they were in heaven or on earth. The conversion of Vladimir and his court brought the Kievan Rus’ Principalities yet deeper into the Empire’s sphere of influence, reinforcing historic mercantile and political ties. Conversion meant an acknowledgment, however implicit, that the bishops and priests of the Rus’ Principalities, who were the mainstay of the literate population and potential administrators, were subordinate to the Patriarch of Constantinople and through him the emperor.

While the Russian Primary Chronicle was written in the early twelfth century by a monk deeply committed to the glorification and promotion of what had by then been formally established as the Byzantine Orthodox faith, this is far from the only incidence of the Byzantine Empire harnessing the proselytizing appeal of the Eastern Church for political purposes. During the late ninth and tenth centuries the Byzantine Empire was engaged in something of a missionary arms race with the Papacy as both sought to convert Slavic and Turkic groups in the Balkans and beyond to their respective forms and rituals of worship. The authority and prestige of the Empire were in many ways inextricable from the hierarchy, imagery and rhetoric of the Church. Missionary efforts in eastern Europe were therefore a major vector for the dissemination of Imperial authority and the notions of the empire’s unique and inalienable status throughout this period. It is something of an irony then that the distinctive icons, imagery and art which were almost obliterated during the Iconoclasm at the nadir of Byzantine power contributed so effectively to its restoration.

Intimately related to this was the second prong of classical byzantine diplomacy, the sheer prestige and majesty lent to the Empire by its history and status as the legitimate and unbroken continuation of the Roman state. In a manner similar to the ritual and choreographed etiquette of the Imperial court, the upper echelons of the empire were composed of a tangled system of precedents determining ranks and honorifics, a method of social and political control which had grown out of control after centuries of personalized innovation and the necessity of displays of largesse on the part of Byzantine rulers. Leo VI did much to reorganize and standardize this system as part of his revision of the law code although it was still, if you’ll indulge me, byzantine in its complexity. It is worth considering briefly why the rulers of Bulgaria, Serbia, Kiev Rus, Georgia and the other members of the scattered commonwealth decided to adopt the form of Christianity practiced within the Byzantine Empire. They did so because conversion provided them with the infrastructure and ideological resources to more effectively exercise authority over their existing subject.

Participation in Orthodox theology and the grand narratives of Rome and the universal empire of Christendom elevated such rulers, no longer mere warlords, they became a key part of the cosmological order. The Byzantines capitalized upon this status and the supreme legitimacy it bestowed upon them by granting rank and title to foreign rulers and allies, bartering over shimmering reflections of the Roman Empire’s glory and majesty. The Bulgarian monarch, Simeon I, sought Byzantine recognition of Bulgarian hegemony and his own imperial status. Fascinatingly, rather than simply claim the title for himself or have himself crowned by the autocephalous Bulgarian Church, Simeon negotiated with the Byzantine Emperor for the tile in 913, having already laid siege to Constantinople following the dispute of the payment of tribute. A subsequent attempt by the Byzantines to sweep this incident under the rug and discount Simeon’s imperial title swiftly led to a second invasion and Byzantine capitulation. Even at the Empire’s weakest, it was viewed not as a rival to be crushed or supplanted wholesale but as a reservoir of political and ideological legitimacy that could be harnessed.

The Varangians

In 1032 the sheer wealth and antiquity of Byzantium must have made it a tempting destination for Harald, a young and ambitious warlord who fresh from the battlefields of eastern Europe now held the loyalty of a small but battle-hardened army of Scandinavian warriors. Setting aside the considerable mystique of the resurgent Byzantine Empire and its unmediated relationship with the Roman past, in many ways service in Constantinople was the natural and obvious next set for Harald. It was after all the home of the elite Varangian Guard, an imperial bodyguard composed almost exclusively of Scandinavians and their cultural relatives.

Varangians, in this context warriors of Rus’ and Scandinavian descent, had long played a significant role in the Byzantine military. The treaty signed in 874 during the reign of Basil I stipulated that the principalities of the Kievan Rus’ would contribute men to the imperial military in exchange for the establishment of favorable commercial relations. Companies of Varangian troops either levied as part of this formal arrangement or directly hired by the Empire as mercenaries became a relatively common sight throughout the ninth century, participating as members of ad hoc armies and imperial expeditions across the Mediterranean.

It was during this period that individual companies of Varangians first came to be classified as members of the Hetaireia, units of elite non-Byzantine troops that served as part of the more centralized elements of the Empire’s military, often acting as bodyguards and imperial escorts. In addition to the Varangian, the Hetaireia included companies of Frankish, Arab, Khazar and Hungarian extraction. The Varangians were only established as a permanent unit and the premiere royal bodyguard after Grand-prince Vladimir of Kiev dispatched a host of several thousand warriors to aid the embattled Emperor Basil II in 988. This force proved decisive in resolving the ongoing civil war and the prosecution of subsequent Imperial campaigns in Italy.

It is somewhat unclear, however, quite how the Varangian Guarded achieved the institutional status they came to enjoy. Basil may have recognized the usefulness and utility of the Varangians and raised to them the status of a formal bodyguard upon the conclusion of their campaign. Alternatively, the concentration of Varangian warriors in the Byzantine military may have simply reached the point that the unit had effectively become permanent and self-perpetuating in which case their later status was simply a de jure recognition of the role they had come to occupy.

During the eleventh century, the establishment of greater economic interconnectivity and the political situation in Scandinavia led to a dramatic increase in the proportion of direct Scandinavian immigrants serving within the Guard. In addition to serving as highly effective and heavily armoured ax-wielding shock troops on campaign, it is probable that Byzantine rulers valued Varangians as bodyguards because their status as political and cultural outsiders in Constantinople insulated them from participation in courtly intrigues. In addition to this, they maintained a cultural practice of reciprocal oathtaking which may have reassured their Byzantine employers. Certainly, ruminations and evaluations on the Varangian mindset and the nature and bounds of their loyalty became a theme of Byzantine authors in the following century.

If Harald, an exiled Scandinavian noble, was far from unique in seeking a career fighting for the Emperors of Rome, the circumstances in which he arrived in Constantinople went some way to distinguish him. His aptitude for warfare and the enormous success he found in imperial service broke the mold completely; Harald swiftly rising to overall command of the Guard fought with the unit across the length and breadth of the empire. In our next entry, we will examine the imperial system, the circumstances in which Harald’s imperial patrons came to the throne and the details of Harald’s extensive military service.

James Turner has recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University before which he attended the University of Glasgow. Deeply afraid of numbers and distrustful of counting, his main research interests surround medieval aristocratic culture and identity.

Click here to read more from James

If you are interested in reading more about this important figure, see also the new book The Last Viking: The True Story of King Harald Hardrada, by Don Holloway. You learn more about this book from the publisher’s site, or purchase this book on Amazon.com | Amazon.ca | Amazon.co.uk

Top Image: Illustration by Julia Lillo

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