The Battle of Abritus › Anastasios I › The Vikings in Ireland » Origins and History

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  • The Battle of Abritus › Origins
  • Anastasios I › Who was
  • The Vikings in Ireland › Origins

Ancient civilizations › Historical places, and their characters

The Battle of Abritus › Origins

Definition and Origins

Author: Joshua J. Mark

The Battle of Abritus was an engagement fought between the armies of Rome under the emperor Decius (249-251 CE) and a coalition of Goths under the leadership of Cniva (c. 250 - c. 270 CE) in 251 CE resulting in a victory for Cniva and the death of Decius and his son in a total defeat of the Roman army. The Romans had no choice afterwards but to allow Cniva to march out of Roman territory with all the booty and slaves he had captured on campaign.
The forces met in the valley of the Beli Lom River, near the town of Dryanovets, in modern-day Bulgaria. Cniva had already attacked the Roman cities of Novae and laid siege to Nicopolis ad Istrum, where he first met Decius, before the decisive battle at Abritus. Had Cniva capitalized on this victory and returned for another attack, he could have destroyed whatever forces Rome had left in the region to mount against him; he did not, however, and chose to take his substantial booty home to fight against Rome another day.
He has been identified with the Goth leader Cannabaudes who was defeated by Aurelian(270-275 CE) in 270 CE and was killed, along with 5,000 of his troops. Whether Cannabaudes was the same king as the victor of Abritus is disputed, but there is no doubt that Cniva’s victory in 251 CE was a severe blow to Rome and the first time a sitting emperor – as well as his son and successor – was killed in battle.




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At the time of the battle, Rome was going through the turmoil known as the Crisis of the Third Century (235-284 CE) which began when the emperor Alexander Severus (222-235 CE) was assassinated by his own troops while campaigning in Germania. Severus decided to follow his mother’s advice and pay his German adversaries off instead of meeting them in battle, and this was seen as dishonorable and cowardly by his commanders who then removed him in favor of the Thracian Maximinus Thrax (235-238 CE). This paradigm then became standard operation; if an emperor proved disappointing, he was killed and replaced with a more promising candidate.
Maximinus Thrax was assassinated by his troops in favor of the young emperor Gordian III(238-244 CE) who was then killed by his successor Philip the Arab (244-249 CE) who was then disposed of by Decius. Decius came to power following Philip the Arab’s unpromising campaigns against Shapur I (240-270 CE) of the Sasanian Empire and Shapur I and his son HormizdI (270 - c. 273 CE) had again mobilized their armies to strike at Roman holdings in Mesopotamia. At the same time, there were domestic issues to be handled in Rome and a plague which was stalking the citizenry as well as numerous other problems Decius had to focus on.
In addition to these challenges, Decius considered the new faith of Christianity a threat to Rome’s stability and inaugurated a series of persecutions of the sect. Anyone suspected of being a Christian was forced to perform a single sacrifice to the traditional gods of Rome; if they did, they were issued a Certificate of Sacrifice stating the ceremony had been carried out and witnessed, and if they did not, they were executed. Although this policy seems to have been popular among many Romans (Decius was lauded as “Restorer of the Cults”), it obviously was not among the Christian population and, further, diverted time and energy to religious persecution which could have been better directed to the other far more pressing issues.
In the middle of Rome’s chaos, and with a new emperor in power trying to contain it, Cniva of the Goths and his coalition marched into Roman territory in 250 CE to pillage, kill, and enslave as many as he could. His army was comprised of a number of different tribes, not just his Goths, and among them were the Carpi, Bastarnae, Taifali, and Vandals. His first strike was against the border city of Novae but he was driven back by the general (and future emperor) Gallus (251-253 CE). Cniva avoided another encounter with Gallus and moved to lay siege to the city of Nicopolis ad Istrum while his Carpi contingent attempted to take the city of Marcianopolis. Both of these cities repelled the attacks, and Decius arrived with his army to relieve the siege of Nicopolis.


