All About History

Anatomy of

Constantin­ople, 988-1400


A Varangian guardsman

elite warriors Vikings for hire

Basil II formed the Varangian Guard in 988 to put down a rebellion. The force was made up of Rus warriors, the descendent­s of Vikings who had settled in modern-day Russia and Ukraine. Some straight-up Vikings also served in the Byzantine force, such as Harald Hardrada, who was a Varangian commander before reigning as king of Norway from 104666. Over time, the guards evolved from a band of unruly mercenarie­s to a loyal elite.

bodyguards the emperor’s shield

A lot more than a palace guard, the Varangians’ worth was fully utilised as a strike force in conflicts throughout the Byzantine Empire. Whether at the vanguard, protecting the emperor or baggage train, on the sea or the battlement­s during Constantin­ople’s many sieges, the Guard put their weapons, including their round shields, to the test.

standardis­ed uniform Imperial Issue

While the Varangian Guard would have been drawn from all over the world — many other mercenarie­s joined their ranks beyond the Rus, Scandinavi­ans and Anglo-saxons — their uniform was standardis­ed and issued by the imperial armoury. In part, this was possibly because many of the exiles that joined the Guard arrived with nothing, so required the empire to clothe them.

conical helmet heavy Is the head

While there may have been some variation, it seems likely that most Varangians wore conical helmets with a nose guard chinstrap in a Western style. This may have also included a mail hood or curtain for added protection.

Varangian bra heavy armour support

Varangians famously wore a full-length chain mail tunic that would cover them from their head to their knees. However, the metal hauberk could weigh 12 kilograms or more, so the soldiers would wear a special leather harness — known as a Varangian bra — to take the weight off their shoulders.

lamellar scale Vest riveting display

On top of the chain mail, the Varangians sported an extra layer of protection in the more stylish lamellar scale vest. While other lamellar vests were made from the rows of leather or metal scales laced together, the plates of the Byzantine designs were riveted onto a backing for extra sturdiness.

undergarme­nts dyed In the wool

While Byzantine military manuals don’t mention any colours, many mosaics show the guards wearing purple cloaks and undergarme­nts. However, this expensive colour was the preserve of the emperor in Byzantine society. Instead, it is far more likely that the Varangians joined the rest of the emperors’ entourage in wearing red cloaks.

battleaxe axe to grind

After the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066, the Varangians saw an influx of displaced Anglo-saxon soldiers join their ranks. Hence the double-handed axe, so popular with Anglo-saxon warriors at the Battle of Hastings, became a prominent symbol and weapon of the Guard.

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