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Varangian Guard vs. Praetorian Guard.jpg

It's the battle of the most disciplined and elite guards the Roman empire has ever produced as the Varangian Guard, Viking mercenaries who lent their skill in battle to defend the Byzantine emperor in the Eastern Roman Empire, goes head-to-head with the Praetorian Guard, the deadly shock troops and dedicated bodyguards of the Roman emperor in the West! The exotic combat skills of the savage European wild will go up against the iron will and unbreakable nerve of the Roman military, and bloody battle axes will crash against hard, cold, steel, but when the last blow has been dealt and the swords are sheathed or else discarded in the dust, only one will be the deadliest warrior!

Varangian Guard

Scandinavians were frightening both in appearance and in equipment, they attacked with reckless rage and neither cared about losing blood nor their wounds.
— Byzantine chroniclers

Varangian Guard.jpg

The Varangian Guards were personal bodyguards of Byzantine Emperors for the majority of the Dark Ages. Mostly hailing from Anglo-Saxon England and Scandinavia, these mercenaries served as both bodyguards and occasional shock troops used by the Byzantines. Originally formed in 988 by Emperor Basil II, these troops were chosen to be his personal bodyguards because of their nearly unwavering loyalty to him.

It wasn't until after William the Conqueror's invasion of Anglo-Saxon England that the Varangians began recruiting from the men from those regions as well. The Varangians were very prominent in the defence of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, and were key in the Battle of Beroia for Byzantine victory. The last historical mention of these axe-wielding mercenaries was in 1400 in Constantinople. The primary role of the Varangians was as bodyguards, performing ceremonial duties and police work in affairs of treason and conspiracy. When utilized on the battlefield, however, their elite status, coupled with their expensive arms and quality armor, made them a fearsome foe to face. 

Weapons

Spathi Sword

The Spathi (a Byzantine variant of the Roman Spatha) offered longer reach than the traditional Roman gladius, and was frequently used by cavalry for its power as a hacking weapon. The Varangian Guard were issued such short swords for maneuverability in close-quarters combat, while still retaining enough length to be potent at a distance. It could be thrust forward as a stabbing weapon, or used with an overhand swing for a hacking attack.

  • 0.75-1 m in length (30-39 in.)
  • Thrusting weapon
  • Stabbing/chopping weapon
  • Iron blade

Dane Axe

The Varangians brought with them the weapons native to their homelands, like the fearsome "Viking" axe. It was a long, two-handed weapon that was used with a massive chopping swing, able to deliver damage through most armor - what the blade wouldn't cut through the force of the blow would take care of. 

  • 1.7 lbs (.77 kg)
  • 4-foot wooden handle
  • Single-edged, 1.75-foot blade
  • Chopping weapon

Byzantine Spear

The Varangian Guard was also issued with a standard spear, which offered a different approach to combat at medium range - it could hold an opponent at bay, although it lacked the raw stopping power that the Dane Axe offered.

  • 4-foot wooden shaft
  • 1-foot tip
  • 5 lbs

Boss Shield

The Byzantine warrior's shield (made of wood planks reinforced with leather strips and a lacquer coating) had a round iron boss placed on the center of the shield - this served two purposes. It allowed the warrior to ram and batter his opponent, focusing the energy of his attacks on the surface of the shield, and it allowed blows from enemy weapons to glance off the side of the boss (transferring less energy to the warrior's arm behind the shield).

Praetorian Guard

The Roman praetors were first established in 367 B.C. They evolved into the Praetorian Guard that came to exercise great power, making and unmaking emperors and allowing political and military action outside of the law.
— John Stockwell

Praetorian Guard Profile.jpg

The Praetorian Guards were an elite branch of the Roman military dedicated to protecting important Roman figures, especially the emperor. Originally, the Praetorians were the bodyguards of Roman generals during the 2nd century BC (known as praetors). However, by 27 BC, the emperor Augustus created a permanent corps composed of nine cohorts led by two prefects (this was later changed to one). The Praetorian Guard saw especially heavy combat duty against rebellious Germanic tribes during the mid-late 1st century AD, participating in the battle of Bedriacum and in wars in Macedonia and Dacia. 

Military roles aside, the Praetorians also played a significant role in the politics of the Roman Empire, being responsible for the accession of Claudius, the murders of Elagabalus and Pertinax, and the lynching of Domitian’s murderers - they made or broke emperors at the height of their power. The Praetorian Guard Corps were disbanded in 312 AD by Constantine the First.

Weapons

Gladius

The traditional sidearm of the Roman soldier, the Gladius was a short sword capable of delivering damning thrusts or powerful slashes at close range. It could be used in conjunction with the scutum shield to prevent the Praetorian Guard's opponent from maneuvering in retaliation.

