Hearing tales of ancient empires full of warriors, both heroes and villains, inspires visions of great battles of Vikings vs Romans and vicious invasions across the span of history.
It’s certainly true that the Scandinavian seafaring raiders of the Viking Age and the well-oiled machine of the Romans during the height of the empire are two notorious warrior groups.
But which one comes out as the most fearsome historical military?
Who came first: Vikings or the Romans?
Rome was a global power long before the Vikings began raiding. The Viking Age began hundreds of years after the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 CE. The peak of the era of Viking raids would come closer to 1000 CE, setting the ultimate forms of the two cultures apart by roughly 800 years.
Rome’s official founding date is said to be April 21, 753 BCE, by the brothers Romulus and Remus. The Roman Republic was founded in 509 BC, lasting until it became the Roman Empire in 27 BCE.
Scandinavia itself was one of the last regions of Europe to receive settlers. The attack on Lindisfarne in 793 CE is the commonly accepted marker for the beginning of the Viking Age. Although it wasn’t the first seafaring raid by Vikings, it gained them more notoriety due to the religious nature of the target.
Did the Vikings fight the Romans?
The Vikings and the Romans never fought each other anywhere near the peak of their respective reigns. The Romans had military encounters with Germanic tribes that had closer ties with Scandinavia, but no direct conflict occurred since their northeastern expansion was halted there while the Vikings had yet to begin raiding.
As mentioned, with around 800 years separating the peak times of each group, this would make direct battle between the two pretty difficult. That said, given how much both the Romans and Vikings still capture our imaginations (and our pop culture, with plenty of TV shows and movies having been dedicated to them), it’s always fun to do a Vikings vs Romans comparison!
Are the Romans better than the Vikings?
In a militaristic sense, the Romans and Vikings had widely different training methods, battle tactics, and campaign strategies. Any fight between a Roman force and a Viking force would depend on which one is dictating the terms of the battle. However, the Romans fought and won much more territory than the Vikings, suggesting they may have had an edge.
That said, this doesn’t entirely mean that the Romans were better than the Vikings militarily. After all, the rest of Europe was also very different during each group’s periods of expansion, which means some of this expansion may not have been entirely down to superior strategies.
Viking military strategies and tactics
Viking raiders were motivated primarily by plunder on their first voyages, and they developed a strategy of quick strikes at weak targets and opportune moments that worked in their favor. Their fast raids began in earnest with the sacking of the monastery at Lindisfarne, then they rapidly spread along the riverways and coasts of Europe. This military strategy would last until Scandinavia became more culturally and politically similar to the rest of Europe.
In an era where physical strength mattered more, the Vikings had a small edge with a larger average height than most of Europe. Diets high in fish protein and vegetables were common at meals, and combat was practiced throughout daily life. Anyone who could be useful might earn a spot on a voyage, even younger boys, so the cultural aspect was more important.
Find out more: What Did The Vikings Look Like?
Axes, spears, and bows were common weapons. Shields, chainmail for the body, and a helmet were typical for protective gear, though the shield was often an offensive tool as well. A good sword might be in the hands of more successful or wealthy Vikings.
While individual skill is hard to measure from a thousand years away, the Vikings did have tactical skill with these weapons. Both bows and spears would be used from range and as part of ambushes before closing into the melee for an aggressive attack. Their tenacity and tactics could overpower small forces and compete with larger ones.
The Vikings’ military blunders can be seen as a natural consequence of their aggressive bravado causing them to deviate from their successful tactics. Two key examples highlight this: the raid on Seville and the Battle at Herdaler.
When they ventured into Spain to raid Seville in 844 CE, they stayed for a full month after a sudden raid captured most of the city. Muslim forces eventually rallied, inflicted heavy losses on the Vikings, and forced the remaining Vikings to retreat while begging for safe passage.
The Heimskringla‘s Saga of Olaf Haraldson tells the story of how this famous Viking and Nordic king tried to attack a small village in Finland. The Finns did not heavily populate the coast, so Olaf led his Vikings deeper into a wooded valley. When they tried to turn back, they were ambushed and chased back to their ships.
The Vikings barely managed to weather a storm and escape to sea as the Finns chased them along the coast and this event has been attributed as being one of the main reasons why there weren’t so many Vikings in Finland as in the rest of the Nordic region.
