The Emperor’s Vikings

December 22, 2012 at 8:22pm

Aya Sofya, the Byzantine basilica dedicated to Holy Wisdom, converted into a mosque by Ottoman Sultans, and then into a museum by the Turkish Republic

The Patriarchal Basilica of the Holy Wisdom of God, in Constantinople, was the center of not only the Eastern Christian Church but of the Eastern Roman Empire itself. The Emperors’ Great Palace was connected to the Basilica, where coronation ceremonies took place.

In spite of the light effects, countless golden mosaics and intricate marble capitals, worshipers attending the endless orthodox ceremonies had to be quite bored if they spent their time in the church carving graffiti. Much of it is still visible on the marble parapet of the upper gallery, in unmistakably Greek characters.

But a carving at the center of the Southern gallery is absolutely incomprehensible to those who have studied Greek. It has been deciphered and dated back to 9th century AD by experts in runes. And if someone can find it odd to imagine Halvdan the Viking carving his name with a dagger among Byzantine courtiers on the banks of the Bosporus, they have never heard about the Varangian Guard.

The runes are now illegible, but the name Halvdan, or Halfdan, has been clearly deciphered

The common perception of the Middle Ages is due to a misconception. Historians of the time, used to comparisons with a gloriously idealized past, like those in the Renaissance whose vision of the universe was inspired by such an ideal golden age, considered with contempt the “Dark Ages” between the “Fall” of the Western Roman Empire and the post-Crusades European blossom. According to that vision “Barbarians” had usurped the Civilization founded by the Greek creators of Arts and by the Roman creators of Law, sinking Europe into an abyss of wars and disorder. But nowadays serious historiography refers not to “Barbarian invasions” but to migrations, attracted by the order and relative wealth of territories within the Empire, which did not “fall” but quite simply declined and was impoverished to the point that the only surviving portion of the state administration was the one connected to the Church. The partition of the Empire was due to the acknowledgement that West and East had become too different to be administered in the same way. The (Italian) schoolbook explanation, “from Byzantium it was easier to control the Barbarians at the frontier,” invokes feeble military reasons, overlooking the fact, for example, that Ephesus was the richest city in the Empire, and that the West had been incapable of adjusting itself to the economic and commercial development of the Eastern part of Rome’s domains.

As it was Hellenized in every aspect and escaped Roman control even in religion with the Great Schism in 1054 AD, the Eastern Roman Empire remained the only State in Medieval Europe to have a powerful central organization. Chronicles of the age invariably use words like “oppressive” and “unbearable” about the Byzantine tax system but mostly because it was actually the only one.

In the countries of what had been Western Empire collapse of the centralized government did not prevent prosperity of those communities that were able to compete on eastern markets. The thalassocracies in Italy and Dalmatia were a typical example, dodging restrictions of Feudalism which hindered development of trade and exchanges for centuries. While Mediterranean sailors kept the umbilical cord between Asia and Europe alive, in “Barbarian” seas other sailors flourished through exchanges that took the shape of piracy or trade, according to partners’ strength, as customary a sea.

That Vikings had reached as far as Labrador is known as a historical fact, which is accepted in common knowledge too. But oddly enough other well known facts seem largely forgotten: in that same era Scandinavian pirates-tradesmen were sailing up Eastern Europe’s large rivers, establishing fortified trade posts and colonizing the steppes they found as empty as no man’s lands. When they reached the Black Sea’s banks, though, the no man’s land finished and they clashed with the imperial power of Byzantium.

No less than eight wars or naval clashes were fought between the Rus’, as the colonizers from over the Baltic Sea called themselves, and the empire of Constantinople. The infamous “Greek Fire” and centuries of strategic experience finally granted the latter’s naval superiority and the clash of civilizations was settled through trade treaties and weddings.

The Varangians, as Byzantines called them, had founded a state of their own called “Gardariki” by Scandinavians with Kiev as a capital. From there they controlled the trade routes between the Mediterranean, the East and Northern Europe on the waterways network of rivers and lakes. When in AD 988 the Prince of Kiev Valdamarr Sveinaldsson (known in modern Russian as Vladimir Sviatoslavich) received a request of aid by Emperor Basil II, he asked to marry a princess of the Imperial House as a condition and then sent 6,000 warriors to back up the new ally.

