Scandinavia before the Viking Age – Migrations

Scandinavia before and during the beginning of the Viking Age – an isolated barbarian outpost or an ancient culture with age-old traditions for worldwide interaction with other cultures?

(Main source to this piece: “Norge i Vikingtid – våre historiske og kulturelle røtter” by Torgrim Titlestad, Stavanger, Norway, 2011.)

«…but we believe that if we truly know the truth about our ancestors, we can more easily counter the mockery of foreigners when they claim that we are descended from slaves and bandits. And for those who wish to know old transmissions and how to trace our lineages, it is better to start with the beginning than to begin in the middle. As it is, all civilized nations wish to know the origin of their own society and the way that their lineage was formed from the start…”

(From the introduction to the saga “Landnámabók”, 12th century AD, Iceland)

Early Scandinavian Migrations

The year 9 AD is an important marker in European history. The Roman expansion attempt towards the north was stopped by the Teoteburg forest in North-West Germany. Within a few days a Germanic tribal confederation annihilated the Roman army and their following of far more than 20 000 people. The Roman prestige was deeply hurt.

In the year 61 AD the Celtic queen Boudicca from Norfolk in England made a successful rebellion against the apparently invincible imperial power. She was killed, but the Roman losses were legendary. Both events probably made a rich storytelling tradition that made its traces far beyond where the events actually happened. After the Teoteburg battle, the borders between Germania, Scandinavia and the Roman Empire went between the Rhine and the Donau. There is reason to assume that the rumors of the Roman defeat went around all Scandinavia with one important message: The Romans could be defeated. This situation encouraged Scandinavian migrations and military campaigns southwards, a tendency that increased from the fourth century AD onwards. Most of the Germanic tribes known to the Romans regarded themselves as descendants from Scandinavia who kept in touch with their ancestral homes.

Migrations – Poverty or Politics?

It has been common to assume that the Scandinavian-Germanic emigrations during the late Roman Iron Age were the results of poverty at home. Archaeology has disproved this thoroughly. On the contrary, Scandinavia during the 3rd and 4th centuries AD was an increasingly rich place, with a high degree of wealth, political organization and advanced technology – particularly weapon technology – and with strong and already old ties to the continent. Graves have been found showing that some Norwegian 4th century AD warriors served voluntarily in the Roman army and so forth, not out of necessity but due to curiosity and adventurous attitudes. Some became Roman generals.

Ancient Tribal Democracy

The great change during this time was not poverty but rather a political and cultural “revolution”. Up to that point, Scandinavia had been dominated by tribes ruled democratically by parliament and heavily depended on the clan-structure that made up each tribe. With democracy we are speaking of a far more real democracy than the one we find in ancient Greece. All property-owning men and also property-owning women who had been widowed (and thus having no husband to represent them) could speak and vote at the tribal parliaments. In Norway alone more than 27 parliament seats have been excavated, suggesting a relatively direct democracy: While the Athenians in their time gathered in their thousands for parliament, the Norse parliaments consisted of a few hundred each, and each individual had his or her say. The laws were not written down but memorized by all, which meant that everybody had access to legal knowledge. The Norse parliaments would vote on old and new laws and settle disputes. According to Tacitus in 98 AD the “Germans” voted by hand-raising.

Raiding and Military Expeditions

This democratic institution was sacrosanct and continued well into the Christian era, but already during the late Iron Age it was challenged: around the beginning of the 3rd century AD new warrior elites seized power based on military control over land and people. Bonds of loyalty between the new ruling elites became more important than biological kinship-ties. The traditional tribal societies based on kinship, family ties and clan-leaders were gradually replaced by political units dominated by chieftains supporting themselves with armies and military might.

These elites maintained the loyalty of their allied farmers by giving them generous gifts. Without pillaging raids creating a material surplus this new power structure would break down. According to the archaeologists Lotte Hedeager and Bjørn Myhre this is the main reason behind the migrations and the raids – the raiding was an economic necessity for the new ruling warrior elites. The fact that Scandinavia was rich, technologically and economically and politically advanced during this time made it possible to finance foreign expeditions of rather large scale.

The reason why groups from Scandinavian tribes could be so successful on the European continent was because they were good warriors and well-equipped militarily. Only a few hundred elite warriors could easily (it seems) conquer large areas. These warrior expeditions quickly expanded with the accumulation of other people and refugee slaves, both from Scandinavia and from the Roman Empire who joined these army-societies where even those of low birth could quickly ascend in rank through the show of warrior skills. The various groups became tribes and easily joined with others in more or less loose confederations.

In this, the continental groups followed the old Scandinavian traditions: Whenever a tribe joined with another, whether lasting or temporally, they made a common council where the most powerful people could meet. They voted in a common leader who would be a chief only during crisis and conflicts, but not otherwise. With this system, they could democratically control their leaders and easily make confederations whenever necessary, for example when met with common enemies. The Romans picked up on this and thought it worthwhile to make alliances with the tribal confederations and made them into “foederati”. Thus a “Germanic” war-leader from Norway could become a Roman general while at the same time continue internal democratic self-rule and traditional tribal laws.

Norwegians in Europe around 500 AD

According to Jordanes (485-552) there was during the 6th century AD a federation of several Norwegian tribes under one leader, Rodulf (Hrolfr), and the tribal names mentioned are easily recognizable from (still existing) Norwegian regional names, people from the ancient tribal lands of Ranariki (“Ran´s Realm” – Østfold in Norway and Bohuslän in Sweden), Grenland, Agder, Telemark, Rogaland, Hordaland, Háleygjaland and Sami people (Granii, Augandzi, Eunixi, Taetel, Rugii, Aprochi). Apparently these warriors were “taller and wilder than the Germans” and “fought with beastly ferocity”. Rodulf traveled all the way to Ravenna in Italy and was well received by the Gothic king Theoderic. Modern archaeologists are less and less surprised by such tales, since the southern and western coast of Norway had been in contact with southern European culture and aristocratic families for a long time already.

The Scandinavians who ventured out also often returned. The death of Attila in 453 resulted in the freedom of several tribes who had been subject to the Huns for centuries already. The Rugii tribe, for example, had traveled all the way from Rogaland and south-west Norway (Avaldsnes high seat) and made a little realm for themselves in “Rugiland” close to Vienna since the year 408 AD. Here they converted to Christianity, but to the heretic branch of Arianism. Together with the Herulii from Skåne in Sweden, most of them actually returned to their Scandinavian homelands after trouble with the Romans. The sources show that even after centuries abroad, the ties to the original homeland tribes were strong and thriving.

 Continued in Article on the Origins of Viking Raids.

3 Responses to Scandinavia before the Viking Age – Migrations

  1. pat nelson says:


  2. Very information site: can you send any information of the Taetl or Tellir tribes that makes up Telemark?

  3. Pingback: Stripping myths from antiquity to Christian conversion – Lokkes Eventyr

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