In this post I will cover some of the civil wars, wars of succession and familicides that plagued Kievan Rus; their peak under leaders like Vladimir the Great (who unified the Rus and made Orthodox Christianity their official religion) and Yaroslav the Wise (while Europe was in a dark age, he made Kievan Rus a beacon of knowledge, literacy, trade and faith); Kievan Rus’ shattering into various feuding states, their clash against the Mongols and their rarely spoken of religion. The Chernye Klobuki (Turkish mercenaries) and the Varangian Guard (Norse, Slavic, Germanic, etc.) are also noted; the latter were warriors employed by the Byzantine Empire to act as the Emperor’s trusted personal guard and on occasion they acted as pirate hunters, policemen, jailers, prison guards, torturers and interrogators.

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Under Sviatoslav, Kievan  Rus had defeated the Khazarian Khaganate (Jewish Turks) to its east and in turn obtained the Volga trade route into the Caspian Sea and the rich Islamic lands of the Middle-East. Sviatoslav then expanded southwest as they overcame the First Bulgarian Empire and  warred with the Byzantine Greeks. Before Sviatoslav went to campaign in Bulgaria he left his realm to his three sons; Oleg, Yarapolk and Vladimir. Oleg Svyatoslavich was left as the Prince of Dereva  (Derevlians), Vladimir Sviatoslavich was left as the Prince of Novgorod and Yaropolk I was left as the Prince of Kiev. It is believed by some that Sviatoslav left his sons to rule over these regions as a temporary measure until he returned, upon his death the realm was divided and would soon fall into a damaging civil war, one of the many that would long plague Kievan Rus and their descendant dominions. Others contend that he did so solely for the purpose of ensuring that his domain remained in the hands of his sons. 

Oleg was hunting in the territory that he claimed belonged to the Derevlians, which he ruled over, and there he came across “trespassers” whom they skirmished with. One of these trespassers was Lyut, son of the earlier mentioned Varangian warlord (voivoda) Sveneld; this action led Sveneld and Yarapolk to declare war against Oleg, this conflict ended in Yarapolk’s favor as they clashed so intensely that Oleg and his Druzhina fell off of a bridge into a ditch where many toppled on top of one another including their horses. Some choose not to believe this tale in favor of the point of view that this conflict was spurred by the fact that Oleg was assigned a less prosperous city and region than Yarapolk and Vladimir. In fear Vladimir fled “beyond the sea” to Scandinavia, while there Vladimir gained the support of Haakon Sigurdarson (Jarl of Norway) and returned with an army of Varangian mercenaries which helped him combat his half-brother Yarapolk. After reoccupying Novgorod, Vladimir sent Yarapolk’s men back to him warning that Vladimir “was marching on him”, similar to what his father Sviatoslav had been accustomed to doing.

After Vladimir’s victory, the Varangian mercenaries that helped him take the throne demanded that they receive a hefty reward which Vladimir agreed to pay in time. Vladimir had no real intention to pay it and had instead rallied a local force to combat the Varangian mercenaries. These Varangian mercenaries were so fearful that they asked if they could instead head to Miklagarðr (Constantinople) where they could join the Byzantine Imperial army. Vladimir then picked from them “the good, the wise and the brave men” and sent the rest to Miklagarðr (Constantinople) to the amount of about six thousand.

But in advance of them [Vladimir] sent couriers bearing this message: “Varangians are on their way to your country. Do not keep them in your city or else they will cause such harm as they have done here. Scatter them therefore in various localities and do not let a single one return this way.””

Varangian Guard

The Rus had long offered their services to the Byzantine Empire, as early as 874 CE, these early instances usually occurred after each of the many Rus-Byzantine Wars as part of a treaty. Seven hundred Rus are then mentioned in 902 CE as being involved in a Naval expedition against Muslim held Crete. After Oleg’s Rus–Byzantine War (907 CE) some of these foreigners were hired as mercenaries by the Byzantines and are later mentioned in expeditions against Crete, Cyprus and Syria c.910 or 911 CE. Later larger numbers of Rus mercenaries showed up at Constantinople which were involved in the expeditions against Lombard held Italy (935 CE), Muslim held Crete (949 CE), Syria (954-5 CE), Sicily and Crete (964-5 CE), and Italy (967-8 CE).

