Saturday, June 25, 2011

Varangians:The enigmatic Byzantine imperial guards(1rst part)

Varangian as a Roman centurion in  a Monastery of Chios(notice the scandinavian type sword) 

The name Varangians(Norse : Vaeningjar) derives from the Norwegian word var which means speech of honour or more commonly  oath of honour.

This etymology is considered to be linked with populations of Scandinavians(Swedes in majority) who initially entered the region of the Baltic sea and later invaded the territories that belong to modern Russia. Those populations  which were consisted of Viking warriors and merchants(their distinction wasn't always clear) took advantage of the big Russian rivers and expanded their political and economical influence rapidly. Those Scandinavians who settled and created new kingdoms were named Varangians.

Varangians as Roman soldiers in the iconography of the betrayal of Jesus.(Notice the axes in the background)
The Varangians were more commonly known as Rus. That's how they were called by their neighbouring Finns(Finnish word Ruotsi=rowers) However there was also a province in Sweden which was called Roslagen(The area of Rus). The varangians dominated over the Slavic population with their military strength and they gave their name to the country(Rus/Russia). The settlement of Varangians in the area of modern Russia is dated back to the 6th 7th century.

According to the tradition the Varangians were invited to come to Russia by the Slavs who later became their subjects. Particularly the hegemony of Novgorod invited them to give military assistance against Finnish invasions and raids. The Varangians succeeded to drive out the Finns but they didn't intend to return back home. Their leader called Rurik saw that the Slavs had many weaknesses and with the help of his countrymen he became ruler of Novgorod in 862 . Other Varangians sailed down the river Dneiper and conquered Kiev two years later. These chronologies are attested in a book called "Russian chronicle".

Generally the historians believe that the varangians had dominated over the Slavic regions much earlier and these events just consolidated their power.

The attacks on Byzantium(860-1043)

The first recorded contacts of the Rus with Byzantium date back to the 9th century. At this period the Varangians had already laid the foundations of their dominance over the Slavs and by reaching the Black sea they found themselves at the gates of Byzantium and Constantinople. They conducted raids on the imperial lands with the help of their small fast and rugged vessels.The Varangians attracted by the fame and the wealth of the Byzantine capital (they called it Miklagard=The great city) attempted to conquer it several times.
Varangians besiege the Byzantine city of Chersonesos in Crimaea in 860AD

From the 9th century till the 11th century the Varangians attempted 5 times to conquer the Capital of the Byzantines but they failed. The first time was in 860. The fleet of the Rus was consisted of 200 vessels which the Byzantine sources called trochantiria(name related to the quickness of the Rus' ships) Likely the Rus ships were similar in shape and construction to the famous Viking ships called Drakkars. The Byzantines inspired by their religious beliefs(The Rus were pagans at this time) and with the help of the terrible weapon called Greek fire achieved to make the Rus lift the siege.

Typical Scandinavian ships

The Rus re-appeared in 907 in an invasion which is questioned by many Byzantinologists as it lacks reliable historical sources. However the leader of the invaders was prince Oleg . This attack was also crushed but four years later in 911 the Rus achieved to sign a treaty with Byzantium which  aknowledged the Kiev hegemony as a naval power. By this treaty essentially the Byzantines were losing for a first time the full control of the Black sea which had to be shared with Rus since then.

The third attack on the Byzantine capital was conducted in 941 and it was possibly related to the ending of the 911 treaty. This time the Rus used land forces which invaded Bithynia(The Asian province neighbouring Constantinople) and looted its towns and villages. Eventually this force was defeated by the Eastern army under the leadership of Ioannis Kourkouas.The siege was lifted  again with the help of Greek fire. One month after the siege ended  when the defeated Rus fleet was returning to the north  it was attacked by the Byzantine fleet it was utterly annihilated.

Three years later the Kievan prince Igor ordered a land attack this time(probably the Rus fleet was not restored till that time) The threat was bigger for the Byzantines cause the Rus were joined by the Pechenegs. This time the invasion was stopped by the Byzantine diplomacy. The Byzantines paid a ransom to the invaders  in exchange for the security of the Byzantine lands.

Varangians depicted in Skylitzes manuscript
The last attack of the Rus took place a century later in 1043. The relations between the Rus and the Byzantines became  once again abysmal . The emperor Constantine Monomachos prefered to keep a neutral stance at the demands of the Rus  after some Byzantine-Rus mercantile disputes something which angered the Rus.Prince Vladimir son of the ruler of the Rus campaigned against Constantinople . Once again the city was saved by the Greek fire. The Byzantine fleet caused a panic on the Rus fleet when they attacked using Greek fire. Many ships of the Rus crushed on sea rocks and reefs and others were burned. In the same time the Byzantine cavalry defeated the Rus army that had landed near Constantinople inflicting severe casualties which according to the sources reached 15000 men and the general of the Paristrian theme Katacalon Kekaumenos achieved to secure the important Byzantine city of Varna at the western shores of the Black sea from a Rus attack.Since then the Byzantine empire wouldn't be threatened again by the Rus.Instead it would find a way to exploit their excellent war skills.

the second part:

source: magazine Military history(στρατιωτική ιστορία) issue 69. translation made by me.

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