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Varangian Guard – Imperial Axe Bearers | By Brian Todd Carey | Issue #301

Varangian Guard – Imperial Axe Bearers | By Brian Todd Carey | Issue #301

The eleven hundred year history of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire (337-1453) includes the exploits of many memorable military units, none more celebrated than the Varangian Guard. Referred to by Greek sources as “axe-bearing barbarians,” this multinational imperial unit was comprised primarily of Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon warriors. The Varangians were active from 988 to the mid-14th century, serving Byzantine emperors as a bodyguard in Constantinople, and as formidable troops on campaign. Indeed, through their numerous exploits and long term of service, the Varangian Guard is one of the most famous corps of mercenaries in military history.


Beginning in the late eighth century, Swedish Vikings, known first to the Finns and then Eastern Slavs as the Rus or Rhos, made their way down the rivers and estuaries of Eastern Europe in an attempt to establish trading links with the Byzantine Empire. The most famous of these passages, later called “the Varangian Way,” traversed Russia by way of the Dnieper, then crossed the Black Sea to Constantinople…

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