Decius had been in the region since 249 CE when he had been a commander before he deposed Philip and took over as emperor. Since Philip’s assassination, Decius had been on the move trying to contain or prevent invasions into Roman territories. Philip had stopped the payments to the Goths, Sassanid Persians, and various other tribes, all instated by Maximinus Thrax, which had kept them from open hostilities, and now there were threats against Rome from all sides. The most pressing at the moment, however, was Cniva and so Decius directed his forces against the Goths.
He drove Cniva’s forces from Nicopolis but did not defeat him, and Cniva was able to leave the field with his army intact. Cniva led his forces north, ravaging the country as he went, followed ineffectually by Decius. In the north, near the city of Augusta Traiana, Decius paused in his pursuit to rest his army, and this was just the opportunity Cniva seemed to be waiting for. The Romans were attacked without warning by Cniva’s forces and scattered. They had been taken completely by surprise and Cniva was able to inflict heavy casualties while sustaining few of his own. Decius and his commanders fled the field with what remained of the army and regrouped while Cniva gathered the weapons and supplies they had left on the field and then marched again south toward the city of Philipopolis.

Gothic Invasion 250-251 CE

He lay siege to the city in late spring 250 CE while Decius’ forces were still scattered and the emperor was trying to reform his army. Philipopolis was garrisoned by a Thracian force under the command of Titus Julius Priscus which was far too small to defeat the much larger force of the Goths and their confederates outside the walls. The Thracians declared Priscus emperor, perhaps to empower him to legally negotiate with the Goths, and he brokered a deal by which the city and its people would be spared if they surrendered without resistance. Once the gates were open, however, the Goths ignored the agreement, and the city was sacked and burned. Priscus was either killed or captured at this time; there is no further record of him.


Cniva looted the city and took thousands of citizens captive. Having gotten what he came for, he then turned his forces around and headed back for his homeland, the long train of prisoners and future slaves winding out behind his army. Decius, meanwhile, was still recovering his forces and trying to mobilize them as an effective army. Once finally organized and regrouped, the Roman forces again pursued Cniva’s army as it moved north toward the border. Cniva, hearing of the pursuit, halted his retreat and took up a position in a marshy area in a river valley near the city of Abritus, a region he seems to have known well.

Battle of Abritus

Cniva divided his forces into different units (sources record either three or seven separate units) and deployed them around a large swamp. His front line was positioned across the far side of the swamp while he and another unit took position behind it; other divisions were placed on either side but masked by the front line. When Decius heard that the Goths had stopped their march and were encamped, he most likely hoped to inflict the same kind of damage on the resting army that Cniva had on him earlier. He marched his army quickly to the site and arranged his forces in traditional battle formations against Cniva’s front line.
When the Romans charged, the Goths fell back, broke ranks, and took flight through the swamp. The Romans interpreted this as a rout and followed them, confident of victory. The swamp, however, completely nullified any advantage of the Roman formations which soon fell apart as they pursued the fleeing Goths. The Roman soldiers found themselves trapped in the thick, muddy water, unable to advance in unison, and then Cniva unleashed his attack from three sides. Decius and his son were both killed, and the rest of the army almost annihilated.

Cniva in Battle

Decius’ commander Gallus was now proclaimed emperor and led what was left of the army out of the swamp in retreat. Cniva and his army took the booty from Philipopolis and resumed their march back home. Gallus has been criticized since shortly after the battle for not pursuing the Goths and rescuing the captives but, as scholar Herwig Wolfram points out, he was given few options:
[Gallus] had to allow the Goths to move on with their rich human and material spoils and even had to promise them annual payments. This is why he is charged to this day with treason and incompetence. But in fact, his actions were forced upon him by circumstances. After the defeats at Deroea and Philippopolis, and especially after the catastrophe at Abritus, the new emperor had no other choice. He had to get rid of the Goths as quickly as possible. (46)


The story of the Battle of Abritus is first told by the Greek historian Dexippus (210-273 CE) and is the only account extant by a contemporary of the event. Dexippus and later Christian writers would call attention to Decius’ persecution of the Christians as the reason for his defeat and death. According to this view, the Christian God was avenging the deaths of his followers at Abritus. These claims aside, a simpler explanation is that Cniva knew the terrain and was a better military leader than Decius and so won the battle without the need for any supernatural ally.
The site of the battle was disputed for centuries until 2014-2016 CE when archaeologists positively identified the site through finds of Roman and Goth artifacts discovered near the modern-day city of Razgrad and the town of Dryanovets in the valley of the river Beli Lom. The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus (c. 325 - c. 400 CE) describes how Decius was lured into the trap at Abritus by the Goths and his description matches the terrain outside of Razgrad as well as that given by Dexippus.

