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The Varangians of Byzantium 1st Edition

4.7 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0521217453
ISBN-10: 0521217458
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Language Notes

Text: English, Icelandic (translation)

Book Description

An aura of romance has clung about the Varangians for over six centuries. This book examines how the Norsemen came to be drawn into the Imperial service until the greatest of all the Emperors of the East, Basil II, formed them into the regiment of guards which was to give unique service to the Empire.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 255 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press; 1 edition (February 28, 1979)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521217458
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521217453
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #6,957,614 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Don't let the four-star review dissuade you, as this is a very good book. It is a highly detailed and scholastic history of Russian, Norse and Anglo-Saxon mercenaries serving in the Byzantine Empire. It is a very scholarly book, and those who are looking for a good read about the famed Varangian guard will find what they are looking for in here, but they will also find a lot of technical information that may bore them.

The book's viewpoint is refreshing. Rather than adopting a typical Romanocentric viewpoint, Blondal looks at what the Norsemen were doing in the Empire, rather than what the Norsemen were doing for the Empire. The core of the book is an exquisitely detailed history of Harald Hardrada, the famous mercenary and king who was eventually killed at Stamford Bridge just before the Battle of Hastings.

Blondal uses a wide variety of source materials, including Arabic, Russian, Greek, western European and Scandinavian chronicles. While all of this adds to the authority of the work, it is where I find my one of my two faults with this book. Blondal spends almost half of the allotted page space discussing the linguistic difficulties associated with the use of such varied sources, and the difficulties in translating Old Norse, Old Icelandic and Old Slavonic. Thus, one moment the book is a military history, but in the next moment it is a philological discussion. These discussions break up the book, and would have been better suited to be in the footnotes.

My other fault is that this book is completely unforgiving to those who do not have a background in Norse mythology and literature. While this is a book for scholars, I would suspect that many Byzantine scholars would be using this work who simply don't have the required background.
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Format: Paperback
The author has done an immense mount of work gathering together the documentary evidence to create a narrative that throws light on this obscure corner of Byzantine history, giving its colourful subjects the recognition they deserve. Ably served by his translator (an under looked skill as a bad one can kill a story), they call their characters from the wings to centre stage at the heart of the Imperial Court.
From their early days as the personal bodyguard of germanic warriors, loyal only to the Roman Emperors, the national component may have changed, but the reason for their existence remained. Despite the exotic, almost romantic air that surrounded them, they were the Emperors Life Guards and executioners of his dirty work: from naval squadrons to elite military units to mutilations and killings.
A variety of linguistic sources are cited, from Old Norse, Russian, English and French to explain the root, which seems to come from a West German prototype `wareganga', meaning ` a foreigner who has taken service with a new lord by a treaty of fealty', akin to foederati. This adapted or evolved through the great Scandinavian kingdoms and lordships that occupied huge swathes of Russia (another story crying to be told) to Væringjar, `companion'. One who by oath, treaty or contract, gives security, accepts responsibility for his companions, as they accept responsibility for him.
The book then gives a regimental biography noting the ethnic eddies and flows in its composition, from the Roman Goth and German personal bodyguard, to the Russian Norse mercenaries to Basil II (the Bulgar-Slayer) regularising them as an Imperial regiment and his complex psychological relationship with them.
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Format: Paperback
This is the sort of book that historians love. It contains a plethora of translations of primary sources with open commentary that lets the historians draw their own conclusions. The conclusions offered by the author are well reasoned but open to correction if new evidence is revealed. The topic is one that is extremely focused and allows for in-depth philological analysis that is sometimes dry and slow reading so it is not well-suited for those more interested in an entertaining historical work. Those excited by such depth of study will find it a perfect sourcebook of primary sources and a valued reference work. A significant portion of the work is also dedicated to one of the best known Varangians, Haraldr Siguroarson. That biography adds color and breadth to the detail provided in the remainder of the book. A valued work for any with an interest in a solid and detailed study but will not likely satisfy the general history enthusiast. But there is little else out there to satisfy one interested in the Varangian guard history.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book was originally written by Sigus Blondal who was worked at the Icelandic Royal Library. Benedikt S Benedikz gathered the various notes and compiled them into the book that was published in 1978.

I stumbled across Henry Treece’s Viking Trilogy in my junior high and high school year in of all places, Sri Lanka. I had also read an excellent novel of the life of Harald Hardrada, who title escapes me. Needless to say, that I have had a long fascination with the Varangians.

This is an excellent book for several reasons. First of all stands the scholarship. Every source is carefully documented, and there are several passages Greek, Russian, and Icelandic. The author describes the foundation of Varangian and Russian cultures. He describes the structure of the Byzantine army and navy, and how the Varangians fit in. Next an entire chapter is devoted to the life of Harald Hardrada, the exiled Norwegian prince turned Viking mercenary who almost conquered England. It then follows the Varangians from essentially 1000 AD forward. An interesting note was that after the Normans conquered England that many of the Saxon nobility and huscarls ( household warriors ) joined the Varangian guard, changing the composition from Scandinavian to more English. Lastly, the ceremonial duties are described, and it ends with the lives of individual Varangians.

Overall an excellent book.
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