Customer Reviews: The Varangian Guard 988-1453 (Men-at-Arms)
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on September 12, 2010
This is one of Osprey's better offerings in its rather short series of Byzantine-themed volumes. I have had complaints with some previous volumes, and I have some here, but they are sparser and less critical. I am no art critic, but I really have to praise Guiseppe Rava. The plates are loaded in brilliant colour and detail. From another reviewer here, I understand that Rava received some criticism for his earlier work on Dawson's Byzantine Cavalryman C.900-1204, but he has certainly stepped up his game. The illustrations are utterly fantastic, and some of the best that I have yet seen in an Osprey book. However, there is one small quibble with some of the visuals. The reproduction of manuscripts in Osprey volumes have presented a continuing problem. Too often they are lousy black and white copies of documents that were illustrated in many colours, and as such it is very difficult to see the fine detail. At times they are so badly reproduced as to be utterly useless. None here fall into the useless category - although some of the fresco reproductions sure come close - but still, these representations are a form of source material, and were meant to be viewed in full colour.

The actual content of the book is quite good. D'Amato benefits from some modern scholarship that was not available to Blondal when he wrote his The Varangians of Byzantium, especially in regards to archaeological discoveries of equipment. The text is well-balanced in regard to D'Amato's choice of topics, and everything from participation in imperial ceremonial to actual battle is covered, albeit very briefly. The section on the rhompaia is especially welcome, as the descriptions by Psellos in his Fourteen Byzantine Rulers are not consistent with other sources, however, D'Amato provides a good solution to this small problem. I only have one real problem with the text, regarding the composition of the guard. D'Amato stresses the service of Angles and Danes in the guard in an earlier period than has typically been accepted. Since this is hardly a serious dissertation on the subject, I can't be too critical of his ideas, but I'm not convinced by what seems to be a stretching of Anna Komnena and overemphasis of other, minor sources to support his thesis of more Angles and Danes than previously supposed in the guard. He also makes a mistake regarding the payment of the Varangians, when he states that they were paid in aureii. In reality, the aureus had ceased to be minted in the early four century. "Nomisma" is the term he was looking for.

All considered, this is a fine addition to Osprey's line of Byzantine-themed books. My reservations have been noted above, but they are minor. This book is brilliantly illustrated, well-researched, and provides nicely balanced introduction to the topic.
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on November 6, 2011
The Men-at Arms series has traditionally provided a good introduction to,and overview of, a variety of military units throughout history, together with well-illustrated colour plates and, where possible, photos of historical artifacts. This title is representative of the series as a whole, and provides an informative overview of the Varangian Guards from their inception until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. My only serious criticism of this title (and it is a criticism that extends to others in this series that deal particulary with the military history of the "Dark Ages", is a complete absence of maps! It would be valuable to know, for example, what was the extent of the Byzantium Empire over the period covered, and where is (was) Abydos - as in the victory of, in 989 - or Eski Zagra - as in victory at, in 1122!!! Such information would then place the deployment of these Guards into context, and would help to make sense of the general military situation facing the Byzantium Empire at different times in their history.
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on September 14, 2010
One of the most immediately recognized medieval military unit - the varangian guard! With so many peculiar characteristics and quircks that they would seem more likely in a fantasy novel. Great warriors of huge size and physical prowess, with limitless bravery and weapons frequently inlaid with silver runes; they travel to a far away land beyond mountains and rivers to serve a mighty and noble Emperor.

Obviously I'm letting out that they were plunderers, susceptible to alcohol, violent, and the service to the emperor (that frequently wasn't that mighty or noble) implied generous rewards.

This small title from Professor D'Amato is the perfect introduction to this remarkable unit that for many centuries was the Roman (Byzantine) Emperor guard. In palace and battlefieds they showed almost always a strong sense of loyalty (rare in the lands of Constantinople), bravery and steadfastness. It's almost unbelievable that there are so few books on the Varangian Guard; this book was really needed.