  • .45-.68 m in length (17.76-26.76 in.)
  • Thrusting weapon
  • Stabbing/chopping weapon
  • Iron blade

Pilum

The Pilum gave the Praetorian Guard versatility on the battlefield, allowing them to engage incoming footsoldiers from a relatively safe distance. The iron tip would penetrate flesh and weak body armor, and would bend and wedge itself into shields, rendering the defensive tools cumbersome or outright useless. They could also be used in a melee fashion if the situation dictated.

  • 5.5 lbs (2.5 kg)
  • Approximately 6-foot wooden shaft (2 m)
  • 1.9 ft iron tip (60 cm)
  • Piercing weapon

Hasta

The Hasta spear was the Pilum's melee equivalent, made of similar materials but significantly lighter to provide greater mobility in a melee fight. It, too, came with an iron tip.

  • 6.5-foot wooden shaft (2 m)
  • 1-foot tip
  • 4.4 lbs (2 kg)

Scutum Shield

The Praetorian Guard utilized the Roman scutum shield for defense. Made of three sheets of wood glued together with canvas and leather binding, the Scutum boasted an impressive size (weighing in at 10 kg, or 22 lbs) but an equally impressive defense, being tall enough to cover the entirety of the soldier behind it. The Praetorians used the imposing size of the Scutum to enter close quarters with the gladius or hasta and skewer enemies who battered uselessly on the front of the shield.

X-Factors

Varangian Guard: 82

Praetorian Guard: 89

The harsh discipline and rigid strictness of the Roman military ensured that only the most elite and exemplary members of the legion stood as the bodyguards of the emperor - and that harsh discipline carried out into their day-to-day activites, and especially so as the Roman Empire fell into disarray. The Varangian Guards had a certain air of autonomy surrounding their activites, and did not train as frequently or as intensely.

Varangian Guard: 71

Praetorian Guard: 69

This is a very, very close comparison. Neither of these two warriors are meant for direct combat in a pitched battle (they're bodyguards), and the Praetorian Guard did fight the Germanic tribes that harassed Rome in the first century AD, but the Varangian Guard took an active defense towards the enemies that constantly plagued the Byzantine capital Constantinople.

Varangian Guard: 77

Praetorian Guard: 95

The Varangian Guard, being mercenaries, preferred a large degree of independence when carrying out their activities. The Praetorian Guard was incorporated into the Roman military and fought with the same iron precision that had steered the empire into greatness since its inception.

Varangian Guard: 54

Praetorian Guard: 42

This may seem surprising, considering both groups were bodyguards, but the Varangian Guards were simply Viking mercenaries offering their services for a paycheck - not a devoted group of fanatics. On the other hand you have the Praetorian Guard, who can be even worse - assassinating the emperors they were supposed to protect or bullying them to enforce their political will.

Battle

Varangian Guard: Brown.pngBrown.pngBrown.pngBrown.pngBrown.png

Praetorian Guard: Purple.pngPurple.pngPurple.pngPurple.pngPurple.png

The sun shimmers beneath a lively fountain that bubbles in the gardens of the Emperor's palace in Rome. The Emperor himself walks, at ease, part of his toga draped over his arm, as he strolls with two of his Praetorian guardsmen. As the men converse in the palace grounds, three figures watch, crouched, hidden in the foliage that lines the neatly-paved walkway snaking through the garden. They carry large swords and axes, bulky and intimidating in their size, but well-situated to remain camouflaged until they choose the moment to strike. With bated breath and nervous, darting eyes, the Varangian guardsmen lying in preparation for ambush tightly grip their weapons and tense up, ready to strike viciously and decisively at a moment's notice. One of the Praetorian guards walking with the Emperor makes a second glance in their direction as he spots a rustle in the bushes and a glint of what appears to be reflected sunlight poking through - as if off a metal surface - but he dismisses it once the glimmer disappears.

Relations have soured between the Eastern and Western spheres of influence of the Roman Empire, as the Byzantine Emperor has slowly manipulated the benefit of geographic separation to grant greater autonomy to the Eastern half. The Roman Emperor is strained, facing threats from barbarians approaching from the north, and finds himself highly agitated by the difficulties presented by the Byzantine upstart. He has dispatched a small group of some of his most trusted Praetorian guardsmen to assassinate the Eastern Roman Emperor in an attempt to quell Byzantine spirits, confident in his men thanks to their training and elite status. Little does he know, however, that the Byzantine Emperor has done the same with a squad of Varangian guardsmen.

