By Steven Lowe
The Varangian Guards were mercenaries of Viking and Anglo-Saxon stock who acted as personal bodyguards to the Emperors of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire between the late 10th and early 13th centuries AD. Recruited from Scandinavia and the Viking settlements in Russia, and later, Anglo-Saxon England, they shared a common warrior philosophy and racial ancestry, and spoke either Old English or a version of Old Norse. As very few of them would have spoken Greek, they would have had difficulty making themselves understood by the locals, who generally regarded them as outlandish barbarians. The Varangians were considerably taller than most Byzantines, and were used as Imperial bodyguards and as shock troops in battle. Their other duties included guarding the Imperial Palaces and other important sites in the City of Constantinople, and as Imperial police to carry out unpopular duties for the Emperor (such as arresting a Patriarch the Emperor didn’t like), which would have been shunned by his own people.
The New Varangian Guard has existed for many years now - more than some of us care to remember - but as far as I can see it has never fully realised the goal of accurately representing a unit of the original Varangian Guards. Such a unit would have to be complete as far as possible down to clothing, weapons, armour, and equipment. Fortunately, the Byzantine military manuals are quite thorough about what an army unit would have been provided with.
Military units had “a slave or paid groom or servant to look after the baggage and perform menial chores” - élite cavalry units having one servant per man, and other units having fewer. Cavalry was the Empire’s major military arm, upon which it concentrated and relied for its military effectiveness.They got the lion’s share of the servants, both for prestige and to look after the horses, to ensure the unit worked as efficiently as possible in keeping with their importance to the army.
There is evidence to suggest that the Varangians were mounted infantry; firstly, it was common for Vikings when raiding to steal horses and ride them to raid, but they fought as infantry. The Battle Of Maldon poem (Bradley pp. 519-20) has the Anglo-Saxons ride to the battlefield but fight on foot. And at the battle of Dyrrakhion, Anna Komnena states that the Varangians arrived on horseback, but dismounted to fight (Blöndal/Benedikz p. 126). Also the big scuffle in 1000 AD between Varangians and Iberians reported by Asochik of Armenia (ibid. p. 47), followed an argument over a bale of hay:
“A certain soldier from the Russian infantry was carrying hay for his horse, when one of the Iberians went up to him and took the hay away from him. At this another Russian came running up to help his fellow-countryman, and the Iberian now called for help from his compatriots. . .”
Well, one thing led to another, and by the time the fight was over, 6000 Varangians had been involved and 30 men of rank among the Iberians were dead, including their Grand Prince. These episodes may indicate that the Varangians routinely had horses. The evidence is a little thin, though, and shouldn’t be relied on too much. Maybe we should assume the Varangians had the same number of servants as the second rank of Thematic cavalry - one per 3 or 4 men.
Infantry were very much “second-class citizens” in the Byzantine army, and to them fell the duty of digging defensive ditches and building earth ramparts around the encampment at the end of each day’s march. Whether the Varangians were required to do labouring work at the end of the day with the common infantry is a moot point. Though infantry, they were directly associated with the Emperor and may have been exempted from this menial work.
According to Osprey, the Optimaton Theme (based across the Bosphorus from Constantinople) was non-military from the late 8th century onward, being instead a service corps, and perhaps the servants came from this Theme. Optimaton may have had overall control of logistics, however, and the unit servants and slaves may have been from another source, whether from Byzantine citizens, prisoners of war, or others who had gained employment with the army.
The Strategikon of Emperor Maurice (c. 600 AD) lists the equipment the infantrymen’s servant/slave was to have with him:
“a light mule-drawn cart which contained among other items, a hand-mill [presumably for grinding grain], saw, two spades, a mallet, wicker basket, scythe, bill-hook and two pick-axes.”
