Category: middle ages

Viking runes on an ancient Greek statue,

The Piraeus Lion is a marble statue around 3 meters (9 feet) tall which was carved around 360 BC and had adorned Athens harbor for over 1800 years. In 1687 Greece was a part of the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Venice was at war the empire when they laid siege to and eventually sacked the city. The Venetians looted Athens of it’s wealth, carting of many treasures and historical antiquities including the Piraeus lion. The Venetians noticed that there was a strange writing along the shoulder and flank of the lion, however no one remembered what the language was, what it said, or who put it there. The lion was carted off to Venice and put on display at the Venetian Arsenal, where it sits to this day.

The origins of the writing remained a mystery until the lion was visited by a Swedish diplomat named Johann David Akerblad, who identified them as Nordic runes at the end of the 18th century. Since then numerous scholars have viewed and attempted to translate the runes. This task is greatly complicated by the fact that the runes are heavily eroded, with many completely illegible. The most widely accepted translation is from Erik Brate in 1914,

The runes are believed to have been carved in the 11th century by the Varangians. The Varangians were a group of Scandinavian Vikings who sold their services as mercenaries to the Eastern Roman Empire, AKA the Byzantine Empire. The Varangians would eventually settle down in what is now Russia and Ukraine.

Battle scene from the Morgan Bible of Louis IX

The Viking Sack of Rome, 860 AD

In 859 AD a Norse Chief named Bjorn Ironside, son of Ragnar Lothbrok,  gathered a large group of men with 60 ships and decided to go on a Viking expedition across the Mediterranean. Between 859 and 860, Bjorn and his men raided the coast of Spain, Southern France, and eventually Italy.  During his raids, Bjorn learned of the rich city of Rome, hearing tales of the ancient Roman Empire and it’s fantastically wealth, glory, and power.  With visions of grandeur swimming through his head, Bjorn decided he, like many great barbarians before him, would sack Rome and claim the city’s wealth and power for his own.
In 860 Bjorn arrived at the gates or Rome.  Seeing that it would be impossible to breech the walls, Bjorn devised a “Trojan Horse” style trick. Sending a messenger into the city, Bjorn claimed that he was dying and that he wanted to convert to Christianity. The Bishop of the city granted him entry along with an unarmed guard of fifty men.  Once his procession was inside the city chapel, he leaped from his “deathbed” as his guard produced hidden weapons and massacred the congregation.  His men then opened the city gates allowing the rest of the army to enter and capture the city.

It did not take long for the city to surrender, however, after the Vikings captured the city, they learned something quite disappointing.  They had not captured Rome.  Rather they had accidentally captured the small city of Luni, which is approximately 250 miles north of Rome.  What a bummer!  


In addition they learned that Rome was much bigger, with much stronger fortifications, and many more defenders.  After some deliberation Bjorn made an important decision. Rome was too strong for his army to conquer.  Why not just claim they had conquered Rome?  Who was going to know the difference?  Satisfied with their successes they stripped Luni of any and all valuables and left.
On the journey home Bjorn’s fleet was attacked by a fleet of Moorish pirates, who destroyed 2/3rds of his ships. Luckily he was able to escape with most of his loot. Bjorn returned home with a good deal of treasure and tales of how he had conquered Rome.

Viking knife with carved raven handle, circa 900 AD

from Pax Romana Auctions

Viking sword, 10th century AD

from Czerny’s International Auction House

14th century European sword, captured and taken to the Armory of Alexandria. Inscription states, “Bequest of his noble and wise Highness King Shaban to the storehouse of Alexandria in the year A.H. 770 [A.D. 1368/9]”

from The Future Museum of Southwest Scotland

Viking knife with Fafnir dragon handle, circa 900 AD.

from Pax Romana Auctions

Gold decorated Viking axe uncovered in Ivanovo Oblast, Russia.

Danish beard axe, 700-900 AD

from Pax Romana Auctions

The Varangian Guard — The Eastern Roman Empire’s elite Viking soldiers

In the mid 8th century AD viking raiders from Sweden began raiding lands to the east in what is now Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. After several decades these Norsemen began to conquer plots of land, form permanent settlements, and intermarry with the Slavic peoples in the region. In 882 Prince Oleg began to unite the various Slavic, Norse, and Finnic tribes into a federated state called the Kievan Rus. The Kievan Rus would grow to dominate much of Eastern Europe from the 10th century until the Mongol invasions in the 13th century.

After the founding of Kievan Rus it wasn’t long before they made contact with the Eastern Roman Empire, or as it is called by historians, “the Byzantine Empire”. In 988 the Byzantine Empire was facing tumultuous times, not only having to deal with foreign invaders but a large rebellion which threatened to fracture the empire. The Byzantine Emperor, Basil II, made a request from Vladimir I of Kiev for 6,000 soldiers in return for his sister’s hand in marriage. Vladimir accepted the offer and sent 6,000 hardy Norsemen to fight as mercenaries in the Byzantine Army. The Norsemen fought so well that he made them his elite shock troops as well as his personal bodyguard. The word “Varangian” itself comes from the Old Norse words “var” (to pledge or swear) and “gengi” (companions). With the Varangian Guard at the head of the Byzantine Army, Basil II was able to crush the rebels, drive back enemy invaders, and stabilize the empire. He made the Varangian Guard an official institution of the empire, much like the Praetorian Guard of ancient Rome, and sent out a call for men from all over Scandinavia to fill in his ranks and expand the guard. Armed with a sword, a large double handed axe called a Dane Axe, mail or lemellar armor, a shield, and a helmet, the Varangians would see combat all over the empire including in the Balkans, Greece, Italy, Turkey, and the Middle East. Rewards for service included large cash payments and land.

One of the most important Varangians in Medieval history was a Norwegian noble named Harold Sigurdsson. After losing a battle to his family rivals he was exiled to Kievan Rus in 1031. A few years later he joined the Byzantine Army, earning a reputation as a brave soldier and brilliant military leader, until eventually he was promoted as commander of the Varangian Guard. After a successful career as a Varangian, Harold returned to Norway and reclaimed his throne, taking the title King Harold III.  In 1066 he invaded England in an attempt to take the English throne, but was defeated and killed at the Battle of Stamford bridge by the army of Anglo Saxon King Harold Godwinson. History would forever remember him as Harold “Hardrada”, the stern ruler.

Speaking of 1066, after the defeat of Harold Hardrada in 1066, Godwinson and his army was forced to march south to do battle with another army, a Norman invasion led by William the Bastard, later known as William the Conqueror. Godwinson would be defeated by William the Conqueror resulting in the Norman conquest of England.  This would have profound effects on the Varangian Guard. By the mid 11th century Scandinavian peoples no longer sought to go-a-viking like their ancestors had done, preferring to settle down and become farmers and merchants. Harold Hardrada is often called “the last Viking”, and his death in 1066 is commonly used as a closing point of the Viking Age. As a result, fewer and fewer Norsemen volunteered for the Varangian Guard.  However, the Norman conquest resulted in many Anglo-Saxon refugees fleeing from England. Many of these English expats would join the Byzantine Army and fill in the empty ranks of the Varangian Guard until by the 12th century the guard was completely dominated by Anglo-Saxons.

Over time the Varangian Guard would decline along with the Byzantine Empire, slowly being ground down by invaders who attacked from all sides of the empire. By the late 13th century it is thought the Varangians were merely a simple palace guard that was a shadow of their former selves. The last mention of the guard occurs around 1400, and from there they disappeared into history.