Varangian routes

Map showing the major Varangian trade routes: the Volga trade route (in red) and the trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks (in purple). Other trade routes of the 8th–11th centuries shown in orange.

The Varangians or Varyags (Old Norse: Væringjar; Greek: Βάραγγοι, Βαριάγοι, Varangoi, Variagoi) was the name given by Greeks and East Slavs to Vikings,[1][2][3][4] who between the 9th and 11th centuries ruled the medieval state of Rus' and formed the Byzantine Varangian Guard.[5][6]

According to the 12th century Kievan Primary Chronicle, a group of Varangians known as the Rus'[7] settled in Novgorod in 6370 (862) under the leadership of Rurik. Before Rurik, the Rus' might have ruled an earlier hypothetical polity. Rurik's relative Oleg conquered Kiev in 882 and established the state of Kievan Rus', which was later ruled by Rurik's descendants.[8][9]

Engaging in trade, piracy, and mercenary activities, Varangians roamed the river systems and portages of Gardariki, as the areas north of the Black Sea were known in the Norse sagas. They controlled the Volga trade route (Route from the Varangians to the Arabs), connecting the Baltic to the Caspian Sea, and the Dnieper trade route (Route from the Varangians to the Greeks) leading to the Black Sea and Constantinople.[10] Those were the critically important trade links at that time, connecting Dark Age Europe with wealthy and developed Arab Caliphates and the Byzantine Empire;[11] Most of the silver coinage in the West came from the East via those routes. Attracted by the riches of Constantinople, the Varangian Rus' initiated a number of Rus'-Byzantine Wars, some of which resulted in advantageous trade treaties. At least from the early 10th century many Varangians served as mercenaries in the Byzantine Army, comprising the elite Varangian Guard (the personal bodyguards of Byzantine Emperors). Eventually most of them, both in Byzantium and in Eastern Europe, were converted from paganism to Orthodox Christianity, culminating in the Christianization of Kievan Rus' in 988. Coinciding with the general decline of the Viking Age, the influx of Scandinavians to Rus' stopped, and Varangians were gradually assimilated by East Slavs by the late 11th century.


Greek Várangos and Old East Slavic varęgŭ are derived from Old Norse væringi, originally a compound of vár "pledge" and gengi "companion", i.e. "a sworn person" or "a foreigner who has taken service with a new lord by a treaty of fealty to him, or protégé".[1][12] Some scholars seem to assume a derivation with the common suffix -ing-.[13] Yet, this suffix is inflected differently in Old Norse, and furthermore, the word is attested with -gangia- in other Germanic languages in the Early Middle Ages: Old English wærgenga, Old Frankish wargengus, Langobardic waregang.[14] The reduction of the second part of the word is parallel to that seen in Old Norse foringi "leader" = Old English foregenga, Gothic fauragangja "steward".[15][16]

Kievan Rus'[]

Nicholas Roerich, Guests from Overseas

Guests from Overseas, Nicholas Roerich (1899).

Having settled Aldeigja (Ladoga) in the 750s, Scandinavian colonists played an important role in the early ethnogenesis of the Rus' people and in the formation of the Rus' Khaganate. The Varangians (Varyags, in Old East Slavic) are first mentioned by the Primary Chronicle as having exacted tribute from the Slavic and Finnic tribes in 859. The Vikings were rapidly expanding in Northern Europe: England began to pay Danegeld in 859, and the Curonians of Grobin faced an invasion by the Swedes at about the same date. Due largely to geographic considerations, it is often argued that most of the Varangians who traveled and settled in the eastern Baltic, Russia, and lands to the south came from the area of modern Sweden .[17]

In the 9th century, the Rus' operated the Volga trade route, which connected Northern Russia (Gardariki) with the Middle East (Serkland). The Volga route declined by the end of the century, and the trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks rapidly overtook it in popularity. Apart from Ladoga and Novgorod, Gnezdovo and Gotland were major centres for Varangian trade.[18]


The Invitation of the Varangians by Viktor Vasnetsov: Rurik and his brothers Sineus and Truvor arrive in Staraya Ladoga.

According to the Primary Chronicle, in 862, the Finnic and Slavic tribes in the area of Novgorod rebelled against their Varangian rulers, driving them overseas back to Scandinavia, but they soon started to conflict with each other. The disorder prompted the tribes to invite the Varangians back "to come and rule them" and bring peace to the region. Led by Rurik and his brothers Truvor and Sineus, the invited Varangians (called Rus') settled around the town of Holmgård (Novgorod). The Primary Chronicle twice names Rus' among the other Varangian peoples, including Swedes, Normans, Angles, and Gutes[19] (Normans was an Old Russian term for Norwegians, while Angles may be interpreted as Danes). In some places the chronicle mentions Slavs and Rus' as different groups, while in other instances it mixes them.

