The Varangian Guard were founded by Emperor Basil II in 988, with 6000 Russian Viking warriors sent by Varangian Tsar Vladimir of Russia. Their name comes from an Old Norse word relating to sharers of an oath.
'The soldiers who from old were his appointed bodyguard came to the Emperor`s tent first, some wearing swords, others carrying spears or their heavy iron axes on their shoulders, and ranged themselves in the form of a crescent at a certain distance from his throne ...'
Vikings had been serving in the Byzantine army and navy for some time already, but Basill formed them into a distinct regiment to act as his Imperial bodyguard. They were known as the axe-bearing Guard, from the enormous two-handed axes they carried. They served at the forefront of many of the Empire's battles, fighting Turks, Bulgars, Crusaders, Normans, and many other enermies. They also performed garrison duty in the Empire's cities.
The Varangian Guard were the best paid of all the Empire's troops. So well paid, in fact that membership had to be purchased. It was quite common for Norsemen to go to Byzantium from all over Scandinavia and Russia, spend time in the Varangian Guard, and return home rich. One such was the future king of Norway, Harald Sigurdson (known as the Ruthless, or inn hardradi) who was to die at the battle of Stamford Bridge in England, 1066.
The Guard were renowned for their loyalty to the Emperors, an unusual thing in a society as riddled with intrigue as Byzantium. They stayed in Imperial service for over three centuries, seeing the greatness and decline of the Byzantium Empire.
'Then Harald had a large ox-hide spread out and emptied on to it the gold out of the chests. Scales and weights were brought and the wealth weighed out into two parts, and all who saw it wondered greatly that so much gold could have been brought together into one place in the northen lands. It was in reality wealth belonging to the King of the Greeks, for all men say that there are buildings there filled with red gold'
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