Byzantine Emperor Basil II was suspicious of his guard’s loyalties as they had long been known for their wavering loyalties and involvement in political intrigue and wars of succession, supporting the claims of whichever side favored their cause. Byzantine Emperor Basil II formed a personal guard made up of Varangians (988 CE) as they were not only fierce warriors but also seen as oath-keeping, trustworthy, loyal to the Byzantine Emperor, this would be proven tenfold throughout their long history. Being that they were foreigners the Varangians had little to no interest in diplomacy and political intrigue, their sole loyalty was to the legitimate ruler of the Byzantine Empire and their interest in the honor, riches and glory the position granted.

Scandinavians were frightening both in appearance and in equipment, they attacked with reckless rage and neither cared about losing blood nor their wounds”.

Norsemen from throughout Scandinavia, Denmark and  Iceland left their homeland seeking employment in the Byzantine Empire, Kievan Rus and England in such great numbers that a law was passed in Västergötland (county inside of Gotland Province, Sweden) to try to stem the tide of this largescale emigration. The ‘Varangians’ were involved in military campaigns spanning modern Italy, the Balkans, Sicily, Cyprus, Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Georgia, Armenia, etc. The Varangian Guard were known for being drunks, fornicators, brawlers and lovers of the entertainment that Constantinople could provide; the circuses (in which they would involve themselves in the form of hunting), gladiatorial battles (which they may have also took part in, paintings suggest so), horse races and chariot races. They were also tasked with acting as policemen, jailers, prison guards, torturers and interrogators so obviously the populace came to demonize them.

^ Osprey – ‘Men-at-Arms’ series – Issue 89 – Byzantine Armies, 886-1118 by Ian Heath and Angus McBride (Illustrator). F1: Rus mercenary, c.950 – “Many of those Scandinavians who settled in Russia were soon influenced by the dress of their Slav and Asiatic neighbors. This man, for instance, wears the bleached white linen tunic characteristic of the Slavs, and his striped, baggy trousers are probably of Asiatic origin; another Asiatic trait adopted by some Rus was the tattooing of the hands and arms up to the shoulder. Boots and a cloak clasped at the shoulder completed their costume. Most wore mail coats, and arms comprised of spear, axe, sword and dagger. This man’s helmet is of Slavic design, as is his shield, illustrated in the accompanying monochrome sketch. Rectangular shields of this type persisted in Russia for many centuries. In appearance the Rus were “as tall as date palms” with red or blond hair and ruddy complexions. Most were bearded, though some affected only drooping Turkish-style moustaches. Prince Svaytoslav of Kiev even shaved his head Turkish-fashion, leaving just two long locks of hair signifying his rank.” F2: Varangian Guardsman, c.1000 – “The most distinctive feature of the Varangians equipment was undeniably his axe, which appears to have been retained in preference to the rhomphaia more usually carried by Byzantine guardsmen. Psellus, however, claims that every Varangian ‘without exception’ was armed with shield and rhomphaia, ‘a one-edged sword of heavy iron which they carry suspended from the right shoulder’ (perhaps meaning it was sloped across the right shoulder when not in use). Though the two-handed axe was their main weapon spears and swords are also mentioned in the sources. It is clear from the sagas that many men kept their own swords when they entered the Guard, and since their axes too were fairly certainly brought from home we have leave no doubt just how much their equipment (as opposed to uniforms) was actually Byzantine issue. Most probably a mixture of Scandinavian and Byzantine gear was in use, the latter probably becoming predominant the longer a man stayed in the Guard as his own equipment wore out. We know from Anna Comnena that Varangians were generally heavily armoured, and this man has taken full advantage of access to the Imperial arsenals to supplement his own equipment with vambraces and greaves. Their shields probably remained circular throughout the 11th century, but in 1122 we hear of Varangians with kite-shields.” F3: Varangian Guardsman in dress uniform, c. 1030 – “Laxdella Saga records several ex-Varangian Guards wearing scarlet clothes when they returned to Iceland in about 1030 or 1040. The equipment of Bolli Bollason, their leader, is described in some detail as comprising silk clothes (presented by the Emperor himself), a scarlet cloak, a gilded helmet, and a scarlet shield decorated with a warrior outlined in gold, probably all Byzantine issue. In addition, his sword had a gold-decorated hilt and grip, which is of interest since we know that the right to wear a gold-hilted sword was one of the privileges that accompanied the court rank of manglabites, which was later held by Harald Hardrada as an officer of the guard; Bolli, therefore, may likewise have held this rank.”

