Thursday, 26 March 2015


Though it is no excuse for barbarous behaviour, the sacking of Constantinople occurred in part because of a populace complacent, as was Rome in its time, and unwilling to entertain the unthinkable—that these barbarians at the gates might ever breach their defenses and that the great Queen of Cities might be vulnerable.

As the Crusaders encamped at Galata and launched endless and seemingly futile forays against the outer most ring of fortifications from their galleons, lashing masts together to try to turn the boats into ladders and siege-engines, it did seem that the city was safe and secure and would just be able to wait these interlopers out. In fact, the regular army of the Byzantine Empire was never mobilised against this nuisance, with only the personal guard of the Emperor, the Varangians dispatched to monitor the perimeter, making occasional counter-attacks with a sweep of arrows or pouring boiling oil on Crusader undermining operations at the base of the city walls. The Crusaders never really breached those fortifications—that accomplishment was reserved for many centuries later, but one diligent and unnoticed Venetian did manage to prise away a small piece of masonry (not much bigger than a womp rat) and opened up a crawlspace inside. The gates were flung open and the Crusaders stormed in.
These Varangian body-guards, while ultimately ineffectual, were a pretty interesting retinue. Taking a lesson from history, knowing how fickle the loyalties Prรฆtorian guard could be, recruited from native sources and subject to prevailing influences, Byzantine emperors had a long-standing tradition of importing personal protectors—much like the Swiss Guard of the papacy. The Varangians were originally Viking warriors who had expanded east to the Rus—westward expansion discouraged by Englanders who were willing to keep paying the Vikings tribute (called Danegeld) not to attack them. Eventually these Scandinavians encountered the Byzantines and after some initial clashes and subsequent conversion of the Kievian-Rus to the Orthodox faith, the leaders of the Varangians pledged a division of its fiercest, professional warriors as a sign of peace. As the displacing of populations was picking up, the Vangarian stock soon expanded to attract other landless individuals to join this foreign legion. Chiefly this army began to be staffed with ranks of men of Briton extraction, themselves having migrated from Germanic lands and settled in England, who in turn were dislodged by the Norman Conquest—the Normans being Norse mercenaries themselves. Having lost hearth and home, many Britons sought their fortunes in Byzantium. I do wish, however, this Varangian vanguard had been able to rebuff the Crusaders’ advances.