The Viking Age: Luna and the Case of Mistaken Identity

I have been traveling through Italy these past several weeks, looking for signs of my favorite topic: Vikings. Besides Sicily, remnants of the Viking Age in this country are sparse. There is one spot, however, where myth and history combine to tell an interesting story. The place is called Luni, and it’s been said that Bjorn Ironside and Hastein attacked it, thinking it was Rome. So, of course, I had to visit.

Luna’s old Roman site (2019)

Luna’s old Roman site (2019)

The town of Luni — or Luna as it was known then — is located near the border of present day Tuscany and Liguria, on the western Italian coast. It is a sleepy town, with nothing left to shown for its riches and prominence save for an ancient Roman amphitheater marked by several signs. The area sits about 1km from the sea surrounded by fields and a few houses.

It wasn’t always so. Luna was a frontier town of Etruria, on the left bank of the river Macra (now Magra), the boundary in Roman imperial times between Etruria and Liguria.  The Roman city was established in 177 BC as a military stronghold. An inscription from 155 BC, found in the forum of Luna in 1851, was dedicated to Claudius Marcellus in honor of his triumph over the Ligurians and Apuani. In 109 BC, the city was connected to Rome by the Via Aemilia Scauri, which was later rebuilt in the 2nd century AD as the Via Aurelia, a name you can still find on signs in Luni and along the Ligurian coast.

The area was known for its white marble quarries in the nearby Alpi Apuane and neighboring mountains of Carrara, which, in ancient times, bore the name of Luna marble. It was also known for its cheese, its wine, and its harbor. Luni’s harbor was not only a convenient way to get troops to the area, it allowed the local marble to be shipped to Rome easily. Today, you can still see quarries in the nearby mountains and businesses showcasing the Carrara stone.

Map of Roman Luna

Map of Roman Luna

For centuries, the town flourished, its fortunes following that of the Roman Empire. But as the empire began its decline, so too did things begin to change in Luna. Luna was captured by the Goths in the early 6th century, by the Byzantines in 552, and by the Lombards in 642. The latter damaged the city's economy, favoring the nearby port of Lucca to the south, which reduced the once thriving city of Luna to a town.

With the rise of the Saracens and the decline of Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire came more chaos in the Mediterranean. Saracens moved across North Africa and into Spain. They attacked Luna in 849. And in 860, the Vikings appeared.

The fleet that came was commanded by two famous Vikings: Bjorn Ironside and Hastein. In 859, they set sail for the Mediterranean with a huge Viking fleet. After raiding down the Iberian coast and fighting their way through Gibraltar, Bjorn and Hastein pillaged the south of France, where their fleet over-wintered, before landing in Italy and capturing the coastal city of Pisa. Bjorn’s main target was said to be Rome, the eternal city.

If you watched History Channel’s Vikings, the story of Luna might sound familiar. As the story goes, the Vikings believed Luna to be Rome, and wondered how best to get inside the town’s walls. They devised a plan to approach the town as a fleet in need of help. They claimed to be weary and with a dying chieftain who was on his deathbed, wishing to receive Christian sacraments and to be buried on consecrated ground within the town’s church. Upon hearing this, the priests of Luna allowed the Vikings to enter the town. The “body” of Hastein was brought in by a small group of guards who, according to some accounts, carried swords under their robes. After entering the church, Hastein jumped off the stretcher (or out of his coffin) and together with his hirdmen, fought his way to the city gates, where he opened the gates to let his Norse comrades in. After conquering the town, Hastein then demanded that all residents kneel before him and pay homage to him as the ruler of Rome. Only it wasn’t Rome he had conquered, but Luna.

If true, it is an embarrassing escapade for the Vikings, but there are many parts of the tale that seem questionable at best. The Vikings were known for their tricks and treachery, but also for their shrewdness. Would they really have mistaken Luna for Rome? If the city had already been reduced to a town and lost much of its wealth, how then could Bjorn and Hastein have believed it to be the eternal city? Perhaps the town’s walls shielded the Vikings from seeing much of what lay inside? Or, perhaps the place had been built with much of the marble for which it was known, making it appear wealthier than it actually was? Could a local guide have given the Vikings bad information?

I suppose only Luni and its ancient stones may ever know the truth of the tale.


Interested in Vikings and Viking historical fiction? Have a look at my series about Hakon Haraldsson (also known as Hakon the Good), which can be found on Amazon in the US, UK, and other markets.