Varangian Guards and Their Traces in Istanbul: Runic Inscriptions in Hagia Sophia

Since its foundation in around 657 BC by the colonists of the city-state of Megara in Greece, the city of Constantinople was inhabited by people from different ethnicities and cultures. One of the most interesting inhabitants of the city could be worded as a group of “northern” mercenary soldiers who were later assigned as the personal guards of the Byzantine emperor. Several primary sources from the tenth and the eleventh centuries tell about their military and socio-political activities in the Byzantine empire in general and in Constantinople in particular. Although the Byzantine historians and chronicles regarded them as the “axe-bearing” barbarians who descended from the freezing regions of the northern countries, they also had an implicit—and sometimes explicit—admiration for these soldiers regarding their “unshakable courage” and “strong loyalty” to their patron, the Byzantine emperor.

The earliest records about the presence of the Varangian guards in the Byzantine army date back to the end of the ninth century. In this period, the Kievan Rus tribes, which crossed from Scandinavia to Northern Russia and then poured into the Dnieper region, established their first settlements north of the Black sea. Although they came into conflict with the Byzantines by besieging the city of Constantinople on two separate occasions, as time went by, these northern warriors also built political and merchandise ties with the Byzantines. As a result of growing political relationships, the Byzantines began to import a considerable number of Kievan Rus soldiers who were gradually employed as the personal bodyguards of the emperor.

The Varangian guards’ functions differed in times of war and in times of peace. It is possible to see in tenth and eleventh century Byzantine sources that these units were often used in campaigns against the Muslim political entities in the east. In a campaign season, since they were the most valuable and important military units in the Byzantine army, they intervened in a battle during the most critical moments. In times of peace, however, they stayed mostly in the capital and at other strategic points, serving as a police force to provide security.

The Varangian guards who were employed in Constantinople as security forces appear to have left their remarks in the city. Today it is possible to encounter the vestiges of their existence in the former Greek Orthodox Christian Patriarchal Cathedral, later an Ottoman imperial mosque and now a museum, Hagia Sophia. In Hagia Sophia, there are two partially readable inscriptions, written in runic form. The first one is called the Halfdan Inscription. Unfortunately, the inscription is so worn down that only a portion of the name can be clearly read. In her article, Elisabeth Svärdström deduced that the readable part “-ftan” must indicate the Nordic name “Halfdan”. She further noted that the remainder of the inscription is illegible, but it probably followed a common formula such as “X carved these runes.”

Transcription of the recognizable Halfdan runes.
Transcription of the recognizable Halfdan runes. Public domain.

A second inscription was discovered by Folke Högberg in 1975. An article regarding this new discovery was published by Mats G. Larsson in his article “Nyfunna runor i Hagia Sofia.” According to Larsson’s interpretation, the inscription could be identified as follows: “Ari m(ade these runes).” Later, an archeologist from the University of Bergen, Svein Indrelid, announced the discovery of five other Runic inscriptions in Hagia Sophia, although these have not yet been published. She further stated that it is within the boundaries of possibility that there may well have been more inscriptions in Hagia Sophia that await discovery.

Hagia Sofia runic inscription
The “Halfdan inscription,” photographed by Hermann Junghans, 2014.

With the relative weakening of the Byzantine political, economic and military systems throughout the thirteenth century, we encounter the traces of the Varangian guards rarely compared to the previous periods. It is known that the Varangian guards were the main components of the defensive army which was employed by the Byzantines in Constantinople during the siege of 1204. Although it has been argued that the Nicaean emperors, who took refuge in the west of Asian minor after the 1204 catastrophe, tried to raise up a Varangian unit to boast their legitimacy against other rival Greek states such as the Despotate of Epirus—if it genuinely existed—it might have been just a mere ceremonial company since they played no important role in ongoing military encounters. Unfortunately, we know very little about the structure of the royal guard units in the Byzantine Empire after the recovery of the city from the Latins in 1261; however, several scholars including Savvas Kyriakis assert the idea that the some of the Cretan refugees, numbering less than 500, who escaped from Venetian rule and took refuge in Byzantium in the fourteenth century, were employed as royal guards who protected city gates and strategic locations in the capital. Also, there are several reliable reports that these troops were employed in the defense of Constantinople against the Ottomans in 1453. Further, in the late 1300s and the early 1400s, some people still identified themselves as Varangians in the city of Constantinople.

