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In the Byzantine Roman ancient world, there was one fighting force that relied on the axe as a primary weapon - the fearless and highly feared Varangian Guard of the Roman Byzantine military. These were the elite shock troops and personal body guards to the emperor. In battle, they were employed on the front lines to break enemy advances, wielding intimidating large two-handed shaft axes on long handles. They carried a second heavy axe in their belt for back-up, on a shorter handle.
This rare axe would have been a primary combat axe of the Varangian Guard warriors. Examples like this can be found depicted in the miniatures of the illuminated manuscripts and icons of the period. The long and heavy, narrow head allowed penetration through the heavy armor that was common by this time in Byzantine warfare. The heavy hammer butt end would have been effective in crushing the skulls of helmeted enemies. It is in excellent preservation and complete with no damage.
When fighting got close and personal, the axe was a devastating weapon and could defeat all forms of armor. The axe required no skill or special training, and could inflict fatal wounds with a single blow, making it one of the most deadly of all ancient weapons. The most feared infantry soldiers of the Byzantine Roman army were the Varangian Guard shock troops, famous for fighting on foot with large iron axes.
This weapon was used by the Byzantine Christian Roman armies defending the Empire's northern border along the Danube River in the present day East Balkans. This region was the northern-most boundary of the Roman Empire for most of its duration and evolution into Byzantium until 1336 AD, when the area fell under Ottoman rule. In the Balkans, Roman camps and fortresses along the Danube were constantly being challenged by opposing tribes and armies. The river served as a natural barrier against attacks from the north. Collected from a region that was once occupied by the Byzantine Roman military as they fought against the challengers of the Christian Roman Empire, these weapons were utilized by Roman soldiers in one of the many violent and frequent battles that took place in defense of Byzantium.
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The Varangian guard in the Byzantine Roman military, were known for their love of the vine, for their loyalty to the Emperor, and for their bravery in battle. The battle axe was the principal weapon of the Varangians, as recorded in the sources (Psellos, Chronographia, VI, 87 ; Anna Komnena, Alexiadis, II, 9, p. 120-IV, 6, p. 116; Choniates, Cronikh dihghsis I, 5.). These special warriors were composed of recruits from outside of Byzantium by design. Made up of fierce fighters from northern Europe including Norsemen from Scandinavia, and Anglo-Saxons from England, they lacked local political loyalties and could be counted on to suppress revolts by disloyal Byzantine factions.
The Rus' provided the earliest members of the Varangian Guard. They were in Byzantine service from as early as 874. The Guard was first formally constituted under Emperor Basil II in 988, following the Christianization of Kievan Rus' by Vladimir I of Kiev. Vladimir, who had recently usurped power in Kiev with an army of Varangian warriors, sent 6,000 men to Basil as part of a military assistance agreement.
The Varangian Guard not only provided security for the Byzantine emperors, but also participated in many wars, often playing a decisive role. The Varangian Guard was only used in battle during critical moments, or where the battle was most fierce and at the risk of defeat. Ancient Byzantine writers recorded with a mix of terror and fascination that the "Scandinavians were frightening both in appearance and in equipment, they attacked with reckless rage and neither cared about losing blood nor their wounds". The description probably refers to berserkers, since this state of trance is said to have given them superhuman strength and no sense of pain from their wounds. By the late 13th century, Varangians were mostly ethnically assimilated by the Byzantine Greeks, though the Guard remained in existence until at least mid-14th century. In 1400, there were still some people identifying themselves as "Varangians" in Constantinople.
The Varangians relied on the broad-bladed Dane axe as their main weapon, although they were often also skilled swordsmen or archers. In some sources, such as Anna Komnene's The Alexiad, they are described as mounted; both Vikings and elite Anglo-Saxon warriors routinely used horses for strategic mobility even though they normally fought on foot. The Guard was stationed primarily around Constantinople but also accompanied armies into the field, and Byzantine chroniclers (as well as several notable Western European and Arab chroniclers) often note their battlefield prowess, especially in comparison to the local barbarian peoples. They were vital to the Byzantine victory under the emperor John II Komnenos at the Battle of Beroia in 1122. The Varangians hacked their way through the enemy's circle of Pecheneg wagons, collapsing the Pecheneg position and causing a general rout in their camp.