Roman military strategies and tactics
Roman soldiers were salaried members of a far more regulated force that utilized both strategy and logistics to its advantage. Low estimates put the number of soldiers at multiple hundreds of thousands, and somewhat unreliable historical accounts put the number over 800,000. Even with the massive sprawl of the Empire, this gave them enough troops to maintain defenses and supply reinforcements with tens of thousands of troops in each province.
The gains of the campaign were given to the Empire, funding future campaigns and more territory expansion. Each soldier had less personal gain at stake in each fight, though looting to some degree would not be uncommon. Fighting was not as ingrained into Roman society, but the legion had a vast enough recruitment base that the legion’s professional military culture was more influential on combat capability than the soldiers’ origins.
Roman infantry was famous for its turtle-like phalanx formation, the testudo. They also used a more conventional phalanx formation supported by ranged attacks from archers and ballistae. Like any military force, they would break from these baseline tactics if necessary.
The Roman navy varied in strength depending on how much the Empire needed it at the time, but a force of several hundred warships would be a reasonable estimate for a small fleet formed quickly in an emergency. When Rome assigned Pompey exceptional executive powers in response to the pirate crisis in 67 BCE, he amassed a fleet of that size in a short time.
Vikings and the Byzantines
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the eastern portion became the Byzantine Empire. Swedish Vikings called Varangians moved deeper into Europe and began forming the Kievan Rus‘, a loose alliance that stretched north to south across most of Eastern Europe. They eventually came into contact with the Byzantines. The interactions between the two serve as a close approximation of how things might have gone if the Vikings had started voyaging and met the Roman Empire a few hundred years earlier.
The first Vikings to arrive in Constantinople came as traders in 839 CE, but it would only take 20 years for them to see the potential plunder. First, they attacked the weaker outskirts, easily pillaging from the nearby waterways. The Byzantines could do little to stop them because of a different military engagement. Reprieve was only granted when the Vikings decided to take a break.
The next raid was many years later when Oleg of Novgorod sailed thousands of boats to the city. The Byzantines tried to keep their forces out by barring the harbor, but the Vikings quickly added wheels to their ships and marched them to the city gates. Some doubt lingers about the campaign, but the treaty that came afterward marked a period of peace and trade between the two. After this conflict, the Byzantine Emperor began the tradition of hiring Varangians from Kievan Rus’ to serve as his personal guard.
Similar tales of raids by the Rus’ being met and repelled by the overworked Byzantine army repeat throughout the years. One notable exception is the war in Bulgaria where the Byzantines and Rus fought together before backstabbing one another, leading to a Viking defeat with a peace treaty soon after. The last took place in 1043, ending the conflicts with a burnt Viking fleet and a diplomatic marriage.
Vikings vs Romans
With the above factors in mind, it’s possible to presume that a war between the Vikings and the Romans would most likely result in the Vikings raiding Roman soft targets with a moderate degree of success while being unable to take any permanent territory. The Romans were far stronger than the Byzantines when meeting the Rus’, so they would be less likely to give concessions to mollify the Vikings.
The irregular fighting style of the Vikings might prove difficult without a numbers advantage, but the Romans could eventually win a prolonged fight with more reinforcements than Scandinavia’s entire population. Any isolated Roman legions or garrisons near a body of water would be ripe for destruction. The Vikings had an edge in speed and maneuverability with their longships, and they were proficient at fast assaults with an overwhelming force.
As long as the Vikings had the advantage of surprise and at least close to the same number of warriors, they could quickly win a battle and depart before reinforcements arrived. A full century of 80 Roman soldiers who were in formation and ready to engage would likely prove a solid match for the crew of a single longship, leading to a fierce battle.
Vikings were far more likely to act as independent units, and a unified force required the Jarls to decide to work together for unusual reasons. A single legion would be larger than the largest fighting force the Vikings ever put together at once: 1,000 to 3,000 men of the Great Heathen Army.
If Rome committed heavily to the fight or forced the Vikings to hold their ground, the overwhelming size of its military would likely crush the Vikings in the end. Vikings lacked the same skill with siege equipment, even if they were capable of inventive solutions with tools on hand, so taking defensive garrisons would be difficult for them. Viking archery would be effective from a high wall, but the Romans could likely endure it with their testudos until the Vikings ran out of arrows and the siege equipment could be moved up without hindrance.
The Romans would be more unlikely to push for Viking territory for several reasons. They had plenty of rich and viable land already. The Germanic tribes were a wall of thorns for the Romans, and getting to Denmark would require pushing through several tribes or relying solely on their navy to go around the coast. Heading all the way into Scandinavia would require the navy or an unrealistic march around Europe, restricting mobility even further.