These may be the few physical traces of the Varangian Guard in Byzantine lands and elsewhere:

Varangian Tombstones

The INGVAR Inscription

Seal of Michael

Seal of Stephen

Seal of Bardas ‘the Varangian’

Cross of the Sebastos George

Pommel Cap

Grafitti in Hagia Sophia

Piraeus Lion

Skylitzes Manuscript

The Chios ‘Centurion’, and others
Find out why this is not a Varangian!

St. Caecilian Ivory

Hoard from Ochsarve

Ed Runestone

If you have more information on these relics, or maybe even another I haven’t discovered, please contact me: Peter Beatson

Varangian Tombstones ...

In 1865 the Greek historian A.G. Paspates discovered that one of the towers of the land wall of Constantinople, near the Adrianople gate, had built into it a number of gravestones with inscriptions commemorating English Varangians:

“These stones were there until 1865, when the then British envoy asked the Porte to allow them to be moved into the British cemetary in Scutari.
A Turkish official who had his knife into the envoy forestalled this by having the stones taken away and used for building materials, and the copies of the inscriptions which had been made were destroyed in a fire [in Pera] in 1870.
Worse, a trek made [to Istanbul] by Dr. Jonathan Shepard in 1974 showed that the modern vandals, the 'site redevelopers', had entirely destroyed whatever archaeological relics there may have been there.”

Benedikt S. Benediktz [1].

The stones were reportedly built into the Selimye orphanage [2] , perhaps they may be found again one day. They may have been associated with a church of “St. Nicholas of the English” in the Blachernae quarter, possibly on the site of a 14th century chapel called by the Turks Bogdan Serai (“Moravian Palace”), now in ruins.
A 13-14th century marble column capital reputedly from this St. Nicholas in Constantinople is currently located in a church at Lower Kingswood in Surrey, England [3].

... and the INGVAR inscription

What was possibly a solitary remnant of this Varangian cemetary was found in a crypt of a nearby church:

“A little east of Bogdan Serai stands the church of St. Mary Pammakaristos, in a vault by which was found a stone with the inscription:

This [Greek] inscription, noted and published by C. G. Curtis and S. Aristarkos in 1885, was interpreted by them as an abbreviation for ING[LINOI] BAR[AGGOl] E[...] , 'English Varangians', but ... this [is] too laborious an explanation, when a much simpler one would be the Norse name INGVAR E..., the rest having either been lost or worn off by the time that the decipherment was made. This stone was reported ... as having been transferred to a museum in Stuttgart, but so far no Stuttgart museum has admitted the possession of such a stone, and as so much damage was done in the town in two world wars, the likelihood is that it, too, has been irretrievably lost.”
Benedikt S. Benediktz [4].

Could it be that same Ingvar called vidfari, whose ill-fated expedition of the 1030’s met its doom somewhere in the Caspian lands, and is commemorated on a nearly thirty Swedish runestones? Perhaps carved by a survivor who made it to Constantinople? [5].

Seal of Michael

“Seal of the Pansebastos [Supreme Commander], Sebastos and Megalodiermeneutes [Grand Interpreter] of the Varangians, Michael”.

?Thirteenth century. Lead, diameter 3.3 cm. Obverse - the Archangel Michael. Reverse - cross and inscription, plus a bizarre weapon supposed to be the Varangian axe [6, 7]. It would be interesting to see the actual seal - could this possibly be an optimistic interpretation of a line of illegible text?
It was probably normal for the higher officers of the regiment to be Byzantines, not ‘barbarians’.

Seal of Stephen

“I seal the writings of the Akolouthos Stephanos”.
Date unknown. Lead, diameter 2.6 cm. Obverse - Saint Nicholas. Reverse - cross plus inscription [8].

The Akolouthos = ‘acolyte’ is the ceremonial leader of the Imperial bodyguard.

The church of St. Nicholas “of the English” in Constantinople was supposed to be the chapel of the English among the Varangians, so this seal might date to the period of Anglo-Saxon dominance in the Guard, from around 1080 until some time in the 12th century, or perhaps the Fourth Crusade (1204).
Was Stephen himself an Englishman?