The Byzantine Emperor reclines comfortably in the safety of his room, one lone Varangian guard posted outside. One other Viking guard sits, idly scraping a rock along the tip of his spear, in the Emperor's room on a plush chair in the corner, partially concealed by a swath of curtains arcing elegantly over an open window, filtering the late-afternoon sunlight that streams in with a reddish purple hue. Out in the hall, the Varangian guard stands at watch with his sword sheathed and shield strapped to his elbow. He leans lazily, almost nodding off, but snaps at attention when he hears footsteps approaching from down the corridor. Three figures in full Roman battle gear boldly approach, the lead figure proudly holding the Roman standard to signify his position. "We seek audience with the Emperor," the Roman proclaims.

"The Emperor is retired for the day," the Varangian guardsmen warily responds, lowering his free arm toward his sword's hilt. "You may make your visit another time."

"You do not understand," the Roman insists, pressing closer. "We have a message from the Western Roman Empire."

"If it is so important, perhaps you could deliver the message to me, so that I may relay it to the Emperor," the Varangian says, stepping forward to intimidate the smaller Roman.

"Very well," the Praetorian guard answers as he drops the Roman standard, whipping out his gladius lightning-fast and burying the blade into the Varangian guard's chest. Brown.png The burly Viking splutters blood and crumples as the Praetorian guardsman savagely twists the blade before ripping it out. Turning, he nods at his two companions, who advance, spears extended, scutum shields up, and approach the door.

***

The Roman Emperor has entered a particularly shady area of the garden, which offers a refreshing cool from the heat of the day. The Varangians look on as their target approaches - but one of the Praetorians moves to stand between the assassins and their target as the men stop to talk. The Varangian captain nods at one of his subordinates, and the soldier creeps forward, pushing a frond aside as he wraps his arm around the mouth of the closest Praetorian soldier and slashes at his throat with his short sword, sending forth a fountain of blood that splatters the horrified Roman Emperor's face. Purple.png Throwing the body to the ground, the Varangian advances as his fellow assassins emerge from the garden's bushes, brandishing axes and spears with murder in their eyes. The Roman Emperor scrambles behind his bodyguard as the Praetorian soldier raises his scutum and rushes forward, slamming the shield fiercely into the Varangian, stunning the Viking. The Praetorian follows up with a downward hack from his gladius that nicks off the Varangian's chainmail but opens a painful laceration on his neck. Gasping in shock and pain, the Varangian drops his bloodied sword and falls to his knees, his hands plastered desperately across his wound. The Praetorian holds his shield up, deflecting a wild blow from one of the other Varangians, before he finishes off his injured foe with a stab directly to the face, slicing through the thickest portion of his nose and into the base of his brain. Brown.png The sword gets stuck, though, and as the dead Viking keels over backward he takes the gladius with him. The Praetorian takes a knee and absorbs another hit from the Varangian's dane axe as he reaches down to pick up his fallen ally's hasta spear.

***

Back in the Byzantine capital, the Byzantine Emperor looks up, startled, as three armed men burst into his room. "We bring a message from the West!" shouts the standard-bearer. "A message of - " He flies backward, cut off in mid sentence, with a massive spear embedded into his torso. He crashes into the wall, bringing down a portrait as he slides lifelessly to the floor, leaving a thin smear of red on the wall behind him. Purple.png On the other side of the room, near the window, stands the Varangian guard, who readies another spear. He hurls it ferociously, but the Roman assassins knock the projectile aside with their shields. The Byzantine Emperor scrambles to his open window and begins to climb out as the Varangian guard unsheaths his Spathi sword and confronts his Emperor's attackers. The lead Praetorian guardsman approaches with his Hasta, making an early jab at the Varangian that is easily dodged. The Varangian slashes with his sword at the tip of the spear, attempting to break it off, but the Roman swings the spear sideways, making a superficial cut on the Viking warrior's leg. Spurred on by a battle fury, the Varangian guardsman avoids a follow-up attack and makes a violent kick on the Roman's shield, sending him stumbling back into his companion. Taking advantage of the temporary break in fighting, the Varangian spins back to his chair by the window and picks up his round shield, spinning back to face his attackers and flinging the shield at the Romans. The Praetorian guardsman ducks and the shield bounces off the scutum and clatters to the floor by the Emperor's bed, but by the time the Roman has recovered the Varangian has already leaped on top of his shield in a battle fury, unleashing a dizzying barrage of fierce blows that send the Praetorian guardsman to his knees. The Roman offers weak resistance with a feeble poke around his shield with the gladius, but the Varangian knocks aside the sword. He turns to face the other Praetorian, who has by now maneuvered to the Viking's flank, and batters aside a thrust from the spear, splintering the wooden handle and breaking the tip. The disarmed Praetorian scrambles to his feet while the one with the spear pushes the blunted tip into the Varangian's stomach, ramming him into the wall.