Their history and main events are summarized. The ethnic origins are also an interesting subject; there were several different provenances depending on the century and geo-political situations worldwide (for example, the conquest of England by the Normans, sent many English Saxons searching for a post in the Varangian Guard).

The organization, daily life, weapons and armour and motivations are also mentioned. D'Amato also gives us several anecdotes mentioned in sources that brings light to those northern warriors ways of thinking and moral (for example the woman that killed a Varangian after he tried to rape her, and the reaction of the other Varangian brothers in arms; the "assault" on the emperors quarter; curious diplomatic blunders, etc.).

The art of Giuseppe Rava is perfect! Absolutely stunning. All Colour plates are great.

A word for the photographic material of weapons, mosaics, carvings - Thank you Professor D'Amato, I've never seen most of those artifacts.

Highly recommended.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon September 3, 2012
This Osprey booklet on the Varangian Guard of Byzantium draws heavily from Blôndal and Beneditz "The Varangians of Byzantium" which has at last been reprinted and remains the major reference on the subject. To this, it adds a few paragraphs inspired by archaeological findings in Bulgaria, and in particular at Dristra (with the author using the modern Bulgarian name of Drastar) where the emperor Alexios Komnenos suffered one of his worst defeats in 1087 and where Varangians were present.

As other reviewers had already commented upon, Rava's plates are rather gorgeous. Some of sections, in particular the one on Guard service and on Equipment, are particularly good summaries. Others, however, are perhaps more questionable. For instance, the discussion on numbers and organization is rather cursory, perhaps because of space limitations. There seems to be no distinction made between Tagmata (professional regiments) of Rus or Varangians, and the Varangian Guard itself. It seems unlikely, for instance, that the Varangian Guard numbered 6000 in 1203.

However, mercenary Rus infantry regiments PLUS the Guard could perhaps have made up such a total. In reality, we simply do know the exact proportions or numbers at all times, neither how they evolved over time. Since the Varangians were not only bodyguards but also very much shock troops, losses tended to be heavy, even when the Varangians won. Since the sources mention that Basil II first received 6000 warriors in 988 and still had the same number with him some 12 years later, despite a number of hard fought victories, an implication, not mentioned in the book, is that losses must have been replenished by a constant stream of recruits attracted by the high pay and encouraged to enlist by their own Prince, too happy to get rid of turbulent warriors.

One problem I had with the book is that, with a few exceptions (the battle of Eski Zagra in particular), we do not learn much about the performances of the Varangians. We are told about their great reputation as warriors. We are shown how their alleged rashness supposedly led to the disaster of Dyrrachium, according to Anna Komnene eager to shift responsibility for this military disaster away from her father. We are also told of how they largely got themselves killed at Mantzikert and at Dristra, probably defending the Emperor in both cases. I was expecting to learn more about their decisive role in a number of battles.

There are also a number of other issues, which are probably due to poor editing. In the chronology, I was most surprised to learn about "Norman" ships serving in the byzantine fleet in 967-968. Either this is a mistake or this was supposed to mean "Northmen" (that is, from Scandinavia, rather than from Normandy). Even more surprising is the mention of "Vandals" serving during a Byzantine expedition in Sicily in 1025. This is probably an oversight from the author since the Vandals had simply disappeared as a people after their kingdom had been destroyed and conquered by Belisarios almost five hundred years before. I was also surprised to learn about the battle of Kalouryta in 1077 - it seems to be the battle of Kalavrita, which took place in 1078 and, to my knowledge, no Varangians seem to have been present on either side. Also, it is simply impossible that Alexios Komnenos' army was 50000 strong at Dyrrachium. He probably did not have that many soldiers left in the whole of what remained of the Empire. John Haldon's estimate (20000 to 25000) is much more plausible. The number mentioned by D'Amato may nevertheless represent something like a grand total including both combatants and non-combatants (servants, camp followers etc...).