^ Varangian Guardsmen with their signature Dane axes (Skylitzis Chronicle).

Not just anyone could join the Varangian Guard; there must’ve been some sort of process in which the applicants were weeded out until only the best candidates were left. The prospective candidates also had to pay a large sum of money to enter the Varangian Guard; although the entry fee was steep it was seen more as an investment since the Varangians were paid far more than soldiers and mercenaries. The spoils of war were often cut into three shares: one for the emperor, the second for the army and the last third went to the Varangian Guard. The great amount that the Varangian Guard received, despite solely numbering on average between three thousand and thousand, shows how appreciated they were. Byzantine Emperor Basil II involved them in virtually every military campaign that occurred so other than being paid a third of the spoils of war the Varangians also regularly raided and pillaged while campaigning. There was also a custom referred to as polutasvarf (“palace-plunder/pillaging”) in which the Varangian Guard was allowed to rush into the Emperor’s treasury after their death and plunder as much as they could carry.

Being seen to have acquired such vast treasures could be used as a promotional recruitment tool to stimulate a near constant flow of prospects into Byzantine service. One of the best examples of the riches a position within the Varangian Guard could grant is an Icelander named Bolli Bollison. According to the Laxdaela Saga, Bolli Bollisonwas there only a short time before he got himself into the Varangian Guard, and, from what we have heard, no Northman had ever gone to take war-pay from the Garth king before Bolli, son of Bolli. He tarried there very many winters, and was thought to be the most valiant in all deeds that try a man, and always went next to those in the forefront.” When Bolli returned to Iceland in 1030 CE he and his entourage displayed their riches on their person, a common custom among many “barbarian” peoples. Bolli’s sword had a golden hilt so it is believed that he rose through the Varangian Guard’s ranks to become a manglabite whom were also equipped swords with golden grips and hilts.

Bolli brought back with him much wealth, and many precious things that lords abroad had given him. Bolli was so great a man for show when he came back from this journey that he would wear no clothes but those made of scarlet and fur, and all his weapons were bedight with gold: he was called Bolli the Great. […] Bolli rode from the ship with twelve men (Norwegians), and all his followers were dressed in scarlet, and rode on gilt saddles, and all were a trusty band, though Bolli was peerless among them. He had on the clothes of fur which the Garth-king (Emperor) had given him, he had over all a scarlet cape; and he had Fotbitr (“Footbiter”, his sword’s name) girt on him, the hilt of which was dight with gold, and the grip woven with gold; he had a gilded helmet on his head, and a red shield on his flank, with a knight painted on it in gold. He had a dagger in his hand, as is the custom in foreign lands; and whenever they took quarters the women paid heed to nothing but gazing at Bolli and his grandeur, and that of his followers.“ – Laxdaela Saga.