Obviously, the cavalry groom/servant’s equipment would have been different from that of the infantry, but it’d only be relevant if we represent mounted infantry. These requirements would presumably also have included tents, cookware etc. Though they are unlikely to have had a brazier, they might have had a big metal grate (as shown in fig. 1 - my thanks to Tim Dawson), and would probably have had a big copper or bronze cooking pot, ladles, pan scrapers, strainers, wooden cooking spoons, a carving knife, a cooking fork, a cleaver and perhaps a frying pan of some sort. There are archaeological and manuscript examples of these items, which if we don’t already have them could be made relatively easily. Horses were kept well back from the exterior of the encampment so if the Varangians were mounted infantry they’d have no need for entrenching tools. It should be noted (Walker, p.3) that by the Varangian era the baggage transport system used by the Imperial army may have changed from carts to mule-back .
Most Varangians would have arrived in Constantinople with little military equipment . Only the nobility and members of the military elite would have had their own armour. This consisted of a mailshirt (knee length with wide elbow length sleeves in the mid-late 11th century) and a conical helmet, usually made of segments riveted to a conical frame (the so-called spangenhelm) with a noseguard or nasal, usually worn over a mail hoof or coif. These few would have kept their own helmet and mailshirt. Those who became officers might have been issued with better quality Byzantine armour.
The majority would have had only a weapon and a shield, and would have been supplied with Byzantine military issue from the Imperial armoury - probably a very basic helmet and armour. Though they used mailshirts, the Byzantines had two other important types of armour – scale, made of small iron plates laced or riveted to a backing and overlapping downwards, and the lamellar klibanion, made of similar plates, but overlapping upwards, laced directly to each other, and with leather strips between horizontal rows to protect the laces from wear. Lamellar was the favoured and most common type of armour, and most Varangians would have been issued with. It would have been simple functional army issue, without decoration or sophistication - for example, the plates of the klibanion might have been square, not rounded, at the top (as shown in some contemporary portrayals). They could also have had splinted or padded greaves and vambraces. Shields wear out after a reasonably short time, and would have been replaced with Byzantine ones, which could be either round or kite-shaped.
Byzantine helmets were of many types, as shown below. (picture to follow when available) A Varangian unit would have had a mixture of all of them. Byzantine helmets usually had a “curtain” of mail, lamellar or scale armour, or even padded cloth, called an aventail, to protect the back of the neck. Hardly any Byzantine helmets seem to have had nasals, though in some at least, the aventail covered the face (with eyeholes) as well as the back of the neck.
Most Varangians used the large two-handed Viking axe to deadly effect, and the spear was in common use amongst them, both for hand to hand combat and as a missile. Apart from these two, the only other weapon a Varangian was likely to carry was the scramasax, a knife which also served him at mealtimes and as a multi-purpose tool. Only the upper classes would have had swords – they were too expensive for the rank and file. Spears far outnumbered swords - they were cheap and easy to make, and could be used effectively with a minimum of practice - and the lowliest peasant with a spear could happily kill a nobleman with the most expensive sword. And the two-handed axe was the weapon for which the Varangians were known.
Clothing And Appearance
Varangians would normally have worn the same clothing as they had worn at home but would have replaced it locally as it wore out, so the quality of fabric they wore would have improved. They would have maintained the fashions and hairstyles with which they were comfortable. A Russian Varangian might have worn a tunic over baggy woollen trousers, and had a large moustache plus a shaven beard and tattooed arms and face. Most Anglo-Saxons wore tunic and hose, had their hair cut a little above the shoulders and were either clean shaven or (particularly the upper classes, in the late 11th century at least) sported a large “handlebar” moustache.
Many Varangians in the 11th century had been converted to Christianity, but they would have maintained many of their old beliefs as superstitions. A pious Varangian would have worn a cross around his neck (either from home or bought during his travels), or perhaps a purse containing a Saint’s relic. Some, still pagan, may have worn a Thor’s hammer instead (or as well).
