Varangians (/vəˈrændʒiənz/; Old Norse: Væringjar; Greek:
Βάραγγοι, Várangoi, Βαριάγοι, Variágoi) was the name
given by Greeks,
Rus' people and Ruthenians to Vikings,
who between the 9th and 11th centuries, ruled the medieval state of
Kievan Rus', settled among many territories of modern Belarus, Russia
and Ukraine, and formed the
Byzantine Varangian Guard. According
to the 12th century Kievan Primary Chronicle, a group of Varangians
known as the Rus' settled in
Novgorod in 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
Engaging in trade, piracy, and mercenary activities,
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 (between the
Varangians and the Arabs), connecting the
Baltic to the Caspian Sea, and the Dnieper and Dniester trade route
Varangians and the Greeks) leading to the
Black Sea and
Constantinople. Those were the critically important trade links at
that time, connecting
Medieval Europe with wealthy and developed Arab
Caliphates and the
Byzantine Empire; 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, constituting
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
East Slavs by the late 11th century.
2 Kievan Rus'
3 Islamic world
4.1 Varangian Guard
5 In popular culture
6 See also
8 Further reading
Medieval Greek Βάραγγος Várangos and Old East Slavic
Варягъ Varjagŭ (
Old Church Slavonic
Old Church Slavonic Варѧгъ Varęgŭ) are
Old Norse væringi, originally a compound of vár
'pledge' or 'faith', and gengi 'companion', thus meaning 'sworn
companion', 'confederate', extended to mean 'a foreigner who has taken
service with a new lord by a treaty of fealty to him', or
'protégé'. Some scholars seem to assume a derivation from
vár with the common suffix -ing. Yet, this suffix is inflected
differently in Old Norse, and furthermore, the word is attested with
-gangia and cognates in other
Germanic languages in the Early Middle
Ages, as in
Old English wærgenga,
Old Frankish wargengus and
Langobardic waregang. The reduction of the second part of the word
could be parallel to that seen in
Old Norse foringi 'leader',
Old English foregenga and Gothic
Main articles: Rus' people, Rus' Khaganate, Kievan Rus', Trade route
Varangians to the Greeks, and
Volga trade route
Nicholas Roerich: Guests from Overseas (1899)
The terms “Varangian” and “Rus” can sometimes be used
interchangeably but there are slight differences between the two
groups. Both refer to the peoples of Scandinavian descent who settled
in the Dnieper-
Volga region during and after the 8th century. The
Varangians are a more clearly definable group. They were Scandinavians
in Eastern Europe who were often associated with Byzantium and the
Byzantine emperor’s Varangian Guard. These mercenaries were almost
entirely men who either returned to their Scandinavian homeland or
married into the local Slavic culture. The term “Rus” is more
difficult to define. The Rus were more inclined to settle in towns
with their families. The term “Rus” is sometimes used in primary
sources to describe Slavic peoples as well as Scandinavians. Its
definition becomes clearer later in the period when it developed from
the name of a people to the name of a political entity and area of
land. The confusion in the primary sources about the meaning of
Rus' has led to arguments between scholars about whether
named after a Scandinavian people or a Slavic people. These are
grouped into Normanist and anti-Normanist views (with the broader
meaning of Norman, i.e. 'Norse-men'). Current scholarship supports the
Normanist argument – that the Rus were a primarily Scandinavian
people – but there have been heated debates in the last century
between certain scholars fueled by nationalism. It is now generally
accepted that the Rus' were of Scandinavian origin but adopted Slavic
cultural characteristics fairly quickly.
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
Danegeld (gold and other tribute to the Danish) in 859, and the
Grobin (in modern Latvia) faced an invasion by the Swedes
around the same period. 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.
In the 9th century, the Rus' operated the
Volga trade route, which
Russia (Gardariki) with the Middle East (Serkland).
Volga route declined by the end of the century, and the Dnieper
and Dniester routes rapidly overtook it in popularity. Apart from
Ladoga and Novgorod, Gnyozdovo and
Gotland were major centres for
Viktor Vasnetsov, The Invitation of the Varangians:
Rurik and his
brothers 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
Varangians (called Rus') settled around the town of Holmgård
Primary Chronicle twice names Rus' among the other
Varangian peoples, including Swedes, Gutes, "Normans", and "Angles"
Normans was an Old Slavonic term for
Norwegians not the Normans,
Angles may be interpreted as Danes, not Anglo-Saxons). In
some places, the chronicle mentions Slavs and Rus' as different
groups, while in other instances it mixes them. In the study of the
etymology of the word Rus' itself several possible origins are
identified, but none are conclusive or very helpful in defining the
Rus' people themselves.