***

The Varangian attackers in the Roman Emperor's garden have been pushed back as the lone Praetorian defender of the Emperor has held his own behind his scutum shield. The shield is in a bad state, though, and has been severely dented after receiving punishing blows from the Varangian attackers' Dane axes. Still, the Viking assassins have grown fatigued by the constant fighting, and have lowered their axes and unsheathed their swords as they circle the Praetorian soldier, attempting to find a way around his shield. Looking nervously back and forth, the Praetorian sees as one of the Varangians breaks left while the other charges head-on. Making a quick decision, the Roman meets the Viking's charge with an approach of his own, ensuring that the Varangian soldier runs right into his spearpoint - a forceful encounter that tears through the Varangian's chaimail and skewers him through the midsection. Brown.png He tries to slide the dead body off of the spear shaft, but it stays stuck. The Praetorian gives up and turns just in time to ram his final opponent with his scutum. The Varangian backs up and glowers at his foe, twirling his sword before making one final, bold charge. Placing a foot on the slanted surface of the battered scutum, the Viking leaps up and lands behind the Praetorian soldier.

***

The Praetorian with the broken spear struggles to keep his opponent pinned while his comrade drops the scutum and makes for the window to follow the Byzantine Emperor. As the Roman disappears out the open window, the Varangian gives one final effort and pushes his Praetorian attacker back, pulling the broken spear out of his hands in the process. As the Praetorian guardsman stoops to get a firm grip on his sword, the Varangian swings the broken hasta and cracks his attacker on the head, knocking his helmet off. The Praetorian guardsman falls to the ground, blood trickling from his hairline down his forehead. The Varangian guardsman raises the hasta with two hands over his head and brings the broken weapon down onto the Praetorian's back, splitting his spine in two with the force of the blow and cracking the spear shaft further. Purple.png He gives the fallen Roman one final kick to the skull before scooping his spathi up and diving out the window, scrambling onto the tiled roof and spotting the last Praetorian attacker cornering the Emperor by an empty guard tower. Roaring to the skies, the Varangian bypasses the ladder and leaps the fifteen feet to the ground, rolling on the landing without breaking stride, and jumping to his feet directly into a sprint as the terrified Praetorian looks from the Emperor to the Varangian rapidly approaching. Before he can so much as turn back to kill the Byzantine Emperor, the Praetorian assassin is tackled to the ground by the Varangian guardsman, who shakes the Roman by his neck and throws him up against the wall. The would-be assassin weakly reaches for his sword on the ground, but the Varangian stomps down on his hand as it clamps down on the gladius' handle. Looking up, squinting through the dying sunlight, the Praetorian guardsman only sees the hulking silhouette of the Viking before the blade of the Spathi sword chops down through his neck and severs his head. Purple.png Filled with battle fury, the Varangian guardsman picks up the head and hurls it over the wall. 

***

Back in the Roman garden, the Praetorian guardsman throws his scutum down and turns to run from the Varangian assassin, the Roman Emperor a few feet ahead. Catching up, the Praetorian guardsman grabs his Emperor and turns, forcefully keeping his hostage in place, and nods nervously at the Varangian. 

"You want the Emperor? Here - here. Take him. T-take him!" 

The Varangian plunges his sword into the Emperor's midsection - straight through and into the Praetorian traitor behind him. The two Romans gasp, trembling in pain and fear moments before they both collapse, the Roman Emperor sliding one way and the Praetorian the other. Purple.png The Varangian soldier pulls his sword out of his victim's bodies and wipes the flat of the blade on the Emperor's white tunic, staining it red. Looking around, he watches as the sun dips below the horizon and the day reaches its end. And from within the shadowy garden, among the bloodied and broken corpses, emerges a battle cry of victory that shakes the very trees themselves.

***

The Byzantine Emperor shakily composes himself and gives a grateful nod to his bodyguard. The last rays of sunlight dance teasingly, painting fleeting stripes of orange and pink that vanish into a periwinkle dusk. As he stands to return to his room, the Varangian guard places a firm hand on his shoulder.

"You're safe now, sir."

Expert's Opinion

The Praetorian Guard may have had slightly better weapons, with the greater surface area of the scutum shield and the longer shaft of the hasta, but it was ultimately the greater physicality of the Varangian Guards (thanks to their Viking ancestry) and their harder-hitting weapons that were better suited to small-scale combat, that sealed their victory.

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