by Stephen Lowe
--an article from Issue 20 of the Varangian Voice
All right, so you know about Manzikert, and probably Dyrrakhion. But what about the battles the Varangians won?
To remedy this lack I have compiled a list of the actions in which the Varangian Guard definitely or probably took part. The main source is The Varangians of Byzantium by Sigfus Blöndal, translated, revised and rewritten by Benedikt Benedikz (Cambridge University Press, 1978). Graeme Walker (2) suggests with good reason that Blöndal and Benedikz are a little over-enthusiastic in seeing evidence of Varangian presence in contemporary sources, and I have left out any questionable references.
988 AD – As part of a treaty arrangement, Tsar Vladimir of Kiev sent 6000 men to help Byzantine Emperor Basil II to overcome a rebellion by Bardas Phocas. There had been Norsemen in Byzantine service for over 100 years, but this incident probably marked the beginning of the Varangian Guard as a separate unit. The Varangians surprised a rebel force off-guard at Chrysopolis (across the Bosphorus straits from Constantinople) at table, drinking. They “destroyed not a few of them, scattered the rest in all directions”. A large number of Iberians from Georgia were in Phocas’ army (see 1000 AD).
April 989 AD – The Varangians aided Basil in his victory over Bardas Phocas’ lieutenant, Delphinas, at Scutari, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus.
13 April 989 AD – The Varangians took part in the battle of Abydos, in which Bardas Phocas was finally defeated (dying of a heart attack mid battle).
999 AD – Basil engaged in an expedition to Syria. He besieged and captured Emesa.
“The inhabitants fled into the fortified monastery of Constantine but the Russians (i.e. Varangians) set fire to it and so compelled the defenders to surrender after which the monastery was plundered, even the lead and copper being stripped from the roof."
1000 AD – Basil went to Georgia at the death of King David, to claim lands David had promised to the Empire. The Varangians were with him and a squabble between an Iberian and a Varangian over a bale of hay escalated into a major fight (involving 6000 Varangians) Many Georgians were killed, including 30 men of rank, the Iberian Grand Prince among them.
1001-1008 – Basil II campaigned successfully against Bulgaria, progressively annexing its territories for the Empire. In 1014 this culminated in the battle of Kleidon Pass, when the Bulgarian army was crushed and nine out of every ten Bulgars was sent home blind. In 1018 Basil captured the capital Achrida (Ochrid) and divided the prisoners into three groups – one for himself, one for the Greek soldiers and the third for the Varangians.
1009 – A nobleman named Meles of the Italian city of Bari rebelled in an attempt to create an independent republic. The army sent to quell the rising included ‘Dani, Rossi and Gualani’ (Danes, Russians, and (Welsh?). Bari was recaptured in 1011, but Meles rebelled again with Norman aid. There were three inconclusive battles in 1017, then in 1018 Basil Bioiannes crushed the Normans at the battle of Ofante. Leo of Ostia wrote “When the Emperor heard that brave knights had invaded his land he sent his finest soldiers against them: in the first three battles they fought the Normans won, but when they were matched against the Russians they were totally defeated, and their army was utterly destroyed . . .
1016 – Basil sent the Imperial fleet against the Khazars of the Black Sea, in aid of his nephew Jaroslav of Russia. The fleet was commanded by Byzantine Admiral Mongos Andronikos, assisted by a Russian commander named Svengos (Sveinki). Khazar ruler Georgios Toulos was captured and his territories annexed.
1018 – General Basil Bioiannes went to Sicily and captured Messina from the Arabs, but Protospartharios Orestes in charge of a mixed army (including Russians) lost it again.
1020-1022 – Basil II Moved back to Georgia, as the ruler Keorki (George) was defying him. Basil gave him opportunities to submit, but finally sent his troops on a three month reign of terror in the peaceful region of Ogoni. The Russian Varangians showed great ferocity, killing men, women and children.
In the final battle, on September 11th 1022 at Aghpha near Erzerum, King Keorki, having first asked for peace attempted a surprise attack on the Byzantines. Basil dealt a crushing blow to the Georgians. The Varangians distinguished themselves, attacking before the rest of the army had engaged and putting the Georgians to flight. Basil paid one gold piece for each head and stacked the heads along the road.
