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Varangians / Varyags

From the earliest times there has been a slight halo of maritime glory around the Russian name. The half fabulous Varangians, Northmen, or Normans, who conquered Russia as they did France and England, and from whom the Russian nobility still boast their descent, were victorious by sea as well as by land, and the glories of Ruric and Vladimir belong to the Russian nation as much as the victories of Alfred and the Plantagenets belong to England. The Varangians found out the road by water along the rivers of Russia from the Baltic to the Black Sea, - that very road which Peter the Great improved by employing his Swedish and Cossack prisoners to cut the canal of Ladoga.

The purpose of Russia to take Constantinople, did not originate in the brain of Peter the Great; but, that it has been a darling thought of the Russian for more than a thousand years. In 886 (Shortly after the foundation of the German empire [accounts date this event anywhere from 839 to 886) the Varangians appeared on the Black Sea with 200 boats, each containing from forty to sixty men, and advanced to the attack of Constantinople, which was only saved by a miracle. Passing through the Euxine Sea, and the strait of the Bosphorus, fifteen miles long, in which the fleet might easily have been destroyed, by the larger vessels of the Greeks, they occupied without opposition, the port of Constantinople in the absence of Michael, the son of Theophilus, he, then being emperor. This first raid was under the Duke of Kiev. By the aid of the garment of the Virgin Mary, which was immersed in the sea; and by a seasonable tempest the Russian fleet was induced to retire. [In 1043 AD, a Russ fleet mounted the last raid on Constantinople].

In the 10th century, Liutprand speaks of the Russians and Normans as the same Aquilonares homines (north men) of a red complexion). This Scandinavian origin of the people, or at least the princes, of Russia, may be confirmed and illustrated by the national annals and the general history of the North. The Normans, (north men) who had so long been concealed by a veil of impenetrable darkness, suddenly burst forth in the spirit of naval and military enterprise. The vast, and, as it is said, the populous regions of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, were crowded with independent chieftains and desperate adventurers, who sighed in the laziness of peace, and smiled in the agonies of death. Piracy was the exercise, the trade, the glory, and the virtue, of the Scandinavian youth.

Impatient of a bleak climate and narrow limits, they started from the banquet, grasped their arms, sounded their horn, ascended their vessels, and explored every coast that promised either spoil or settlement. The Baltic was the first scene of their naval achievement; they visited the eastern shores, the silent residence of Fennic and Slavonic tribes, and the primitive Russians of the Lake Ladoga paid a tribute, the skins of white squirrels, to these strangers, whom they saluted with the title of Varangians, or Corsairs, (merchants.-W.) Their superiority in arms, discipline, and renown, commanded the fear and reverence of the natives. In their wars against the more inland savages, the Varangians condescended to serve as friends and auxiliaries, and gradually, by choice of conquest, obtained the dominion of a people whom they were qualified to protect. Their tyranny was expelled, their valor was again recalled, till at length Rurik, (a Varangian) a Scandinavian chief, became the father of a dynasty, which reigned above seven hundred years.

Rurik was one of the Varangians who first visited the Russians. Rurik was invited by the Slav of Novgorod to come and rule over them. He invited many other Varangians into the northwestern provinces of Russia, who aided him to subdue those that resisted his authority. Rurik, with his two brothers Sineous and Truvor, having a.small army, took possession of the country south of the gulf of Finland, lakes Ladoga, Onega, and Beloe in 861-2, and laid the foundation of the first Russian monarchy. His brothers, leaving no issue, their principalities were joined to that of Rurik, Novgorod. Russia had but two dynasties: (1) That of Rurik, from A.D. 861 to A.D. 1598-737 years; (2) The house of Romanoff.

When these Scandinavian chiefs had struck a deep root into the soil, they mingled with the Russians in blood, religion, and language, and the first Waladimir had the merit of delivering his country from these foreign mercenaries. They had seated him on the throne; his riches were not sufficient to satisfy their demands; but they listened to his pleasing advice, that they should seek, not a more grateful, but a more wealthy, master; that they should embark for Greece, where, instead of the skins of squirrels, silk and gold would be the recompense of their service. At the same time, the Russian prince admonished his Byzantine ally to disperse and employ, to recompense and restrain, these impetuous children of the North.

The origins of the Varangian Guard lie in the Byzantine succession crisis of 976. Basil II appealed to the Kievian prince Vladimir for troops in 988. This was not unprecedented as Varangian mercenaries had fought in the Byzantine army since as early as 911. Contemporary writers recorded the introduction, name, and character, of the Varangians; each day they rose in confidence and esteem; the whole body was assembled at Constantinople to perform the duty of guards; and their strength was recruited by a numerous band of their countrymen from the Island of Thule. On this occasion, the vague appellation of Thule is applied to England; and the new Varangians were a colony of English and Danes who fled from the yoke of the Norman (Scandinavian Walamnir, Duke of Kiev-Russia) conquerer.

The Greek emperors were accustomed to retain iu their pay a Teutonic body-guard termed Varangians, meaning exiles or wanderers, who were possessed of many privileges. The exiles were entertained at the Byzantine court; and they preserved, to the last days of the Empire, the inheritance of spotless loyalty and the use of the Danish or English tongue. With their broad and double-edged battle-axes on their shoulders, they attended the Greek Emperor to the temple, to the senate, and to the hippodrome. He slept and feasted under their trusty guard; and the keys of the palace, the treasury, and the capitol were held by the firm and faithful hands of the Varangians. They were styled "the eagles" of the Greek army; that their tall and erect forms were always conspicuous, and their actions more glorious than those of others.

These were, in fact, Anglo-Saxons, and were joined by their countrymen from time to time, as the crusades and other causes attracted new bands to the East. They became more distinguished for valor than the far-famed Praetorian Guard of Rome, and existed in full strength until the last days of the Greek empire. In Villohardouin's account of the taking of the city of Constantinople by the Franks and Venetians, he makes repeated mention of this celebrated and singular body, forming a guard attendant on the king's person ; and it is by no means improbable that the Bosphorian kings found it also their interest to have their household troops composed of this faithful, hardy, and erratic race.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:24:36 ZULU