Harald Hardrada: In Service to the Byzantine Empire

By James Turner

As soon as Harald reached Constantinople he presented himself to the Empress and immediately joined her army as a mercenary; that very autumn he joined one of the galleys patrolling the seas east of Greece. – Snorri Sturluson

In 1030 Harald and his half-brother King Olaf II received an object reminder of the enduring distinctiveness and fundamental divisibility of Norwegian political or cultural identity from royal authority and structures. As we have seen Olaf’s claim to kingship was ultimately predicated upon the support of a confederation of regional jarls. Likewise, despite experiencing considerable military and diplomatic success, the royalist faction ultimately floundered upon the unwillingness of broad sections of the Norwegian aristocracy to be subsumed into Olaf’s coalition. Olaf’s bid for the throne of Norway was in short, a political rather than nationalist movement, underpinned by personal alliances and accommodations. Olaf’s Kingship was, despite possible attempts to cultivate ties with the Church, a title he claimed rather than an office he occupied.


Scandinavian politics in the early half of the eleventh century were dominated by the family of Cnut the Great. Cnut, whose royal Danish forebearers had long claimed to exercise a kind of suzerainty over Scandinavia, was the master of a vast and truly hegemonic empire. He claimed, and for the most part successfully exercised, kingship over multiple different cultures and peoples. Additionally, he enforced his overlordship upon the often culturally hybridized and idiosyncratic Norse-Gael polities scattered across the North and Irish seas. Interestingly, Cnut began his political career as something of a dynastic and territorial appendage. When his father Sweyn Forkbeard died in 1014, Cnut was entrusted with completing the conquest of England while his elder brother Harald became King of Denmark, inheriting rule of the family’s traditional heartlands. Sweyn’s domains were after all a personal rather than national or institutional construction, brought about and unified solely by his military efforts and diplomatic ties. The moral imperative and the concept around which his political legacy orientated was that each of his male children be adequately provided for.

Cnut successfully consolidated power in England and upon his brother’s death in 1018 was able to mobilize the wealth of England and the English soldiery in securing power within Scandinavia. Upon first securing his rule over the English, Cnut had enriched his Scandinavian followers and divided England amongst a cabal of extraordinarily powerful earls drawn from his allies amongst the Scandinavian aristocracy. However, in many important ways, Cnut came to rule England as an English king, utilizing and building upon the traditional mechanisms and administrative apparatus of royal governance. He had married Æthelred the Unready’s widow Emma, made important concessions to the Church hierarchy and as his reign progressed became increasingly comfortable patronizing and cooperating with members of the English aristocracy.


In Norway when not actively campaigning within the region, Cnut like his father and grandfather exercised authority through a number of trusted proxies drawn from the aristocracy of southern Norway. Fascinatingly, despite being allied for a time with the Swedish King Olof Skötkonung, Cnut described himself as ‘king of some of the swedes’, exercising political authority and cultivating a de facto royal status over cultural and ethnic Swedes. Cnut’s empire then had no unifying identity let alone centralized administrative apparatus. It was a truly hegemonic construction formed from those regions and polities Cnut was able to exert authority over.

Moreover, this authority was to be exercised in whatever manner proved most expedient, be that the direct application of military power, the investiture of Danish deputies or reconciliation and cooperation with members of established aristocratic affinities. It was, at least for the fractured territory that would slowly come to identify itself as western Christendom, the shape of things to come. In eleventh-century Europe territory and titles were personal possessions, ornaments mediated and passed through familial ties which transcended regional or cultural affiliations.

In 1034, Harald, still young but freshly blooded in war, was knocking upon the gates of an empire whose foundations were sunk into a wholly different political and conceptual landscape.

Map of Byzantine Empire in 1035 AD. Subsequent expansions are in brown. Image by Spartan 117 / Wikimedia Commons

The Byzantine Empire in the 11th century

Of course, the Byzantine Empire was composed of numerous different cultures and regional identities, it is just that they were incorporated within or beholden to an established supranational identity. As far as identities go, it was a deeply rooted and alluringly evocative one. The Byzantine Empire was the Roman Empire. Its people were citizens of Rome, the universal empire and the earthly reflection of the kingdom of heaven. The institutions and mechanisms of governance which maintained and propagated this grand imperial identity were, while much patched and tweaked over the centuries, adaptations of Roman administrative structures.


