The Varangians or Variags were Vikings who travelled eastwards from Sweden. Promoting trading, piracy and mercenary militarism, they roamed the river systems and portages of what later became Russia, reaching the Caspian Sea and Constantinople. They created a network of strongholds and trade posts establishing the first Russian state.

The Slavs and the Byzantines, however, did not distinguish between Scandinavians and closely related Germanic subsets, when they used this term. In the Russian Primary Chronicle, this term also includes Englishmenmen.

1 Rus'

2 The Varangian Guard

3 See also

4 External links

5 Further reading

Table of contents


The Varangians (Varyags, in Russian) are first mentioned by the Russian Primary Chronicle as having arrived from beyond the Baltic Sea around the mid-9th century, invited by the warring Slavic and Fennic tribes to bring peace to the region. They were led by Rurik and his two brothers Askold and Dir, who settled around the Slavic town of Novgorod. These early Varangians were likely legendary, but a real Swedish settlement, Aldeigjuborg, was established around Lake Ladoga in the 8th century. The Slavic inhabitants called these Swedes Rus'.

The role of the Varangians in Russian history was an important subject of discussion in the 19th century Russian historiography. The proponents of the so-called "Norman theory" of the Russian state - including Nikolai Karamzin and, later, Sergey Pogodin - believed the claims of the Primary Chronicle that the Varangians were invited by East Slavs to rule over them and bring order. The theory was not without political implications. In Karamzin's writing the norman theory formed the basis and justification for Russian autocracy, and Pogodin used the theory to claim that the Russian state was immune to social upheavals and revolutions, because people's submission to their rulers was voluntary from the very beginning. Already in the 19th century the "Norman theory" was disputed by the more liberal sectors of the Russian society and by some Polish historians.

See Rus' article for more discussions.

The Varangian Guard

Varangians first appear in the Byzantine world in 839, when the emperor Theophilus II negotiated with them to provide a few mercenaries for his army. Although the Rus' often had peaceful trading relations with the Byzantines, Varangian raiders sometimes attacked from the north. Such attacks came in 860, 907, 911, 941, 945, 971, and finally 1043. These raids were successful only in causing the Byzantines to re-arrange their trade treaties; militarily, they were always defeated by the superior Byzantines, especially by the use of Greek fire.

The ruling class of the two powerful city-states of Novgorod and Kyiv eventually became Varangian, and the Byzantines soon acquired an official mercenary force that became the Varangian Guard. This occurred in 988, when Kyivan Prince Vladimir the Great converted to Orthodox Christianity. In exchange for a marriage to Basil II's sister Anna, Vladimir gave Basil 6,000 Varangians to use as his own personal bodyguard. The Varangian Guard was one of the fiercest and most loyal elements of the Byzantine army, as described in Anna Comnena's chronicle of the reign of her father Alexius I, the Alexiad. Their main weapon was a long axe, although they could also be used as swordsmen or archers. They were the only element of the army to successfully defend part of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, although the Guard was apparently disbanded after the city's capture in 1204. By this time, the term Varangian referred to any mercenary from northern Europe, and the Guard was probably composed more of English, Scottish and Normand mercenaries than Russians or Scandinavians.

One of the most famous members of the Varangian Guard was the future king Harald III of Norway, also known as Harald Hardrada ("Hardreign"), who arrived in Constantinople in 1035. He participated in eighteen battles and became Akolythos, the commander, of the Guard before returning home in 1043.

In contrast to the intense Viking influence in Normandy and the British Isles, Varangian culture did not survive to a great extent in the East. Instead, it was rapidly assimilated into the Slavic substrate.

See also

External links

Further reading

  • Sigfus Blondal. Varangians of Byzantium: An Aspect of Byzantine Military History. Trans. by Benedikt S. Benedikz, Cambridge: 1978. ISBN 0521217458
  • H.R. Ellis Davidson. The Viking Road to Byzantium. London: 1976. ISBN 0049400495