Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia is one identity crisis away from a total breakdown. The building that towered over the capital of two of the world’s most powerful empires was built to be the largest church in the world. Then the Ottomans came. They didn’t vibe with that identity and promptly turned it into a very big (but not the biggest) mosque. Then, after five hundred years as a Muslim worship site, Turkey’s budding secular government gave the order to turn it into a museum. More recently, the new (increasingly nationalist) Turkish government decided secularism was icky and turned it back into a mosque.
The city around this church/mosque/museum/mosque was the center of trade, faith, and government for two separate empires, themselves the cores of the Greek and Turkish-speaking worlds. Art and architecture throughout the Hagia Sophia bears the influence of both languages. But there’s a wall in one corner of the giant house of worship that boasts a few barely-there scratches in a language unfamiliar to Greeks and Turks alike. These are Norse runes, the harsh written script of the people we now call Vikings.
Part I: Constantinople
The city of Constantinople wasn’t an accident. Two hundred years before the Hagia Sophia was anything more than an idea, the Roman Emperor Constantine I came up with a radical proposal: move Rome. Not the whole city, of course, nor everything in it, but everything he deemed important, namely him and his friends. The city had been the Roman capital for over a thousand years, but things were changing. The frontiers where the empire waged war were far to the East, and managing them from this far away was hard.
Constantine identified a strategic location for a new capital, at the place where the Black Sea meets the Mediterranean, the border between two continents and a site from which the imperial armies would have easy access to the east. He packed up his things and his senate and took off for Byzantion.
Byzantion was a boring city. People lived there, but the place was politically irrelevant (the Columbus, Ohio of the Medieval world). Constantine had a new image in mind. When he and his posse arrived, the emperor cast aside the classic “Byzantion” moniker, renaming the city “Nova Roma”, or New Rome, and got to work building.
There are hundreds of years of history here, but we have slightly less time, so to sum things up: this is a major turning point in the story of Rome. The movement east heralds the shattering of the empire and the eventual Fall of Rome, when barbarian kings and their armies descended on the city in 476 CE. Officially, this Eastern Roman Empire still went by its former name, but historians distinguish it as the Byzantine Empire, paying homage to old boring Byzantion. Its people started speaking the local vernacular Greek instead of Latin. Constantine stopped feeding Christians to lions long enough to convert to Christianity himself, and eventually, the religious authorities of his city got into a big enough fight with the Pope that they broke away from the Catholic Church entirely, founding their own form of Christianity, Eastern Orthodoxy.
So by the end of the first millennium, over a century after the move, the Roman Empire had a different capital, a different language, and a different religion. They even changed the name of the city — Nova Roma became Constantinople, the city of Constantine.
As the Eastern Roman Empire drifted apart from its friends and enemies in the west, they began to build new relations with peers in the East. Among them, the Rus.
Part II: A Friend In Need
The leaders of the Rus had a lot in common with the Byzantine Emperors. They’re both Christian converts, they’re both involved in on-again/off-again wars with the Turkic people to the east, and they’re both outsider dynasties; most of the Russian population is Slavonic, but the country’s leaders were Scandinavian by blood, the scions of Vikings who raided down rivers to the north and forgot to turn back. One of those Scandinavians, Rurik, liked the place his contemporaries called “cold Sweden” enough to found a kingdom there. Over a few hundred years, the stories of the Rus and their Norse overlords became so intermixed as to be indistinguishable by outsiders.
This unity of otherwise different populations is what makes it difficult to identify the people who soon came to Byzantium. Contemporary sources give them a number of names, but we’re going to focus on the best-known: “Varangians”. The word has a long and indeterminate history, but it probably comes from Old Norse via Russian and means something like “companion”. There’s some foreshadowing going on here.
The Byzantines and the Rus started passing notes. They engaged in a few cute little spats, but otherwise grew relatively close. In 988, the Byzantine Emperor, Basil II appealed to the newly-Christianized Vladimir of Kiev, a descendant of Rurik, for military assistance. Vlad had just the thing: a group of Norse mercenaries who had been bugging the hell out of him, whining about how they “haven’t been paid”, a matter trivial to the budding Russian state and absolutely not worth its leader’s time.
With the shipment of mercs, Vladimir sends a warning: these guys are annoying as hell, but if you split them up and station them in different corners of your empire to prevent fraternizing and debauchery, all should be well.
Basil followed the advice, attaching the Varangians to a variety of foreign regiments similar to the foederati of Rome. Outsiders to the field of Roman history take note: the foederati were the guys who eventually got tired of Rome and sacked the hell out of it. Is that foreshadowing? We’ll see.