Seal of Bardas ‘the Varangian’

“Lord, help Bardas Curopalates of the Varangians”.
Date around 1100. Lead, diameter not mentioned. Obverse - Bust of the Virgin, holding an image of the infant Jesus on her breast. Reverse - inscription [9].

The Curopalates is a minor court title with a salary of 3 pounds of gold, about equivalent to the honorific Manglabites Harald Hardrada received after his successful commands in Sicily and Bulgaria [10]. What Bardas (interestingly, a Greek name - a second generation Varangian?) did to deserve his title is unfortunately lost to history.
The surnames Varangos and Varangopoulos occur several times in Byzantine records from the 13th century onwards - also see the next item.

Cross of the Sebastos George

“Cross, be a shield and weapon for the Sebastos Georgios Varangopoulos”.
Gold with lapis lazuli insert, length 4 cm. Held by the Benaki Museum, Athens [11]. Thirteenth - fourteenth century.

The title sebastos (= Augustus) was originally awarded to members of the ruling family, but by this time it was only a minor dignity.

Pommel Cap

Pommel cap - Scandinavian, Petersen type ‘S’. Date 10th to early 11th century. Gilt bronze with silver decorations, weight 148 g. Scale bar in centimetres.

Found in 1982 at Pacuiul lui Soare, a Danubian frontier fortress (now on the Bulgarian border with Roumania) near the town of Silistra [12].
Silistra is the location of the famous victory of Byzantine Emperor John Tzimitzes over Sviatoslav, Prince of Rus’, at Dorostolon in 971. Possibly this fine weapon was lost by a Russian or Viking leader in the course of their defeat.
It may have instead belonged to a Varangian in Imperial service during Basil II’s wars with Bulgaria 991-1018, or later still, around 1040-42, Harald Hardrada’s troops helped put down a rebellion there, according to the author Kekaumenos.

The fortress was burned late in the 11th century, perhaps in the Cuman invasion of 1091. Ornaments of Russian origin have been found at Pacuiul lui Soare and other Danubian sites, but may be the results of trade.

It may also be worth mentioning some carvings in a 10th century chalk mine at Basarabi near Constanza in Roumania. A monastic community carved living quarters, chapels, and crypts into the rock. One chapel is dated by a Old Slavonic inscription to around 992. The residents, and others, have scratched grafitti in many languages on the walls [13].

Hilda Ellis-Davidson claims Scandinavians made some of the drawings, including Viking-like dragons and interlace ornaments; a curve-prowed ship; and ‘runic’ messages [14].
However, when I mentioned these carvings to a well-known scholar of the Eastern Vikings, she was against the theory of their Scandinavian origin [15]. In any case, the so-called ‘runes’ are definitely not Scandinavian, in fact they have no close parallel, but resemble more those of the Turkic nomads, possibly influenced by Cyrillic characters [16].

Grafitti in Hagia Sophia

A Scandinavian named Halfdan scratched these runes into the marble balustrade of the southern (Empresses) gallery of the Great Church, some time in the eleventh century. Only part of his name, ... FTAN, is visible in this rubbing I made in 1994:

In addition to this well known inscription, there are other runic scrawls in H. Sophia - this one, also in the south gallery [17], was started by Are, a name more common in Iceland than elsewhere [18]. He managed little more than his name, ARI : K before giving up.

Perhaps he was going to write ari: kiarthi = ‘Are did (this)’....

Piraeus Lion

This great marble lion, some 12 feet high, is the largest of four now guarding the gate of the Arsenal in Venice. It was made in the second or third century AD. Along with one of the other lions, it stood by the Piraeus harbour of Athens until 1687, when they were taken home as trophies by the Venetian doge [19].

Before this - in the second half of the eleventh century, Swedes cut a long inscription in a looping snake-like band, decorated with tendrils, across both flanks of the beast. The carving is so worn it is barely visible today, the photo below [20] was taken in 1854, but even by then most of the letters had already disappeared, and in most scholar’s opinion the text is now indecipherable.

