Scandinavia before the Vikings

The period when the Roman Empire dominated Europe is in Scandinavia called The Roman Iron Age. This archaeological period covers the years 0 to 400 AD. The period coming after this is called Germanic Iron Age (400 – 800 AD) and then the The Viking Age – the years 800 - 1050 AD – which lies in the middle of what the rest of Europe call the Middle Ages. The term, The Viking Age, is used especially In Scandinavia, Iceland, Faroe Islands and Greenland.

In the Roman Empire Christianity was the state religion in the fourth century AD. But in The North Christianity arrived as late as the 10th century, at the end of the Viking Age.

In Denmark the end of the Viking Age is marked with the coronation of King Svend Estridsen in 1047. In Scandinavia we use the term, Medieval Ages, for the Catholic period from 1047 – 1536 AD when the Reformation and Protestantism took over.

The Iron Age in Scandinavia covers a long line of different Iron ages from the end of the Bronze Age 500 BC to the Viking Age. The period is relatively dark, because we have no written sources from these periods. And only a handful of writings from Romans and early Catholics describe these most northern parts of Europe. Therefore it is mainly the Archaeological evidence that are sources for this period.

Archaeological sources

The archaeological sources from these times are rich. Especially from the Roman period. It is in these centuries that many cities and villages in Scandinavia were founded. The time was dominated by agriculture, iron production and trade with the tribes in Germany and the Roman Empire.

The contact with Rome is without doubt also the source and inspiration to the Nordic Runes, which appear in its most early form in the Roman Iron Age.

Roman Iron Age is also a time of war and great offerings in Scandinavia. Findings from Bogs like Vimose in the vicinity of Odense, Illerup Ådal and Alken Enge in the vicinity of Skanderborg is proof of armies clashing – often equipped with roman weapons.

Also large rampart buildings in Jutland like the Olgerdiget, Vendersvold and Kong Knaps Dige – clearly copied from roman Limes fortifications – tell stories of forgotten struggle in a world of tribes in the shadow of the Roman Empire.


In the time of the Roman Empire, Scandinavia was divided in small tribal regions ruled by local Chieftains.

The tribes of The North inscribed themselves in Roman history already around 100 BC. When the Teutons and Cimbri migrated to the Roman regions and was stopped by general Publius Marius at the battle of Vercellae in 101 BC.

In Roman eyes northern Germania was a dark, mystical place with endless forests and tall blonde warriors. A part of a world they couldn’t conquer and thus didn’t understand.

In Augustus’ memoirs, the ”Res Gestae”, he describe that he sent a small expeditionary force, by land and sea, led by Tiberius to the Cimbrian Peninsula in 5 AD. This expedition can not be confirmed by other sources.

In the years 9 BC to 9 AD the land between the Rhine and Elbe rivers was also a part of the Roman realm. And the imperial border was the Elbe River, right at the ”Root of Jutland”. But in year 9 AD three Roman legions, led by P. Quintillius Varus, were lost in a battle led by the German prince and former Roman knight Arminius. This loss was such a shock to the Romans, that they withdrew to the Rhine and never again tried to conquer land on the ”Germanic” side of the river.

After the disaster in Teutoburger Wald in 9 AD, the Romans retired to the western bank of the River Rhine. But in the years that followed many Roman expeditions were deployed into Germania. Partly for revenge and to find the lost Eagles of the legions from 9 AD, and to ensure that no Germans would attack across the river.

In 98 AD the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus published his work ”Germania”. And described how the ”Noble Savages'' in Germania lived. Here you read about bog-sacrifices to the goddess Nerthus. Sacrifices that are well known in Denmark, due to our many Bog-findings and Bog bodies. Two sacrificial Wagons, exactly like the one described in Tacitus’ narrative, were found in Dejbjerg in Jutland in 1881 and 1883.

In the second century BC the Roman ”scientist” Claudius Ptolemy tried to draw maps of the known world. In his work ”Geographica” there was also a map of Germania, mentioning German tribes in Northern Germania.

Some of the tribes Ptolemy mentioned in his map are also known from other sources and later times. The Cimbrians, Teutons, Sviones (Swedes?), Saxons, Anglons, Sudeten, Marovingi, Langobardi and Goths are all in this map from around 150 AD. Also a small tribe called ”Danduti” in central Germany is mentioned, maybe the the forefathers of the Danes?

In tradition, the earliest sources mentioning the Danes are in the Goth historian Jordanes writings from around 550 AD. But this is today seen more as Goth “propaganda”. More interesting is the Eastroman historian Prokop, who mentioned the tribe of Danes in a Battle at the Rhine already in 515 AD in which their “king” was killed.

