VARANGIAN GUARDSMEN

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An extract from Armies of the Dark Ages 600-1066
by Ian Heath

[23a based on The Book of Job, Old Testament, Byzantine, 9th century. Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana MS. gr. 749.] [Based on a Byzantine Mosaic depicting the soldier, Longinus, in the Nea Moni Church, Chios, Greece, c.1049-55AD] [Based on a Varangian centurion on a Byzantine Icon, the 'Goldene Tafel', 11th century]
23, 24 & 25.      VARANGIAN GUARDSMEN

The rhomphaia, a falx-like weapon with a curved blade of about the same length as its handle, was the principal weapon of Byzantine guardsmen, replacing the kontarion. Clearly, however, nor many Varangians were ever equipped with it, instead retaining their native Scandinavian weapon, the axe; there are constant references to them as ‘axe-bearing barbarians’ in the Byzantine sources, and an illumination in Scylitzes depicts a group of Varangian guardsmen in which 18 axes can be counted. Gaufredus Malaterrae, a Norman chronicler, records the Varangians using axes at the Battle of Durazzo in 1081 which he describes as plumed and wielded in both hands.

During the 11th century at least 2 Varangians were certainly armed with rhomphaiai on campaign, accompanying the Emperor on foot and guarding his spare horse in battle. Psellus even claims that ‘without exception’ the Varangians were armed with rhomphaiai ‘which they carry suspended from the right shoulder’ and confirms that they carried in addition a shield. (Shields are also mentioned by Anna Comnena; neither source specifies size or shape, though it seems reasonable to assume they were of Scandinavian design, i.e. circular and 30-36 inches in diameter.) Conceivably the Varangians carried rhomphaiai for palace duty and axes in action, though this theory is somewhat negated by the presence of troops armed with rhomphaiai in the rebel field army of Isaac Comnenus in 1056. Either way the shield must have been laid aside or slung at the back in close combat so that both hands were free to wield the weapon. 23a depicts what is probably a rhomphaia from a Byzantine ms. of c. 900.

Spears and swords are also recorded in the sources, the sagas making it clear that many Scandinavians retained their own swords when they entered the Guard, in which case one is justified in questioning just how much of their equipment was actually Byzantine. Probably a mixture of both Scandinavian and Byzantine gear was in use, the latter becoming mare predominant as the former was damaged or lost. The Varangians were generally heavily armoured.

24 and 25 are typical of many figures which appear in Byzantine art from the late-10th century. The date of their initial appearance and the general richness of their equipment lends support to the belief that their costume, with the probable exception of the head-dress, may he based on that of the Varangians, 24 dates to c. 1040; his tunic is red, cloak purple, scabbard and trousers mauve, all with gold and red decoration, boots and head-dress being white with black markings. 25 is little different except for the addition of a lamellar corselet with short pteruges. His shield appears to carry a Black Raven design (see 72), and I have since found a second such figure that carries a similar shield device.

Laxdaela Saga, recording the return to Iceland of several ex-Varangian guardsmen in 1030, describes their dress being of scarlet and gold-embroidered silk. One also wore a scarlet cloak. A gilt helmet and gold-inlaid weapons and saddles are also mentioned, in addition to a red shield with a gold warrior on it. At least some, if not all, of this equipment was Byzantine-issue, though scarlet or red tunics do not tally with the ‘sky-coloured’ ones recorded by Haroun ibn Yahya to be worn by axe-armed guardsmen that he saw in Constantinople c. 900, though the date makes it unlikely that these were Varangians even though they may have been Rus mercenaries.

A Byzantine source tells us that the Varangians had fair or reddish hair worn long on either side of the face, with beard and bushy moustache.

It seems clear from Anna’s account of Durazzo that the Varangians used horses as transport to, from and even on the battlefield, but they clearly dismounted to fight.



See also:
The Varangian Rhomphaia- A Cautionary Tale by Tim Dawson
Byzantine Mosaic depicting the soldier, Longinus, in the Nea Moni Church, Chios, Greece, c.1049-55AD
The Centurion, The Hidden Church (Sakli Kilise), Cappadocia, Turkey, Byzantine, 11th Century
The Crucifixion, The T’oros Roslin Gospels of Armenia, 1262
Crucifixion, Byzantine style soldiers in wall paintings, Church of Panagia Phorbiotissa, Asinou, Cyprus

Varangian guards(?) in 'The Betrayal', Nea Moni, Chios, mosaic of the inner Narthex, Byzantine, 1043 AD
Varangian guards(?) in 'The Betrayal', Balleq Kilise, Cappadocia, Byzantine, 11th Century
Varangian guards(?) in 'The Betrayal', Church of Saint John Chrisostomos in Arabissos (Karsi Kilise, Suves), Nicaean Byzantine, c.1212 AD

Next: 26. BYZANTINE EMPEROR IN PARADE ARMOUR in Armies of the Dark Ages 600-1066 by Ian Heath