Tombstone from Abritus

The Battle of Abritus was not a decisive turning point in Rome’s history but was a telling blow against the former might of the empire. In the past, except for a few extraordinary cases, the Roman army led by their emperor was usually victorious and was recognized as a formidable fighting force. At the Battle of Abritus, however, the army, under the experienced leadership of Decius, was destroyed and the emperor and his successor killed in an engagement which the Romans had every reason to believe should have gone the other way.
It would be events such as Abritus which would lead Latin writers to conclude that the city – and, by extension, the empire – had been deserted by the traditional gods who were upset by the new religion of Christianity and would lead later writers such as Orosius (5th century CE) to write defenses against this claim. Whether the rise of Christianity contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire has long been debated, but that question aside, the empire was already in turmoil and crumbling, and the Battle of Abritus stands as a telling example of the kinds of problems which beset Rome during the Crisis of the Third Century.
Emperors were no longer masters of the realm who could dictate sound policy as they saw fit; they were now at the mercy of the military who could kill and replace them if they seemed weak or ineffective. Whatever may have gone through Decius’ mind in choosing to launch his attack on Cniva at Abritus, he must have been aware that, if he did not, he ran the risk of assassination by his own troops.
This model of leadership, as noted, was standard throughout the era of the Crisis of the Third Century and even though it was rectified under the reign of Diocletian (284-305 CE), Rome would never be the same power it had once been following the events of the 3rd century CE. A different Rome would emerge afterwards, which would face further difficulties in a new incarnation as the Eastern and Western empires until its eventual fall.

Anastasios I › Who was

Definition and Origins

Author: Mark Cartwright

Anastasios I ruled the Byzantine empire from 491 to 518 CE. Although his tax and monetary reforms were both popular and successful, the emperor could not repair the damaging split in the Christian Church created by his predecessors. He faced a major rebellion inside the empire and outside its borders, his military campaigns were as ineffective as his famous Long Wallin Thrace. Nevertheless, Anastasios did at least lay the foundations upon which the great Justinian I would build so spectacularly in the middle five decades of the 6th century CE.


Flavius Anastasios was plucked from the relative obscurity of his role as a court attendant and backed by Empress Ariadne to succeed her late husband Emperor Zeno (r. 474-491 CE). Zeno’s heir Leo II had died prematurely in 474 CE and his elder brother Longinus was something of an unprincipled scoundrel so that legitimate candidates for the Byzantine throne were thin on the ground. Ariadne, herself the daughter of Emperor Leo I (r. 457-474 CE), ignored her late husband’s advice and chose to marry Anastasios, already in his sixties. Longinus organised a rebellion of sorts, but it came to nothing, and he was exiled along with his Isaurian followers in 492 CE (Zeno having been the chief of this tribe from central Asia Minor). All of Zeno’s family were banished, too, in a sweeping clean-up typical of the new emperor’s thorough approach to all areas of his rule.


Anastasios had some limited success on the military front, managing to take back the fortress of Amida on the Byzantine frontier with Persia c. 504 CE after its conquest by the shah Kavad. The fortifications along the empire's eastern border with the Persians were further strengthened with the building of a new fortress at Anastasiopolis (Dara) between 505 and 507 CE. In 506 CE a peace was signed with the Persians.
Elsewhere was a different story. Theodoric, the King of Italy, was a powerful enemy of Byzantine interests in the western Mediterranean, even if Anastasios officially recognised him as king in 497 CE. Pannonia, a province in central Europe along the Danube, was a particular bone of contention between the two states with the Ostrogoths capturing Sirmium. Archaeological evidence suggests that several Byzantine fortresses were built along the Danube during Anastasios’ reign and not, as traditionally held, by Justinian I (r. 527-575 CE). Anastasios also countered the threat from Theodoric by making Childeric, the king of the Franks in Gaul, an honorary consul and sending him a fleet to aid his war with the Ostrogoths in 507 CE.
The northern frontiers of the empire were attacked by the Bulgars from 493 CE, which led to Anastasios building his famous Long Wall to better protect Thrace. The wall extended from Selymbria on the north shore of the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea and stretched some 45 kilometres. 65 kilometres from Constantinople, it was designed to protect the capital but, unfortunately, in the long term, it proved ineffective as earthquakes damaged portions of it and the garrison which was given the task of defending it proved to have less than top-notch troops. The lasting effect of the wall was more of a psychological one, and that on the Byzantines themselves, for it reminded everyone that the northern border of the empire was now practically the back door of Constantinople.


