Despite its reputation as the "Eternal City" and, many Romans would argue, the cradle of Western European civilization, it was a shadow of the majestic city that was the center of the Roman Republic and then Empire for over a millennium. 

Nonetheless, the lure of Rome proved so irresistible that even the Vikings attempted to sail and pillage its countless treasures. Yet, like so much of history, the truth of what happened in this Mediterranean mix-up is stranger than fiction.

Rapid expansion

Endless forests have been chopped down to produce the number of written works on the Viking expansion from the mid-8th century CE. 

Regardless of why it happened – was it population pressure, a lack of arable land, easy pickings from rich monasteries, political strife following the unification of Norway, or just a bunch of weak, insecure, and ill-equipped kingdoms Europe-wide, Viking raids became a regular occurrence for much of Europe from the second half of the 8th century CE onwards.

The most obvious choice for these Vikings raids was the immediate vicinity: coastal communities, especially isolated monasteries, around the British Isles, Northern France, Germany, and what is now the Netherlands all fell victim to opportunistic and deadly Viking raids. 

Yet there appears to have been a change in the process from about the mid-9th century CE. 

What had begun as mere opportunistic raids, with a boat or two and a small number of men, turned into sophisticated expeditions with, if we are to believe Norse sagas and medieval chroniclers, scores of ships, and hundreds of men.

Life after Charlemagne

A key factor in the more aggressive expansion of the Vikings was the death of, arguably, Europe's most important ruler since the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Charlemagne. 

He was, without any doubt, one of the most influential rulers for having carved out an empire of huge swathes of Western and Central Europe. 

By the time of his death, the boundaries of his empire were uncomfortably close to the peoples of Scandinavia, pushing as far north as the Danevirke in southern Denmark. 

Having waged an attritional war against the Saxons, the people who lived in northern Germany on the borders with the land of the Danes, there is a common academic thought that Viking expansion was a "defensive" measure to try and end the relentless expansion of Charlemagne's empire.

His death, in 814 CE, undid much of his life's work. Over the course of a few generations, the Carolingian Empire succumbed to dynastic squabbles, and the system fell apart: security, the economy, transportation networks, and local defenses weakened at a time when Viking raids suddenly increased. 

Suddenly, locations that were not near the coast became an open target for the Vikings. River systems, like the Rhône or the Seine, soon became Viking highways of death.

Attacks upriver and along the coast

In 845 CE, one of the most brutal Viking raids was said to have occurred in Paris. This was the culmination of several years of Viking raids on the Frankish realms and saw over 120 Viking ships sail down the Seine led by the semi-legendary Viking chieftain Ragnar Lothbrok

The defenses that Charlemagne had constructed at the mouth of the Seine were in disrepair leading the Vikings to lay siege to the town and only treat having been paid over 7,000 pounds of silver.

Over a decade later, Björn Ironside, another semi-legendary figure but said to be the son of Lothbrok (again, we must rely on later medieval sources), led another raid on Paris in 857 CE. 

Two years later, Ironside led a huge flotilla down the Atlantic Coast of the Iberian Peninsula to raid coastal communities in what was then the territories controlled by the Muslim Umayyad dynasty. 

According to the Norse sagas and some Umayyad records, towns along the southern Portuguese and Spanish coast were attacked with the fleet appearing to sail through the Strait of Gibraltar to enter what the Norse called Jórsalahaf - the "Sea of Jerusalem" or as we moderns call it, the Mediterranean Sea.

According to medieval sources, Ironside's army mistook the bright lights of Luni for Rome. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Romeward bound 

Ironside and his men enter the history books as, if the sagas and sketchy medieval records are indeed true, the first Vikings to sail into the Mediterranean Sea. 

Not being content with raiding southern Portuguese and Spanish coastal communities, they apparently sailed to North Africa before heading northward to raid and savage the Balearic Islands. 

Having been away a significant amount of time, the Viking flotilla needed to garner supplies and thus sailed northeast to camp near the French town of Nimes for the winter. Yet the next year, they had their eyes set on one prize: the "Eternal City," Rome.

In 860 CE, Ironside and his men began their Roman expedition by sailing up the Rhone and laying waste to several communities. Without the aid of modern navigation techniques, they knew Rome was nearby but, unfortunately, couldn't quite pinpoint its exact location. 

Sailing towards the Italian coast, they eventually spotted land and saw an impressive settlement on a hill. However, this wasn't Rome, this was the town of Luni, near the current Italian town of La Spezia.

Our main historical guide to what happened next is a 12th-century chronicler, Dudo of Saint-Quention. Questions must be raised about Dudo's motive (he had a vested interest in downplaying Viking exploits), so we should maybe take Dudo's account with a skeptical mind. 

Mistaking all the bright lights of Luni for Rome, the Vikings were faced with impressive fortifications. Dudo recounts how the Vikings managed to enter the city through deception. 

One of their Vikings pretended to be dead, and the Vikings sent a messenger to ask for this fallen comrade to be buried in the Christian way as he had recently converted. 

When the "dead Viking" was taken through the gates and into the town, he apparently sprang to life, killing a bishop and then letting the other Vikings in. Sort of an early medieval Trojan horse trick...except with a corpse instead.

Rushing through the city, the Vikings soon realized this wasn't Rome and sailed away to fight another day.

Is there any historical truth to this tale, though?

The short answer to this question is: it is very highly unlikely. There are no contemporary accounts of the sack of Luni or, indeed, any other Viking attacks on the northwestern Italian coast. 

Though Luni is a short sail from where the Vikings supposedly wintered in France, it would still require a significant amount of local knowledge and skill to navigate these waters, which the Vikings simply did not have. 

What accounts of this Viking "raid on Rome" we have, including Saxo Grammaticus's Deeds of the Danes, in Latin, and the Icelandic works The Tale of Ragnar's Sons and The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok, were compiled much later, after the end of the Viking Age (c. 793 – 1066 CE) compiled in the 12 and 13th centuries CE.

There is, however, archaeological evidence of Viking camps throughout parts of what is now southern France, and it could indeed be possible, but not probably, that they raided parts of the Italian peninsula. 

Yet the tale of Norse raids on Italy isn't quite finished as the Vikings' ancestors, the Normans, would, perhaps, go on to finish what Björn Ironside first completed and dominate parts of Italy until the 13th century CE.

For more information on the Norman exploits in Italy, visit the BBC History Extra website here

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