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The Varangians of Byzantium [Hardcover]

Benedict Benedikz
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

1 Feb 1979
An aura of romance has clung about the Varangians for over six centuries. This book examines how the Norsemen came to be drawn into the Imperial service until the greatest of all the Emperors of the East, Basil II, formed them into the regiment of guards which was to give unique service to the Empire. It surveys the history of the regiment down to the collapse of High Byzantium in 1204 and traces the remnant of the Varangians to the very last day of the Empire in May 1453.


Product details

  • Hardcover: 255 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press; 1 edition (1 Feb 1979)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521217458
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521217453
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,885,365 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Book Description

An aura of romance has clung about the Varangians for over six centuries. This book examines how the Norsemen came to be drawn into the Imperial service until the greatest of all the Emperors of the East, Basil II, formed them into the regiment of guards which was to give unique service to the Empire.

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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars THE VARANGIANS OF BYZANTIUM 17 Jun 2009
Format:Paperback
The author has done an immense mount of work gathering together the documentary evidence to create a narrative that throws light on this obscure corner of Byzantine history, giving its colourful subjects the recognition they deserve. Ably served by his translator (an under looked skill as a bad one can kill a story), they call their characters from the wings to centre stage at the heart of the Imperial Court.
From their early days as the personal bodyguard of germanic warriors, loyal only to the Roman Emperors, the national component may have changed, but the reason for their existence remained. Despite the exotic, almost romantic air that surrounded them, they were the Emperors Life Guards and executioners of his dirty work: from naval squadrons to elite military units to mutilations and killings.
A variety of linguistic sources are cited, from Old Norse, Russian, English and French to explain the root, which seems to come from a West German prototype `wareganga', meaning ` a foreigner who has taken service with a new lord by a treaty of fealty', akin to foederati. This adapted or evolved through the great Scandinavian kingdoms and lordships that occupied huge swathes of Russia (another story crying to be told) to Væringjar, `companion'. One who by oath, treaty or contract, gives security, accepts responsibility for his companions, as they accept responsibility for him.
The book then gives a regimental biography noting the ethnic eddies and flows in its composition, from the Roman Goth and German personal bodyguard, to the Russian Norse mercenaries to Basil II (the Bulgar-Slayer) regularising them as an Imperial regiment and his complex psychological relationship with them.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
By JPS TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
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.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent study 26 Nov 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I bought this as a secondary source - assistance for my Middle Byzantine era seminar. It has to be the only easy-to-find study on the Varangians and it's pretty solid, with references to all sources, Scandinavian, Russian, Armenian, Greek, Arabic, Latin.
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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Articulate and highly detailed 23 May 2009
By Kirialax - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Don't let the four-star review dissuade you, as this is a very good book. It is a highly detailed and scholastic history of Russian, Norse and Anglo-Saxon mercenaries serving in the Byzantine Empire. It is a very scholarly book, and those who are looking for a good read about the famed Varangian guard will find what they are looking for in here, but they will also find a lot of technical information that may bore them.

The book's viewpoint is refreshing. Rather than adopting a typical Romanocentric viewpoint, Blondal looks at what the Norsemen were doing in the Empire, rather than what the Norsemen were doing for the Empire. The core of the book is an exquisitely detailed history of Harald Hardrada, the famous mercenary and king who was eventually killed at Stamford Bridge just before the Battle of Hastings.

Blondal uses a wide variety of source materials, including Arabic, Russian, Greek, western European and Scandinavian chronicles. While all of this adds to the authority of the work, it is where I find my one of my two faults with this book. Blondal spends almost half of the allotted page space discussing the linguistic difficulties associated with the use of such varied sources, and the difficulties in translating Old Norse, Old Icelandic and Old Slavonic. Thus, one moment the book is a military history, but in the next moment it is a philological discussion. These discussions break up the book, and would have been better suited to be in the footnotes.

My other fault is that this book is completely unforgiving to those who do not have a background in Norse mythology and literature. While this is a book for scholars, I would suspect that many Byzantine scholars would be using this work who simply don't have the required background. Blondal could have at least included some recommended works to bring those unfamiliar with the northern world up to speed.