That move had enduring consequences. To be able to marry the Princess Valdamarr had to convert to the Orthodox faith, and his subjects did too. The Byzantines were impressed as much as their enemies by these Northern warriors’ prowess. The famous “oppressive” Byzantine tax system providing the Empire with a steady flow of income could insure a regularity of payments for mercenaries that was unknown in other Medieval states. The word of mouth about the riches which a good warrior could amass in the South spread among the Rus’, the Baltic and Scandinavian Vikings and the French Normans. The Northern mercenaries that swarmed to “Miklagard” (the Viking name of Constantinople) could rely on regular payments; a rare case for soldiers of fortune at the time. They paid back the Eastern Emperors with a loyalty that at the Court of Byzantium, used to endless conspiracies, seemed incredible and also lead to the establishment of the Imperial Varangian Guard, an elite unit that was the ruler’s life guard and a tactical reserve in battle.

Emperor John II Komnen’s life was saved by Varangian Guards, which killed the assassins sent by his sister, Anna Komnena

Byzantine historians report with mixed feelings of admiration and awe about these giant men, drinking stunning amounts of wine, unstoppable on the battlefield, coming from “Thule”, a land generically North of the known world. Anna Komnena, the great historian princess, called them “pelekyphoroi barbaroi,” “axe bearing Barbarians.” The princess knew the Varangians well: no less than twice they saved her brother, Emperor John II Komnenian, from henchmen she had sent to assassinate him. At the Emperor’s death the Viking Guards who had served under him had the privilege to take from his treasure all the goods they were able to carry. Many sagas tell of warriors’ deeds in Miklagard and how enriched they had returned. But also many rune stones remember those who never returned.

The ruins of Boukoleon’s Imperial Palace, on Marmara Sea waterfront, where the Varangian Guard was based

In many battles against Arabs, Turks, Armenians, Bulgars and Hungarians Varangians’ intervention was decisive. In a twist of history in AD 1018 at Cannae, where Hannibal annihilated the Roman army, the Varangian Guard clashed with a rebel Lombard army which had taken the whole Apulia from Byzantine control thanks to a group of mercenaries from Normandy. In a decisive battle the Vikings at the service of the Emperor massacred the Normans at the Lombard rebels’ service.

When the Crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204 the Varangian Guard was one of the few units able to resist. But the empire fell and with this the Varangian age came to its end too, though some clues hint to a possible re-foundation by Palaiologan restorers in 14th century. In chronicles of the Ottoman conquest of the Byzantine capital in 1453 there is no mention of Varangians.

Walls of Constantinople walls, near Blachernae Imperial Palace

But their deeds had marked History. Russia, the Land of the Rus’, took over Byzantium inheritance claiming itself as “Third Rome” and remaining a lasting stronghold of the Orthodox faith. The Normans defeated at Cannae fled to the Lombard duchies and kept offering themselves as mercenaries carving personal fiefdoms until they unified Southern Italy and Sicily into the first national Realm of Italy.

The tradition of an elite Imperial Guard of exotic origin like the Varangians survived as the Corps of Janissaries in the Ottoman Empire, which occupied the geopolitical niche of the Eastern Roman Empire in trade exchanges too as well as in the turbulent but never severed relationship with Europe’s emporiums, Genoa and Venice.

With the Crusades the Europe born from the ashes of Western Roman Empire had entered trade with the East and had fought Byzantium as the real obstacle, up to its destruction in 1204. The new Ottoman Empire took its place but the world had changed. While Mediterranean Powers kept bleeding each other into a decadence that would last centuries, trades moved towards the other direction that Viking sailors had tried before: America.

The Middle Age was over.

Originally published in Italian on Mediterranea

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Piero Castellano

Photojournalist and writer, traveler, biker, based in Genoa, Italy.