Under the leadership of Rurik's relative Oleg, the Varangian Rus' expanded southwards by capturing Kiev from the Khazars, founding the medieval state of Rus'.[8] Attracted by the riches of Constantinople and the Arab world, Varangians initiated a number of Rus'-Byzantine Wars, some of which resulted in advantageous trade treaties. Meanwhile, descendants of Rurik expanded the Russian state and unified the local tribes. Contact with the Byzantine Empire increased, culminating in the Christianization of Kievan Rus' in 988, during the reign of Vladimir the Great.

Building ships by Roerich

Longships Are Built in the Land of the Slavs , Nicholas Roerich (1903).

As with the Norse influence in Normandy and the British Isles, Varangian culture did not survive in the East. Instead, the Varangian ruling classes of the two powerful city-states of Novgorod and Kiev were gradually slavicised by the end of the 11th century.[20] However, the successor descendants of Rurik were the ruling dynasty of medieval Kievan Rus', the successor principalities of Galicia-Volhynia (after 1199), Chernigov, Vladimir-Suzdal, the Grand Duchy of Moscow, and the founders of the Tsardom of Russia.[21] The name of the Varangian Rus' or RUS became that of the land of modern Russia and the ethnonym of its population.[22] [23] Russia is thus one of a few surviving states founded by Norse people.

Most historians tend to agree with the Primary Chronicle that the Varangians organized the native settlements into the political entity of Kievan Rus' in the 880s and gave their name to the land. However, many Russian scholars are opposed to this theory of Germanic influence and have suggested alternative scenarios for this part of Eastern European history. Russian historiography includes a number of Anti-Normanist theories, antagonistic to the Normanist theory of a Scandinavian origin of Varangians. For example, according to Yu. Shilov, Varangians ( Vargi) were supposed to be a tribe of Baltic Slavs without roots to Norse Vikings.[24] While this dispute continues, the event of Rurik's arrival in 862 to Northern Russia on the request of its peoples, known as the Invitation of the Varangians (Russian: Призвание Варягов), continues to be regarded as the traditional starting point of Russian history.

Islamic world[]

Funeral of ruthenian noble by Siemiradzki

Ship burial of a Rus chieftain as described by the Arab traveler Ahmad ibn Fadlan who visited Kievan Rus in the 10th century.
Henryk Siemiradzki (1883)

The Rus' initially appeared in Serkland in the 9th century, traveling as merchants along the Volga trade route, selling furs, honey, and slaves. Hoards of 9th century Baghdad-minted silver coins have been found in Sweden, particularly in Gotland. The first small-scale raids took place in the late 9th and early 10th centuries. The Rus' undertook the first large-scale expedition in 913; having arrived on 500 ships, they pillaged Gorgan, in the territory of present day Iran, and the adjacent areas, taking slaves and goods. On their return, the northern raiders were attacked and defeated by Khazar Muslims in the Volga Delta, and those who escaped were killed by the local tribes on the middle Volga.

During their next expedition in 943, the Rus' captured Barda, the capital of Arran, in the modern-day Republic of Azerbaijan. The Rus' stayed there for several months, killing many inhabitants of the city and amassing substantial plunder. It was only an outbreak of dysentery among the Rus' that forced them to depart with their spoils. Svyatoslav, prince of Kiev, commanded the next attack, which destroyed the Khazar state in 965. Svyatoslav's campaign established Rus' control over the north-south trade routes, helping to alter the demographics of the region. Raids continued through the time period with the last Scandinavian attempt to reestablish the route to the Caspian Sea led by Ingvar the Far-Travelled in 1041.

Byzantine Empire[]

Template:Russo-Byzantine Treaties

Skylitzis Chronicle VARANGIAN GUARD

Varangian Guardsmen, an illumination from the 11th century chronicle of John Skylitzes.

The earliest Byzantine record of the Rus' may have been written prior to 842. It is preserved in the Greek Life of St. George of Amastris, which speaks of a raid that had extended into Paphlagonia. Contemporary Byzantine presence of the Rus' is mentioned in the Frankish Annals of St. Bertin. These relate that a delegation from the court of Byzantine emperor Louis the Pious visited Ingelheim in 839. In this delegation were two men who called themselves Rhos (Rhos vocari dicebant). Louis enquired about their origins and learnt that they were Swedes. Fearing that they were spies for their brothers, the Danes, he incarcerated them.