The Varangians turned out to be exceptionally talented mercenaries, and a series of victories in battles against the Bulgarians led Basil to select from their numbers members of his personal guard.
Part III: The Varangian Guard
Picking foreign mercenaries as bodyguards isn’t every emperor’s first choice. The Norse weren’t loyal to the Byzantine state the same way native citizens of Constantinople might have been. This is why we don’t send Secret Service talent scouts to Thailand or Brazil.
Unsurprisingly though, Byzantine political traditions aren’t entirely equatable to more modern American customs. In the United States, when the President is assassinated, their successor is the sitting Vice President. In the event of that person’s simultaneous incapacitation, the line to the Oval Office is some twenty people long. And as long as the Secretary of Agriculture didn’t take the President’s latest ag bill veto exceptionally seriously, the assassin is not included among potential Presidents.
In Byzantium, the succession process is hardly that simple. Emperors could designate their children or their spouses as their successors; they could list them in their wills or appoint them as co-emperors before they died. But once they were gone, the complex machine of Byzantine politics, already long at work in the shadows, was actively selecting from its own pool of candidates. Sometimes, an Emperor would found a successful dynasty that lasted a few generations, with designated heirs coming to power on the heels of their fathers’ deaths with the clockwork efficiency of a common Western European monarchy. But other times, envious cousins, spurned third-children, or power-hungry generals would disrupt the process by pursuing the crown for themselves. If an official toying with the idea that he could govern better than the Emperor could gather enough support to storm the Imperial Palace and murder its current occupant, he’d be well on his way to securing the throne.
With this appropriately-byzantine system of power and succession came a similarly complex network of allegiances. Anyone looking to hold imperial power would want the support of military leaders and other influential officials. Throughout Constantinople, webs of allegiance formed, eternally twisting and changing with each decision and whim of the emperor and the city’s elite. All citizens of status would have known the benefits available to those who sided with the victor in a conflict for the ultimate power. A general could be convinced to order his men into battle for a candidate who would offer him more prestige. A priest might compel his congregation to support an emperor who could provide him with more funding, or a promotion. And a guard may be convinced to slit the throat of a worse emperor if he has faith in their ordained successor.
Anything could compel a guard loyal to other forces to betray his liege. Better status for his family, land holdings of his own, a promotion to a position of leadership. Each man plucked from inside or just outside the walls of Constantinople had his own complex web of loyalties. When the inevitable revolution came, no emperor could be certain of the side on which his guards would emerge.
Where Byzantine men came with all sorts of baggage regarding their allegiances, the Varangians arrived with little to none. They didn’t know the Byzantine Empire and they didn’t care much about it. Their interest was fully invested in the emperor’s gold and the glory of war. But mostly the gold.
The Varangians yearned for treasure, and the Emperors supplied their greed. Tales of guardsmen returning to Scandinavia with armloads of gold made their way into the epic tales and poetic eddas sung in the mead halls of the Varangian homelands. The historical record also offers some support for the existence of a tradition where, when an emperor died, his guards would be allowed to enter his personal quarters and take whatever they could carry out. Apparently, similar practices were common at various times among the Muslim caliphs of Baghdad and the Papal guards in the Vatican.
Basil II had successfully secured a fighting force whose loyalties weren’t tied to other players within the Byzantine Empire. But while the Varangians were loyal to the throne that enriched them, they didn’t care much about who sat in it. By most accounts, they fought fiercely to protect their Emperors, but once the seat’s present occupant died, their allegiance passed swiftly onto the next. So when Basil died, the Varangians were inherited by his successor. And his successor. And his. They would continue to serve the Byzantine rulers for hundreds of years.
As many as thousands of Norse and Russian soldiers could be found among the Byzantine soldiery at any time, but only the most elite furnished the Emperor’s personal guard. The rest of the Varangians lived like normal mercenaries. Given their Viking origins, many fought in the Byzantine Navy on ships armed with Greek Fire, a sort of medieval flamethrower that spat liquid capable of burning on water.
We’ve come to understand one benefit of an elite guard brigade with no connection to the local country, but prolonging the emperor’s lifespan wasn’t the only benefit of this lack of affiliation. With less to lose, the Varangians built a reputation for brutality beyond the means of their Greek comrades. They bore axes in combat and were available to be sic’d on any enemies the common soldiery would be hesitant to touch, as seen in at least one incident where the Varangians arrested and dragged the Ecumenical Patriarch (Eastern Orthodoxy’s Pope) from his altar in the middle of a sermon. When the Emperor needed a punished official or rival claimant to the throne bruised and bloodied, it was the Varangians who followed the order. When an enemy of the state was due to be tortured or to have his nose cut off (surprisingly common), the Varangians obliged.
