Another illustration of Varangian Guardsmen from the Skylitzes Manuscript, Madrid

Peter Beatson

The Synopsis Historiarum is a history covering the reigns of Emperors Michael I Rangabes to Constantine IX Monomachos (811 to 1055AD). It was written in the second half of the 11th century [1] by John Skylitzes, a Byzantine court official. There is a single surviving copy, held by the Biblioteca Nacoinal in Madrid. This copy, and the 574 illustrations it contains, is currently dated to the later 12th century [2], it was probably produced within the Norman-ruled area of the Mediterranean.

Most people are familiar with the oft-reproduced miniature [3] (fol. 26 V-a) from the ms., where the scene is that of the deposition of Emperor Leo V ('the Armenian', assassinated in 820AD). The Emperor's body is being taken to the Hippodrome. The soldiers in the background amongst the palace buildings have been identified as Varangians by the long-shafted axes they carry. At the time of this event there were of course no Varangians in the Imperial service, but as is usual in medieval illustrations, the illustration is based on contemporary figures.

There is however, another illustration of Varangians (figure 1) later in the ms. (fol. 208). Furthermore, they are specifically referred to as such in the associated text. The Skylitzes manuscript has only recently been translated and is not widely avaliable yet, however a major part of Skylitzes' text was copied by the late 12th-century Greek historian George Kedrenos [4] (Georgius Cedrenus). The events shown occured in the winter of 1034, the Varangians were on campaign in western Asia Minor. Kedrenos (according to Blondal [5]) has it thus:

'A man of the Varangians who were scattered in winter quarters in the Thracesion theme met a woman of the region in a private place and tempted her virtue; and when he could not get her to agree willingly he tried to rape her, but she got hold of the foreigner's sword ([6]) and struck him with it through the heart, so that he died at once. When this deed became known through the neighbourhood the Varangians gathered together and honoured the woman by giving her all the possessions of the man who had attempted to rape her, and they threw his body away without burial, according to the law about suicides.'

This is apparently the earliest Byzantiine reference to Varangians by this name [7], and indeed the greek word for Varangians can be seen in the text below the feet of the second figure (from the left) in the group of men presenting clothing to the woman.

Figure 1: Skylitzes ms. fol.208 8. Left: The woman slays the Varangian rapist. Right: The other Varangians present her with his clothing.
The full beards, large moustaches, and abundant (dark) hair are unique to this illustration of Varangians in the ms. The men are either bare-legged or are wearing purple-brown hose, as there is no sign of footwear. Their plain rather loose-fitting tunics are just short of knee-length, and are girded somehow at the waist. The tunics (including those being offered to the woman) are orange (two); scarlet (two); white (=parchment, two); greenish-grey (two); pale pink (two); and pale blue-grey (one). The greek woman wears a plain pale pink full-length tunic girded at the waist; a pale blue pallium (wrap); and a red coif or head shawl. Her slippers are black.

References:

  1. Kazhan, A.P. (ed) (1991) 'The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium', Oxford University Press, p.1914.
  2. Sevcenko, I. (1984) 'The madrid manuscript of the Chronicle of Skylitzes in the light of its new dating.' in: 'Byzanz und der Westen', pp.117-130. Vienna.
    Thanks to Steven Lowe for passing on this information.
  3. For example see Heath, I. (1979) 'Byzantine armies 886-1118', Osprey Men-at-arms series, 89, p.27; or Heath, I. 'The Vikiings', Osprey Elite series, 3, p.25.
  4. Kazhan, A.P., op. cit., p.1118.
  5. Blondal, S. (1978) 'The Varangians of Byzantium: An aspect of Byzantine military history, translated, revised, and rewritten by Benedikt S. Benedikz.' Cambridge University, pp.62-63.
  6. Ellis Davidson renders this as 'a foreign sword'. Ellis Davidson, H.R. (1978) ' The Viking Road to Byzantium'. George Allen & Unwin, London, p.188. Strangely enough, the woman uses a spear in the ms. illustration!
  7. Blondal, S. (1978), op. cit., p.62.
  8. Grabar, A. & Manoussacas, M. (1979) 'L`illustration du manuscrit de Skylitzes de la Bibliotheque Nationale de Madrid'. Vienna, p.107; fig.244; pl.XXXVII. The description (translated from French as best I can) reads: "Illustration, in two successive episodes, of the story of a Byzantine woman who, offended by a Varangian (Varangue), kills him by means of a spear. Then, the other Varangians, who have knowledge of the conduct of their dead compatriot towards the woman, give that one his vestments and all that he owns. Typical physique particular to the Varangians".



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