The problem with confusion of names is most relevant to the earlier
periods of Scandinavian colonization in the area. By the time the
political entity of the
Kievan Rus existed the Rus were considered to
be a people of mixed Scandinavian/Slavic ethnicity but with a
distinctly Slavic culture.
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'. Attracted by the riches of Constantinople
Varangians initiated a number of Rus'-Byzantine
Wars, some of which resulted in advantageous trade treaties.
Meanwhile, descendants of
Rurik expanded the Rus' 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.
Nicholas Roerich: Longships Are Built in the Land of the Slavs (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. However,
the successor descendants of
Rurik were the ruling dynasty of medieval
Kievan Rus', the successor principalities of
1199), Chernigov, Vladimir-Suzdal, the Grand Duchy of Moscow, and the
founders of the Tsardom of Russia. The name of the Varangian Rus'
became that of the land of
Ruthenia and later modern Russia, and the
ethnonym of its population.
Many historians tend to agree with the
Primary Chronicle that the
Varangians organized the native settlements into the political entity
Kievan Rus' in the 880s and gave their name to the land. The
Varangians were assimilated by
East Slavs by the late 11th century.
Historians minimize their role in the long-term development of the
Kievan state because they left few traces of any permanent influence
on Russia. Historian A.D. Stokes says:
Few significant traces of Varangian influence can be discovered in
Russian law, political institutions, social organizations, religious
beliefs, language, or literature.
Volga trade route
Volga trade route and Caspian expeditions of the
Ship burial of a Rus chieftain as described by the
Arab traveler Ahmad
ibn Fadlan who visited
Kievan Rus in the 10th century, painted by
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, as well as luxury goods such as amber, Frankish swords, and
walrus ivory. These goods were mostly exchanged for Arabic silver
coins, called dirhams. Hoards of 9th century Baghdad-minted silver
coins have been found in Sweden, particularly in Gotland. Variations
in the size of the coin hoards show that there were phases of
increased importation of coins and sometime decades during which very
few coins were imported.
The economic relationship between the Rus and the Islamic world
developed quickly into a sprawling network of trading routes.
Initially the Rus founded
Staraya Ladoga as the first node from the
Baltic to the
Caspian Sea and Black Sea. By the end of the 9th century
Staraya Ladoga was replaced as the most important center by Novgorod.
From these centers the Rus were able to send their goods as far as
Baghdad was the political and cultural center of the Islamic
world in the 9th and 10th centuries and the Rus merchants who went
there to trade their goods for silver interacted with cultures and
goods from the Islamic World, but also from China, India, and North
The trade between the Rus and the lands south of the Black and Caspian
seas made it possible for cultural interactions to take place between
the Rus and the Islamic World. The account written by Ibn Fadlan about
his 921-922 travels from
Baghdad to the capital of the Bulghar kingdom
gives details which can reveal the cultural interaction between the
two groups. Ibn Fadlan gives a vivid description of the daily habits
of the Rus, as well as the only known first-person account of the
complicated ship-burning funeral ceremony. Certain details in his
account, especially the dialogue of the ceremonies and his personal
conversations with Rus individuals, show that the Rus and the Arabs
were interested in and fairly knowledgeable about each other’s
The geography of the
Volga region and the relative lack of physical
wealth available for stealing (compared to targets of Viking raids in
the west) made raiding a less important aspect of the Rus/Varangian
activities in the East. Some raiding, however, was necessary to gain
initial control of the towns and regions that they developed into
centers of economic activities. 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
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.
Sviatoslav, prince of Kiev, commanded the next attack, which destroyed
Khazar state in 965. Sviatoslav'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
Ingvar the Far-Travelled in 1041. While there,
Varangians took part in the Georgian-
Battle of Sasireti in
Varangian Guardsmen, an illumination from the 11th century chronicle
of John Skylitzes.
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.
