2 – The Varangian Guard
The Byzantines began trading with the Norse in approximately 839 and while relations appeared to have been good, Rus Vikings shocked the empire by attacking it in 860. The Vikings terrorized the countryside surrounding Constantinople and came upon the city by sea but did not succeed in breaching the walls.
In 874, a clause in a treaty signed between the Vikings and Byzantines ensured that the Rus had to give men to the empire for military service. After a brief period of hostilities in the early 10th century, the pact was renewed and by 911, Vikings began to fight regularly for the Byzantines; so much so that they were given the name ‘The Varangian Guard’.
These men also served as the Emperor’s personal guard and were renowned for their incredible fighting ability and enormous size. Over the next few centuries, the Varangian Guard was to play a pivotal role in keeping the empire intact and often helped completely transform a battle.
Examples include important assistance in putting down the Lombard Revolt which culminated in a decisive Byzantine victory at Cannae in 1018. Another crucial battle where the Varangian Guard helped the Empire was at Beroia in 1122 when the Pechenegs were defeated. Even in failure, these men conducted themselves with honor such as at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 where they stood by the Emperor until they were all cut down.
Harald Sigurdsson was one of the most famous members of the Varangian Guard as he later became King of Norway for 20 years in the 11th century. Without these mercenaries, it is possible that the Byzantine Empire would have weakened and possibly fallen even sooner than it did.