Image of the Hagia Sofia

In conclusion, the runic inscriptions in Hagia Sophia still stand as witness to the existence of the Varangian Guards in Constantinople. Located on the parapet on the top floor of the southern (the first one) and the northern gallery (the second one), these inscriptions gives their visitors an exclusive opportunity to perceive Istanbul’s unique cosmopolitan and cross-cultural historical heritage.

Theodore Metochites’s “Lament on Human Life,” A Later Byzantine Perspective on the Anxiety of “Instability”

Cameo, Constantine the Great and the Tyche of Constantinople wearing her turreted crown, sardonyx, 4th century. Image: The State Hermitage Museum.

Alas, alas, Life, you monstrous thing replete with every kind of misfor­tune, breeder of misfortune, theater of misfortune, and most of all of insta­bility!

– Theodore Metochites (SG 27.1.1)

In the wake of COVID-19’s spread into a pandemic, the world has fallen into a state of collective anxiety. As a historian, I find that in such challenging times, my inclination is to look to the past. At this moment when we all contend with isolation, grief, scarcity, and the fear of contagion, we may find some solace and insight by exploring the ways in which humanity has previously coped with such feelings of uncertainty. Much of my work this year at the Medieval Institute has focused on the Byzantine statesman and polymath, Theodore Metochites (1270–1332), and his theorization of memory as expressed in his scholarship and in the iconographic program of the Chora Monastery, the renovation of which he oversaw and endowed (c. 1316–1321). No stranger to turmoil in his own life, Metochites also reflects at length on the idea of “instability” (astasia) in his writings. Several chapters of his encyclopedic work, the Semeioseis gnomikai, or “Sententious Notes,” address this recurring theme as the author himself works through the notion of uncontrollable change and fickle Fortune.

Metochites’s observations on fate draw from his own experiences of the ebb and flow of politics. In 1283, Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos (1259/60–1331, r. 1282–1328) ousted Metochites’s father, George, from Constantinople for his opposing policies, and, at thirteen years old, young Theodore accompanied his father into exile. While in Asia Minor, Metochites dedicated himself to his education and, by 1290, as he writes, “the winds shift[ed] from one direction to the opposite” (SG 28.3.5). The same Andronikos II, having learned of Metochites’s reputation for erudition, called him to serve in the imperial court, where he achieved the high rank of Megas Logothetes, or prime minister. He takes care to acknowledge that his change in fortune was an external one, beyond his control: “the difficulties of my life suddenly and perhaps unexpectedly changed … although I had in no way changed, in the way it usually happens among men” (SG 28.3.4–5).

In a rather pessimistic frame of mind, he continues by pointing out that even in the grace of good fortune, the popular saying rings true: “it is impossible to find anyone living a life free of sorrows” (Hult 13). Metochites tells us that as his position and fortune increased, he felt steadily more burdened by state affairs. He writes that it was “extremely distressing … to be personally in charge of conducting and somehow administering the shipwreck of Roman world power, and many times, when I could see no way out in my thoughts and I completely lost hope, I prayed that this seeming blessing and favor from Fortune would not have fallen to my lot” (SG 28.5.4 and 6.4–5). Good fortune brings with it no guarantee of happiness.

Theodore Metochites presenting his foundation to Christ, Esonarthex, Lunette above eastern door, Chora Monastery, c. 1316–1321, Istanbul, Turkey. Image: Brad Hostetler.

In the same essay, Metochites draws an evocative comparison between the whims of political fortune and sudden changes in health:

No, we can see even the strongest and those with bodies in excel­lent condition in absolutely every respect easily lose their physical strength and confidence, struck down now and then by a chance occurrence, some­thing which others who are perhaps not equally well-endowed with bodily strength have managed to escape. And we see the man who yesterday was standing firm, indeed, who was for a long time undefeated by any kind of bodily misfortune, now lying on his back and suffering some malaise in his body, that had, until now, been extremely vigorous, or having lost all his health and now experiencing numerous difficult changes, living with all kinds of sickness—he who for many years seemed completely impervious to the vicissitudes of the body. (SG 28.2.1–3)

As easily and as quickly as the body succumbs to illness, so too do rapid shifts in fate occur in all other contexts of life, from wealth to family and career. This association amplifies points set forth in the preceding chapter of the Semeiosis. In his “Lament of human life,” Metochites opens with a description of the two sides of human reaction to fortune’s instability. Those currently experiencing good fortune constantly live in expectation and anxiety of worse things to come, while those who are struggling live with the hope of better days. With the flip of a coin (or “turn of the ostrakon” in ancient Greek and Byzantine parlance), the greatest wealth yields to poverty, robust health deteriorates to languid weakness. He goes on to say, however, that instability, though unforeseeable, should be expected. Reacting to the assertion that change is abrupt, he argues the opposite: “I unhesitatingly add that [it has been coming] for a long time, indeed from the beginning” (SG 27.2.5). Metochites follows the concept of “universal flux” put forth by Heraclitus, and elaborates on the maxim still referenced today, “the only thing constant is change” (cf. SG 29.2.1–7). He concludes that it is wisest to acknowledge, either through personal experience or observation of others, that life is inconstant; with this in mind, one must “live not unprepared for the likelihood of good things turning utterly bad and so live better” (SG 27.2.7).