Anastasios might have lacked any royal pedigree, but he was not lacking in political and fiscal competence. The new emperor reformed the much ailing Byzantine coinage by introducing new and improved coins, notably the large copper follis, 288 of which were worth one gold nomisma, the standard coin against which all others were valued. Tax collection was reformed and the job given to state officials instead of local collectors. In a popular move in 498 CE, Anastasios abolished the chrysargyron, a tax on business transactions made by anyone from merchants to prostitutes - even beggars were liable. The tax had to be paid in gold or silver every four years, and its abolition resulted in a popularity boost for the emperor across his empire. The shortfall in the state coffers was made up by revenues from imperial estates and possibly a new tax, the chrysoteleia, which remains of uncertain purpose or application. All of these reforms certainly had the desired effect, and the state treasury could boast a surplus of 320,000 pounds of gold by the end of Anastasios’ reign.

Copper Follis of Anastasios I

In religious affairs, Anastasios’ interventions were markedly less successful and less popular than his financial reforms. The emperor’s interest in theology went back to his time as a courtier when he delivered seminars in the Church of Hagia Sophia, so it was perhaps no surprise that he would use his new power to try and influence Church doctrine. In 482 CE Zeno had issued the Henotikon edict which had hoped to settle the dispute in the Christian Church of whether Christ had two natures (divine and human) or just one. The edict, never living up to its name ‘The Edict of Unity’, satisfied neither camp, and Pope Felix III felt strongly enough about it to condemn it and excommunicate the bishop of Constantinople, Akakios. The split became known as the Akakian Schism, and Anastasios could do nothing to repair it.
Indeed, the emperor’s open support of Monophysitism (the one nature camp) and attempts to appoint like-minded bishops in major cities only inflamed matters and caused several public protests in Constantinople. One particular point of contention was the emperor’s insistence that the Trisagion chant of the liturgy in eastern church services be amended so that the standard "holy God, holy strong, holy immortal, have mercy on us" received a final extension of "who was crucified for us" which suggested the divine nature of God was subject to suffering, an impossible position for Orthodox Christians. In 512 CE Anastasios won back the favour of his people by appearing in the Hippodrome of Constantinople, taking off his diadem before the 20,000 crowd and offering to retire if they would only name a successor. The clever soap-box politics worked, and nobody could think of any real reason to depose their emperor.
Rumblings of discontent continued, all the same, and the most serious consequence of the Monophysitism debate was the Vitalian revolt, named after the military commander who led the rebellion in Thrace between 513 and 515 CE. It was yet another example of how interlinked popular movements and Church dogma were in Byzantine life. Vitalian rode on a popular wave of orthodox feeling after Anastasios had tried to install a Monophysite bishop in Constantinople. The usurper’s threat to the throne, although never realised, would not be removed until a conciliation with Justin I (r. 518-527 CE) and his assassination in 520 CE, probably under the orders of his rival, the future Justinian I. The ecclesiastical division between Rome and Constantinople would also have to wait for Anastasios’ successor, when it was bridged, albeit temporarily, in 519 CE.
For the ordinary people, then, life under Anastasios had certain advantages, stability was always welcome, and there were not too many wars or invasions with their all-too-frequent horrors of pillage and premature deaths. Still, there was something lacklustre about the period and, as the historian J. J. Norwich here explains, life for the Byzantines under Anastasios lacked a little of the fun enjoyed under less religiously zealous emperors:
His chief defect was parsimoniousness - a failing which, combined with a strong puritanical streak, made Constantinople a duller place to live than ever before. Contests with wild beast were forbidden; citizens were no longer permitted to hold nocturnal feasts, on the grounds that they led to unbridled licentiousness - which indeed they very often did. (57-8)


Anastasios, then in his nineties, died of natural causes in 518 CE and, not having any children, he was succeeded by Justin I. The aged and uneducated commander of the palace guard was, according to legend, selected by Anastasios merely because he was the first person to enter the emperor’s chambers one morning. Justin would reign until 527 CE which then saw his nephew Justinian I take the throne who ushered in a new Golden Age for the Byzantine Empire, one that Anastasios I had laid the foundations for with his frugal and innovative fiscal policies.

