In fact, in most history books, there is no mention of any Viking activity on the Italian Peninsula and the nearby islands. 

So, did the Vikings go on a "Roman holiday" long before their more famous Norman counterparts?

The fall of Rome

Though the fall of Rome, in Western Europe, happened over a millennium and a half ago, its legacy is still very much with us today. 

From the road network in the United Kingdom to the languages of southern Europe to the architecture that bedazzles many a European city, it almost feels like the collapse of Rome happened only moments ago. 

Much like all the roads that once led to Rome, the history of Europe, at times, can be traced in a linear fashion to that pivotal collapse of Roman power and authority, over huge swathes of Western Europe, from the late 4th century CE.

The 5th century CE proved to be devastating for the Roman Empire. In an era of population migration, peoples shifting across borders and frontiers like flour through a sieve, Rome was sacked by the Goths in 410 CE and then by the Vandals in 455 CE. 

Yet this issue of "barbarians at the gates" glosses over the fact that Rome had essentially franchised off huge chunks of its Empire, towards the end of the 4th century CE, to a number of non-Roman peoples. 

This helped birth feudalism in Europe, which prevented strong central governance of the region until, some scholars have argued, the advent of the European Union.

The final straw was when the last Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustus, was forced to abdicate by the Germanic mercenary leader, Odoacer, who took control of the Eternal City. 

The fall of the Empire in its capital saw the entire Italian Peninsula become a coveted prize, and destination, for the hordes of people migrating throughout Europe in this period, especially the Ostrogoths and Vandals. 

Italy had transformed, by the 6th century CE, from a part of the Roman Empire into a new Germanic civilization.

The "Dark" Ages?

If we turn back to history books of yesteryear, hugely influenced by Edward Gibbon's seminal (though deeply flawed) 18th-century CE tome, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the end of Rome's authority, in Western Europe, was the death knell for civilization. 

It would take, Gibbon argued, until contemporary times ("The Age of Reason") that Western civilization was again reaching the heights that Rome had once scaled. 

Though Gibbon's work has been regarded as a masterpiece, and it is, contemporary academics and historians hold it lacks a great deal of nuance in analysis.

To speak of the "Dark Ages," as the period from roughly the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West to the Renaissance, is deeply troublesome and Eurocentric. 

Europe was never left in the "dark," as the power and architecture of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire or the cultural flowering of the Carolingian Renaissance suggests.

Nonetheless, it is true that from the 5 to 11th centuries CE, a huge number of peoples flowed across Europe, of which Viking raiders, traders, and colonizers could be seen as one of the last.

According to 12th-century Italian chronicler, Dudo of Saint-Quentin, the Vikings attacked Luni, which they mistook for Rome. Photo: LEONARDO VITI / Shutterstock

Pushing southward

By the middle of the 9th century CE, Viking raids had devastated coastal communities near Italy, especially France and Spain. 

It seemed only a matter of time that this Viking expansion – which had started westward, towards the British Isles, and eastward, throughout the Baltic region and Eastern Europe – flowed southward into the Mediterranean Sea.

Viking raids had particularly devastated northern areas of France (more on that later) following the political instability after the death of the first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne. 

Using France as a base of operations, the Vikings then raided coastal communities further southward along the Atlantic coasts of Spain and Portugal. 

By 844 CE, Viking raids had reached as far south as Seville with the Straits of Gibraltar – the western entrance to the Mediterranean Sea – just a stone's throw (or should that be an axe throw) away.

However, if we are to believe 13th-century Icelandic historian and author Snorri Sturluson, it was in 859 CE that a Viking finally pushed through into Southern Europe.

Ironside's expedition

After the Vikings sacked Paris in c. 857 CE, they set their sights further south. 

After three years of preparation, Björn Ironside, the Viking warrior king said to be the son of another famous Viking warrior, Ragnar Lothbrok, joined forces with another Viking chief, Hastein. Having devastated communities up and down the river Rhône, he anchored just off the northwest Italian coast.

What happened next is recorded by 12th-century Italian chronicler, Dudo of Saint-Quentin, who said that the Vikings ended up laying siege to a glorious Italian city full of riches that they mistook for Rome. 

It was, it turned out, the city of Luni which is near the modern city of La Spezia. 

After some skullduggery, the Vikings tricked their way into the fortified town and ransacked it.

Modern historians are highly dubious of whether this sacking of Luni happened. However, some believe that Viking raids did occur on the Italian Peninsula, with Pisa and Fiesole (near Firenze) touted as two locations for their raids. 

Archaeologically there is some evidence of Viking incursions into Italy. Several runestones, in Sweden, memorialize fallen warriors who died in what they called Langbarðaland (The Land of the Lombards, i.e., Italy).

Modern historians are highly dubious of whether this sacking of Luni happened. Pictured are the old city walls in La Spezia. Photo: Nicola Pulham / Shutterstock

The Northmen of France

The nothern, coastal communities of France were so devastated by generations of Viking raids and incursions by the early 10th century that something had to be done. 

Following a rare defeat, at the Battle of Chartes, in 911 CE, the Vikings, led by Rollo, ended up signing a peace treaty with the then-Frankish King, Charles the Simple. 

As part of this peace treaty, peoples from Viking societies were ceded an area of the Frankish realms surrounding Rouen in exchange for vassalage to the Frankish King and conversion to the Christain faith. 

The Duchy of Normandy (medieval Latin labeled these men Nortmanni, "Men of the North") was thus created.

Less than a century later, at the very end of the 10th century CE, these Nortmanni living in France (the Normans) would return to Italy just like their Viking brethren had done centuries before. 

Taking advantage of political instability, following an insurrection in Bari against Byzantine rule in Italy, the Normans – who were now good Christian warriors sent by the Pope to help quell the rebellion - quickly gained a foothold on the Italian Peninsula.

For the next half a century, more Normans were employed as mercenaries in Italy. They soon began to defeat the local Byzantine rulers. 

They succeeded in capturing many southern Italian towns and even managed to capture and imprison Pope Leo IX. 

By the end of the 10th century CE, the Normans had conquered as far north as the town of Molise and Campobasso.

The conquest of Sicily and later events

The final part of the Viking history of Italy would not be complete without a mention of the Norman conquest of Sicily. 

This is a rather neat bookend that separates the earlier Viking, and Norman, conquests from the later glory of the medieval Kingdom of Sicily.

By the early 11th century CE, Normans had not only conquered the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England but had also pushed across from their southern Italian conquests to capture the island of Sicily. 

This island, so strategically important in the Mediterranean world, had been controlled by Muslim rule since its capture from the Byzantine Empire in the mid-9th century CE.

The Norman conquests of southern Italy and Sicily would turn into the County of Sicily, which was the predecessor to the Kingdom of Sicily that was seen as a high point of religious toleration, a diverse but harmonious society, and a cultural flowering that was the envy of the Old World. 

What had started as a series of Viking raids on Italy had transformed into one of medieval Europe's most impressive political and cultural entities with a legacy almost as impressive as Rome's.

For more on the Norman conquests and their cultural and historical links to the Vikings, read a BBC History Extra article here.

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