An attempt made by Eric Brate in 1919 is transcribed underneath [21].

hiuku ]>ir hilfni(n)ks milum hna : en i hafn ]>esi ]>ir min eoku runar at hausa bun(t)a kupan a uah |
ri]>u suiar ]>ita linu |
fur (r)a]>um kul uan farin ||
tri(n)kiar (r)istu runar (a rikan strin)k hiuku ]>air isk(il) . . . (]>u)rlifr litu auka ui(l ]>ir a) roprs lanti b(yku) . . . a sun iuk runar ]>isar ufr uk . . . ii st(intu) a(t haursa kul) uan farn.

indicates the dipthong th = the rune “thorn”

“They cut him down in the midst of his force: but in the harbour the men cut runes in memory of Horse, a good warrior, by the sea |
The Swedes set this on the lion |
He went his way with good counsel; gold he won in his travels ||
The warriors cut runes, hewed them in an ornamental scroll, Æskel . . . and Thorleif had them well cut, they who lived in Roslagen, . . . son of . . . cut these runes. Ulf and . . . coloured them in memory of Horse, he won gold in his travels.”

In corroboration (or, for critics, as the inspiration) of Brate’s reading, a traveller to Greece called Horse is indeed commemorated on a runestone at Ulunda in Uppland, Sweden [22]:

“Kar made this stone in memory of Horse his father, and Kabbe of his brother-in-law.
He travelled bravely, acquired possessions out in Greece for his heir.”

Skylitzes manuscript

The unique illustrated manuscript of the eleventh century Byzantine historian Johannes Skylitzes is kept in the National Library in Madrid. Two miniatures appear to show Varangians:

Left: Fol. 26 verso-a.
Right: Fol. 208.

The manuscript was probably produced in Sicily by artists working in the Greek style, and is currently dated to the first half of the twelfth century.

Follow this link
for more details about the manuscript, and the incidents depicted.

The Chios ‘Centurion’, and others ...

In Crucifixion iconography, originally only two figures flanked the dead Christ, that is, the Virgin Mary and St. John the Apostle. An extended version came in favour in the eleventh century. The added personages included the Roman centurion, Longinius, the first gentile to recognise Christ’s divinity.

The best known depiction is this beautiful mosaic in the monastery church of Nea Moni on the island of Chios, shown at left [23].

The appearance of the major Biblical figures (saints, apostles etc.) is governed by strict rules in Byzantine iconography, and they are always dressed in Antique clothing, but the minor figures are usually dressed in the current style (an obvious example are Solomon and other rulers, who are clad in imperial vestments). This was presumably to make their identity ‘readable’ even by an illiterate viewer, by dressing them in clothing recognisably appropriate to ther status or profession.

Longinius is normally depicted richly dressed, in a style similar to the military saints - with a cape, usually a shield, and often a weapon and corslet, the model of a contemporary Byzantine army officer. Longinius usually lacks a halo. A consistent but puzzling feature, one yet to be satisfactorily explained, is his white hood or turban - similar ones are worn by Jewish elders in Byzantine religious art.

Several recent popular works [24] have declared that soldiers of the Varangian Guard were prototypes for the depiction of Longinius. There is not the slightest evidence for such a deduction.

Longinius was a Roman centurion, the Romaioi (Byzantines) were proud of their continuity with the Empire of Rome, so it would only make sense to dress Longinius as a native soldier, not a barbarian bodyguard [25].

Those questing for depictions of Varangians in religious art might more profitably turn their attention to scenes of the Betrayal in the Garden. The arresting soldiers usually carry polearms, often large axes!

The Betrayal (detail), mosaic at Nea Moni, Chios, second half of 11th cent. [26]. Herods’s soldiers are depicted in contemporary dress - note some are blonde and bearded, with polearms including long handled axes.

The Betrayal (details), fresco in Balleq Kilissé, Cappadocia, ?11th cent. [27]. Two soldiers in long gowns decorated with saltires and spots, carrying long handled axes. One also has a knife (left).

Why would Varangians make good models for the rather disreputable detachment who come to arrest Christ at Gethsemane? The role of Varangian guardsmen (outside of the theatre of war) became that of enforcers, prison guards and desperadoes. For instance, Michael Glykas wrote this poem (from personal experience) in the 12th century [28]:

Hades I call the Numera, and even worse than Hades,
For in its horror it surpasses even Hades.
* * * * * *
In this murky and most deep dungeon
There is no light to the eyes, nor any conversation,
For the constant smoke, and the thickness of the darkness
Suffer us not to see or recognise each other.
* * * * * *

But bonds and tortures, and guards and towers
And the shouting
Varangoi; and terror keeps you awake...

