The Byzantine Empire is so remote, so strange, and so sunk between the two falls – the fall of the Roman Empire and the fall of Constantinople in 1453 – that it’s really hazy in the memory. For Byzantium, these days, there’s little room in the braincase, excepting an adjective (“byzantine,” synonymous with “annoying archaic superfluous complexity”) a mosaic, and a Yeats poem or two. So any news about the Byzantines would be interesting and weird. But this strikes me as conspicuously weird and kind of jaw-dropping. The next time you want to astonish people at cocktail parties with obscure factoids, bring up this little titbit:
Constantinople was guarded by an elite mercenary squad of Russianized Vikings (who apparently were fond of the Mediterranean climate) named the Varangian Guard. According to a wonderful entry in this History of Warfare blog, (and we pick this story up in medias res)
In early 989 AD a Viking fleet arrived with the promised 6000 Norseman. A few weeks later they crossed the straits of the Golden Horn under the cover of darkness and took up positions a few hundred yards from the rebel camp. At first light they attacked, while a squadron of imperial flame-throwers sprayed the shore with Greek fire. Phocas’s men awoke to the terrifying sight of the Varangians swinging their swords and battleaxes. The result was a massacre. Basil with the aid of the Varangians soon crushed the rebellion entirely.
After the rebellion, the Varangians were immediately established as the emperor’s personal bodyguards. Anna Komnena writing in ‘the Alexiad’ claimed that the Guard were far more reliable and trustworthy as bodyguards than native Byzantine troops.
Read the whole story of the Varangians here. If you, like Yeats, would like to sail to Byzantium, you can do so here, on Rediscovering the Classical World: From Rome to Constantinople. And if you have an interest in the history of warfare, we strongly encourage you to consider joining us on Turning Points of History: Power and Conflict from Antiquity to World War II, from Athens to Rome in June 2009, with an itinerary that includes Marathon and Thermopylae.