The Emperor assembled a second army to reconquer Messina, to be joined by Bioiannes from Italy, but the preparations were cut short by the Emperor’s death in 1025.
1032 – General Georgios Maniakes drove back the Muslim forces threatening Antioch and took Edessa. A soldier ‘of the Russian people’ sent by Maniakes on an errand to the Emir of Harran, lost his temper with the Emir and struck at him with his axe.
1033 – Russian troops formed part of Protospartharios Theoktistos’ expedition to help Emir ibn Zairah against the Caliph of Egypt.
1034 – Nineteen year old prince Harald Sigurdsson (Hardrada) of Norway entered Imperial service, bringing 500 warriors with him. According to Snorri Sturlusson, Harald ‘served on the galleys with the force that went into the Grecian Sea’. The information on Harald’s career in Byzantine service is incomplete and often unreliable, particularly saga references. There are suggestions that he fought Arabs and Pechenegs (‘Scyths’), and perhaps visited Jerusalem. He definitely served in Sicily and Bulgaria, and may have been used to attack Arab pirates preying on Byzantine shipping.
1034 – The commander of the Byzantine force which put down a rebellion of King Adam of Sebaste was of the rank of Akolouthos – the title of the commander of the Varangians.
1035 – Varangians were present in the force under Nicholas Pegonites which captured the fort at Berkri in Armenia after a long siege.
1038-1041 – A campaign in Sicily and southern Italy under general Georgios Maniakes included Varangians under Harald. They probably took part in the battles of Rametta and Traina, as well as possibly a sea battle off the coast of Sicily. Maniakes was unpopular with the Varangians in general and Harald in particular. After his service in Sicily, Harald was awarded the Byzantine rank of Manglavites.
1038-1040 – The Italian city of Bari rebelled against Imperial rule in 1038, to be followed in 1040 by Mottola. Bari was recaptured the same year, and a new katepanos, Michael Dokeianos, arrived with Varangians amongst his army. Saga references suggest that Harald was included in this number – there are references to his fighting against Longobardi (Lombards) and Franks (Normans).
1041 - There were two great battles in Italy against the Normans in this campaign. In both – Olivento on 17 March and Montemaggiore on 4 May - the Normans won against superior Byzantine numbers. Reference is made to high casualties among the Rhos – at Montemaggiore “ . . . much of Dokeianos’ army was drowned in the river Ofanto, which was in full flood.” (Blondal/ Benedikz p10) The army of Exaugustus (Viceroy) Bioiannes which was disastrously defeated at Monte Siricolo also contained Varangians.
1040-1041 – Georgios Maniakes was sent to crush a Bulgarian revolt under Peter Deleanos. The rebellion was initially successful, but started to fall apart after failing to take Thessaloniki. Alousian, the brother of the deposed Tsar of Bulgaria, captured and blinded Deleanos, and continued the rebellion, but this ended in surrender to the Emperor. Harald was present at this campaign, and was raised to the rank of Spartharokandidatos for his part in it.
1042 – Varangians were involved in the overthrow and blinding of the unpopular Emperor Michael V. Haraldr had been imprisoned by Michael but was now released. Shortly afterwards he left for Russia and then Scandinavia to contest the throne of Norway.
Georgios Maniakes had fallen from favor and was recalled from Italy to Constantinople. Instead, he proclaimed himself Emperor and went to war against the Empire. He was defeated and killed at the battle of Ostrovo by an Imperial army containing several companies of Varangians under the Sebastophorus Stephen. In the triumphal procession through Constantinople the Varangians, axes on shoulders, marched ahead of the victorious general, while another contingent marched behind Manaikes’ severed head.
1043 – When Prince Jaroslav of Kiev sent a fleet to attack Constantinople, Emperor Constantine sent those of his Varangian Guards who were from Russia to serve in distant frontier provinces, and put all the Russians in Constantinople under guard. The fleet was destroyed by Greek Fire from the Byzantine navy.
1044 – The Varangian Guard protected Emperor Constantine from an outraged mob, which believed he was trying to murder his wife Empress Zoë and her sister.
