Spare a thought for Hastein, a Viking chieftain who was part of an expedition that accidentally attacked the Italian town of Luna (now the commune of Luni), mistaking it for Rome, the Eternal City further south. 

A turning point in Viking history 

The 860s appear to be a pivotal decade in the evolution of Viking history.

Modern-day historians and academics point to this decade as a turning point where the previously predatory Viking raids began to take on a more permanent nature.

A series of invasions by Viking warriors on Anglo-Saxon England - later collectively referred to as the Great Heathen Army - also coincided with more intense raiding and some settlement in the Frankish realms. 

The history of early medieval France is so intertwined with that of the Vikings that it is often hard to see where one starts and the other ends. 

The riches and political fragileness of the Frankish realms, especially since Charlemagne's death in 814, had seen much of what is now France suffer from devastating Viking raids. 

However, by the mid-9th century, these raids evolved into a more permanent fixture. 

Vikings began to overwinter in various locations, establish camps, and utilize the river systems to travel, raid, and trade further inland. 

An important and burgeoning area of Viking activity was in the Loire Valley in central France. 

From their positions in the Loire Valley, Vikings utilized the river systems to travel, raid, and trade further inland, expanding their influence in the region. Photo: Andréa Villiers / Unsplash

Björn Ironside and a raid 

There is significant academic debate about the figure of Björn Ironside.

While he rightfully holds a place as one of the most colorful and intriguing Vikings in the Norse sagas, many are skeptical about his existence.

Some historians argue that he did indeed exist as a historical figure. 

In contrast, others suggest that his epic tales in the sagas are merely an amalgamation of stories from several Viking warriors and rulers. 

Nevertheless, Björn Ironside is said to have led an expedition from a Viking encampment in the Loire Valley to the riches of the Mediterranean world.

One of his loyal commanders is named in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as Hastein (Hasteinn in Old Norse, also known as Haesten or Hastingus). 

Leaving the cold climes of the Loire in 859, Ironside led this expedition along the Atlantic Coast of France and the Iberian Peninsula.

Nevertheless, Björn Ironside was said to have led an expedition from a Viking encampment in the Loire Valley to travel south to the riches of the Mediterranean world. 

Hastein's first mention was a series of raids on what was then the Kingdom of Asturias in modern-day northern Spain. 

Things did not begin well as they were forcefully repelled and defeated in their attempts to plunder and pillage.

Hastein's expedition continued to face challenges; the further south they went, the more setbacks and defeats they tasted.

It's worth noting that during this period, much of the Iberian Peninsula was under the control of the Emirate of Córdoba, a medieval Islamic kingdom. 

The Emirate, due to its connections with the Islamic world, boasted a higher level of civilization (particularly in military, logistical, and economic aspects) than the Frankish kingdoms to the north. 

Sadly, Hastein and his hapless Viking crew were at a disadvantage in military technology, tactics, and strategy. 

They were fighting a losing battle (not the first Vikings to do so), largely unaware of their predicament. 

Luna, Italy, once a thriving Roman town, declined due to factors like port silting and the transfer of the bishops' seat, leading to its abandonment over time. Photo: Phyo91 / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

To the walls of "Rome" 

Having been battered and bruised all down the Iberian Peninsula, Hastein and his crew finally entered the Mediterranean Sea sometime in late 859. 

Here, they had much more success, sailing up to the southern coast of France to winter at the confluence of the river Rhône. 

From here, he was said to have launched devastating raids against Narbonne, Nîmes, and Arles. 

Yet beckoning them from across the Ligurian Sea was Italy, the once epicenter of Europe. 

Whilst the Western Roman Empire was a mere memory by the time Hastein and his men sailed into the Mediterranean Sea, Rome's allure was strong. 

The Eternal City was not just a testament to the past glories of Roman civilization and culture but also the home of the Pope, the leader of the increasingly powerful (and sprawling) Roman Catholic Church. 

Viking societies had members who were lured to live, trade, and settle in Constantinople. 

This city had taken over as the capital of the still-existing Eastern Roman Empire from Rome in the late 4th century.

The political divisions in the Italian peninsula and the decline of Roman influence in Italy might have played a role in Hastein's choice to set sail for Rome. 

Hastein led an expedition across the Ligurian Sea to attack Rome in early 860. Upon seeing high city walls from the coast, the Vikings assumed this was the Eternal City. 

It was, in fact, the town of Luni, lying some 400 kilometers (250 miles) north of Rome. 

Concerned about breaching the high walls of "Rome," it's said that Hastein and his men devised a treacherous plan of attack.

They sent a message to the local priest that a Viking had died and wanted to be buried with all the full rites of a Christian. 

Carrying the man on a stretcher to the town gates, the local townspeople, including a bishop, came to collect him. 

However, the deceased foreigner turned out to be very much alive. 

Once inside the town, he miraculously awoke from the dead, unsheathed a hidden sword, and decapitated the bishop. 

He then let his fellow Viking warriors in the town for a heavy dose of raping, pillaging, and plundering. 

Historians cast doubt on whether this deceptive attack ever happened, but it remains one of the more colorful stories involving the type of trickery and treachery that Vikings were renowned for and made them such feared adversaries. 

Pamplona, an inland city in Spain, became a significant target for Hastein and his Vikings during their return from the Byzantine territories. Photo: Maksym Diachenko / Unsplash

What happened after the failed raid? 

Luckily for Hastein, his horrible geographical and navigational skills appear to have had a trivial effect on his prowess as a Viking leader. 

If we look through the sagas, following the raid on "Rome," Hastein continued his expedition to raid and battle his way via Sicily to the Byzantine Empire. 

After raiding the Byzantines, he reportedly led just 20 ships back north, with tales of an impressive raid on the inland city of Pamplona, Spain, during their return journey. 

The last reference to Hastein is found in later medieval chronicles, where he is said to have led armies against Alfred the Great, King of Wessex. 

He emerges in the limited historical record in 896, almost four decades after his unsuccessful raid on Rome. 

Anglo-Saxon chroniclers heap praise on this then gnarly old Viking who had raided and fought his way from the Frankish realms to Constantinople, from the Italian to the Iberian Peninsula, and everywhere in between. 

Yet his famed raid on "Rome" demonstrates that, despite all the military and naval technology the Vikings possessed, even the most brilliant warriors and leaders can err. 

In Shakespeare's "Richard III," the titular king lamented his kingdom for a horse as he met his tragic end on the battlefield. 

One can't help but wonder what Hastein might have offered in exchange had he known about the Google Maps app...

For more information on later Viking visitors to Italy, check out an article by History here

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