The Varangians- cousins of the Normans. The Varangians were a group of Vikings who ventured out of Sweden and into the Baltic region in search of slaves and new resources. They established important strongholds in areas in Russia and Ukraine, with an important center at Novgorod (the Rus’ were a group of Varangians, the name meaning “men who row”, from which Russia gets its name). The trading centers of the Varangians were important in that they connected Dark Age Europe with the wealthy Arab caliphates (via the Volga trade route) and the Byzantine Empire (via the Dnieper trade route). After a series of raids against the Byzantines, the Varangians were able to strike up a series of treaties that financially benefited their kingdoms. By the 11th century, the Varangians had converted from paganism to Orthodox Christianity and the groups who settled in Eastern Europe assimilated into the Slav populations.
The Varangian Guard (pictured here), or Τάγμα των Βαράγγων in Greek, were a mercenary group of Varangians who served as an elite unit of the Byzantine Army from the 10th-14th centuries. They also served as personal bodyguards to the Byzantine Emperor. Basil II first formed this elite guard in 988, after being sent a unit of Varangian warriors from Vladimir the Great- in compliance with their treaty. Basil distrusted his native Byzantine guard and favored the Varangians, who had proven their unshakable loyalty (Vikings and Germanic people share a tradition of faithful oath-bound service).
Not only did the Varangian guard act as the emperor’s bodyguards, they were also important mercenaries, used during the most critical moments of battles. Given their giant stature, love for warfare, and the berserker rage they would work themselves into (via ritual or drugged foods), they were fearsome and brutally effective in combat. The Varangians served the Byzantine Empire by defeating the rebel Phokas and his armies in 989, fought against Lombards in Italy extensively in the early 11th century, partially reconquered Sicily from the Arabs in 1038, defeated the Turkic Pechenegs at the Battle of Beroia in 1122, and were prominent in the defense of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade.