With the release of First Legion's Vikings range later this year. I thought the following article from the internet might be of interest:-
The relationship between the Byzantine Emperors and their Varangian Guard was a complex affair. The Byzantines were first introduced to their soon-to-be guardsmen during the tenth and eleventh centuries in a prolonged series of wars against the Rus, whose land centered around Kiev.
Vikings had been spreading from the Baltic Sea, along the river systems, all the way to the Black Sea. According to Michael Howard, in Transnationalism in Ancient Medieval Societies, the Norsemen set up centers for commerce and raiding: the Swedish in Novgorod and the Norwegians in Kiev, where they merged with the local Slavic culture to create new groups of people, including the Rus.
The Byzantine Emperors soon saw these river routes as important points of interest. In De Administrando Imperio, written between 948 and 952 C.E., the Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (The Purple-born) made sure the routes from Novgorod to Kiev, and emerging at Constantinople, were studied and understood. Written for his son, it says, “The monoxyla [dugout vessels of varying sizes] which come down from outer Russia to Constantinople are from Novgorod…All these come down the river Dnieper and are collected together at the city of Kiev.”
The combatants soon became partners during the reign of Emperor Basil II (976-1025), and eventually, the Byzantine Emperors began a tradition of hiring mercenaries of Viking origin. The Byzantine mercenary entity of Rus, Scandinavians, Normans and Anglo-Saxons, became known as the Varangian Guard.
The guardsmen filled important roles as elite infantry and loyal Imperial Guardsmen, and in exchange, the Byzantine Emperors placed upon the Varangians great prestige and wealth.
When the Rus first arrived at the border of the Byzantine Empire, they were not there to make friends, nor did they leave a pleasant first impression on their Greek neighbors. By the ninth century, the Rus had begun emerging in the region of the Black Sea, trading, and raiding. Photius, the Patriarch of the Christian Church in Constantinople, displayed the distress that the Russ imposed on the Byzantines.
“Where is the Christ-loving emperor? Where are the armies? Where are the arms, the engines, the military deliberations and preparations?… As for this fierce and barbarous Scythian tribe, having crawled out of the very outskirts of the city, like a wild boar it has devoured all round about. Who will defend us? Who will array himself against this foe?”
According to John Haldon, in The Byzantine Wars, Emperor John I of the Byzantine Empire defeated a large Rus threat led by Svyatoslav, but seeing the value of Russian trade, allowed commerce to continue with the Rus of Kiev. The Rus repeatedly attacked the Byzantines from the late ninth century to the mid-eleventh century.
According to Raffaele D’Amato’s The Varangian Guard, the Rus made three major incursions against Constantinople: first in 860 C.E. and again in 907 C.E, which resulted in a treaty that allowed the Rus to serve as Byzantine mercenaries. They attacked Constantinople a third time in 941 C.E., and they made an attempt to attack Constantinople as late as 1043 C.E. The Rus were fended off by the Byzantines each time, and usually died from Greek fire, a devastating combustible liquid similar in nature to a flame thrower.
Michael Psellus writes in Chronographia, “Russian vessels, almost too numerous to count, either slipping past the intercepting squadrons that had long kept them at bay, or forcing their way in, occupied the Propontis.” Psellus mentions the Rus demanded “a thousand slaters for each ship” and notes that this is an impossible demand. Psellus then goes on to describe the Byzantine defense. The emperor equipped his own ships with “a generous supply of Greek fire” and sent them to face the longship blockade.
The Byzantine ships engaged the Rus, where, “Greek fire, too, was hurled at them, and the Russians, being unable to see now, then threw themselves into the water, trying to swim back to their comrades, or else, at a loss what to do, gave up all hope of escape.” Though the Byzantines were able to fend off the Russian advances, the Russians, nevertheless, obtained a reputation of being competent warriors.
The leaders of the Byzantines and the Rus, who are thought to have begun the tradition of the Varangian Guard, were the Byzantine Emperor, Basil II, and the Kiev Grand Prince, Vladimir ‘The Great.’ Basil II, who became emperor after the death of John I in 976, faced one of the post-succession civil wars that is so common in Roman history.
Basil II sent to Vladimir ‘The Great’ for Rus assistance: the agreement led to Vladimir’s conversion to Christianity and a marriage agreement between Vladimir and Basil’s sister, Anna. Prior to his conversion, Vladimir had held the Norse faith, and The Russian Primary Chronicle notes that the Greeks often criticized the Rus over their faith.
In a fashion similar to the Christianization of pagans in Scandinavia, The Russian Primary Chronicle tells of an event where a Greek man spoke to the Rus, saying, “These are not gods, but only idols of wood. Today it is, and tomorrow it will rot away.” Basil II’s request for aid from his Viking neighbors in 988 began the Varangian Guard that would serve as a loyal Imperial Guard for the Byzantine Emperors who were under constant threat of court intrigue and civil war.
The reliance of the emperors on the Varangians would increase Varangian pay and renown.