Toward the end of his life, Metochites found reason to affirm his comments on misfortune’s predictably unpredictable appearance. In the margins of Paris gr. 2003, pictured below, we find a retrospective remark written in light of his second exile from the capital in 1328. Following the ascendance of Andronikos III to the throne after a long period of civil war, Metochites was forced to reside in Didymoteicho (today in northeastern Greece) before returning to take monastic vows in his foundation of the Chora two years later. To the earlier words of his “lament,” he declares, “I myself have suffered this as I foretold” (Hult xv).

Theodore Metochites, “A Lament on Human Life,” Paris gr. 2003, f. 49r (56r), 15th century. Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Metochites’s essay further deliberates on the saying that, “because of death we are living in a city without walls.” The original Epicurean context of this adage emphasized the indefensibility of the human body and inevitability of death. Building on this metaphorical meaning, Metochites states that we are, “like people living in a city without walls also because of the changes from prosperity to adversity, from perfect health to sickness, and on the whole from good fortune to bad …” (SG 27.2.1–6). Though he was writing in a much different cultural context than ours today, we might bring a critical eye to Metochites’s musings as a way of contemplating COVID-19-era insecurity. The rapid spread of illness threatens to render our “city walls” – the infrastructure of our healthcare and economy – susceptible to collapse. Anxiety arises from the permeability of these defenses. With an understanding that none of us is immune to “the attacks and sieges of Chance,” we can reassess the way we conceptualize and respond to drastically new realities.

While Metochites reflects on Fortune from the viewpoint of a privileged Byzantine elite, the current pandemic has laid bare the shared, but uneven vulnerability to “fate” in our society. In many ways, the virus’s dismantling of our “city walls” has lead to an exposure of inequality, and the situation thus demands that we reconstruct societal concepts of space and community. As we grasp to control contagion through worldwide self-isolation, the “fate” of the individual is inextricably tied to the many. Risk and instability, however, are not experienced equitably. Indeed, the necessity of social distancing has demonstrated just how few “walls” had been erected to fortify the health and well-being of all in the first place. Metochites reflected on his personal experiences to assess the nature of fate and life’s inconstancy. When this crisis is behind us, perhaps we will not forget the diversity of individual experiences in the face of uncertainty. Only then might we rebuild a fortress of collective action better equipped to sustain the many against the next unpredictable, inevitable turn of fate.

Nicole Paxton Sullo
2019–20 Byzantine Studies Postdoctoral Fellow at the Medieval Institute
Ph.D., History of Art, Yale University (2020)

All translations based on:

Karin Hult, ed. and trans., Theodore Metochites on the Human Condition and the Decline of Rome: Semeioseis gnomikai 27–60, Studia Graeca et Latina Gothoburgensia 70 (Gothenburg: Kriterium, 2016). DOI: 10.21524/kriterium.4.

From Bobbio to South Bend via Milan: The Modern Fate of an Early Medieval Library

Many readers of this blog will know that Notre Dame’s Rare Books and Special Collections Department in Hesburgh Library boasts a large—and growing!—collection of medieval manuscripts. Perhaps less known is a manuscript collection of a different sort, housed in the Medieval Institute on the seventh floor of Hesburgh. I am referring to Notre Dame’s Biblioteca Ambrosiana Collection, which contains over 10,000 microfilms of manuscripts held in one of the world’s great libraries, the Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, Italy. In partnership with Notre Dame, the Ambrosiana recently launched an initiative to digitize its manuscripts and make them freely available to all on the web. The first fruits of this effort can already be enjoyed: at the time of writing 382 manuscripts are viewable online. For now, though, the Medieval Institute remains the only place to access many of the Ambrosiana’s treasures outside of Milan. In celebration of the Ambrosiana, its new digital library, and the unique microfilm collection at Notre Dame, this post will briefly trace the history of the library of the northern Italian monastery of Bobbio, whose early medieval manuscripts make up one of the most important components of the Ambrosiana’s holdings.

