If you’re a fan of History’s binge-worthy show Vikings, then you may or may not already know that Ragnar Lodbrok and his son Bjorn Ironside may have been real guys. Though history isn’t entirely sure if they were actual men or merely myths, their tales are incredibly old and come down to us from ancient lore. The three main surviving pieces of literature that chronicle the house of Ragnar are called The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok, The Tale of Ragnar’s Sons, and The Sögubrot. According to the stories contained within, Bjorn Ironside was the son of Ragnar and a woman named Aslaug. In the ancient versions of his tale, Ivar the Boneless was actually his older brother rather than his younger one, as depicted on Vikings. The old stories do record that he had two younger brothers, however, named Hvitserk and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye. As Ragnar’s exploits also extended to the ladies of his day, Bjorn was also said to have several half-brothers including two named Eirik and Agnar. While all of Ragnar and his sons’ conquests were super impressive, one of Bjorn’s is also accidentally hilarious.
Bjorn Ironside sets his sights on Rome
As the show Vikings depicts, Ragnar and his many sons loved to get their raid on. Their sagas are laden with celebrations of the legendary havoc they sailed around wreaking on various parts of England, Normandy, France, and Lombardy. Well, things were going pretty well for Bjorn Ironside at the height of his power, but apparently, he could never shake the feeling that he’d always live in the shadow of his father. See, Ragnar had executed a nearly flawless raid on the city of Paris, an achievement which pretty much guaranteed his entrance into the ancient world hall of fame. So Bjorn decided that the only way to pillage his way out of his father’s shadow would be to set his sites on an even bigger prize: ancient Rome.
Cut to sometime around 859, when Bjorn had been raiding his way down the French and Italian coasts with a fellow Viking named Hastein. Now who exactly this Hastein was has been lost to history, as has all certainty about whether or not he ever existed outside of legend. Some say that he and Bjorn were brothers in a literal sense, but regardless they were good enough bros to have gone raiding together. So anyway, Bjorn and Hastein are sailing along with 62 Viking ships and visions of Roman conquest dancing through their heads. When the day finally came to point their ships towards Roman waters, the two got together to try and figure out how they planned to penetrate one of the ancient world’s best-guarded cities.
Hastein and Bjorn Ironside’s brilliant plan
By the time they finally docked in Rome, the two had hatched what seemed to be a brilliant plan. Indeed, it actually was pretty ingenious except for one small snag, which will become apparent later on. Rather than leap from their ships, swords blazing, they had a couple of guys go up to the city and explain that “Oh, woe is us, we are weary travelers looking for refuge. Ignore our fearsome looks and weapon loaded ships, we’re just a couple of humble Viking guys. Nothing crazy going on here.” Wisely, the townsfolk were not initially impressed.
Undeterred, Bjorn and Hastein reverted to plan B. After a reasonable amount of time, they sent more guys back to lament, “Oh no! One of our Chiefs is dying right after he just had a deathbed conversion. He really wants a Christian burial. Can’t you help a guy out?” Well, now the city really found itself in a moral dilemma. Being devout holy rollers, who were they to refuse a guy his last rights? So reluctantly, they agreed to allow the Vikings to enter the city with a casket which contained the supposedly dead Hastein. The kicker came mid-funeral when Hastein lept out of the casket and proceeded to thank the Bishop preceding over his service by chopping off the holy man’s head. At that point, Hastein, Bjorn, and 62 shiploads of their closest friends proceeded to raid the living hell out of the city.
Oops, our bad
At this point, Bjorn and Hastein were feeling pretty good about just how well their sneaky tactics had played out. Hastein saw it as the perfect opportunity to leap up and demand that everybody bow to him because he was now the new ruler of Rome. That’s when the no doubt longest, most awkward silence ever ensued.
Finally, some poor guy managed to pipe up and say, “Yeah, bro, this is actually not Rome. It’s the Italian city of Luna.” As you can imagine, the news that the Vikings had accidentally raided the wrong damn town did not go over well. Furiously, they proceeded to inflict horrible punishments on the city for daring to not be Rome. According to some accounts, they cut off the heads of every man in town while the women and children were taken as slaves. Where’s a good GPS when you need one, right?
All’s well that ends well
Even after the setback, Bjorn and Hastein trudged on and continued their raids, though things went pretty downhill after the Luna fiasco. Somewhere along the way back home, they ended up losing 40 of their 62 ships to a Muslim fleet. Still, the pair soldiered on and even managed to capture and ransom the king of Pamplona before they finally returned safely on their native shores. Needless to say, after all that looting and ransoming, Bjorn and Hastein were both incredibly rich men who had managed to build quite a reputation for themselves. One saga even suggests that Bjorn went on to become the king of Sweden and founder of the House of Munsö. To this day there’s a barrow called Björnshögen on the island of Munsö, where Bjorn Ironside himself is rumored to have been buried. All in all, not bad for a guy who no one’s even certain actually really existed.