were originally Vikings
into the Russian Steppes
long ago. They moved throughout the area, spreading from Novgorod
. In A.D. 987, Prince Vladimir
of Kiev sent a force of six thousand men to seal an alliance
with the Byzantine Emperor Romaioi Basil II
. The force was to aid Romaioi against the usurper Bardas Phocas
, and the soldiers fought so well that once Romaioi had won, he requested that the surviving troops become his personal guards. Vladimir consented, and these highly disciplined troops became known as the Varangian Guard.
The Varangian guard was the most elite fighting force in Medieval Europe. They wore scale mail mostly, though some of the poorer ones were known to wear chain mail. For a helm it was common to use a nose helm or a close helm, and only the very poorest wore none at all. Shields were generally kite shields, if they were not using a two-handed weapon. Though they were more often than not; the poorest would use spears, most would use a Viking two-handed axe, while the nobles would often use a Viking two-handed sword. Apart from these weapons, the only other one used was a long knife known as a scramasax, which was also used by the Guard to eat their meals.
The Varangians were stark foreigners in these lands, as they looked like Vikings and Russians. Even in the twilight years of the Guard, when they had lived in Byzantium for over 400 years, they still looked very foreign. They maintained the tradition of wearing Viking or Russian style clothes, and often bleached their childrens' hair if they were not born blonde. They were usually cleanly shaven, although from the 11th Century onwards, it became common to keep a handlebar moustache. Depending on where they were stationed, they often changed their clothing, but they would never depart from the Viking and Russian culture.
The Varangian Guard was comprised entirely of their own population, and any offspring born to a non-Varangian parent were not allowed to join the guard. Instead, they had to inter-breed, and like the Kataphraktoi, they were trained for a very long time. Their reputation preceded them, and they were terribly effective counter-infantry units, although they rarely appeared on the battlefield. They were generally confined to Byzantium, and their primary task was to guard the Emperor. They were used in the latter stages of the Byzantine Empire, however.
Though, with the Latin invasion and sacking of Constantinople in 1204, the Varangian Guard stood their ground and fought the crusaders. The Guard was decimated, and they abandoned the city, fleeing into the Bulgarian and Macedonian provinces. These provinces revolted, however, and even more of the guard was decimated by the rebels. When the Byzantines recovered, recapturing Constantinople and the rebel provinces, the survivors were recovered and the Guard reformed, though there were less than three hundred troops in the guard, and as a force on the battlefield, they were useless.
The Guard was retained, nevertheless, and the breeding program was reinitiated. They were once again tasked to guard the Emperor, but the Varangian Guard was nothing more than a distant memory now. With the invasion of the Turks, they were quite often required to actively guard the Emperor, and by the 15th Century, most of what was left of the Varangian Guard had deserted, and the Byzantines simply disbanded what was left. Some entered the Byzantine Empire and continued to fight until its fall in 1453, most simply abandoned the doomed Byzantines to their own fate.