A new Theory in Denmark is that the medieval Shires (DK: "Syssel") may have been the old tribal areas. In the roots of some contemporary regional names, we still find old tribal names mentioned by Ptolemy; The Cimbri, (Himmerland), The Venethi (Vendsyssel), The Charudes (Hardsyssel) and the Teutons (Thy). From the many archeological findings in DK from this time, it is also clear that some sort of ”princes'' or early kings ruled the lands. A number of very rich tombs show powerful people with regional might.

Rome was the fashion

The many findings of Roman artifacts – given or bought from Romans – show that Rome was the fashion, also here far north of the imperial border. Roman style was the trend which is seen in many findings. Women wore dresses – Roman style – men wore Roman weapons. And in the town of Tjoerring in Jutland, a Chieftain even laid out his farm exactly like a Roman Villa Rustica.

We don't know how close the contact between the Romans and the Scandinavian tribes might have been. The roman historian Tacitus tell that general Caius Silius took command of the Upper Rhine Army in the years 14 - 21 AD after Quintillius Varus. Where he supported Germanicus in his campaigns these years. One of his assignments was to find new allies in Germania, that could help him find the lost legions. In 1920 in Hoby on the isle of Falster in Denmark a very fine collection of Roman dishes and silver drinking cups with the name ”SILIUS '' engraved on the bottom was found in a nobleman's grave. In this region, parts of a Roman Cline – a roman bed – has also been found.

Near the city of Horsens a roman dagger – a Pugio – and several other parts of what perhaps may have been a Roman Centurions uniform have been found. Among these a high quality riveted Gallo Roman Hamata – mail armour.

In Vimose, in the vicinity of Odense a large number of roman artifacts was found in the mid 19th century. Among these were several Roman first and second century gladii and a griffon from a gladiator's helmet.

In Gudme on Funen several treasures of Roman coins, dishes and more have been found. In Denmark Roman artifacts are commonly found in first to third century excavations.


The Theories

How did all these artifacts get here? Are the silver cups from Hoby a gift from Caius Silius to the local prince, as a thanks for auxillary duties? Is the first century "Centurion" from Horsens a local tribesman who had served the Roman Legions and was buried (Burned) in his roman uniform? Or are all these artifacts in fact spoils of war or trade?

The findings of Gudme could find its cause in the ancient trading place at Lundeborg on the south coast of Funen, where Roman merchants also could have traded. A lot of Roman coins have been found in the soil here.

At Silkeborg a Roman first century Gladius was found in a grave in 1957. A theory here is, that it could have made its way to Denmark by trading. Starting as spoils from the Varus battle in 9 AD.

The nordic princes and Marcus Aurelius

In the second century a picture of small ”Kingdoms” showed through the graves of princes, found f. isnt. in Himlingøje and Ishøj at Zealand, Denmark. The tombs are rich on Roman artifacts and tell stories of small powerbases with contacts as far away as Ukraine.

Even though they never tried to conquer Germania again, the Romans made Client states, allied tribes on the German side of the Rhine border. Such an alliance is suggested in the cases of the tombs from Himlingøje and Ishøj.

In the years 166-180 AD Marcus Aurelius was at war with the Sarmantians and Marcomannics in what is today known as Tjekkia and Slovenia. These wars were preludes to coming migrations. In the remains of the Roman military camps from these wars, Scandinavian fibulas and other jewelry has been found. Maybe indicating that Scandinavian Auxillary participated in the wars on the Roman side.

The great bog finds from the third Century AD

Far from the borders of the Roman Empire – in Denmark – we actually have the largest collection of Roman weapons in the World outside Italy. Due to the large Bog offerings of the third and fourth century. In these centuries the Roman Empire was in decline. But these findings show that trade with the Romans continued.

The Illerup Aadal excavations from 1950-56 and 1975-85  are one of them. These findings show bog offerings after large battles in the third century, the earliest from 200 AD, probably between a Norwegian-Swedish and a Danish army. More than 100 swords from this battle have Roman fabrication “Brands” on them.

Roman artifacts from the imperial periods have been found all over Scandinavia. In Norway, Sweden and especially Denmark. More than 11.000 roman coins are found in the region. Bronze vessels, pots and pans, terra sigillata, glass and much more. Practically no local cultural museum in Southern Scandinavia is without roman artifacts. All show, a living contact to the Empire, though trade and perhaps also through alliances, as Client states or auxillary support to the Roman Armies.


Thomas Grane; The Roman Empire and Scandinavia - a Northern Connection; 2007

Karsten Kjer Michaelsen; Den Romerske forbindelse; 2015

Nationalmuseet; Sejrens Triumf; 2003

Ulla L. Hansen; Römischer Import im Norden; 1987

And more.