The wealthy wore armrings and cloak brooches of gold or silver, plus occasionally finger rings – a convenient and relatively safe way to carry one’s wealth around. But everyone wore small pieces of jewellery as they could afford them – often bronze, pewter or even lead. The workmanship of these pieces reflected the wealth of the person who owned them Expensive items were quite exquisitely worked, while those of the rank and file could be very trashy.
The basic kit of a Varangian would have included
? several tunics (the Skylitzes Chronicle shows a Varangian’s property including at least four tunics, though some of these could have been undershirts)
? trousers - or braies and hose if he was English (or Norman)
? perhaps socks (made from wool using the “crochet” technique known as nålbinding, as in the Jorvik sock)
? [accurate!] leather shoes or ankle boots (high boots were rare among the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons, though the occasional Varangian may have picked up Byzantine military boots)
a cloak and brooch, a purse and a hat appropriate to his race
a comb made of antler or bone
a razor if he was from one of the more civilized races (at least one
Viking “pocket knife” has been discovered – was this for shaving?)
probably some metal jewellery appropriate to his social caste
a sax for eating, a jug, bowl and perhaps a spoon (though maybe he used fingers)
Firemaking equipment - flint, steel and tinder
plus his weapons and armour.
Some Varangians were billeted in the City, others on the surrounding countryside. Their main headquarters may have been in the Hodegon monastery, near the Mangana – a palace and arsenal at the northeastern end of the City, next to the Bosphorus Strait and within the Palace complex. However, detachments were also based in the Boukoleon Palace, at the Brazen Gate near the Hippodrome, and at the Blachernae (Vlachernai) Palace at the northern end of the land walls at the other end of the City.
They would have had local (i.e. Byzantine) servants to do their menial tasks, so you wouldn’t have seen a Varangian cooking, or mending or washing his own clothes.
At home in Constantinople, the Varangians would have wooden chests containing their personal property, which could have included glazed earthenware bowls of Byzantine, Arab or Persian manufacture, purchased in the City’s markets. Each man would also have had some sort of bedroll. Investigations (Oikonomides p. 213) suggest that in the Empire at least, this would have consisted of a blanket or thin mattress to sleep on, plus another blanket to cover the person when asleep. These would have been laid on benches of wood or stone around the walls of the barracks room, which were used for seating during the day.
The Varangians aren’t likely to have brought their wives with them, and though there may have been a few Scandinavian women in the Rus trading community at Constantinople, (probably in Galata on the north shore of the Golden Horn), they’re far more likely to have formed liaisons with local women (see Tim Dawson’s article Further Comment on the Varangian Lifestyle, Varangian Voice No. 38). There would also have been washerwomen, prostitutes and other women in such occupations as the Varangians would have come into contact with in the City.
Junior officers were advised not to bring their own tents with them on campaign (Dennis p. 291), so would either have shared a tent with their men, or perhaps the whole unit slept in the open
On campaign the Varangians would have accompanied the Emperor and camped near his tent. If they had tents of their own, they would have been Byzantine army issue – tall circular tents with a conical roof and a central pole. It should be noted that an anonymous treatise of the 6th century (ibid) recommends that all spears be rested against the tent-pole, and the soldiers sleep with their heads to the pole and their feet facing outwards. This was to make it easier to reach weapons in an emergency. (Haldon, footnote p. 33) mentions that javelins were kept in bundles in leather cases. Each man would probably have had a bedroll consisting of a blanket and a thin strawfilled mattress, but on campaign may have slept on the ground with just a cloak to cover him.
On campaign the Varangians’ chests of personal property would have to be left at home - there’d be nobody to carry them. Pottery or soapstone eating bowls would be too fragile to use on campaign and would be replaced by wood - or metal, as is current practice in today’s armies. They may even have eaten from a communal bowl rather than having one each, and shared a single drinking vessel between them at meals (Oikonomides p. 212). Perhaps several units shared cooking facilities and ate together, or did what the navy still does - have one central cooking facility and servants to carry the food back to their own units when it was cooked. However, each Varangian probably had a waterbottle (there is an example of an Anglo-Saxon pottery bottle, made in imitation of leather, in Varangian Voice No 41, and the Mediterranean countries often use animal bladders). The mule-cart would have carried water in a wooden barrel or large waterskin (or perhaps in amphorae).