The Byzantine Empire, unlike any of the other polities or political confederations thus far encountered by the young Harald, was a state in more or less the modern sense of the word. It had a self-perpetuating and regulating centralized governmental structure as well as a shared conception of the Empire as a permanent entity that both transcended and encompassed its administrators and rulers. Indeed, those facets of Byzantine society that elevated it to statehood were heavily underpinned by a recognition of the empire’s history. As we have discussed, the Byzantines conceived of themselves, with considerable justification, as a direct continuation of the Roman Empire.

A significant manifestation of this ideology was that Byzantine Emperors and Empresses were conceptualized as part of an unbroken line of rulers that stretched all the way back to the Julio-Claudians and beyond. The position of emperor originated from the ad hoc collection of extraordinary legal powers and offices of a single man who vociferously maintained that he exercised these powers on behalf of the people and senate of Rome with their full consent and support. It was the work of subsequent generations to formalize and ritualize this role, consolidating the dictatorial suite of powers which Augustus had gathered, with various terms and caveats, into a single office.

Perhaps because of these origins and the idea that the emperors were the occupants of a legally ratified office, empowered to guard and administer the Empire on behalf of Rome, the system was both resilient and the succession flexible. Emperors were on the whole free to appoint their heirs, while many were succeeded by their children, Roman legal practices and social norms were such that they were also able to adopt capable adults from outside their immediate family. Despite their relative lack of political power during the imperial era, the Senate remained the ideological potent source of legitimacy and Roman sovereignty. This meant that in times of crisis or breaks in imperial continuity the Senate was able to appoint a new Emperor or increasingly as time went on confer some measure of legitimacy upon those warlords who sought the position.


The flexibility engendered by this system of control proved to be something of a mixed blessing for the Byzantines and a poisoned chalice for their classical era forebears. The Byzantine Empire’s layered mesh of administrative and military officials owed loyalty to the throne and the position of emperor, the legitimacy and majesty of which remained undimmed regardless of the fate of its incumbent. The highly centralised and bureaucratic structure of Byzantine government meant that individuals could be excised and replaced without disrupting the entire system. The integrity of the empire was therefore not wholly hostage to the vagaries of dynastic fortune or likely to be severely compromised by the fall of a single political faction. In the absence of a functioning senate, senior imperial officials and courtiers held the collective power, albeit exercised through highly clandestine mechanisms, to either forestall crises by swiftly replacing deceased emperors or by outright removing those rulers they deemed to be incompetent or obstructive.

Human nature being what it is, there were inevitable periods within the history of the Byzantine Empire in which multiple officials and courtiers felt themselves or their allies more suited to the role than the reigning Emperor. These upswelling’s of factionalism and political infighting at the heart of the Byzantine Empire were at their most intense when triggered by the collapse of the ruling dynasty or some dramatic military setback. In many important ways, these power struggles were mirrored by those playing out in the courts of eleventh-century European kingdoms and polities, such as they were. Indeed, there is a strong argument to be made that Byzantine court politics, despite the mendaciousness they were linguistically tarred with by Enlightenment historians, was less disruptive and destructive than the practises of many of their contemporaries.

The supreme symbolic importance of the imperial throne, the autocratic authority it bestowed upon its occupant and the concentration of the bureaucracy around the imperial palace meant that any political faction hoping to rule the empire need only muster the strength to dominate one, admittedly large, building. In theory, the finely tuned machinery of Byzantine bureaucracy should roll on smoothly, distributing orders to the empire’s many civil and military appendages, regardless of who was at its head. In practice, this concentration of authority and the feverishly insular mindset it engendered in courtiers, risked isolating Constantinople and the imperial government from the rest of the embattled Empire.

Whatever the rhetoric regarding the indivisibility of imperial authority and the efficacy of the imperial government, the administrative machinery of imperial governance functioned most effectively when it was operated by dynamic and well-connected individuals. The network of military and civil officials that exercised authority within the empire’s localities had to be prevailed upon to cooperate fully and effectively with imperial decrees, a process which could be complicated by their connections with both various courtly factions and regional powerbrokers. The great quagmire of overlapping ranks, honorific titles and redundant posts that hindered so much of Byzantine government was in large part the result of attempts by emperors to solicit the personal support of vital functionaries through the distribution of patronage. Somewhat ironically, the attempts of several emperors to bypass this administrative nightmare by empowering their chosen appointees through newly created positions only contributed to the obstruction in the long term.