The Vikings in Ireland › Origins

Ancient Civilizations

Author: Emma Groeneveld

In early Medieval Europe, a prime subject of frightening tales-come-true were the famously marauding and pillaging Vikings, spilling out of their dragon-headed longships in a state of bloodlust, thirsting for gold. With their menacing presence eventually stretching from eastern Europe and the Mediterranean all the way to North America, no land seemed safe – and it was early on in their globetrotting exercise that the Vikings zoned in on the appealing green shores of Ireland. From 795 CE onwards, monasteries and towns were looted or destroyed in persistent raids, followed by the building of forts and settlements which allowed these Norsemen to become wildcard players on the Irish political scene. The Vikings, although losing their autonomous power in the late 10th to early 11th century CE, had by then already integrated into Irish society through intermarriage and close contact with the locals, and left a lasting mark on both commerce and culture.

Viking Attack


What exactly motivated the Vikings to set sail for Ireland (or the British Isles in general), though, is subject to ongoing debate. In western Norway, where land that did not try to kill you or your crops was a bit scarce, a search for new land may have been a small push factor. This seems to fit with the Norwegian Vikings beating their fellow Scandinavians to the punch in expanding westwards, reaching Orkney by the 7th century CE. It was the Norse who ended up on Irish shores.
When, from around the end of the 7th century CE, increased commercial contacts with western Europe brought the Scandinavians whispers of riches in Europe as well as stories of the kingdoms’ internal conflict, a pull factor neatly presented itself on a silver platter. What is more, the Scandinavians picked up the technical knowledge of sails – something they originally lacked – from western Europe, too, which allowed them to remodel their timid boats into quick and deadly vessels. Just like that, all the makings of a successful raiding expedition were there.


The Irish medieval annals, penned by monks and clerics that were among the eye-witnesses, record the first Viking raid in 795 CE when the island of Rathlin off the northeast coast of the mainland and the great monastery of St. Columba on the island of Iona were attacked by strangers. They had come out of the blue, sweeping in and out and carrying off their treasures in likely fairly uncoordinated expeditions set up by independent warbands. In the years that followed, the Vikings took their ships into the Irish Sea, for instance burning St. Patrick’s Island just north of Dublin in 798 CE. These initial endeavours were carried out by no more than two to three ships at a time – hardly fleets stacked with countless Norsemen – in a hit-and-run fashion.
By 807 CE the Vikings had pushed around to the western bays, too, and most of the targets they picked – monasteries and small towns – were easy prey; they had the elements of surprise and speed and generally stayed within 30 km of navigable water, which kept them highly mobile. Despite a few instances of successful local resistance, the Irish probably had an underdeveloped fleet, no coastal forts and an impractical 480 km of coastline to defend; a bit of a hopeless job. The appeal of the monasteries was obvious: housing more than just monks, fine metalwork was made here to embellish holy books as well as reliquaries and stored treasure was abundant too, making for easily transportable loot. The community on Iona was so shaken up after being raided in 795 CE, burned in 802 CE, and seeing 68 of their community torn apart by Viking axes in 806 CE that they actually rehoused their treasures and some of their staff to a new monastery built inland at Kells.
Understandably annoyed at this whole situation, the person jotting down the record in the Irish Annals of Ulster (our main source on the Viking raids; they are off by one year in their counts but are here referenced in corrected fashion) for the year 820 CE complains that at that time:
The sea spewed forth floods of foreigners over Erin, so that no haven, no landing-place, no stronghold, no fort, no castle might be found, but it was submerged by waves of Vikings and pirates. (820)
In the first 40 years that the raiders came knocking on Irish doors, the Vikings remained faceless wraiths, harrying the Irish coastal regions mostly in the northern half of Ireland and plundering many monastic centres. Before 837 CE no Viking names appear in any of the Irish records, and it is not until the mid-9th century CE that Viking kings start popping up at all; this early phase of raids was only a prelude.