1045 – A force of 3000 Varangians was used to help King Liparit rebel against his overlord King Bagrat IV of Carthelia and Abkhasia, and 700-800 of them took part in the battle of Sasir in which Liparit completely defeated Bagrat.
1046 – Varangians accompanied the Katepanos of Italy, John Raphael, in Bari.
1047 – When the Emperor had only his mercenary troops in the Capital, General Leo Tornicius raised a rebellion, but was forced to capitulate and was blinded.
1048 – A Varangian force captured Stira and Lecce in Italy and took Bari after a further rebellion but could not hold it, and was able to release the Katepanos Eustathios Palatinus only by agreeing to let the town remain free.
After Pechenegs invaded Bulgaria, defeating Constantine Arianites at Adrianople, Nicolas Glavas managed to contain them. The Varangians took part and shortly afterwards caught a band of Pechenegs at Calasyrta near Constantinople, and laid their heads at the Emperor’s feet.
A new force, including the Varangians under their Akolouthos Michael, was sent to finish off the Pechenegs. Michael fought and defeated them at Goloe and Toplitzon, and together with Nikephoros Bryennios defeated them again at Chariopolis.
During an interval in this campaign Michael took the Varangians to Asia Minor, and assembled an army at Caesarea to restrain Seljuq Sultan Tughrul from raiding the frontier Themes.
1055 – Varangians took part in putting down an attempted coup by Theodosios.
20 August 1057 – At the battle of Petroe (near Nicaea) Michael VI was forced to abdicate in favor of Isaac Comnenos. Varangian forces fought on both sides. Four Varangians are said to have attacked Isaac with spears which struck from four sides simultaneously and were turned by his armour, enabling him to stay upright in the saddle and be rescued a moment later.
1064 – Varangians were among the defenders at Otranto, which fell to the besieging Normans by a trick. Some escaped by ship.
1066 – A mostly Varangian army was sent to Bari under Mabrikias and recaptured Brindisi, Taranto and Castellaneta. In Brindisi a Norman counter attack was defeated when the commander, Nikephoros Karantenos, pretended to surrender then attacked the Normans as they were climbing ladders to cross the town wall, decapitated 100 corpses and sent the heads to the Emperor. The Varangians were also part of a Byzantine fleet which defeated Robert Guiscard off Brindisi.
1068 – On campaign against the Turks in Asia Minor under Romanos Diogenes, the Varangians took the gates of the citadel of Hierapolis, which had threatened to defeat the Imperial assault.
1070 – Varangian troops were withdrawn from Asia Minor to shore up the failing defenses of the Empire’s Italian possessions. Despite this, the last strongholds in Italy fell the following year.
19 (or perhaps 26) August 1071 – At the disastrous battle of Manzikert virtually all the Emperor’s Guards fell around him. Judging by the make-up of the armies which had accompanied the Emperor on campaign in Asia Minor in previous years, it is likely that the Varangians were present here, as well, though they are not specifically mentioned by the chroniclers.
1077 – Varangians in Byzantine service were part of an attack on John, brother of Imperial usurper Nikephoros Bryennios at Athyras (14 miles from Constantinople). The Varangians launched a seaborne attack which was so successful that John fled precipitately. When the land forces arrived (late) he was so far away that they were unable to catch him.
Large numbers of disaffected Varangians were in the army of John and Nikephoros Bryennois, later defeated by Alexios Comnenos at Kalouryta. John was, however, forgiven and accepted back into Imperial service, but was recognized by a Varangian whose nose he had ordered cut off. The Varangian killed him with his axe. Shortly afterwards (perhaps because of the Guardsman’s punishment?), Emperor Nikephoros Botaniates was unsuccessfully attacked by a band of drunken Varangian Guards in his palace.
1078 – After Michael VII was overthrown by Nikephoros Botaniates, Basiliakes, the former governor of Dyrrakhion declared himself Emperor and marched on Constantinople with Varangians in his army. He was defeated at the river Vardar and retreated to Thessaloniki. However, he was handed over to the Imperial forces by his own men.
