They sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to North America, navigated the rivers of Russia, and crossed the Caspian Sea to reach Afghanistan, and they were even active in the Iberian Peninsula. But one of the most unusual places reached by the Norse is Italy, specifically Sicily to the south.
At the heart of the Mediterranean, Sicily would require an extensive voyage around Iberia, across mainland Europe or through Eastern Europe, and down to the Black Sea to reach. It is not then surprising that we have some indications that the Vikings reached the island of Sicily, given their unparalleled navigational ability. New archaeological evidence has now revealed the extent of the Norse legacy in southern Italy.
The raid of Hastein and Björn Ironside
The earliest possible time that Vikings may have reached Sicily is recorded in a number of historical sources from Western Europe. One such instance concerns a legendary raid into the Mediterranean around 859 CE, led by the mythical Swedish king Björn Ironside and his foster father, Hastein.
There are several differing interpretations about exactly how far the Vikings traveled in the Mediterranean, but there is widespread corroboration that they, at least, reached Italy. The ninth-century Annals of Saint Bertin describe how the fleet led jointly by Björn and Hastein raided the coast of Iberia before breaching into the Mediterranean Sea to pillage the southern coast of France.
After wintering there, they landed in Italy, where they captured the city of Pisa before venturing further south to Sicily and Northern Africa. They then lost a total of 40 ships to a storm and then two more to an Andalusian raid, meaning that only 20 ships returned home.
The account of William of Jumiéges takes a more legendary and fantastical approach, suggesting that Hastein intended to make Björn the Roman Emperor but mistook the small town of Luni for Rome and failed to launch an assault on the city. There are some chronological inconsistencies with this story, though, and it has been suggested that William is conflating a raid on Luni by Saracens with a Viking raid.
Nonetheless, these accounts indicate that Viking raiders were at least briefly present in the area around Sicily in the ninth century, although we have nothing to securely plant this raid in Sicily. However, we often find evidence of Viking activity in the most unusual of places.
For example, mouse bones from the Atlantic islands of Madeira suggest that the Vikings may have landed there, bringing mice with them, long before the Portuguese colonized the island. As such, we may find some evidence in the future that finally confirms direct Viking presence in Sicily.
An aerial photograph of the city of Taormina, on the island of Sicily, Italy. Photo: DaLiu / Shutterstock
Another possible avenue for Viking exploration of Sicily comes from the East rather than the West. The Rus', descendants of Vikings who settled Eastern Europe from Sweden, are known to have joined the court of the Byzantine Emperor as mercenaries and then as personal guards in a group known as the Varangian Guard.
From here, Viking (and sometimes Anglo-Saxon) warriors participated in the battles of the Byzantines around the Eastern Mediterranean in Egypt, the Levant, and Sicily, where Arabs had established an Islamic emirate in the tenth century.
One of the most famous Varangians is the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada who fought for the Byzantine Empire for much of his early life, fighting in Anatolia, Jerusalem, and Sicily.
Hardrada was certainly not the only Viking to have fought on behalf of Byzantium in Sicily, and there is some indication that Varangians fought in Sicily as early as 936 C.E (according to Per Ullidtz's The Danish Conquest of England). There is also evidence from Swedish runestones, which mention warriors dying in "Langbarðaland," which is speculated to be the Old Norse name for southern Italy.
The Normans in Sicily
During his time fighting the Mediterranean, Harald Hardrada may also have participated in another conflict in Sicily, not on behalf of the Byzantines. In the early eleventh century, Normans from northern France began settling and conquering southern Italy and Sicily, establishing independence from both Byzantium and the Muslim emirates. Hardrada may have been fighting in the service of William de Hauteville, a Norman adventurer who would leave a lasting Norman footprint on Sicily.
The Normans originated from Norse raiders who were granted land in Northern France and then settled and assimilated with the French population. It is disputable to what extent they would have still associated themselves with their Viking heritage by the eleventh century, as by this time, they spoke Old Norman French and were fully brought into the French feudal system.
However, skeletons of Norman conquerors have been found in graveyards in Sicily. They have massive builds, stereotypical of Vikings, potentially giving one indication of the legacy of the Vikings in Sicily.
Whilst the Viking impact on Sicily is not as important or as tangible as their other exploits, the variety of their activities on the island, from raiding to settling to mercenary work, shows the flexibility of the Norse and the remarkable ways that they impacted almost all of Europe.
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