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The Eastern Roman Empire was a place of grandeur and majesty, and Byzantium (known today as Constantinople) outlived the Western half of the empire by centuries. However, while the Eastern Empire was known for its wealth, for its culture, and for the prominent role it played in the spread of Christianity throughout the world, it was also known for its political treacheries. Usurpers were not common, but they were far from unheard of in the city's history.
It was also known that any who would make an attempt on the life of the emperor would have to deal with his guards. Hulking warriors in blue and crimson, these elite fighters carried huge axes and were vicious combatants with a sword, bow, spear, or their bare hands. Even in the melting pot of Byzantium, though, these men were unusual. For the Varangian Guard, whom the emperor trusted above even the regular military units of his city, was made up entirely of Vikings.
And Suddenly... Vikings!
The Vikings, raider, traders, and warriors, were also great explorers. They traveled the world long before most of the rest of Europe had dared the deeper oceans, and it's thought they were the first Europeans to discover America. However, we tend to forget that the Vikings also sailed to the East, and that they had trade relations with the Islamic world, and that they explored parts of what is now known as Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. In fact the word "Russia" comes from the Rus people, which were the descendants of Swedish merchants and warriors who carved out a province for themselves around the 9th century.
It was the political interactions between the Rus and the Eastern Roman Empire that led to the formation of the Varangian Guard.
While there were members of the Rus who had fought as mercenaries, as well as for their own people, it wasn't until the Rus formed a political alliance with Byzantium that required their people to fight on behalf of the emperor that their skill at arms truly came to light. These Rus fighting men were so fierce in battle that, by the 11th century, Emperor Basil II chose to form his personal bodyguard from these warriors.
The word Varangian, which comes from the Greek word Barangos, was the word the "Greeks" of the empire used to refer to someone from Scandinavia. That label made it clear who the emperor expected to keep him safe.
Chart a Course for Byzantium!
The Varangian Guard protected the emperors of the Eastern Empire for over 200 years, and it's clear the emperors trusted their loyalty implicitly. That loyalty was based on the fact that the members of the Varangian Guard were always well-paid by the emperor, and if lands or status were promised they were always delivered. If a warrior served in the guard, and survived to retirement, he would leave the emperor's service a wealthy man. They were also allowed to take a share of battlefield spoils in addition to their regular pay, and it was said that when they left the emperor's service they would be allowed to enter the treasure chamber to take a share of the valuables as a final compensation before leaving.
In fact, there was such wealth to be gained through this service that men came to Byzantium from as far away as Sweden, Norway, and Finland, as well as the British Isles, just to join the Guard. In time the guard also featured warriors of Norman and Gallic descent, among others. It got to the point that soldiers would have to pay a fee simply to be allowed to join. Something that all of them did gladly, and which was often paid back in short order.
With time, though, the Eastern Empire went the way of her Western sister and crumbled. The united lands broke up, forming independent nation states, and chaos reigned until new political agreements were brokered, and fresh governments built themselves from the rubble. Even after all this time, though, the world remembers the skill, the savagery, and the prowess of those who protected the empire until the end. Just another of the marks the Vikings have left on our history during their brief time on the world stage.