St. Kevin's Church, Glendalough


The early raids had made clear Ireland’s potential to treasure-hungry eyes, and from the 830s CE the Norse Viking groups amped up the pressure, the Irish annals listing around 50 specific attacks on monasteries and nine big raids on churches and people in places such as Leinster and the Uí Néill lands between c. 830 and 845 CE. Not just valuables were stolen; taking captives and striking up the ransom was a good way to make some cash, too.
A new phase in the Vikings’ involvement with Ireland is identifiable from 837 CE. Following the already increasing scale of raids, in this year a much more mammoth-sized fleet of Vikings sailed up the rivers Liffey and Boyne into the inland territories, attacking the lands of Brega in the south of County Meath:
A naval force of the Norsemen sixty ships strong was on the Bóinn, and another one of sixty ships on the river Life. Those two forces plundered the plain of Life and the plain of Brega, including churches, forts, and dwellings. The men of Brega routed the foreigners at Deoninne in Mugdorna of Brega, and six score of the Norsemen fell. (The Annals of Ulster, 837. 3)
These ships, probably sailing from the Viking-occupied areas in Scotland, seem to have carried around a healthy 3,000 men in total, who for the first time butted their heads against proper local resistance, a theme that was carried on as a force of southern Uí Néills stood up against the Vikings, too, although less successfully as of them "an uncounted number were slaughtered" (Annals of Ulster, 837. 4). Pushing up the inland waterways of the east midlands, where they soon became a regular sight, instead of their former pin-pricks along the coastlines, the Vikings now seem to have been organised in royal expeditions hailing from Viking Scotland, with chieftains or kings tying together several groups and splurging out on resources to support these missions. With this new inland focus, forts, farms, and towns now increasingly came under threat, too. Overall, from 837 CE onward, larger targets (such as the greater monastic towns Armagh, Glendalough, Kildare, Slane, Clonard, Clonmacnoise, and Lismore) were hit by larger forces than in the early days, while smaller, local churches where there was less to be plundered may have escaped the onslaught.
Greater expeditions brought greater rewards, and although the religious artefacts that the Norse looted generally did not have the highest metal value, the fact that they carried meaning to the Christian Irish meant they could be ransomed off. Slave-taking – unusual for the local Irish – was also a regular feature of the Viking raids in general and helped fill up the till.

The Vikings in Dublin, 841 CE

Unfortunately for the Irish, instead of the winter cold interrupting the Viking raiding seasons and giving them some time to breathe, from at least 840 CE onward, the Norse began to overwinter in Ireland. They bunkered down at Lough Neagh in that year and set up the first coastal fortresses which also housed their ships, known as longphorts, in at least 841 CE, including one at Dublin. As the annalists note, in 841 CE "There was a naval camp [longphort] at Duiblinn…" (841. 4), and then, with almost palpable surprise, the entry for 842 CE states "The heathens still at Duiblinn" (842. 2). Raids could now be sprung upon unsuspecting targets in the middle of winter, with slaves kept prisoner in the Vikings’ brand-new winter quarters.
The Vikings’ longphorts became their strategic footholds functioning as stepping stones for increased plundering activities along the Irish coastline, and also foreshadowed their more long-term settlement in places such as Wicklow, Waterford, Wexford, Cork, Limerick, and Dublin, where they gradually incorporated the surrounding area into coastal kingdoms that competed with the other Irish and Norse ones around them. Contrasting with the situation in England and Scotland, however, the Norse never gained any substantial Irish territories.


