- Name of those Vikings, also called Rus (qq.v.), who served as mercenaries in the Byzantine army (q.v.). In 988 a contingent of 6,000 Varangians was sent by Vladimir I of Kiev (qq.v.) to help Basil II (q.v.) suppress the revolt of Bardas Phokas (q.v.). They became the elite shock troops of Basil II's army. Subsequently they formed the famous Varangian Guard, the imperial bodyguard stationed in the Great Palace at Constantinople (qq.v.). The most famous commander (akolouthos) of the Varangians was Harold Hardrada (q.v.), who fought under George Maniakes in Sicily (qq.v.) in 1038. Hardrada died fighting Harold of England at Stamford Bridge in 1066 in an attempt to claim the English throne. After 1066, defeated Anglo-Saxons migrated to Byzantium (q.v.) where they found employment in the Varangian Guard. By the 13th century the Varangian Guard was almost entirely English and their acclamations to the emperor were in that language. The Guard was fiercely loyal to the reigning emperor, and fierce to behold with their swords and battle axes. In battle, the "axe-bearers" were sometimes pitted against western troops, though not always successfully. When Alexios I Komnenos (q.v.) attempted to raise the siege at Dyrrachion (q.v.) in October 1081, he placed on the front line a shield wall of Varangians that was almost wiped out by a Norman cavalry charge, reminiscent of the battle of Hastings. In 1204 Varangians vainly defended the walls of Constantinople against knights of the Fourth Crusade (q.v.). In the late Byzantine army (i.e., from 1261-1453) their role changed to that of imperial bodyguards and prison guards. The last historical reference to the Varangians is from the chronicler Adam of Usk, who in Rome (q.v.) in 1404 inquired of Byzantine ambassadors whether any of his countrymen lived in Byzantium. They told him of British axe-bearers who fought there for the emperor.
Historical Dictionary of Byzantium . John H. Rosser .
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