Monday, March 14, 2011
Hither Came Harald
He came down from the cold lands of the north to travel among the great cities of the ancient world. He became a soldier, a mercenary, and one day a king. Conan the Cimmerian? Nope. Harald Hardrada, probably the best known Norseman to serve in the fabled Varangian Guard. The Varangians were mercenaries who served the emperors of Byzantium from the 10th to 13th Centuries AD. Most of them were Russian early on but Norsemen from all parts of Scandinavia eventually wandered down to Constantinople to serve in the armies and navies of the lands belonging to the Byzantine Empire. Many of these Norsemen earned huge fortunes and fame and are mentioned in the Norse Sagas. It's not surprising, I guess that so many Norsemen served well in the Byzantine Navy. They knew their way around a ship for certain.
If you want to study the Varangians then The Varangians of Byzantium by Sigfus Blondal and Benedikt S. Benedikz is generally considered the best book on the subject. I picked up a copy last week and have been enjoying it quite a bit. The Varangians fought bloody battles everywhere from Syria to Sicily, with Harald Hardrada reportedly seeing action in Greece, Bulgaria, Jerusalem, and Sicily, and he may have battled Arab pirates who preyed on Byzantine shipping. (For a great fictionalized account of Harald's life, check out Poul Anderson's Last Viking Trilogy. Or just read King Harald's Saga in Heimskringla by Snorri Sturluson.)
Oddly enough, Harald's last battle took place in England just a few weeks before William of Normandy's conquest in 1066. After the Norman conquest many expatriate Anglo-Saxon's ended up traveling to Constantinople and becoming Varangians. Toward the end of the Byzantine Empire, Englishmen had pretty much replaced the Norsemen.
Anyway, though I'd like to claim I'm just a studious, scholarly type, I have to admit that various parallels in Conan's career and that of Harald Hardrada certainly add to my enjoyment of reading about the adventures of Norsemen in the civilized lands. If you read contemporary reports from Arab sources of early encounters with the Norse, you'd sure think they had run into the barbarians from hell, though later studies would show that the Viking folk were really a pretty cultured lot. It just didn't pay to be between them and something they wanted. The Varangians of Byzantium is a fairly fact heavy tome, but not at all dry or boring. One of the last chapters gives enough historical information on various men who became Varangians that a writer of historical novels could probably make an entire career out of chronicling their exploits. Fun stuff.