(Photo: Norwegians Worldwide)
Many Vikings served the Byzantine Emperor as mercenaries, and one of the elite units was named after them: The Varangian Guard.
Byzantium was the largest empire in the year 1000 AD. At that time, the population is estimated to have been about twelve million, equal to the whole population of Northern, Western and Central Europe.
The capitol Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) had about 300.000 inhabitants, probably as many or more than all of Norway at that point of time.
The Vikings, who had contacts with the empire through their expansion through eastern Europe (hence the name “Varangians”), named the city “Miklagard” (from Old Norse Miklagarðr , mikill “big” and garðr “city”).
- See also: Norse Warriors going Berserk
The Viking presence was quite noticeable in the Mediterranean area, though not nearly as widespread or as influential as in Western Europe. Nor is the Vikings so closely associated with plunder and destruction.
The Mediterranean was the home of well-organized empires with big populations that were difficult to raid. However, the Norsemen tried on many occasions. It is also much further away from Scandinavia, making it harder to transport loot back home.
Interestingly enough, many Norsemen served the Byzantine Emperors as mercenaries. So many in fact, that one of the units of the Emperor’s army, better known as the Varangian Guard, was made up of Scandinavians and other North Europeans. By modern standards it would have been termed an “elite unit”, and it became famous even while it existed.
Of all the men serving in the Varangian Guard, nobody is more famous than Harald Sigurdsson who later became King of Norway. He was killed at the Battle of Stanford Bridge in 1066. The name by which he is known today is Harald Hardråde, meaning Harald “hard ruler”.
Harald led the Varangian Guard in battles, both in North Africa, Syria, Palestine and on Sicily. All the goods Harald could get his hands on, he shipped to his upcoming father-in-law King Yaroslav the Wise for storage in Holmgaard, modern Novgorod in Russia.
– There was so much goods that no man from the north had seen one man possess so much”, Snorri writes in his Old Norse Kings’ Sagas.
A fortune Harald Sigurdsson later used to equip an army and claim the Royal Crowns of Norway, Denmark and England.
The Viking Age – Definition
The Viking Age lasted from about 793 AD to 1066 AD. The raid in the Monastery of Lindisfarne in 793 usually marks the beginning, while the defeat of King Harald Hardråde at the Battle of Stanford Bridge symbolizes the end.
Text by: Thor Lanesskog, ThorNews