Byzantine presence of the Rus' is mentioned in the
Frankish Annals of St. Bertin. These relate that a delegation from the
court of the
Byzantine emperor visited Frankish Emperor Louis the
Pious at his court in
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
Askold and Dir launched their first attack on
Constantinople from Kiev. The result of this attack is disputed, but
Varangians continued their efforts as they regularly sailed on
their monoxyla down the Dnieper into the Black Sea. The Rus' raids
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
Sviatoslav I 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
Byzantine use of Greek fire.
Main article: Varangian Guard
Another 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
Varangian Guard (Greek: Τάγμα των Βαράγγων, Tágma
tōn Varángōn) were a part of
Byzantine Army and personal bodyguards
Byzantine emperors from the 10th to the 14th centuries.
Initially the guard was composed of
Varangians who came from Kievan
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 part of a 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
Byzantine Empire. In the eleventh century, there were also two
other European courts that recruited Scandinavians: Kievan Rus',
c. 980–1060, and London, 1018–1066 (the Þingalið).
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.
Varangian Guard not only provided security for
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 Basil
II's formation of the
Varangian Guard from the point of view of a
half-Saxon orphan who journeyed to
Constantinople via the Dnieper
Viking Trilogy recounts the adventures of Harald
Sigurdson, including service in the Varangian Guard.
Michael Ennis's Byzantium ISBN 978-0-330-31596-8, a fictionalised
version of the life of Harald Hardrada, features time in the Varangian
The Bulpington of Blup
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".
Paladin of Shadows series features a fictional,
long-forgotten enclave of the
Varangian Guard in the mountains of
Turisas' second studio album
The Varangian Way
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,
Kiev to the
Byzantine Empire. Their third album, Stand Up and Fight, describes the
history of the Varangian Guard's service to the
Easterlings known as "Variags" appear in
Tolkien's fantasy novel The Return of the King.
In the PC game series Mount & Blade, the name and location of the
Vaegirs echos the Varangians. Their faction have a unique unit called
a "Vaegir Guard".
In the video games Medieval: Total War and
Medieval II: Total War the
Varangian Guard is an axe-wielding elite infantry unit of the
Track 5 of Amon Amarth's seventh studio album Twilight of the Thunder
God has the title "Varyags of Miklagaard".
Track 2 of Grand Magus's eight studio album Sword Songs is titled
Varangian soldiers are a common enemy in the video game Assassin's
Russian writer Dmitry Bykov's novel Living Souls (ЖД) involved a
civil war between
Khazars over the control of Russia
Dark Souls II
Dark Souls II were pirates pressed into service of the
King of Drangleic.
Warhammer 40K universe, there is a chapter of space marines
known as the "Space Wolves" that also go by the "Vaerangian Guard"
In the PC game Crusader Kings 2 the
Varangian Guard appear as a
mercenary unit available exclusively to the
The Walking Drum by Louis L'Amour[clarification needed]
Ancient Germanic culture portal
Middle Ages portal
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Varangians.
For the Scandinavians who travelled westward, see Vikings
Byzantine bureaucracy and aristocracy
Christianization of Kievan Rus'
Piraeus Lion (inscription made by Varangians)
Rulers of Kievan Rus'
^ a b "Varangian," Online Etymology Dictionary
^ "Oleg". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 30 September 2015.
^ "Varangian". TheFreeDictionary.com. Retrieved 30 September
^ "væringer". Store norske leksikon. Retrieved 30 September
^ Milner-Gulland, R. R. Atlas of
Russia and the Soviet Union. Phaidon.
p. 36. ISBN 0-7148-2549-2.
^ Schultze, Sydney (2000). Culture and Customs of Russia. Greenwood
Publishing Group. p. 5. ISBN 0-313-31101-3.
^ "Пушкинский Дом (ИРЛИ РАН) > Новости".
Archived from the original on 16 March 2015. Retrieved 30 September
^ a b Duczko, Wladyslaw (2004). Viking Rus. Brill Publishers.
pp. 10–11. ISBN 90-04-13874-9. Retrieved 1 December
Rurik Dynasty". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 30 September
^ Stephen Turnbull, The Walls of Constantinople, AD 324–1453, Osprey
Publishing, ISBN 1-84176-759-X.
^ Schofield, Tracey Ann Vikings, Lorenz Educational Press, p. 7,
^ H.S. Falk & A. Torp, Norwegisch-Dänisches Etymologisches
Wörterbuch, 1911, pp. 1403–04; J. de Vries, Altnordisches
Etymologisches Wörterbuch, 1962, pp. 671–72; S. Blöndal & B.