March 1081 – Alexios Comnenos, having decided to seize the throne, appeared with an army before Constantinople which was defended only by the Athanatoi (“Immortals”) and the Varangian Guards, plus a detachment of Germans guarding the Kharisian Gate. Comnenos decided it would be impossible to sway the loyalty of the Athanatoi and the Varangians, and bribed the Germans to open the gate. The Varangians stayed faithful to the Emperor, but he decided to abdicate rather than risk a bloody civil war.
18 October 1081- Battle of Dyrrachion. The Varangians, after initial success against Norman forces from Italy, were isolated from the main body of the Army, and the church they were sheltering in was burnt down. The Normans under Robert Guiscard took the city, and later the town of Kastoria, garrisoned by Varangians. However, the Norman army stalled, losing a battle at Larissa, and lost all its gains within four years.
1085- Varangians were in the Imperial army when it was defeated by Pechenegs at Silistra in the Balkans. The Pechenegs were finally defeated in 1091.
The Varangians probably took part in the wars against the Serbs and the Turks during the reign of Alexius Comnenus.
1097- Alexius, and therefore the Varangian Guard, was present at the recapture of Nicaea by the combined forces of the Empire and the First Crusade.
1098- Alexius would have been accompanied by his Varangian Guard on his campaign to extend his rule into Asia Minor.
1118 to 1122- Varangian Guards probably accompanied John II Comnenus on his campaigns.
1122- Battle of Beroe, under John II Comnenus, against the Pechenegs. After Frankish, Greek and Fleming units failed to break the Pechenegs' defensive circle of wagons, John sent his wineskins - the Varangians - against it. they broke through and the Pechenegs were overwhelmingly defeated.
1137- Varangians were probably with John II at the siege of Antioch.
1149- Varangian reinforcements were sent to aid in the unsuccessful defense of Thebes from the attack by Roger II of Sicily, Varangian Guards probably accompanied Emperor Manuel II in its recapture from Roger.
1154- 300 Varangian Guards were instrumental in foiling an attempt to assassinate Manuel II.
1155 to 1156- Renault de Chatillon, crusader Prince of Antioch attacked Cyprus, which numbered Varangians among its garrisons, but after the initial success was defeated and brought by the Varangians to grovel at the Emperor's feet. A little later Varangians were very much in evidence when Manuel made his state entry into Antioch as its conqueror.
1172- Varangians were probably in the fleet sent unsuccessfully against the Venetians.
11 September 1176- Manuel took the Varangians with him when he undertook an expedition against the Turks of Asia Minor. The army was taken by surprise and shattered at Myriokephalum. Manuel barely escaped with his life, most of the Varangians accompanying him were killed, though some English ones escaped and were sent home to bring the news to Henry II.
1179- Varangians were probably present with Manuel at Claudiopolis where he drove the Turks back and concluded a peace with them.
1200- The Varangian Guard were used to put down two attempts to overthrow Emperor Alexius III.
1203 to 1204- Varangian Guards played a major part in the defense of Constantinople against the Fourth Crusade, but finally surrendered to the victorious Latins.
1204-1261- There are indications that the Latin Emperors of Byzantium had their own unit of Varangian Guards, who saw action against the pagans.
1205 onwards- A unit of Varangian Guards served the Byzantine Empire-in-exile in Nicaea.
1233- The Varangians were probably involved in the campaigns of John III of Nicaea against the Latin Empire, and his capture of the Greek empire-in-exile at Thessalonika.
1261- The Latin Empire finally crumbled and the Byzantines returned to Constantinople.
1264- The Varangians were among a Byzantine army defeated by Franks at Makriplagi.
1265- The Varangian Guard were instrumental in freeing the former Seljuk Sultan Azz-ed-Din, when the Bulgarian Tsar ambushed the Byzantine army and besieged them in the small town of Ainos. In return for Azz-ed-Din's freedom, the Tsar granted the garrison their lives and allowed them to keep the town. A relief force arrived the next day and the Varangians returned to a furious Emperor who had them flogged, dressed in women's clothes and led on donkeys around the streets of Constantinople.
Up to 1272- Michael VIII used the Varangian Guard extensively in campaigns to regain territory in the Balkans and Asia Minor.
From this point on there are no references to Varangians in battle - the only mentions relate to guard duties and ceremonial within the city. the last reference to Varangians in service relates to their use in 1341 as bodyguards to the young John V.