Monday, July 7, 2014

Vikings in Constantinople

An 11th-century depiction of Varangian Guards.
In recent posts on the 4th Crusade and the Siege of Constantinople, I mentioned the Varangian Guard beating back the Crusaders temporarily. The Varangian Guard were, essentially, Vikings who made their way to the Mediterranean and became mercenaries. Their name comes from the Old Norse Væringjar, from the word var which meant "pledge"; thus, they were "pledged men"; the Greeks turned this name into Βάραγγοι or Varangoi.

It was Emperor Basil II (958 - 1025), sometimes called "Basil the Young" or "Porphyrogenitus," who first hired them in 988, after their Kievan Rus homeland was Christianized. Basil received 6000 Varangians from Vladimir I of Kiev, which he preferred over local men whose loyalties might attach them to other aristocrats and would-be emperors if circumstances favored such a switch.

Viking runes in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.
Service in the Byzantine Empire was so attractive that men from all the Scandinavian countries considered it a good career move. Sweden even made a law that declared no Varangian serving in Byzantium could inherit without returning back home.

Varangians became very popular as mercenaries in Kievan Rus and even in England—but only for a short time, from 1018-1066: they did not help to turn the tide when William of Normandy came to claim the throne.

In Byzantium, they operated at least through the middle of the 14th century. Still, they left their mark on Constantinople in more ways than one. Some runic inscriptions have survived, placed their by Varangians. One was even carved in the Hagia Sophia.

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