^ Osprey – ‘Men-at-Arms’ series, issue 459 – The Varangian Guard, 988-1453 by Raffaele D’Amato and Guiseppe Rava (Illustrator). Plate B: VARANGIANS IN THE BALKANS, 1020–1050. B1: Bolli Bollasson –The costume of the centurion represented in the Nea Moni mosaic (Chios, c.1040) may have been inspired by a Varangian guardsman, and in fact fits well with the description of Bolli Bollasson in the Laxdaela Saga, which describes him returning to Scandinavia from Constantinople in 1030.” “–suggests the Varangians’ adoption of Byzantine styles; other descriptions also mention gold-inlaid weapons and saddles. The sword illustrated is from Govezhda, and the bronze chape from the Chirpan area, Stara Zagora region.” B2: Imperial Akolouthos – There are two cloisonné enamel images of officers from the 11th and 13th centuries (respectively, a centurion on the Reliquary of the True Cross, and St Theodore from the Basilewsky collection, both now in the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg), whose military garb invites identification with senior Varangian commanders; this figure is based on the Reliquary image (see page 41). He wears on his head either a loosened turban or a simple loose hood. His cloak is blue, decorated with yellow ivy leaves (a Christian symbol of eternal life) interspersed with what seem to be gilt metal studs. His corselet shows rows of alternate gilt and blued iron scales; this effect is attested by other Byzantine cloisonné works, and by fragmentary Near Eastern finds. There is an explicit mention of gilded scales worn by Imperial Guard and Thágmata troops (De Cer., 506), and of the best men being provided with ‘splendid and shining’ lamellar corselets (Pseudo-Konstantinos/Nikêphóros Ouranós, Taktika, p.14 ; Leo, Taktika, VI, 4). The Reliquary figure shows a line of white lappets at the waist, above hanging ‘pteryges’ apparently with halved facing in gilt and silvered metal. We reconstruct the corselet as worn over a red tunic with rich gold-thread decoration at wrists and hem. Note the pattern of decoration on the trousers, and brown bindings over blue boots. The axe, highly decorated with silver and niello, is copied from the Stana specimen, which corresponds to decorated axes represented on the Cappadocian frescoes. The sword pommel is from Pacuiul Lui Soare, the chape from NE Bulgaria, and his typical Viking ‘spectacle-helmet’ from Kiev. The shield is taken directly from the Reliquary enamel.B3: Varangian standard-bearer – The armour is entirely Byzantine, combining the Yasenovo helmet, a coif, vambraces and greaves in splint-armour, and a ringmail corselet with leather over-strapping. Only his sword and axe are of Norse typology. The bipennis (‘doubleheaded’ axe – i.e. with a cutting blade on one side and a pointed blade on the other) is found in the iconography and confirmed by archaeology. The sword copies the Opaka specimen, and the dagger the Rousokastron find. Note the belt pouch; these typically contained e.g. scissors to cut the beard and hair, flint and steel, tinder, a spoon and perhaps a cup. The draco standard is from the carving on the Mesopotami church in Albania, and the colours from the Bayeux Tapestry.”

By far the most famous member was Harald Sigurdson (Hardrada, “Stern ruler”) whom at the age of twenty three traveled at the head of an army of five hundred hoping to join the Varangian Guard. Prior to this at the age of fifteen Harald fought alongside his half-brother who sought to reclaim the Norwegian throne from Cnut the Great, the two half-brothers lost the Battle of Stiklestad (1030 CE). Thereafter Harald was welcomed into Gardariki (i.e. Kievan Rus) as an exile but proved himself to be a skilled and valuable warrior and commander; he quickly rose in the ranks and obtained a captaincy. In 1034/35 CE, at the age of twenty three. Harald not only joined the Varangian Guard, he was made the commander of it – hunting pirates and campaigning from the Mediterranean Sea into Asia Minor (modern Turkey), the ‘Holy Land’ and as far east as the Euphrates River in modern day Iraq. Later Harald campaigned against Bulgaria, the Muslim Emirate of Sicily, and the Norman-Lombard forces in Italy. All the while Harald was amassing an ever growing horde of riches which he periodically sent off to Yaroslav the Wise for safe keeping – some of this wealth came from him being involved in three different instances of polutasvarf (”palace-plunder“) after the deaths of the three Byzantine Emperors (likely Romanos III, Michael IV, and Michael V).

^ Battle of Stamford Bridge by Peter Nicolai Arbo.

Harald remained in the service of the Byzantines for about three decades, when he asked to be allowed to return to Norway so he could reclaim his throne they refused his request so he fled. Harald returned to Kievan Rus where he married Yaroslav the Wise’s daughter and obtained the horde of wealth he sent to Yaroslav for safe keeping. Harald later became King of Norway (1046–66 CE) and led raids against the Danish then the English until his death in the Battle of Stamford Bridge (1066 CE) where he was shot by an arrow in the throat while in a berserk state. After the Normans overcame the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Hastings (1066 CE) they effectively conquered England; this was followed by massive Anglo-Saxons migrations to the Byzantine Empire – soon the Anglo-Saxons and other Germanic peoples made up the majority of the ‘Varangian Guard’.

^ Osprey – 'Men-at-Arms’ series, issue 459 – The Varangian Guard, 988–1453 by Raffaele D’Amato and Guiseppe Rava (Iuustrator). Plate F: THE FALL OF CONSTANTINOPLE, 1204. F1: English Varangian guardsman. F2: Russian Varangian guardsman. F3: Emperor Aléxios V Mourtzouphlos. F4: Varangian Akolouthos with imperial standard. F5: Danish Varangian guardsman.

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