The Numera was a prison in the vicinity of the Great Palace.

St. Caecilian ivory

The ivory panel kept in the Schnütgen Museum in Cologne probably once decorated a casket:

This sturdy figure of a semi-nude warrior seems inspired by an Antique model, like so many similar ivories of the late tenth century.
The style of his weapons are, however, close in time to the creation of the piece, and they are foreign to the Mediterranean region.

With its broad blade and man-high handle, the axe is very similar to the characteristic Viking broadaxe, or so-called ‘Dane-axe’.
The sword, with its short plain cross and heavy semicircular pommel, is a widespread northwestern European style of around 1000AD.

Can we seek the inspiration for this piece in Northern warriors in Imperial service?

For more details follow this link.

Hoard from Ochsarve, Gotland

Miliaresion of Romanos III Argyros [1028-34]. From the Ochsarve hoard, diameter ~2.7 cm [29]. Swedish Royal Coin Cabinet.

The only coin hoard in Scandinavia that contains only Byzantine coins in such a large number - 123 silver miliaresia - that it is likely to be the pay of a soldier returning from Byzantine employ. Equivalent to just over 10 gold coins - which is about the annual pay of an ordinary soldier, according to Treadgold [30].
Though the coins date between 945 and 1055, 90% of them are from the end of this period, the reign of Constantine Monomachos. The Varangian who collected them was therefore probably a near contemporary of Harald Hardrada, who left service in about 1044. Of the vast treasure that Harald himself collected, barely a coin must remain unsmelted - only 20 Byzantine coins have been found in all Norway.

Miliaresion of Constantine IX Monomachos [1042-55]. From the Ochsarve hoard, diameter ~2.7 cm [31]. Swedish Royal Coin Cabinet.

Ed Runestone

The runestones of Sweden tell of Vikings who travelled east; some of which won gold; some died there. There are over 30 inscriptions in all mentioning voyagers to Greece. Not all of them are necessarily joined the Varangian Guard, they might have been merchants, or mercenaries in the regular army.

The most likely example of a Varangian, and probably a high ranking one, is Ragnvaldr, who had an inscription (U 112) carved over two faces of a great boulder at Ed, just north of Stockholm. It was carved by his order, in memory of his mother, Fastvi. Ragnvaldr is a name reserved for nobility, and the stone, proudly located above a major road, advertises that he ‘lead the host’ in Greece:

The carving on the front face, with the first three lines, is shown at left, the back side is on the right [32]. In both cases the inscription starts from the head end of the serpent.

rahnualtr . lit . rista . runar .
efR . fastui . mo]>ur . sina . onems . totR .
to i . ai]>i . ku]> . hialbi ant . hein || a .


runa rista . lit . rahnualtr .
huar a . kriklanti . uas . lis . forunki .

indicates the dipthong th = the rune “thorn”

“Ragnvaldr let be cut the runes
After Fastvi his mother, Onamr’s daughter.
She died in Ed. God help her soul.

The runes be cut let Ragnvaldr.
He was in Greece, was the host’s leader.”

According to other runestones (U 309, U 310), Ragnvaldr died together with his father Ingvarr and uncle Ingifastr, probably before 1050, but the location of this tragedy is unrecorded [33].


[1] S. Blöndal and B.S. Benediktz, ‘The Varangians of Byzantium: An Aspect of Byzantine Military History.’ Cambridge University: Cambridge 1978.

[2] K.N. Ciggaar, ‘L’émigration anglais à Byzance après 1066.’ Revue des Etudes Byzantines 32, 1974, pp.301-342.

[3] D. Buckton, ‘Byzantium: Treasures of Byzantine Art and Culture from British Collections.’ British Museum: London 1994. Catalogue no. 211.

[4] S. Blöndal and B.S. Benediktz, ‘The Varangians...’, op. cit.

[5] K.N. Ciggaar, ‘Western Travellers to Constantinople. The West and Byzantium, 962-1204: Cultural and Political Relations.’ E.J. Brill: Leiden 1996.