In 860, the Rus' under Askold and Dir launched their first attack on Constantinople from Kiev. The result of this attack is disputed, but the Varangians continued their efforts as they regularly sailed on their monoxyla down the Dnieper into the Black Sea. The Rus' raids into the Caspian Sea were recorded by Arab authors in the 870s and in 910, 912, 913, 943, and later. Although the Rus' had predominantly peaceful trading relations with the Byzantines, the rulers of Kiev launched the relatively successful naval expedition of 907 and the abortive campaign of 941 against Constantinople, as well as the large-scale invasion of the Balkans by Svyatoslav in 968–971. These raids were successful in forcing the Byzantines to re-arrange their trading arrangements; militarily, the Varangians were usually defeated by the superior Byzantine forces, especially in the sea due to Byzantine use of Greek fire.

Varangian Guard[]

A Thracesian woman kills a Varangian

An illumination of a scene from the Skylitzes Chronicle, depicting a Thracesian woman killing a Varangian who tried to rape her, whereupon his comrades praised her and gave her his possessions.[25]

The Varangian Guard (Greek: Τάγμα των Βαράγγων, Tágma tōn Varángōn) were a part of Byzantine Army and personal bodyguards of the Byzantine Emperors from the 9th to the 14th centuries. Initially the guard was composed of Varangians who came from Kievan Rus'.

The guard was first formed under Emperor Basil II after 988, following the Christianization of Kievan Rus' and union with Vladimir I of Kiev, who sent 6,000 men to Basil as a part of military assistance agreement. Basil's distrust of the native Byzantine guardsmen, whose loyalties often shifted with fatal consequences, as well as the proven loyalty of the Varangians, many of whom served in Byzantium even before, led the Emperor to employ them as his personal guard. Over the years, new recruits from Sweden, Denmark, and Norway kept a predominantly Scandinavian cast to the organization until the late 11th century. So many Scandinavians left to enlist in the guard that a medieval Swedish law from Västergötland stated that no one could inherit while staying in "Greece" — the then Scandinavian term for the Byzantine Empire.[26] In the eleventh century, there were also two other European courts that recruited Scandinavians:[27] Kievan Rus', c. 980–1060, and London, 1018–1066 (the Þingalið).[27]

Composed primarily of Scandinavians for the first hundred years, the guard increasingly included Anglo-Saxons after the successful Norman Conquest of England. By the time of Emperor Alexios Komnenos in the late 11th century, the Varangian Guard was largely recruited from Anglo-Saxons and "others who had suffered at the hands of the Vikings and their cousins the Normans". The Anglo-Saxons and other Germanic peoples shared with the Vikings a tradition of faithful, oath-bound service (to death if necessary), and after the Norman Conquest of England there were many fighting men who had lost their lands and former masters looking for a living elsewhere.

The Varangian Guard not only provided security for Byzantine Emperors but participated in many wars involving Byzantium and often played a crucial role, since it was usually employed at critical moments of battle. By the late 13th century Varangians were mostly ethnically assimilated by Byzantines, though the guard operated until at least the mid-14th century, and in 1400 there were still some people identifying themselves as "Varangians" in Constantinople.

In popular culture[]

  • Rosemary Sutcliff's 1976 historical novel Blood Feud depicts the formation of the Varangian Guard by Basil II, from the point of view of a half-Saxon orphan who journeyed to Constantinople via the Dnieper trading route.
  • Henry Treece's Viking Trilogy which describe the adventures of Harald Sigurdson.
  • Michael Ennis's Byzantium ISBN 978-0-330-31596-8 is a fictionalised version of the life of Harald Hardrada, much of which is spent in the Varangian Guard.
  • In The Bulpington of Blup (1933) by H.G. Wells, the father of the protagonist maintains for years the fiction that he is at work on "a History of the Varangians that was to outshine Doughty."
  • The John Ringo Paladin of Shadows series, features a fictional, long forgotten enclave of the Varangian Guard in the mountains of Georgia.
  • Turisas's second studio album The Varangian Way is a concept album that tells the story of a group of Scandinavians travelling the river routes of medieval Russia, through Ladoga, Novgorod and Kiev, down to the Byzantine Empire. Their third album, Stand Up and Fight, describes the history of the Varangian Guard's service to the Byzantine Empire.
  • Bearded axe-wielding Easterlings known as Variags, inspired by the elite Viking mercenaries, are described in the fantasy novel Return of the King.
  • In the PC game series Mount&Blade, the name and location of the Vaegirs is used to represent this group of people. The unique unit for this faction is called a Vaegir Guard.
  • In the PC games Medieval: Total War and Medieval II: Total War the Varangian Guard is an axe-wielding elite infantry unit of the Byzantine Empire.
  • Track 5 of Amon Amarth's seventh studio album Twilight of the Thunder God is titled "Varyags of Miklagaard."
  • Varangian soldiers are a common enemy in the video game Assassin's Creed: Revelations.