This is an excellent history of the northern mercenaries in the Byzantine Empire. While it is unforgiving to those who lack a backing in Norse literature and often delves into obscure philological discussions that would be best left in the footnotes, it is the best work on the Eastern Roman Empire's most well-known mercenary contingents. More casual readers will be able to find interesting sections on the famed Varangian guard, while scholars will find the entire book valuable.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars THE VARANGIANS OF BYZANTIUM 17 Jun 2009
By Hillpaul - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The author has done an immense mount of work gathering together the documentary evidence to create a narrative that throws light on this obscure corner of Byzantine history, giving its colourful subjects the recognition they deserve. Ably served by his translator (an under looked skill as a bad one can kill a story), they call their characters from the wings to centre stage at the heart of the Imperial Court.
From their early days as the personal bodyguard of germanic warriors, loyal only to the Roman Emperors, the national component may have changed, but the reason for their existence remained. Despite the exotic, almost romantic air that surrounded them, they were the Emperors Life Guards and executioners of his dirty work: from naval squadrons to elite military units to mutilations and killings.
A variety of linguistic sources are cited, from Old Norse, Russian, English and French to explain the root, which seems to come from a West German prototype `wareganga', meaning ` a foreigner who has taken service with a new lord by a treaty of fealty', akin to foederati. This adapted or evolved through the great Scandinavian kingdoms and lordships that occupied huge swathes of Russia (another story crying to be told) to Væringjar, `companion'. One who by oath, treaty or contract, gives security, accepts responsibility for his companions, as they accept responsibility for him.
The book then gives a regimental biography noting the ethnic eddies and flows in its composition, from the Roman Goth and German personal bodyguard, to the Russian Norse mercenaries to Basil II (the Bulgar-Slayer) regularising them as an Imperial regiment and his complex psychological relationship with them. The appearance of Saxon Englingvarangoi after William the Bastards conquest to the collapse of High Byzantium in 1204 and the final monochrome, grim days of 1453 when as a band of Cretan archers the Varangians fulfilled their duty to the last Emperor.
The most famous of them, Harald Sigurðarson (Hardrada) gets a chapter to himself, explaining that most complex of Vikings, giving some idea of what drove him to meet his end in the cold north at Stamford Bridge.

A fascinating book, one that takes you off th beaten path of Byzantine Studies, but well worth exploring
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars THE reference on the VArangians of the Emperors of Byzantium 12 Mar 2012
By JPS - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Sourcebook, reference, and biography, at times slow-reading 8 Feb 2012
By Stratiotes Doxha Theon - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This is the sort of book that historians love. It contains a plethora of translations of primary sources with open commentary that lets the historians draw their own conclusions. The conclusions offered by the author are well reasoned but open to correction if new evidence is revealed. The topic is one that is extremely focused and allows for in-depth philological analysis that is sometimes dry and slow reading so it is not well-suited for those more interested in an entertaining historical work. Those excited by such depth of study will find it a perfect sourcebook of primary sources and a valued reference work. A significant portion of the work is also dedicated to one of the best known Varangians, Haraldr Siguroarson. That biography adds color and breadth to the detail provided in the remainder of the book. A valued work for any with an interest in a solid and detailed study but will not likely satisfy the general history enthusiast. But there is little else out there to satisfy one interested in the Varangian guard history.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Rare Find of a Unique Military Unit 1 July 2013
By M. Perera - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book was originally written by Sigus Blondal who was worked at the Icelandic Royal Library. Benedikt S Benedikz gathered the various notes and compiled them into the book that was published in 1978.

I stumbled across Henry Treece’s Viking Trilogy in my junior high and high school year in of all places, Sri Lanka. I had also read an excellent novel of the life of Harald Hardrada, who title escapes me. Needless to say, that I have had a long fascination with the Varangians.

This is an excellent book for several reasons. First of all stands the scholarship. Every source is carefully documented, and there are several passages Greek, Russian, and Icelandic. The author describes the foundation of Varangian and Russian cultures. He describes the structure of the Byzantine army and navy, and how the Varangians fit in. Next an entire chapter is devoted to the life of Harald Hardrada, the exiled Norwegian prince turned Viking mercenary who almost conquered England. It then follows the Varangians from essentially 1000 AD forward. An interesting note was that after the Normans conquered England that many of the Saxon nobility and huscarls ( household warriors ) joined the Varangian guard, changing the composition from Scandinavian to more English. Lastly, the ceremonial duties are described, and it ends with the lives of individual Varangians.

Overall an excellent book.
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