The monastery of Bobbio was founded c. 613 by the Irish monk Columbanus with the support of the Lombard king Agilulf, who richly endowed it. In the centuries that followed its foundation, the monastery amassed one of early medieval Europe’s largest libraries, both by acquiring manuscripts from elsewhere and by producing them in its own scriptorium. Among Bobbio’s oldest and most well-known codices are its palimpsests—manuscripts in which the original text has been scraped away and then written over—including four in which the lower (i.e., erased) text is in the Gothic language.

The Monastery of Bobbio
The Monastery of Bobbio. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Beyond the surviving books themselves, a valuable indicator of the scale and scope of Bobbio’s early medieval library comes down to us in the form of an inventory, made probably in the late ninth or in the tenth century. The original document has been lost, but the great Italian historian Ludovico Muratori obtained and published a fragmentary transcription of it in the eighteenth century. Even in its incomplete state, this inventory lists 666 items in the monastery’s library. (It was also in a Bobbio manuscript that Muratori discovered the so-called “Muratorian fragment,” the earliest known list of the books of the New Testament.)

The monastery suffered a decline in the Later Middle Ages; at one point, in 1346, only four monks and the abbot remained. The fate of its great library reflected this decline. When another inventory of the library was made in the mid-fifteenth century, it found only 243 manuscripts. An annotation in one surviving codex suggests that the monastery may have resorted to pawning some of its books. In 1493, a scholar working for Ludovico Sforza, the duke of Milan, noticed the library’s still ample collection of classical texts. After this discovery, many books left the monastery in the hands of humanist scholars. While some of these manuscripts have since been identified in libraries elsewhere, many others have been lost.

Two large transfers of books out of Bobbio in the early seventeenth century have, fortunately, survived nearly intact. In 1606, Cardinal Federico Borromeo, the archbishop of Milan, requested and obtained 77 manuscripts from the monastery, in exchange for which he seems to have offered the monastery printed books. These manuscripts entered the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, founded by Borromeo in 1607 and formally opened in 1609, where they remain today. In 1618, at the request of Pope Paul V the monastery donated a further 29 of its manuscripts to the Vatican Library (one of these codices went missing in the eighteenth century). At some point in the early seventeenth century at least five of Bobbio’s manuscripts also found their way into the court library of the dukes of Savoy in Turin; the total number is unknown since some others may have been destroyed by a fire there in 1667. The great French scholar Jean Mabillon visited Bobbio in 1686 and had two of its manuscripts (including the famous “Bobbio Missal” of Merovingian origin) transferred to Saint-Germain-des-Prés; both are now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris.

The so-called Bobbio Orosius, seventh century, in insular (Irish) script. Likely written at Bobbio. Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, D. 23. sup.
The so-called Bobbio Orosius, seventh century, in insular (Irish) script. Likely written
at Bobbio. Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, D. 23. sup.
Note the Bobbio “ex libris” annotation (“Liber sancti columbani de bobio”) at the top of the page, added in the fifteenth century. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

By 1720, when another inventory of Bobbio’s library was made, only 122 codices remained there. Following the suppression of the monastery by Napoleon, Bobbio’s remaining books were sold at auction in 1803. As it happened, this last cache of books from Columbanus’s monastery was bought by an Irish-born doctor residing in Italy, Odoardo Raymond Buthler. After Buthler’s death the codices entered the Biblioteca nazionale universitaria in Turin. In 1904 a fire destroyed a large portion of this library’s holdings, including some of its Bobbiese manuscripts.

As a result of this tortuous history, many of Bobbio’s manuscripts have disappeared entirely, and those that remain are scattered in libraries across Europe, from Naples to Cambridge and from Vienna to El Escorial. The vast majority, however, can now be found in three repositories: the Biblioteca nazionale universitaria in Turin, the Vatican Library, and the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan.

In a future post, we’ll look in a bit more detail a few of Bobbio’s early medieval manuscripts, and at the process that brought many of them—in microform—to the United States and to Notre Dame.

Michael W. Heil
2020–21 A.W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Medieval Studies at the Medieval Institute
Ph.D. in History (2013)
The University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Further Reading:

On Bobbio and its library, with references to further literature, see Alessandro Zironi, Il monastero longobardo di Bobbio: crocevia di uomini, manoscritti e culture (Spoleto, 2004); Leandra Scappaticci, Codici e liturgia a Bobbio: testi, musica e scrittura (secoli X ex.-XII) (Vatican City, 2008). In English see Michael Richter, Bobbio in the Early Middle Ages (Dublin, 2008).