First posted on Amazon.co.uk on 9 February 2012
As the previous reviewer mentioned, the amount of work underlying this book is quite astonishing, especially when one realizes that it was done well over sixty years ago and updated in the 70s. So, data mining through multiple sources before the age of PCs. Moreover, this is the ONLY book that focuses on the Varangians of Byzantium.
Both Scandinavian and Russ (of mixed Scandinavian and Slavic descent) had served as mercenaries well before the reign of Basil II. Several hundred are recorded to have been marines aboard the fleets that were launched to reconquer Crete in both 911 and 949. However, it is from the time of Basil II that they came to prominence, when 6000 of them were sent by their king to fight for the Byzantine Emperor and help put down a major rebellion that had rallied most of the Eastern themes and regiments. By that time, the rebel army was under the command of Bardas Phokas, one of the best generals of hthe Empire, the nephew of former Emperor (and usurper) Nikephoros II and a warlord who was also the leader of of the Phokas, one of the main families of the military aristocracy in Asia Minor. Together with the armies of the European themes (mostly from the themes of Thrace and Macedonia), they smashed the rebels in a couple of hard fought and rather bloody battles. Impressed by their skills, Basile II kept several thousand of them and hired more.
Over time, the term Varangian covered several different aspects. The most well known is that of the Varangian guard, who acted indeed as one of Emperor's regiments of Lifeguards, who could also be used for any kind of operations within Constantinople as the Emperor's enforcers (including executions or the mutilation of potential rivals seeking to become Emperor. The Varangian guard was made up of the best among the Varangian (or Rus) regiments which were part of the Tagmata and scattered across the Empire. These were used as shock troops and sent out on expeditions when and where they were needed from Basil II up to 1204. For instance, and in addition to Harald Hadrada, who commanded a suqdron of ships crewed by Varangians during the Sicilian expedition (1038 to 1040), George Maniakes seems to also have had with him one or several other Tagmas of Rus with him. Varangians were also opposed to the Normans after these revolted in Italy in 1041 and several times afterwards over the next 30 years. They were among the defenders of Bari, the last port controled by Byzantium in Italy aznd which surrendered after a siege of almost three years. They were killed arounf Romanus IV Diogenes when he was captured by the Turks at Mantzikert and, as shock troops, they formed part of the Byzantine battle line at the battle of Dyrrakhion against the Normans in 1081 when they routed the Norman left wing before falling into dissaray and being almost wiped out after fighting to the last, as usual. It was also some 540 Varangians who, in 1122, stormed the fortified camp of the Petchenègues, breaking their ring of chariots with their axes. And the story of their deeds goes on, and on. By the time of Dyrrakhion, a large portion of the Varangard seems to have been "English" or, to be accurate, made up of Anglo Danes (many coming from the Danelaw) and Saxons, all of which had been dispossessed by the Norman conquerors and had accordingly no future in England.
This book is very valuable because it tells the story of these warriors and the fearsome reputation of courage, loyalty and military skills that they carved out for themselves. It is also fascinating because it paints, through a number of vignettes drawn from the Nordic sagas, the lives of a number of these warriors. The Varangards from Scandinavia seem to have been mostly Swedes and Norse, but they were also Danes and Icelanders among them. Of course, a full chapter is devoted to hte most famous among them all: Haraldr Sigurdarson, better known as Harald Hadrada. For the Varangians themselves, of course, Miklaguard (Constantinople) was perceived as a potential eldorado: those who left for the City were attracted to a place where they could hope to make a forture (or at least earn a rich living and have a good life) doing one of the things they did best: fighting and soldiering. This attraction was reinforced by the beginning of the 11th century, as Scandinavia was little by little christianized and fell under control of a few monarchs. The "good old days" for "going a viking" were coming to an end, but Miklagard still offered huge opportunities, or at least this is what the Sagas have to say.
Interestingly, and this is also a major qtrongpoint of this book, Blöndal and Benedikz show that the Saga's view is largely corroborated by Byzantine sources: the Varangians of the Guard were highly praised, paid more than other Russ troops, and you had to pay a stiff amount to be able to join. They also discuss the somewhat "ritual" looting of the Emperor's palace everytime an Emperor fell from power or died. What seemed to have happened was that the Varangians of the guard had to right to share between themselves at least some of the Emperor's personel belongings and this must have likely been a significant sources of enrichment for the Varangian Guards. They acquired a huge reputation for loyalty largely because of the personal oaths that each of them took to defend the Emperor and be faithful to him, but also because he was their paymaster and, unlike regiments made up of native Byzantines, it made little sense to join the forces of usurpers and "bite the hand that was feeding them".
Anyway, in case you hadn't realised, I love this book (and the Varangians, of course). It is the reference on the Varangians and well worth buying. Anyway, it is the ONLY reference on the subject. Whatever its merits, Osprey's little book on the subject simply cannot be compared. I am delighting to see that this book has at last been reprinted in 2007. About time too: it had been out of print for a long, long time.