In the century or so that immediately preceded Harald’s arrival in Constantinople, the empire had prospered under a dynasty of ethnically Macedonian soldier-emperors, who had done much to restore the empire’s prestige and territories. A revival that reached its apex in the long and storied reign of Basil II, often known as Basil the Bulgar Slayer. Basil ruled from 976 to 1025, a period that saw the Byzantines make advances at the expense of their traditional rivals on virtually every front. The great successes achieved by Basil and his predecessors had the effect of further concentrating authority and military power.

The Themes, regional military commands responsible for garrison duty and the implementation of the Byzantines’ traditional defence in depth strategy, were increasingly seen as an unnecessary and burdensome expense. Instead, military affairs, which were now largely conceptualised as being fundamentally proactive in nature, taking the form of invasions or retaliatory raids, fell under the emperor’s direct and unmediated control. The necessity of being able to swiftly answer threats and raise military forces on an ad hoc basis meant that this centralised imperial army became increasingly reliant on contingents of foreign mercenaries. A state of affairs which paved the way for the pre-eminence of the Varangian Guard and the warm welcome which Harald received when he and his growing host of followers arrived in Constantinople.

Mosaic of Zoë at the Hagia Sophia – Wikimedia Commons

Empress Zoë Porphyrogenita

At the time of Harald’s arrival in Constantinople in 1034, the first cracks had started to form in an empire now ruled over by Basil’s niece, Empress Zoë Porphyrogenita, and her second husband, Emperor Michael IV. Zoë was born in the purple, which is to say born to a currently reigning emperor. In a political culture which invested so much symbolic and metaphysical importance into the position of Emperor, those born in the purple were afforded a special prestige and favoured status as heirs. All other things being equal a child born in the purple would typically be seen as a stronger imperial candidate than an older sibling born before their progenitor assumed the throne. While correct in a strictly legal sense and according to the heavily ritualized and baroque miens of the Byzantine court, Zoë claim to the purple was something of a political fiction.

Born sometime in the late 970s, Zoë was the daughter of Emperor Constantine VIII. Utilizing a succession strategy they had adapted from their Roman predecessors, it was common practice that males of the Imperial family ruled together as co-emperors. By swathing their sons, brothers and nephews in the autocratic power and spiritual authority of imperial rank, the family shared the burdens of rulership between them and built solidarity in the family by avoiding intra-dynastic rivalries and struggles over the throne. Elevated to the position of junior Emperor as an infant, Constantine reigned at various points alongside his, father, brother, stepfather and maternal uncle. When his brother, Basil, died childless in 1025, Constantine had reigned in one form or another for over sixty years, during which time he had wielded virtually no real authority or had any meaningful contact with the apparatus of government. After so long waiting idly in the wings while more vigorous members of his extended family vied for and wielded power, it is perhaps unsurprising that Constantine’s period of sole rule was to be short and relatively inglorious.

In his youth Constantine had been an active huntsman, however, this enthusiasm was but one aspect of a dedicated libertine lifestyle. By the time he came to power, Constantine was painfully crippled by gout and had great difficulty in walking. The new emperor quarrelled rather spectacularly with the nobility which had traditionally displayed considerable support and enthusiasm for the Macedonian dynasty. Constantine removed many of his brother’s closest supporters and advisors from senior governmental positions while others were blinded over petty infractions. In Bzyantine culture, blinding was not only a patently horrific and painful form of mutilation but was also reputed to mark a definitive end to the victims’ political careers and participation in courtly society. In place of the rapidly isolated nobility, Constantine ceded a great deal of power to the civil servants and functionaries which oversaw the imperial bureaucracy.

When Constantine’s health began to fail in 1028, he was faced with a potentially problematic succession. Constantine had three daughters but Byzantine succession practices and political culture were such that the idea of a woman ruling and exercising power in her own right was difficult to conceive of, at least in a officially recognised and ritually sanctioned capacity. The Byzantine court was, however, comfortable with the traditional role which aristocratic and imperial women routinely fulfilled as dynastic conduits that imparted the legitimacy and legacy of their family. Since Constantine’s eldest daughter, Eudokia, had become a nun and was therefore ineligible for both temporal office and marriage, he began casting about for a potential bridegroom to rule on behalf of his heir Zoë.