The task of blinding rebels and other political opponents of the state also fell to the Varangians. If nose-slicing was common in Byzantium, blinding was a pastime. Start a rebellion? You’re blinded and sent to a monastery. Assist with a rebellion? Blinded and sent to a monastery. Deposed by a successful rebellion? You guessed it: blinded and sent to a monastery.
Most of the Varangians who arrived in Byzantium were Christian or would become Christian. They really dug (and re-dug) St. Nicholas, patron saint of sailors, bachelors, beer brewers, and prostitutes, and built a shitload of churches in his honor. They were so into the jolly Anatolian priest that they developed a creepy tradition where new Churches of St. Nicholas would be christened by exhuming the Saint’s centuries-decayed body, nabbing a bone or two, and reburying them under the new church. Righteous. When the King of Denmark visited Byzantium at some point in the 11th century, he reportedly rejected gifts of gold but asked for religious relics instead (I’ve done the same at every party I’ve ever been to). The Emperor was generous and gave him some relics he had lying around and, of course, a few St. Nicholas bones. If you collect the whole set, he comes back to life.
Most famous today of those who filled the ranks of the guard is Harald Hardrada, a scion of the ruling family of Norway who would eventually leave Byzantium to become King of Norway himself. While in the service of the city, Harald was involved in a series of military campaigns that ended when he was accused of keeping more than his fair share, either of taxes (overtaxing) or pirate booty (booty shorting), from the Emperor. He spent some time in prison before being freed by his Varangian pals amid one of the city’s ridiculously frequent revolutions. Harald left Constantinople quickly, but not before stopping at the office where the tax records were kept long enough to conveniently destroy all of them.
By the middle of the 11th century, the Viking Age in northern Europe was approaching its end. Pillaging just wasn’t as rewarding anymore. Varangians kept making the journey to Constantinople, but their dwindling numbers were supplemented in part by Anglo-Saxons from England. The Norman King William the Conqueror had left France and crossed the English Channel in pursuit of earning the nickname “the Conqueror”. Forces loyal to the ruling Danish government of Britain fled from the island. Some kept running long enough to reach Byzantium.
The Varangian Guard didn’t exist until the Byzantine Empire was over half a century old, but it had staying power, guarding the emperor in the capital until the very end, save for one very fun gap. In 1204, the guardsmen temporarily departed from Constantinople when European crusaders sacked the city and formed their own state, the Latin Empire. The crusades, of course, were a series of conflicts fought mostly between European Christians and Middle Eastern Muslims for control of the holy land, today’s Israel. This crusade (the fourth one) started like the rest, but on their way to the holy shore, the invasion party’s leaders were pulled aside by a Byzantine former prince. His father had been the victim of one of the Empire’s weekly revolutions, and the prince very badly wanted to see him back on the throne. For one reason or another, the crusaders agreed to put their anti-Muslim holy war on pause long enough to destroy one of Europe’s oldest Christian cities.
The Latin Empire lasted less than 60 years. The crusader state was beset on all sides by enemies, and fell to the old Byzantines, who had established a kingdom of their own next door in Nicaea. Back in power, the new Byzantine leadership slowly reconquered the land held by the Latin Empire, but they would never come close to the multi-continental colossus their predecessors had overseen.
Similarly, the reinstated Varangian Guard never came close to the status and power it had once had. The Varangians of the new empire were likely relegated to a ceremonial role similar to today’s Swiss Guard, the ridiculously-dressed protectors of the Pope. During their time in Nicaea, the Varangians became responsible for the guarding of the state treasury, giving them a role remarkably similar to that of the modern United States Secret Service, whose agents are charged both with the protection of the president and defense against counterfeiting. It seems like a weird mix, but I guess it’s dead presidents either way.
References to the Varangians start disappearing toward the end of the 13th century. Some evidence suggests they may have been replaced by cheaper mercenaries sourced from the Greek island of Crete. Legal recourse in their home countries may have also contributed to a decline in Varangian availability; tired of its young warriors ditching Scandinavia for Byzantium, the Swedish government passed a law banning any Swede living in Greece (Byzantium) from receiving inheritance.
Like the Latin Empire before it, the revived Byzantine Empire soon faced the problem of having only enemies for neighbors. Following an initial period of growth, its borders never again expanded, instead stagnating until they were gradually eaten away by neighbors. The killing blow came in 1453 when the rapidly-growing Ottoman Empire took the city of Constantinople after a 53-day siege, bringing an end not only to Byzantium, but also the Roman Empire.
