When we think of the Viking Age, we think of the invasions of England and Ireland, of the exploration of the Eastern Steppes, and of the attacks along the coasts of Western Europe. Recently, historians have expanded this view through discoveries which have developed our understanding of the breadth of influence the Vikings had across the world. You may know that the Vikings visited Spain, and even sacked Seville in the 9th Century. You may also know that they ventured far to the East to Constantinople where they were hired as mercenary fighters. What you may not know are some of the other lesser known places the Vikings visited such as Sicily, Morocco, and even Baghdad.
The Vikings’ visit to the Italian Peninsula was short lived. We know from several sources that one particular expedition initiated the Norse exploration of the Mediterranean Basin, the first of several. A man named Hastein, a supposed son of Ragnar Lodbrok, set out in the 850’s A.D. with thirty ships to sail around Iberia, through the straight of Gibraltar, and into the Mediterranean. This first expedition was not considered all that successful. Although they sacked Seville and made away with plenty of plunder, their fleet was ambushed in the Mediterranean by a Muslim navy which made quick work of them. Hastein is believed to have narrowly escaped the attack with half dozen ships and dumped most of his plunder to be able to outrun his attackers.
The expedition had ventured as far as Italy and, according to the chronicler Dudo of St. Quentin, had sacked the city of Luna. Hastein brought back to the North stories of riches which inspired others to attempt to raid the Mediterranean. As early as 999 A.D. a more aggressive invasion began in Sicily led by Norman Brigands (Vikings from Normandy) returning from pilgrimage who found the island to be an attractive target for invasion. They began what would become the Norman Invasion of Sicily. After a long but successful campaign, the Normans conquered the island and established the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, which remained under their control well into the 13th Century. In fact, William the Conqueror’s descendant Henry II, known as the father of the Angevin Dynasty in England, maintained heavy influence over the kingdom, which his son Richard the Lionheart used to launch his own crusade to the Middle East.
Hastein’s expedition also attempted to attack Muslim settlements in North Africa. It is this attack which historians believe allowed the Muslims to gather their navy to confront the Norse raiders as they entered the Mediterranean. While they left little trace of their time in North Africa, their sudden appearance alerted the rest of the Islamic world to their threat. Word of their bold and hostile actions are believed to have reached as far as the ruler of Constantinople. While not a singularly important event, the mystique it would have created around the Norsemen may have helped to further their reputation in the Muslim and East Christian world.
The Rus, a tribe of Swedish Vikings who travelled East along the Dnieper and Volga rivers, established extensive trade routes which reached as far as Baghdad. Their trade took them through Constantinople and into the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as through the Caspian and Black Seas, even through the kingdom of the Kazhars whose lands included the modern day country of Georgia. We know they must have travelled as far as Baghdad from several sources, including sources left by the Byzantines, the Muslims in Baghdad, as well as archeological finds in Russia and Scandinavia in which there have been coins and other trade goods produced specifically in Baghdad. What did the Rus trade with the Muslims? They offered some of the most exotic types of goods unavailable to the Middle East: furs, amber, wax, among others.