Infantry on campaign were issued with 8 caltrops on a rope per man (from cheval trap [= horse trap (bad French)]: an object with 4 protruding spikes arranged so one always sticks up vertically, to trap men and horses). Each dekarkhia (ten men) had a metal spike which was hammered into the ground in front of the ditch, and the caltrop ropes attached to it and flung outwards (presumably in a fan-shaped arrangement) to deter cavalry from attacking the encampment. Also the camp was surrounded by a string from which small bells were hung to give the alarm if the enemy tried to sneak up to the camp. Ditches known as “footbreakers” were dug in front of the encampment, with wooden spikes in them (Dennis p. 263) - a ditch about a foot deep would efficiently break an ankle if stumbled into unawares. The spikes would have been cut and the ditches dug using the pickaxes, billhook and shovels in the mule-cart.
There would also have been camp followers - tinkers, tailors, prostitutes, cobblers, washerwomen, and the multitude of people who stand to gain employment or profit from providing services to a large army, probably including thieves who hoped to make off with army property and sell it - even back to the army itself. These would have been Greek, Armenian, Bulgarian, or any of a host of races within or on the periphery of the Empire. They are not likely to have been Scandinavians!
A Varangian unit would have had its own leaders, answerable to the overall leader of the Varangian Guard, known as the Akolouthos, or to the commanding Byzantine strategos (general) There was also a Byzantine interpreter, whose job it was to relay commands to the non Greek-speaking Varangians.
It would be particularly important to have the right proportions of weapons within the unit. Have we ever had a unit of axemen and spearmen alone? Would it work? Or would they all die horribly and fast? Quality and accuracy of costume, arms and armour would be vital - but that doesn’t mean the equipment would have to be flashy. On the contrary, if the Varangians had basic Byzantine army issue equipment as I proposed above, it would be quite plain with only the very occasional spectacular outfit representing a nobleman or high officer.
The mule might be a bit of a luxury, but a cart would be of great use for carrying armour etc., especially if it could be pulled apart and put on a trailer or the back of a ute at the end of the day. Getting people to represent the servants might be difficult - it’s not a very glamorous job - but maybe somebody not interested in fighting would like to try it, or we could try being servants in rotation, with everybody getting a turn.
Portraying a unit of Varangian Guards would not have to be confined to one garrison; in fact, it might be possible to have a conglomerate unit from many garrisons which gets together at such things as Conventions or large public displays. If we can get enough people, we could get several units together, each with its own tent, cart, servants etc.
I would like to thank the Vlachernai Garrison, Graeme Walker and Tim Dawson for providing me with information I used in this article.
Beatson, P., Another illustration of
Varangian Guardsmen from the Skylitzes Manuscript, Madrid, Varangian
Voice No. 23.
Blöndal, S. & Benedikz, B. The Varangians of Byzantium, Cambridge University Press, 1978.
Bradley, S.D., Anglo-Saxon Poetry, Dent & Sons, London, 1982.
Dennis, G.T., Three Byzantine Military Treatises, Dumbarton Oaks Texts, Washington, 1985.
Haldon, J.F., Some Aspects of Byzantine Military Technology from the Sixth to the Tenth Centuries, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Vol. 1, 1985.
Heath, I., Byzantine Armies 886-1118, Osprey, London, 1984.
Lowe, S., The Adoption of Byzantine Equipment and Customs by the Varangian Guard, Varangian Voice No 37.
Lowe, S., Two Unusual Bottles, Varangian Voice No 41.
Oikonomides, N., The Contents of the Byzantine House from the Eleventh to the Fifteenth Century, Dumbarton Oaks Papers No. 44, Washington, 1998.
Walker, G., Letter to the editor, Varangian Voice No 47, May 1988.
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