Part IV: Istanbul
If there’s one thing you knew about Constantinople, it’s probably that the city that bore that name is now Istanbul (not Constantinople). Some accuse the Ottomans of the rebrand, but that’s a misconception. The true culprit is the bizarre and confusing tradition of naming conventions that plague the region. Earlier in this article I explained that the Byzantine Empire was meant to be the Roman Empire’s next chapter. Its officials called their state the Roman Empire. Some called it the “Eastern Roman Empire”. We call it the Byzantine Empire. And you know that’s because the capital was constructed over the old city of Byzantion, which Constantine I renamed Nova Roma, and his successors re-renamed Constantinople. There’s a lot of potential for confusion there, but we’re not quite done.
While Byzantium was still standing, locals often referred to the city with the Greek phrase “is tim bolin”, meaning “to the city”, in the same way that people in my home state of Minnesota refer to Minneapolis and Saint Paul as “the cities”. When the Ottomans took over, the tradition continued. Eventually, more people were talking about “Istanbul” than “Constantinople”. Still, the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire were never responsible for a change in branding. Their state collapsed in 1922 under the weight of a series of post-World War I revolutions. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the Ottoman successor state, Turkey, would finally change the city’s official name to its longtime nickname.
Part V: Legacy
It’s been over 500 years since the last Varangian pledged to protect one of many Byzantine Emperors. Physical evidence that Norsemen existed in Byzantium is limited. Most of it is far away in the Varangian homeland of Scandinavia. Runestones detailing the journeys and accomplishments of Nordic mercenaries have been located and catalogued throughout Sweden and Norway. These records are limited by their format; it’s very hard to write on stone, and those who try it don’t usually do it for long enough to start breaking things into chapters. Most (soft) evidence of the Varangian expeditions exists either in the written record or the oral tradition, through songs and stories told by Scandinavian bards.
But this piece doesn’t stand on feeble folk songs sung by bearded crooners. There is hard physical evidence that these Norsemen lived in Byzantium. In the Hagia Sophia, that old old church, old mosque, old museum, and new mosque that towers over the modern city of Istanbul, there’s that wall with scratches on it. To most, it’s unfortunate unremarkable graffiti. To the trained eye, it’s very fortunate and tremendously remarkable graffiti. Like the inscriptions carved into rocks dotting the Scandinavian countryside, these are no idle scratches, but runes, the archaic letters used to write in the Old Norse language. They’re worn, and mostly illegible. The clearest word of them all seems to be the Norse name “Halfdan”, and even that’s only half-present. Scientific inspections of the runes haven’t rendered any conclusive results, so what our Varangian writer wanted to tell us is up for debate. What is clear is that it’s short — whoever he was, he didn’t have a lot to say. My favorite guess? “Halfdan was here”. Keep it simple.
These runes aren’t the only markings of their kind. A sculpture of a lion that once stood in Istanbul bears runic inscriptions on both sides. Like its partner in the Hagia Sophia, the style leads us to believe these were less-than-sanctioned scrawls. The runes are also similar to Halfdan’s in that they’re all but incomprehensible. One assessment suggested they present a tale of a team of Varangians who adventured as far north as Romania and as far east as Armenia. Another posed a different idea: they’re the brief autobiography of the carver, here named Asmundr, alongside friends Asgeirr and Thorleiffr, who inscribed the runes at the behest of his commander, Haraldr the tall, even though the Greek authorities told him not to. That’s it. “I’m Asmundr, a guy with friends and a boss, and I’m kind of a bad boy.”
Modern ideas about immigration and our attachment to contemporary technologies tend to limit us to the belief that pre-modern mobility was all but impossible. I’ve fallen victim to mirages of untouched, monolithic cultures. But the story of the Varangians is the story of two cultures, each at the edge of the other’s world, interfacing purposefully with long-term consequences. This is a theme I keep coming back to, a Wikipedia thread I keep opening: the sort of cultural interactions we don’t expect out of our histories, stuff like “Greco-Buddhism” and early Indonesian raft-builders colonizing Madagascar.
I grew up thinking the Vikings, Russians, and Byzantines were worlds apart, but the history of their interactions is deep and critical: none of these nations would be the same today without the lasting influence of the others. Viking rulers gave way to the Tsars who shaped hundreds of years of Russian history. Byzantium gave Russia its faith. And in return, Russia forwarded unto them the Viking protectors whose actions as soldiers, enforcers, and bodyguards had an undeniable effect on the empire from their arrival through its final days. I had no idea. Maybe that’s why Halfdan left his note.
- Varangian Guards and Their Traces in Istanbul: Runic Inscriptions in Hagia Sophia by Husamettin Simsir at the University of Notre Dame’s Medieval Institute
- The Varangians of Byzantium by Sigfús Blöndal
- Viking “grafitti” from the National Museum of Denmark
- Who were the Varangian Guard? from History UK