[6] T.A. Kendrick, ‘A History of the Vikings.’ Methuen and Co. Ltd.: London 1930.

[7] G. Schlumberger, ‘Sigillographie de l’Empire Byzantin.’ Société de l‘Orient Latin: Paris 1884.

[8] G. Schlumberger, ‘Sigillographie ...’, op. cit.

[9] G. Schlumberger, ‘Sigillographie ...’, op. cit.

[10] M. Kaplin, ‘L’histoire agraire de Byzance et la Scandinavie.’ In: Elizabeth Piltz (Ed.), ‘Byzantium and Islam in Scandinavia: Acts of a Symposium at Uppsala University, June 15-16 1996’. Paul Åströms Förlag: Jonsered 1998, pp. 53-57.

[11] Benaki Museum, inventory number 1853. E. Georgoula (ed.), ‘Greek Treasures from the Benaki Museum in Athens’. Powerhouse: Sydney 2005.

[12] R. Popa, ‘Knaufkrone eines wikingerzeitlichen Prachtschwertes von Pacuiul lui Soare.’ Germania 62, 1984, pp.425-431.

[13] I. Barnea, ‘Les monuments rupestres de Basarabi en Dobroudja.’ Cahiers Archaeologiques 13, 1962, pp.187-208.

[14] H.R. Ellis-Davidson, ‘The Viking Road to Byzantium.’ Allen and Unwin: London 1976.

[15] Anne Stahlsberg, Norges teknisk-naturvitenskapelige universitet, Trondheim, pers. comm., 1997.

[16] I. Barnea, ‘Les monuments ...’, op. cit.

[17] K.N. Ciggaar, ‘Western Travellers ...’, op. cit.

[18] Information supplied by Bertil Hagmann, an independant scholar of Norse History, to Discoverer's Web (run by Andre Engels);

[19] T.A. Kendrick, ‘A History ...’, op. cit.

[20] E. Roesdahl and D.M. Wilson, ‘From Viking to Crusader: Scandinavia and Europe 800-1200.’ Rizzoli: New York 1992.

[21] E.V. Gordon, ‘An Introduction to Old Norse.’, 2nd ed. Oxford Press: Clarendon 1957.

[22] E. Piltz, ‘Varangian companies for long distance trade: aspects of interchange between Scandinavia, Rus’ and Byzantium in the 11th-12th centuries.’ In: Elizabeth Piltz (Ed.), ‘Byzantium and Islam in Scandinavia: Acts of a Symposium at Uppsala University, June 15-16 1996’. Paul Åströms Förlag: Jonsered 1998, pp. 85-106.

[23] A. Grabar, ‘Byzantine Painting.’ Skira: New York 1953.

[24] For example, the Osprey militaria series. PB.

[25] My feeling is that it is most likely that he is given the uniform of a low-ranked Byzantine officer - possibly the leader of 100 men, an hekatontarch (a rank attested in 10th cent. military manuals). PB.

[26] Thanks to Stavros Stefanidis for this image. PB.

[27] G. de Jerphanion, ‘Les églises rupestres de Cappadoce’, vol. 2. Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner: Paris 1936.

[28] A.G. Paspates and W. Metcalfe, ‘The Great Palace of Constantinople.’ Alexander Gardener: London 1893.

[29] E. Piltz, ‘Varangian companies ...’, op. cit.

[30] W. Treadgold, ‘Byzantium and its Army: 284-1081.’ Stanford University Press: Stanford 1995.

[31] E. Piltz, ‘Varangian companies ...’, op. cit.

[32] Front side: D.M. Wilson, ‘The Northern World: The History and Heritage of Northern Europe.’ Thames and Hudson: London 1980. Back side: P.B. du Chaillu, ‘The Viking Age: The Early History, Manners, and Customs of the Ancestors of the English-Speaking Nations.’ (Vol. 1). John Murray: London 1889.

[33] O. Pritsak ‘The Origin of Rus’ (Vol. 1): Old Scandinavian Sources other than the Sagas.’ Harvard University: Cambridge (MA) 1981.


Webbed by Peter Beatson, 2000 - 2008.
All rights to materials herein belong to the original owners.