These new developments had a fair few knock-on effects. The Vikings threat could no longer be ignored – not even by the Irish greater kings who so loved bashing in each other’s skulls and feuding amongst themselves – and by 845 CE Niall Caille, king of Tara, discovered he was well capable of inflicting a defeat on a bunch of Vikings in Donegal. Many Irish military successes, such as the one by Maél Sechnaill I (a descendant of the southern Uí Néill dynasty who styled himself High King of Ireland) in 848 CE in which 700 Vikings allegedly bit the dust, followed. The Vikings’ formerly dynamic presence had shifted to them becoming somewhat sedentary ducks in their longphorts, making them more vulnerable to this stiffened Irish resistance.
Besides antagonising the locals, the Vikings’ settlement actually also drew them into the Irish political scene, as Donnchadh Ó Corráin explains:
The Irish kings now made war on them [the Norse], now used them as allies and mercenaries in the shifting web of alliances at the centre of which lay the Uí Néill [an Irish dynasty] attempt to make themselves kings of Ireland. (Ó Corráin in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings, 89-90)
With neither the Irish nor the Vikings being united, mixed groups of both could be found opposite each other. These alliances started going hand in hand with intermarriage at the very tops of these groups’ social hierarchies, drawing the Vikings ever closer into Irish society as a whole, and, by the second half of the 9th century CE, the Viking presence had become a familiar sight in Ireland. Tribute exacted from the lands they controlled and trade they conducted with the Irish also led the Vikings to build up commercial ties with their hosts.

Map of Ireland c. 950 CE

However, the Norse Vikings, busy trying to milk a stubborn Ireland to the best of their abilities, did not remain unchallenged. After decades of being the only magpies around, in 849 CE a Danish fleet came to check up on them and sailed into Irish waters. The Annals of Ulster record that:
A naval expedition of seven score ships of adherents of the king of the foreigners (righ Gall) came to exact obedience from the foreigners who were in Ireland before them, and afterwards they caused confusion in the whole country. (849)
The Danes clearly had the Norse – and not the Irish – as their target; in 851 CE they attacked both Viking Dublin and the longphort at Linn Duachaill, and defeated the Norse after a three-day long naval battle at Carlingford Lough in 853 CE, after which the Norse bounced back and finally drove the Danes off. With the Norse and the Danish as rival Viking groups, according to Dáibhí Ó Cróinín (250-251), it is not impossible that the Irish had initiated an alliance with the Danes and then sat back to watch things unfold.
By the end of the 9th century CE it had become clear to the Norse that Ireland would not part with its riches or its land as (relatively) easily as some of the other Viking territories like the ones in Frankia and England. Beyond their handful of settlements and their involvement in Irish society, the Viking presence could not stretch its wings much further and kept getting caught in Irish resistance. This may have pushed them to seek easier pickings in Iceland and the northwest of England, which reduced some of the pressure on Ireland.


Viking Dublin, which had begun as a longphort in 841 CE and was taken over by a branch of Scottish Vikings led by Amlaíb (or Olaf) who teamed up with another Viking leader, Ímar (or Ivarr), in around 853 CE, probably suffered from similar difficulties. These two had transformed Dublin and the Irish Sea into the hub of Norse activity ranging from Scotland and England to the Isle of Man. For over 20 years their names are found time and again in the annals due to them wreaking havoc across the country and getting stuck into the northern Irish Sea region’s politics. However, after Ímar’s death in 873 CE, the records go quiet in terms of heavy-duty Viking activity in Ireland and it becomes hard to trace the doings of the Dublin kingdom’s dynasty, who might have become internally divided at this time.

