The Varangian Guard was a formation of Northern European (Norse Vikings and later Anglo-Saxons) mercenaries that served as the Byzantine Emperors’ bodyguards as well as an elite battle formation from the 10th century through the 13th century AD.
The name Varangian is believed to come from the Old Norse language and means “sharers in an oath.” Likely the term originated when Vikings would swear to share the earnings from trading and raiding into what is now Russia. The name is not just applied to the famous guard, but is more generally applied to Norsemen (primarily Swedes) that mounted trade and raid expeditions. In that sense the word is roughly equivalent to the term Viking.
Norse military service with Byzantium is recorded to have started in 902 AD when a group of 700 Rus (Norse Viking then living in and around Kiev) joined in an attack on Crete, for the next 80 some years various, non-permanent groups of Rus mercenaries served with the Byzantine armies. In 988 AD Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev dispatched 6000 Swedish warriors to the Byzantine Emperor Basil II. Vladimir was unable to pay the Swedes and they were making trouble for him and Basil needed the military aid to put down a rebellion. The Swedes soon showed their valor and ruthlessness in battle. So Basil, distrustful of the highly politicized Byzantine troops, adopted the 6000 Varangians as his bodyguard.
The Varangians soon became known for their prowess in battle, unwavering loyalty to the Emperor and their unusual battle gear. The Varangians fought stripped to the waist, without armor of any kind and they wielded a 6 foot long axe. Their axes were so famous that they were sometimes called “the Axe-bearing Guard.”
Service in the Varangian was so lucrative that men had to pay, in gold, to get into the guard. For example when Harald Sigurdsson, better known as Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, showed up in Constantinople and tried to join the Guard he had to work at least 4 years as a simple mercenary to earn the entry fee. However, once in the Guard the pay was more than generous; paid directly from the central treasury, an ordinary Guardsman was paid between 30 and 40 nomismata (also called solidi), a gold coin of about 4.5 grams in weight, a month. The Varangians also received a great deal of loot when taking an enemy city. For example, the commanding general or Emperor got a third of total value of the loot, the Imperial Guard another third and the whole rest of the army the remaining third.
Service in the Guard could make a man very wealthy. For example, Bolli Bollison returned to Scandinavia after a term in the Guard so wealthy that he only wore scarlet and furs and all his weapons were gilded. No sources seems to record the length of service for a Varangian, but Gibbon thinks that the requirement was the same as the old Roman auxiliary’s terms which meant it could have been as long as twenty or twenty-five years, but perhaps as short as ten years.
In short, service in the Varangian guard could be long and was certainly hard and dangerous, but if the Guardsman survived, he could be very wealthy when he left the Emperor’s service.