  1. ^ a b "Varangian," Online Etymology Dictionary
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ Milner-Gulland, R. R.. Atlas of Russia and the Soviet Union. Phaidon. p. 36. ISBN 0-7148-2549-2. 
  6. ^ Schultze, Sydney (2000). Culture and Customs of Russia. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 5. ISBN 0-313-31101-3. 
  7. ^ Primary Chronicle (in Old Ruthenian and Russian), Year 6370 (В лѣто 6370)
  8. ^ a b Duczko, Wladyslaw (2004). Viking Rus. Brill Publishers. pp. 10–11. ISBN 90-04-13874-9. Retrieved 1 December 2009. 
  9. ^
  10. ^ Stephen Turnbull, The Walls of Constantinople, AD 324–1453, Osprey Publishing, ISBN 1-84176-759-X.
  11. ^ Schofield, Tracey Ann Vikings, Lorenz Educational Press, p. 7, ISBN 978-1-5731-0356-5
  12. ^ H.S. Falk & A. Torp, Norwegisch-Dänisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch, 1911, pp. 1403–4; J. de Vries, Altnordisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch, 1962, pp. 671–2; S. Blöndal & B. Benedikz, The Varangians of Byzantium, 1978, p. 4
  13. ^ Hellquist 1922:1096, 1172; M. Vasmer, Russisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, 1953, vol. 1, p. 171.
  14. ^ Blöndal & Benedikz, p. 4; D. Parducci, "Gli stranieri nell’alto medioevo", Mirator 1 (2007)in Italian, English abstract
  15. ^ Falk & Torp, p. 1403; other words with the same second part are: Old Norse erfingi "heir", armingi "beggar", aumingi "beggar", bandingi "captive", hamingja "luck", heiðingi "wolf", lausingi / leysingi "homeless", cf. Falk & Torp, p. 34; Vries, p. 163.
  16. ^ Bugge, Sophus, Arkiv för nordisk filologi 2 (1885), p. 225
  17. ^ Forte, Angelo; Richard Oram; and Frederik Pedersen. Viking Empires. Cambridge University Press, 2005 ISBN 0-521-82992-5. pp. 13–14.
  18. ^ A massive majority (40,000) of all Viking-Age Arabian coins found in Scandinavia were found in Gotland. In Skåne, Öland and Uppland together, about 12,000 coins were found. Other Scandinavian areas have only scattered finds: 1,000 from Denmark and some 500 from Norway. Byzantine coins have been found almost exclusively in Gotland, some 400. See Arkeologi i Norden 2. Författarna och Bokförlaget Natur & kultur. Stockholm 1999. See also Gardell, Carl Johan: Gotlands historia i fickformat, 1987. ISBN 91-7810-885-3.
  19. ^ Duczko, Wladyslaw (2004). Viking Rus. BRILL. pp. 10–11. ISBN 90-04-13874-9. 
  20. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica. "Viking". Retrieved 19 August 2011. 
  21. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica. "Rurik dynasty". Retrieved 18 August 2011. 
  22. ^ "Russia" Online Etymology Dictionary
  23. ^ "RUS". Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 11th Edition. Retrieved October 26, 2012. 
  24. ^ Yuri Shilov, Sources of Slavic Civilisation, Osoznanie, Moscow, 2008, ISBN 978-5-98967-006-0.
  25. ^ Wortley, John, ed. (2010), John Skylitzes: A Synopsis of Byzantine History, 811–1057, Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, p. 372, ISBN 978-0-521-76705-7, 
  26. ^ Jansson 1980:22
  27. ^ a b Pritsak 1981:386


Rus' Varangians[]

  • Russian Primary Chronicle

Varangian Guard[]

  • Strategikon of Kekaumenos by Kekaumenos
  • Alexiad by Anna Komnena
  • Deeds of John and Manuel Comnenus by John Kinnamos
  • Historia ecclesiastica by Ordericus Vitalis
  • Chronicon universale anonymi Laudunensis
  • Játvarðar Saga
  • Heimskringla
  • Laxdœla saga

See also[]

Portal Ancient Germanic culture
Portal Middle Ages
Wikimedia Commons has media related to:
  • For the Scandinavians who travelled westward, see Vikings
  • Byzantine army
  • Byzantine aristocracy and bureaucracy
  • Komnenian army
  • Kylfings
  • Oeselians
  • Piraeus Lion (inscription made by Varangians)
  • Rulers of Kievan Rus
  • Trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks
  • Varangian Rossi

Template:Germanic peoples

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