Brian Boru

In 902 CE we are illuminated once more, though; what was left of the Dublin Vikings were driven out of town by the combined forces of Brega and Leinster:
The heathens were driven from Ireland, i.e. from the fortress of Áth Cliath [Dublin]…and they abandoned a good number of their ships and escaped half dead after they had been wounded and broken. (The Annals of Ulster, 902. 2)
With Dublin now in Irish hands, it seems loads of Vikings upped and left Ireland and in more than a few cases camped out in England instead, for the time being.
After only a short break, in 914 CE the Waterford coast saw the sudden appearance on the horizon of a large amount of Viking sails, edging closer and closer, its human cargo reclaiming Waterford and ravaging the surrounding lands of Munster. Other bases such as Wexford, Cork, and Limerick were also hardhandedly returned to the Viking fold around this time, while Dublin was taken over by the original Dublin Viking group who also happened to rule York and Northumbria at this point in time. This overarching dynastic connection spurred on trade and urbanisation in the whole of Ireland as well as greatly boosting the resources of its single king, transforming Dublin into an economic and political centre from which the Irish kings also profited.
The Viking tale of Ireland finally takes its last turns around the end of the 10th century CE. It began with the Dublin Viking king Amlaíb Cuarán getting a bit overconfident, having conquest on his mind. After plunging his army’s swords into many Irish necks including that of the king of Leinster, he was promptly defeated in the kingdom of Meath in the battle of Tara, 980 CE in what the annalist calls "a red slaughter" (Brink & Price, 432). Mael Sechnaill mac Domnaill, king of Meath, then successfully steamrolled on towards Dublin, who in its surrender had to free all Uí Néill lands from tribute and free the Irish slaves within Viking territories. All of the Viking cities now came under either direct or indirect control of the Irish kings.
With the dragon-headed ship already pretty much sailed and the remaining Norse steadily integrating into the Irish political scene, the Battle of Clontarf fought in 1014 CE – despite its legendary status – simply reinforced this trend. Brian Boru, High King of Ireland encroached upon Dublin aided by Limerick Vikings, while the men of Leinster stood beside the Dublin Vikings in the typically mixed bag of alliances which had so come to characterise Irish politics in this period. The great melee that followed saw Brian Boru fall but Dublin lose, thus piling onto the earlier 980 CE defeat and snugly fitting Dublin as well as the other Viking cities further into the Irish political structure; they were now ruled by Irish overlords who saw them as "sources of income and power, not as the citadels of foreigners to be sacked" (Ó Cróinín, 267). The epilogue comes in the form of the Norman invasion of England in 1066 CE, whose descendants washed over Ireland from 1169 CE.

Clonmacnoise Crosier


The picture of raiding Vikings unleashing their brutality and destruction upon Ireland seems clear from the early medieval accounts and, for good measure, tends to be etched in today’s minds. However, when looking closer at the context, one can only conclude that this is massively exaggerated. In terms of frequency, raids were not exactly a constant hazard during the early period, with only 25 monastic raids recorded between 795-829 CE while Ireland had a veritable sea of monasteries and churches in total. Even the ones that were hit more than once clearly bounced back fast enough to be hit again, and overall most monasteries survived this era.
The damning judgement of bloodthirst attached to the Vikings stems from the hands of the very clerics who were in the first line of fire and obviously very upset at these ‘heathens’ or ‘pagans’ coming in and despoiling their sanctuaries. This hatred seeps through in their writings and gives an unfair impression of mass-scale destruction; rather than all "havens" being "submerged by waves of Vikings" (The Annals of Ulster, 820), although probably traumatic, the raiding reality was a bit milder than that. Moreover, during the Viking period, the Irish themselves actually plundered more churches than the Norse did, and they would certainly not have needed any lessons in brutality from the Norse, being quite educated in that respect themselves already.
Although the territories the Vikings took were not very large and thus did not have a huge geographical impact on Ireland, the Vikings did end up significantly influencing Ireland in a political, economic, and cultural way. The Irish took over some Norse cues regarding warfare, especially regarding weapons and tactics, but it was the Viking longphorts grown into towns with commercial characters that gave Ireland, formerly lacking proper towns, a major, lasting boost. Furthermore, the extended Viking ties with the rest of the British Isles and continental Europe enlarged the Irish trading scene in general.
The progressing integration (reinforced by intermarriage) of the Viking kingdoms into Irish society especially throughout the 10th century CE not only saw Vikings embracing the same Christianity whose houses of worship they had initially come to attack but also saw Irish kings influenced by Viking ideas of kingship, which were more overarching. Finally, the most tangible impact to us can be seen in art and language: Scandinavian styles can be seen throughout Irish metalwork as well as the stone crosses of the time, and both names, as well as terms relating to typical Viking activities such as shipping, were loaned by the Irish, such as the splendid Old Norse knattar-barki (a small studded boat) becoming the Irish cnaturbarc.
The Viking’s exaggeratedly crazy reputation has ensured their survival in Europe’s collective memory, and despite being taken down a peg or two on contextual grounds their intricate relationship with Ireland is both fascinating and noteworthy.
Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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