Varangians of Byzantium, 1978, p. 4
^ Hellquist 1922:1096, 1172; M. Vasmer, Russisches etymologisches
Wörterbuch, 1953, vol. 1, p. 171.
^ Blöndal & Benedikz, p. 4; D. Parducci, "Gli stranieri
nell’alto medioevo", Mirator 1 (2007)in Italian, English abstract
^ Falk & Torp, p. 1403; other words with the same second part are:
Old Norse erfingi 'heir', armingi or aumingi 'beggar", bandingi
'captive', hamingja 'luck', heiðingi 'wolf', lausingi or leysingi
'homeless'; cf. Falk & Torp, p. 34; Vries, p. 163.
^ Bugge, Sophus, Arkiv för nordisk filologi 2 (1885), p. 225
^ Andrushchuk, Fjodor (2008). "The
Vikings in the East". In Price,
Neil S.; Brink, Stefan. The Viking World. London: Routledge.
^ Klejn, Leo S. (2013). "From
Goths to Varangians: Communication and
cultural exchange between the Baltic and the Black Sea". In Lind,
John; Bjerg, Line Maj-Britt Hojberg; Sindbaek, Soren M. The Russian
Controversy over the Varangians. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press.
^ Forte, Angelo; Oram, Richard; and Pedersen, Frederik. Viking
Empires. Cambridge University Press, 2005 ISBN 0-521-82992-5. pp.
^ 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
Burenhult, Göran (1999). Arkeologi i Norden 2 [Archeology in the
Nordic countries, part 2] (in Swedish). Stockholm: Natur & Kultur.
Gardell, Carl Johan (1987). Gotlands historia i fickformat [The pocket
history of Gotland] (in Swedish). ISBN 91-7810-885-3.
^ Duczko, Wladyslaw (2004). Viking Rus. BRILL. pp. 10–11.
^ Encyclopædia Britannica. "Viking". Retrieved 19 August 2011.
^ Encyclopædia Britannica. "
Rurik dynasty". Retrieved 18 August
^ "Russia" Online Etymology Dictionary
^ A.D. Stokes, "Kievan Russia," in Robert Auty, and Dimitri Obolensky,
eds. Companion to Russian Studies: vol 1: An Introduction to Russian
History (1981) p 53.
^ Batey, Colleen E.; Graham-Campbell, James (1994). Cultural Atlas of
the Viking World. New York: Facts on File. p. 194.
^ Batey, Colleen E.; Graham-Campbell, James (1994). Cultural Atlas of
the Viking World. New York: Facts on File. p. 198.
^ Batey, Colleen E.; Graham-Campbell, James (1994). Cultural Atlas of
the Viking World. New York: Facts on File. p. 184.
^ Montgomery, James E. (2000). "Ibn Fadlan and the Rusiyyah". Journal
of Arabic and Islamic Studies. 3.
^ Noonan, Thomas S. (1997). "Scandinavians in Eastern Europe". In
Sawyer, Peter S. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings.
Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 135.
^ 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
^ Jansson 1980:22
^ a b Pritsak 1981:386
^ "Mercenaries". Retrieved 30 September 2015.
Russian Primary Chronicle
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
Additional secondary sources
Buckler, Georgina. Anna Comnena: A Study. Oxford: University Press,
Varangians of Byzantium: An Aspect of Byzantine
Military History. Trans. by Benedikt S. Benedikz, Cambridge: 1978.
Davidson, H.R. Ellis. The Viking Road to Byzantium. London: 1976.
Enoksen, Lars Magnar. (1998). Runor: historia, tydning, tolkning.
Historiska Media, Falun. ISBN 91-88930-32-7.
Jansson, Sven B. (1980). Runstenar. STF, Stockholm.
English Refugees in the
Byzantine Armed Forces: The Varangian Guard
and Anglo-Saxon Ethnic Consciousness by Nicholas C.J. Pappas for De Re
Raffaele D'Amato; Rava, Giuseppe (illustrator). The Varangian Guard
988–1453. "Men-at-Arms" series, Osprey, 2010.
ISBN 978-1849081795. Illustrated reconstruction of arms and armor
Bosporus & Bithynia (941)
Thrace & Bulgaria (970–971)
Constantinople & Aegean Sea (1043)
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