Zoë was by this time in or rapidly approaching her fifties and had spent most of her life sequestered away in the palace’s purposefully isolated and ritually regimented women’s quarters. Constantine initially summoned Duke Constantine Dalassenos of Antioch, the senior of a powerful noble family that had long been allied to the Macedonian dynasty. But had evidently changed his mind by the time the duke arrived in Constantinople and Zoë found herself married to the little regarded, Romanos Argyros. A courtier and career judicial official of noble descent, the already married Romanos had to hastily arrange a divorce at the emperor’s behest. It is something of an article of faith amongst later Byzantine writers that fearing their power would dimmish under a strong and competent emperor, Constantine’s court official and advisors steered him towards appointing a weaker and more pliant successor.

Whatever the truth of the matter, it is certainly true that Romanos III’s brief reign was equally if not more damaging to the stability of the empire than that of his father-in-law. Romanos’ earnest attempts to reorganise the empire’s system of taxation ended up drastically undermining the empire’s finances while at the same time enriching an aristocracy that was no longer meaningfully positioned or inclined to support the imperial centre. In 1030, he personally led a disastrous military expedition against the Emir of Aleppo. After being forced to quit the siege of the city, due to a lack of water, the emperor’s army, now the Byzantine Empire’s lynchpin military force, was ambushed and routed with the emperor himself only narrowly avoiding capture. After successfully fending off a number of palace coups and schemes to raise a rival emperor, Romanos died in April 1034.

The exact circumstances of his death remain unknown with various Byzantine sources divided on whether he was poisoned, drowned in the bathtub or poisoned and then drowned in the bathtub. The Imperial marriage had been an icy affair, characterized by a mutual antipathy and had only grown worse when the cash-strapped Emperor had attempted to curtail his wife’s spending. Indeed, Empress Zoë remarried after a scandalously short period of mourning. The very next day in fact.

The day after that, she bribed the Patriarch of Constantinople, with a colossal amount of gold, to hold a coronation for her new husband, Emperor Michael IV.

Michael IV, 11th century depiction from the Madrid Skylitzes

Michael’s rise to power is often held to exemplify the alleged inwardly looking reorientation the imperial administration experienced under Zoë’s father. Hailing from the thoroughly Hellenised province of Paphlagonia in modern-day northern Turkey, Michael’s family were of modest rank but were evidently possessed of wealth and not inconsiderable connections. Michael worked as a banker and money changer in Paphalognia, although the Byzantine historian George Kedrenos alleges in his Synopsis Historion, written in the 1050s, that the future emperor was a counterfeiter and fraudster. Michael abandoned this career, legitimate or otherwise, when his elder brother John summoned him to Constantinople having secured him a prestigious appointment in the imperial palace.

John, a eunuch, had been a close advisor of Basil II and the senior official responsible for overseeing the women’s quarters of the imperial palace. Even before Constantine VIII’s clash with the empire’s nobility, civil and palace officials, many of whom were eunuchs, played an integral role in imperial administration and policymaking. Evidently a strong advocate for the candidacy of Romanos III’s upon the new emperor’s accession, John found himself elevated to the rank of senator and awarded the dual roles of head of the imperial household and Parakoimomenos, an originally domestic position, traditionally held by eunuchs, that had grown to encompass enormous administrative responsibilities.

As previously stated, John used the influence and authority afforded to him by these promotions to secure prestigious appointments for his young brothers, including Michael who became one of the emperor’s personal attendants. It was in this capacity and no doubt abetted by John, who as chief eunuch continued to supervise and control access to the palaces women’s quarters, that Michael caught the eye of Empress Zoë. Michael is accused by both near contemporary Byzantine writers and modern historians of having murdered Romanos Argyros. It is certainly a compelling case, as the empress’ lover and the emperor’s private attendant he had both motive and opportunity.

This probable regicide aside, it is important for us to recognise that the notion of the empire and imperial administration falling into the hands of corrupt and petty career bureaucrats, presented within Byzantine sources, is a traditional Roman homily. Indeed, it is a theme that had been present in Roman literature since at least the satires of Juvenal which were composed in the early second century. At its heart, this hostility is a protest by the highly literate aristocratic classes at their exclusion from power and what they conceived of as their rightful place within the imperial and social hierarchy. Authors drawn from the Roman aristocracy had a personal political and emotional investment in vilifying those individuals originating from what was conceived of as the fringe of society, such as eunuchs, foreigners and free slaves who came to occupy positions of authority within the imperial administration. This narrative of aristocratic anxiety about the corrupting and pernicious influence of outsiders disrupting the natural order can be seen not only in presentations of his elder brother John’s position in imperial government but also resonates in depictions of Michael, a servant, killing his master in a moment of vulnerability.

