Most Viking enthusiasts and re-enactors are familiar with the Varangian Guard, the Vikings who served as personal bodyguards for Byzantine emperors. What many don’t know is that the Varangians were also some of the empire’s most elite combat troops. One of their best-known leaders, the outcast Norwegian prince Harald “Fairhair” Sigurdsson, got his start fighting with them in Anatolia against the Saracens in the 1030s. Even as a youth, he quickly rose through the ranks, but soon found himself battling his own commander, the Byzantine general Georgios Maniakes. Like Harald, Maniakes was a tough, ruthless leader – tall, imperious, and a bit of a hothead. It wasn’t long before the two clashed. It got to the point that the Varangians preferred to follow Harald rather than Maniakes, and hung back in battle unless there was loot or glory in it for them.
In the summer of 1038 the Empire sought to take back the island of Sicily. (Its huge troves of grain, cotton and silk, sugar and fruit had fallen to the Muslims in 965.) Maniakes enlisted Harald and his Varangians, along with an army of Lombard and Norman mercenaries. They crossed the Strait of Messina, took that city, and began working their way south toward Syracuse. Scandinavian sagas, naturally, give Harald and his Vikings much of the credit for the campaign. As a result, Harald conquers the island virtually on his own, with some of his methods too clever by far and almost certainly apocryphal.
During one siege Harald supposedly had his men trap birds that nested in the town when they came out over the city walls to the nearby woods to feed. The men fixed wood shavings, sulphur to the birds with wax, lit it on fire and let them fly home to set the village’s thatched roofs alight. In another, the Vikings dug a tunnel under the city walls, came up through the floor of a tavern, killed everyone inside and rushed to open the city gates.
In the spring of 1040 the Byzantines laid siege to Syracuse. According to the sagas, Maniakes agreed to let Harald plan the attack. Harald ordered his men to show contempt for the enemy by playing sports below the walls, just outside of weapons range. After a few days of this the defenders grew lackadaisical, coming to their posts unarmed and even leaving the gate open. Seeing this, Harald and some of his men hid weapons under their tunics. When they were close enough, they rushed the gate, fought their way inside, and took the town.
But there is another version, in which Harald put out the story that he was deathly ill. After a week it was announced that he had died. The Varangians sent emissaries into the city to ask permission to bring his body in for a church funeral, with all the gifts of gold and precious offerings that entailed. Evidently there were still any number of Christian churches inside, and plenty of priests all vying for the opportunity to host such a nobleman’s procession, none of whom remembered the story of the Trojan Horse. They agreed to let just twelve men bear the coffin within the walls.
Harald acted as a pallbearer at his own funeral. When the procession reached the gate, they dropped the coffin across the opening and the Byzantines charged in after them to take the city. Harald, as any good hero-myth would have it, captured the enemy commander himself.
The Varangians, though, were indirectly responsible for the campaign’s failure. When the Saracens marched out from their capital at Palermo, the Byzantines met them at Troina, some 4,000 feet up in the Sicilian mountains. Maniakes sent in his heavy cavalry: the kataphractoi, cataphracts, riders and horses alike masked and draped to the knees in mail armor. The Normans and Lombards pursued the enemy, objecting when Harald and his men instead looted the enemy baggage. Instead of punishing the Varangians, Maniakes had the Lombards’ chieftain beaten through the camp. In response, the allies deserted and returned to Italy. And since the Arab emir escaped by sea, Maniakes flogged his own naval commander as well – a mistake, since the admiral was the Byzantine emperor’s brother-in-law. Maniakes was arrested and shipped home in chains.
Without his strong leadership, the Byzantines could not hold Sicily. The Muslims soon reclaimed the island. Harald, like any halfway competent leader, must certainly have been questioning the wisdom of his Byzantine overlords. Yet he had signed on to fight for them and, unlike the Normans and Lombards, kept his word.
He, his Varangians, and the Byzantines ended up in the heel of the Italian boot, with their backs to the Olivento River, facing their former allies in battle. The Normans, no longer fighting for pay but for a new home, were victorious. The Byzantine commander fled. The imperial army collapsed. The rebels drove them into the river, where many drowned. Somehow Harald survived.
The Byzantines ran through a succession of generals, each more inept then the last, before abandoning Italy to the Normans. They would found their own kingdom in Sicily, one that would endure for over 700 years.
By that time Harald had been recalled to Constantinople, where the imperial family had an even more pressing need of Varangians. Bad as the war had gone in Sicily and Italy, it was a mere scrap on the frontier of the empire, far from the capital. The emperor was dying. Beautiful, vain Empress Zoe needed the Varangians to protect her through the civil strife that was sure to ensue, and she had taken a personal fancy to Harald Fairhair. Their relationship would prove instrumental in his eventual return to Norway as King Harald III, called Hardrada, the Hard Ruler.
But that’s a story for another time.
Don Hollway is author of the Osprey Publishing best-seller, The Last Viking: The True Story of King Harald Hardrada, available in hardcover, audiobook and now paperback. Free sample chapters and links to buy at http://thelastviking.co/