In the middle of the 9th century, the Viking raiders Hastein and Bjorn Ironsides used a clever ruse to attack what they thought was the most important city in Europe. There was just one problem—they weren’t actually in Rome.
“Where the hell am I … ?
The Vikings appeared suddenly on the stage of history. For centuries, the Scandinavian regions of Sweden, Norway and Denmark were backwaters, far from the centers of action in Europe. But in 793 CE, a force of raiders appeared off the English coast and sacked the undefended monastery at Lindisfarne. The pagan warlords in Scandinavia realized that the Christian settlements in Europe were wealthy and weak, making them easy pickings. Within a few decades, Vikings were making hit-and-run strikes all over Europe, looting and sacking, or sometimes extracting huge ransom payments from the local rulers. The pagan raiders quickly became the terror of Europe.
By the middle of the 9th century, Sweden was ruled by King Ragnar Lodbrok. Lodbrok’s men were said to have raided all over France and England, famously sailing up the river Seine and extracting a heavy ransom from the authorities in Paris in exchange for not burning the city. Although most of what we know about Ragnar comes from stories written long after the fact and almost certainly distorted by legend and exaggeration, he became the most feared and famous Viking of his time. Many later Scandinavian leaders claimed to be the sons of Ragnar, but it’s not clear that they really were. One of these was Ivar the Boneless, another was Bjorn Ironsides. And yet another was Hastein.
We know even less about Hastein than we do about Ragnar. The most detailed account comes from the Christian monk Dudo of St Quentin, written in France decades later, and other versions seem to be based on his story. The name “Hastein” was pretty common, and it is entirely possible that the exploits of several different Viking raiders have all been conflated together and attributed to one person. But here is the story as it is usually told.
In 859 CE, the Swedish princes Hastein and Bjorn Ironsides, sons of King Ragnar Lodbrok, took a force of 62 ships on a raiding expedition. Their target was the Moorish provinces in Spain, which had been conquered by Muslim armies from North Africa.
The Vikings, however, found that the Muslims in Spain, unlike the Christians in England and France, were no pushovers. After raiding a few coastal villages, Hastein and Bjorn attempted to attack Seville, but were repelled by a strong Moorish fleet armed with “Greek fire”—a weapon the Scandinavians had never encountered before.
Viking strategy had always been to bypass places where they met effective resistance, preferring to keep searching until they found an unprepared target that they could take by surprise. So Hastein and Bjorn passed through the Straits of Gibraltar and entered the Mediterranean. The Vikings had never been here before, and the local forces were unprepared to meet them.
For the next year or so, the two raided along the coast of North Africa, plundering mosques and sacking Muslim coastal towns. According to the written sagas, the Vikings were amazed when they encountered people from the African interior, who they called “blue-men”. By some versions, Hastein and Bjorn’s fleet reached as far as Egypt.
It was apparently Hastein’s idea to attack what was then still the most famous city in the world—Rome—and the fleet moved up the Italian coast. But since the Vikings did not know exactly where Rome was, they had to poke along until they found it. When they finally found a town that contained lots of marble, they landed and prepared to attack.
But the Vikings were raiders, not conquering armies—they did not have the heavy siege equipment needed to take a walled city. So, according to the sagas, Hastein came up with a clever plan. A delegation of Scandinavians was sent to the city leaders to declare that they were simply explorers, and that their king Hastein had recently died after having converted to Christianity. Could the church authorities here please meet his last wishes by giving him a proper Christian burial in the city?
At the appointed time, a procession of Vikings duly arrived at the city gates, bearing a platform with the flowered dead body of Hastein. Once inside the defensive walls, though, the “dead” Hastein leapt from his coffin bearing a sword, killed the bishop presiding over the funeral service, and opened the gate to the rest of his raiders, who swarmed in to loot the entire place.
It wasn’t until after Hastein issued a public announcement proclaiming himself the “Conqueror of Rome” that one of the locals told him that he, uh, wasn’t actually in Rome—he was in the little marble-mining town of Luni, to the north. Enraged, Hastein had every male resident of the town killed, enslaved as many women and children as he could fit on his longships, and killed the rest. He then continued to raid the coast of Italy, getting as far north as Pisa.
In 861 CE, after two years of plundering, the Vikings were ready to return home. But now they faced a serious obstacle—they had to pass back through the Straits of Gibraltar, where the Moorish fleet was waiting for them. In the ensuing battle, the Muslims destroyed most of the Viking ships. Hastein and Bjorn escaped with only 20 of their original 62 longships, and lost most of the loot they had collected in the Mediterranean.
Undaunted, the Vikings simply raided Spain again. In the Christian province of Navarre, they managed to capture King Garcia I, and ransomed him off for 700 pounds of gold. Although most of Bjorn and Hastein’s men never made it back home, the ones who did were incredibly rich.
After the Mediterranean expedition, the two brothers split up. Hastein apparently stayed in France. Bjorn Ironsides returned to Sweden. When King Ragnar Lodbrok was shipwrecked and captured by the rival King Aelle of English Northumberland, Aelle had him executed by throwing him into a pit of venomous snakes. In turn, the new Swedish King Bjorn invaded England, captured Aelle, and executed him with the “Blood Eagle”, in which the victim’s rib cage was opened from the back and his lungs pulled out.
Forty years later, another Viking prince named “Hastein“ invaded England with two large armies, where after several battles he was defeated by the English King Alfred the Great. It is not clear however that this was the same “Hastein” who thought he had conquered Rome.