The already emerging internal issues, which would undermine the empire in the decades to come, had on reflection little to do with the exact social class of the people plotting around the imperial throne. It had far more to do with the fact that the empire had been systemically reshaped to rely on a cash-strapped and increasingly isolated central authority. Demonstrating the increasing fragility of the imperial regime, the newly crowned Emperor Michael IV, perhaps out of ambition or merely cognizant of the fate of her previous husband, took steps to isolate Zoë from true power and restrict her movements within the palace. Instead, the new emperor relied heavily on his brother John and his unique position within the imperial household and wider administrative apparatus to exercise authority.

Harald in Constantinople

That Harald arrived in Constantinople in the aftermath of a considerable political upheaval in which the various factions of the Byzantine court were sharpening their knives, goes some way to explain the ease with which he procured a leadership position within the Varangian Guard. While the Icelandic saga, the Flateyjarbók, claims that Harald initially attempted to conceal his own royal connections can safely be dismissed as a romantic invention. Written in the late fourteenth century, the Flateyjarbók, is a further sensationalised account of the events presented within earlier sagas such as the Heimskringla, whose structure it mimics closely. While he had acquitted himself well in Yaroslav’s war against the Polish king, Harald was still a young man with only limited experience as a commander. No matter the force of personality Harald was able to bring to bear, his reputation amongst the Scandinavian mercenaries and expatriates was inevitably contextualised within and largely derived from his royal heritage and connections. The idea that Harald would seek to hide these connections from his new employers seems both wildly impractical and ill-advised since they were the source of much of his leverage and prestige.

The claim made in the Heimskringla and replicated in other saga material that Harald was able to keep his own followers together as a distinctive and autonomous unit within the larger Varangian guard is one that bears discussing briefly. While at first it seems unlikely that any Emperor or ruler would be comfortable with letting an outsider effectively establish a personal fief within one of their most valuable military units, Harald’s position with the guard needs to be viewed in the wider context of the Byzantine’s relationship with their mercenary troops.

The empire had a long tradition of using its financial resources, diplomatic influence, even its history and ideology to solicit recruits and military resources from neighbouring and client polities. As such, Byzantine armies had a long history of incorporating military units from a wide variety of cultural and ethnic groups. Such units not only had their own favoured methods of warfare but were self-contained and self-regulating, who came into the Byzantine military with their own hierarchies in place. While they could participate in multiple campaigns, their place within the empire’s military was rather nebulous and they were fundamentally ad hoc in nature, entering and leaving imperial service in accordance the strictures of various formal and informal agreements. Even the various units of foreign bodyguards attached to the imperial household were essentially temporary formations defined by their political and familial connections to their lands of origin. The primary reason that the Varangian Guard are often perceived as an exception to his pattern is the rapid transition away from Rus’ auxiliaries, loaned by the Grand Prince of Kiev, who were first augmented and then replaced by a steady flow of Scandinavian mercenaries drawn to Constantinople by economic ties and demographic pressures.

The degradation of the Theme system and the Byzantine’s increased emphasis on an offensively oriented central imperial army ultimately increased the empire’s reliance upon mercenary shock troops. Indeed, the requirement to rapidly meet threats, combine disparate forces together and transition what troops there were available between different theatres and campaigns meant that foreign mercenary internal cohesion and penchant for self-organisation were practically boons. A well-regarded foreign princeling, arriving with a small army such as Harald, not only enhanced Michael IV’s military forces but provided him with a useful Varangian figurehead with whom deals could be struck to ensure the Guards’ continued loyalty and perhaps attract further followers.

It is notable that upon being accepted into imperial service, Harald, who it appears may have already attained a leadership role within the Guard as a whole, was not long left idle. Within a month or two of arriving in Constantinople Harald and his men were sent on a campaign, attached to a fleet commanded by one of the Byzantine’s most experienced military commanders, George Maniakes. The extremely ambitious goal of the campaign was to re-establish the Byzantine’s rapidly disintegrating naval domination of the Mediterranean. In the next article in this series, we will examine the outcome of this campaign, the subsequent Byzantine revanchist offensive, and Harald’s experiences in the true graveyard of Mediterranean empires, Sicily. More than that, we will attempt to touch upon the complex political culture of the Byzantine’s Arab opponents and the ways in which they interacted with the cultures around them.

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.

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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 | |

Harald Hardrada: The Universal Empire

Top Image: Illustration by Julia Lillo