In the year 860AD the Rus Vikings launched an attack on Constantinople, going for the ultimate prize, but they could not take the city. Despite this hostile start, eventually Viking warriors would serve the Emperors of the Romans. The Varangians originated as simply ordinary mercenaries working for the Romans, just one group among many. They became far more than that, and are probably the most famous Byzantine military unit. They were ferocious warriors known for their bravery and their loyalty to the Emperor they served. They served as shock troops, elite troops sent to join field armies, and as defenders of the capital.
In 874 Constantinople and Kievan Rus reached a peace agreement which lasted until 907, when the Rus attacked the city again. In the reign of Michael III the Rus began serving as mercenaries in the imperial forces. In the 10th century, the amount of Norse and Rus Viking warriors in the army steadily increased. They are mentioned during the reign of Constantine Porphyrogennitos as guards at the court. But it was in the year 988 that the Varangians truly began to form. Basil II was facing the powerful rebel general Bardas Phokas, and asked the Grand Prince of Kiev, Vladimir the Great to send him Rus warriors to help him defend his throne. Vladimir sent 6,000 men whom he wanted to get out of Kiev because they were “furious at the Prince’s (Vladimir) unwillingness or incapiacity to pay them their wages…” and “…demanded that he show them the way to the Greeks (Romans).” Vladimir also converted to Christianity and married the princess Anna. This conversion to Christianity has had significant effect on history, as it helped bring the Russians into the Orthodox and not Catholic world. Basil unleashed his new Varangian army on the rebels at Chrysopolis and they chopped the traitors to pieces in the ferocious and ruthless fashion they would become famous for.
They helped Basil secure his throne and secured themselves a permanent role in the service of the Romans. Other warriors from Russia, Scandinavia, and later northwestern Europe would come to fight for the Romans in exchange for riches. Basil used them as more than just a bodyguard, he used them as a powerful element of the army. They helped him fight in Syria, Armenia, Georgia, and the Balkans. Basil II was famous for his campaigns, and he brought the Varangians with him everywhere he went.
The Varangians are probably one of the most famous elements of Byzantium in modern times. They are often portrayed as being nearly perfectly loyal bodyguards for the Emperors. While they were highly loyal overall, this was not always true in every case. As humans they were of course going to act in their own interests and according to their own principles.
The Varangians for example were highly involved with the overthrow of Emperor Michael V, whom had banished the Empress Zoe from the palace. Harold Hardrada had fallen out of favor, and was imprisoned for potentially stealing treasure or other offenses which may or may not have occurred. Some Varangians stereotypically stayed loyal, but most sided with Hardrada in supporting the usurpation of Michael V and reinstating the legitimate Macedonian dynasty. Michael V was blinded, some sources saying Harold himself carried that out. They were no Praetorian guard, but of course as people at times had to act in self-interest. Overall still a very loyal group!
THE LATER VARANGIAN GUARD:
The fate of the Varangian guard after 1204 is less clearly described, but clearly they were still present in a smaller form after that time. The Varangians were the only ones who fought well on the Byzantine side in 1204, and it seems some went on to serve the Romans afterwards in the splinter states of Nicaea, and possibly Epirus. It’s also possible even the Latin “Emperor” of Constantinople from 1204-1261 had a small retinue of Varangians as well
The Varangians slowly decline in mentions in the sources after 1261 when Constantinople was freed from Latin rule. According to “The Varangian Guard 988-1453 (Men-at-Arms)” by Raffaele D’Amato, in 1265 “the Bulgarian tsar ambushed a Byzantine army and besieged them in the small town of Ainos; he offered the garrison their lives and allowed them to keep the town in return for releasing the captured former Seljuk Sultan of Rum…the Varangians agreed; when a relief force arrived the next day the furious Emperor Michael VIII had them flogged, dressed in women’s clothing, and led on donkeys around the streets of Constantinople. Nevertheless, until 1272 the emperor employed the Varangians extensively in campaigns to recover territories”
They declined in their prestige and mention in the histories after that time. The state was increasingly poorer after the reign of Michael VIII and surely that contributed. John Kantakouzenos mentions them in his history as still being guards in 1316, 1328, 1330, and 1341. But it seems they were just a smaller retinue of palace guards not a unit of the army as they once had been. Emperor John VII said on a letter to King Henry IV that some English Varangians were active in the defense of Constantinople against the Turks in 1402. They are mentioned in 1404 during Manuel II’s reign as well. But it seems there were no Varangians in 1453 so probably in the early 1400s the Varangians faded away completely
The Varangian Guard 988-1453 (Men-at-Arms)” by Raffaele D’Amato