Three stars, but it would have been worth four without the very avoidable typos...
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on February 14, 2013
I chose this rating because this is an easy to read, enjoyable little book simply packed solid with information about this particular period of time and this particular part of the Byzantine armies. The rule of Basil II is a fascinating period of Byzantine history with a truly interesting ruler. Part of one of the golden ages of Byzantium, my friends and I pool our efforts and enjoy studying this narrow slice of history. Our limit is to force depth and breadth in our study, and it is a truly fun endeavor. This book is one I like to give as a starter book for new persons to our little group.

I would happily use this book in home schooling, and even young teens will find the reading level accessible, and the material interesting enough to persevere if it proves slightly harder to read than anticipated. Boys in particular find this book worth the effort to grow in their reading skills. I consider it an entry book for the entire study of the middle ages.
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A fascinating work, a part of Osprey Publishing's "Men-at-Arms" series (Osprey seems to have scores of series!). The thin volume explores the Varangian Guard, an intriguing set of soldiers in the Byzantine military.

The Guard began as Scandinavians who had settled in Russia (e.g., in the Kiev area). Later, many hired out to the Eastern Roman Empire as soldiers (men-at-arms). Pages 4-6, at the outset, provide a useful chronology of the Guard's linkage to the Empire. The book also has narrative, on a century to century basis, of the Guard--from the 10th century through the 15th century. Over time, they evolved from an elite unit in the army to the Emperor's own guard.

The Guard appears to have numbered between 4,000 to 6,000 soldiers (for the most part) over time. The book discusses leadership, their service in the army as well as their service as imperial guards, equipment (several pages of colorful pictures of troops, uniforms, and weapons). The book concludes with a brief but helpful bibliography.

Since I knew very little about the Varangian Guard, even this slim book was a nice resource, helping me to learn something of this military force.
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on August 10, 2010
I'm a visual kind of person, so let's focus on one of the most essential elements of Osprey books first--the plates/illustrations. Guiseppe Rava has been the subject of criticism in previous titles, like Byzantine Cavalryman for his paintings not having enough detail and/or color.

While I always thought Mr. Rava's work was superb, I could at least understand where these critics were coming from. But let them remain silent now! In this title, Mr. Rava has crafted a work of art as much as anything else. The details, the colors, and the kinetic energy within the plates all mesh together and create both a striking narrative and an informative view of these Imperial Mercenaries. Indeed, Osprey fans often draw comparisons between other illustrators and the late Angus McBride, and while I am always a fan of Mr. McBride, Rava has clearly carved out his own empire of art. All of his plates looked fantastic and offered a striking image of this very colorful period of European history.

As an aside, that is the one gripe I had with Angus McBride. Sometimes, the colors in the plates were dull and were not exciting. Mr. Rava has no such problem, and his plates both capture and inform the imagination.

I have bought one of Dr. Amato's imported books from Italy, and the man has clearly earned his doctorate. Although this may be conjecture, I understand Dr. Amato may have access to manuscripts and sources many experts in the Anglo-Sphere may not be too familiar with, so his writing for Osprey is both welcome and refreshing.

Overall, a great book for the war gamer, enthusiast, or historian eager to get a very colorful glimpse into the lives of these tough people.
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on January 8, 2015
I lead a group if Viking reenactors known as Draugar Vinlands. The book was a gift for one of our members who is interested in building a Varangian Gaurdsman impression.

The book does a good job of giving a general idea of what the Varangian guard was all about.

It's loaded with photos and color plates showing costume, clothing, weapons, and armor from the time period.

I am very pleased with my purchase.


Jarl Ingvar Schildknacker
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on March 26, 2011
I have been collecting Osprey Military books since I was about 16 years old. I have rarely been disappointed in any of their titles . . . this one is no exception. While there has been some mention and illustrations of the Varangian Guard in other Osprey titles on the Byzantine military system, this is the best. It consolidates all the information I have in over a dozen books plus adds historical and archaeological data that I haven't ever seen before. The illustrations are outstanding and illustrates the colorful and ornamental nature of the Eastern Roman and Byzantine military throughout the period. I love this book.
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on February 17, 2013
This is a very well writen and informative book.full of color and blackand white images as well as a fairly well detailed history of the guards gear.
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