The Varangians, thought to be the descendants of early Viking voyagers, hailed from settlements dotting the river basins of present-day Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Their fierce prowess in battle led Varangian mercenaries to end up in some of the most powerful armies of the Mediterranean world. By the start of the 11th century A.D., the reigning Byzantine Emperor, Basil II, assembled a personal bodyguard of Varangians rather than local Greeks because he feared Constantinople's treacherous intrigues and duplicitous nobles. For the next two centuries, the Varangians would rank among the empire's greatest shock troops, clad in heavy armor and often wielding large axes. Records and inscriptions from the time chart scores of Scandinavians leaving their homes and communities to fight and die among "the Greeks." Eventually, the guard, much like the elite Praetorian Guard of the earlier Roman empire, faded out with the decline of the Byzantines.
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