As early as 911 there is a mention of the Varangians fighting alonside the Byzantine peoples, but it is in 988, when Emperor Basil II asked for help from the Rus King Vladimir I of Kiev that they came into prominence. Vladimir I took over Kiev with an army comprised mainly of Rus, ( Eastern Vikings, mainly from Sweden), who were also known as the Varangians. Soon after they were Christianized Vladimir I, in 988, sent 6,000 of these Varangians to the Byzantine Emperor Basil II as part of a military agreement. Basil also gave his sister, Anna, to Vladimir, I guess to sweeten the bargain. The emperor did not trust his native Byzantine guards who tended to shift allegiances at a moments notice. He had heard about the loyalty and fierce fighting tactics of these Varangians, and decided to make them his personal guard. After swearing an oath to the emperor personally of course ! They have been known ever since as the Varangian Guard.
For the first century or so the Varangian guard consisted mainly of Eastern Norsemen but later Western Norsemen, Anglo - Saxons ( especially after the Normans invaded Britain, and took away their lands), and Germanic peoples also joined the elite guard after about 1100. Though the Varangian Guard was a semi - autonomous force of non - Byzantines, they were usually lead by a native Byzantine who held the title Akolouthos.
The Varangian Guard was not just a " palace guard " either. They were used in numerous wars and in countless battles, and in ways that remind me of today's modern marines. Wherever the battle was heaviest, and at the most critical points in the line, that is where you would find these elite " shock " troops fighting. These Varangian warriors are often referred to by their Byzantine chroniclers as fighting with reckless abandon. We Scandinavians would of course use the term " berserking ".
In 989, Emperor Basil II used his 6,000 Varangians that made up his guard to defeat a rebel leader known as Bordas Phokas. When Phokas died in battle his men quickly fled. The Varangians it is written chased down and killed them to a man. In 1018, Basil loaned a force of Varangians to his senior general in Italy, Basil Boioannes, to put down a revolt by the Lombards, led by Melus of Bari. At the Battle of Cannae the Varangians gave Basil the edge he needed to gain the necessary victory.
To point out how deep the loyalties and alliances meant to the Varangians, in 1038, the general George Maniakes, who commanded Normans, Lombards, and Varangians as well as his own troops in Sicily, won some battles that helped to push the Saracens partially out of Sicily. When Maniakes publicly humiliated the leader of the Lombards, they left. Soon after the Normans and Varangians left as well leaving George Maniakes to face the Saracens alone with just his local troops. An interesting side note to this battle is that one of the Varangian Guard leaders was Harald Hardrada who would soon become the King of Norway.
The final chapter in the Varangian Guard' s history took place when the Guard fought in the many Crusades against the Muslim Saracens. That, however, is too large of a subject to tackle in this article. I would like to leave you with a few lines from the Laxdaela Saga. Speaking of Bolli Bollason :
" When Bolli had spent one winter in Denmark he continued his travels to other lands, and did not break his journey until he had reached Constantinople. He had not been there long before he joined the Varangian Guard. " " He stayed in Constantinople for several years, and was considered exceptionally valiant in every hazard, and was always at the forefront. The Varangians thought very highly of Bolli during his stay in Constantinople. " ( Chapter 73, The Laxdaela saga ). Bolli Bollason is considered to be the first Icelander to join the Varangian Guard, about 1030.
The Varangian Guard stands as a proud testament to the warrior ethic of the Scandinavian peoples of the Viking Age, and beyond. They not only lived up to the expectations of the Byzantine Emperors but were highly regarded for their loyalty and fighting prowess to the point that they were placed above their own people in military status. For a foreign force to be made the personal bodyguard of an emperor is a high honor indeed ! All Hail the legendary Varangian Guard !
Go with Odin's wisdom, Freyja's love, and Thor's protection !