Roman Legion vs Vikings: who would win?

Your typical Viking shield.

Your typical Viking shield. Source: Wikimedia

Our last article about who would win in a battle between a Roman Legion and a Greek Phalanx has been such a success that we’ve decided to continue the series. This piece is about who would hypothetically win in a fight between a Roman legion and a Viking formation.


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Strategy

In a way, both the Romans and the Vikings were pillagers and plunderers. However, the way they went about it were quite distinct. For instance, the Vikings placed a lot of reliance on spiritual guidance of their gods, whereas the Romans spent extensive time developing military strategies that have proven to be quite successful.

Although both parties would use a technique known today as “The Shield Wall”, which served as an excellent way to protect a formation from being penetrated by the enemy, the Roman legions preferred to use it in smaller units to maneuver better. This would’ve given them an advantage over the Vikings on land. The fact that the Vikings preferred to charge into battle fearlessly with little planning whereas the Roman legions were professionals also speaks in favour of the latter.

However, naval history paints quite a different picture. Some historians believe that Vikings were the first “pirates”. Indeed, their sailing skills were well-developed and their longships could travel very long distances in shallow, as well as deep, waters. The ships were also very speedy for its time and could maneuver a lot better than the Roman ships. The Romans didn’t really place a lot of stock in the navy – they did have a fleet of sorts but they mostly relied on the ram in order to sink or immobilize an enemy ship.

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What do you think?


  • James

    Your missing the facts that romans had Iron and cheap steal. Very heavy compared to the chain mail of the vikings as well as not as sturdy. The vikings used speed and force. You misconstrued the effectiveness. Rome was very effective until matched with against something completely unconventional. In other words the vikings. I believe the romans would do damage, however would inevitably be slaughtered by the large, fast moving, violent norsemen.

    • agff2

      You don’t become the masters of all Europe without fighting unconventional forces. The Romans defeated the Britons. They defeated the Gauls. They defeat the Iberians. They defeated the Numidians. All of these were “unconventional” but Greco-Roman standards, but they defeated them all the same.

      They wouldn’t be slaughtered by the Vikings because the Vikings would never be able to form a single cohesive army large enough to content with a determined proconsular army which at times could number close to 100,000 men at arms. At best they could raid and plunder border towns, but they’d never win an outright war.

    • echelon

      The chain mail was first used by the romans, and later dropped in favour of steel plate armours. With the level of strategy the romans had, they would have wiped out the vikings in a short time

    • Cesar

      But the romans were very well trained and always were tacticians unlike the Vikings who just ran in and out

  • MrSherlockGoal

    The Romans lost fights as all armies but not many wars. They tamed the German Barbarians and Spartacus along slaves lost the war mainly because a lack of good strategy. Romans had not only just piercing swords but also spears and. Don’t forget also their walls and flexible formations. Also they had war machines and chariots. They were a far advanced army. In open field and battle Vikings have no chance at all.

  • Alistair North

    The vikings used Kite-shaped Shields…? Are kites round?

  • Billy J. Harris Jr.

    Interesting article, except that you are wrong when it comes to naval warfare. The Romans had a powerful and effective navy, which during the Imperial period was mostly made up of biremes called Liburnians, which were adopted first by pirates and then by the Romans, they also had squadrons of river craft that patrolled all the major rivers. While Viking craft were not designed as warships but rather as transports, so I doubt that naval battles would have happened at all. As for land warfare, you are spot on, the Romans would have destroyed the Vikings in open warfare, the Vikings excelled at raiding.

    • Enrico

      You are absolutely right! In addition this article doesn’t consider the fact that Romans defeated the Carthaginians who had, during the ancient ages, the most powerful war ships. The Romans would of course win a naval warfare.

  • Wow- all these pop-ups begging people to share and subscribe who just want to rad a damn two paragraph article has stopped me from looking more into this site.

  • Nathan

    One can best understand this by looking at what actually happened when the Romans faced Germanic forces. The Norse were really just a second wave of Germanic raiders/invaders, with very similar weapons, tactics, and organizational ability. The Romans would likely have done well in set-piece battles (which the Viking raiders tried to avoid in any case), but they would lose some as well. It also depends on which Roman forces one is talking about…after the Romans gave up trying to conquer the Germans, they began recruiting them, to the point that by the 3rd century the Roman army was mainly Germanic anyway. At sea, a Roman warship was more substantial than a longship, which was in any case a transport and not a fighting ship (as already noted). The problem for the Romans would be catching up to them. Once again, actual history is instructive – during the 4th century the Saxons used very similar boats raid into Roman territory. What is today northeast France and southeast England was known to the Romans informally as the “Saxon coast” because of the constant raiding.

    • agff2

      > One can best understand this by looking at what actually happened when the Romans faced Germanic forces.

      Are you referring to the the severely weakened, fragmented Late Roman Empire? If so I think that’s unfair, this should be a discussion about both factions in their prime. If we’re going to pit the Vikings up against the Romans at the end of their decline then we should do the same for the Vikings.

      Are you referring to Arausio? If so the Romans avenged that loss utterly at Aquae Sextiae and Vercellae.

      Are you referring to Teutoburg Forest? If so the Romans avenged that many times over hundreds of years. Marcus Aurelius in particular gave them a proper spanking.

    • Bayz

      >The Norse were really just a second wave of Germanic raiders/invaders, with very similar weapons, tactics, and organizational ability

      Not by a loooong shot, at least no with the tribes that actually kicked Roman ass. The huns weapons, tactics and organization may as well be martian to a viking chief, and while Goths may have been similar to Swedish vikings at first, by the time they faced the Romans in war they had more in common with them than with their native Scandinavian tribes.

      Saxons, Angles and Jutes were closer to vikings in tactics and organization, but the only reason they won there was because Rome gave up Britain to defend the parts of the Empire that weren’t money sinks, and even then it took the, several invasions to impose themselves on the native Romano-Celtic kingdoms.

  • Mike Eustace

    One omission is a consideration of metallurgy. By the time the vikings were on the scene, technology had moved on since Roman times and the steel was much better quality. Viking weapons would have been harder, stronger and sharper than Roman ones and would have blunted less quickly. Similarly, viking chain mail would have been stronger and lighter than Roman plate armour. X-rays of surviving viking and saxon swords shows that they were made of what today we would call Damascus steel – heated and folded many times over. Ironically, it was a technology that spread through Europe from the Eastern Roman Empire, although at a much later date than the height of the Western Empire.

    • agff2

      I’m skeptical that improved metals would have been a deciding factor.

      – An army marches on its stomach and Rome had vastly superior supply and logistics
      – Rome had superior commanders and superior tactical skill
      – Rome had better trained and more disciplined soldiers

      the fact of the matter is, though the viking weapons wouldn’t break as easily, Roman shields would still hold up to their impacts. Though the viking armor wouldn’t be as easily damaged, Roman swords weren’t meant to penetrate, legionnaires were trained to sit behind their shields and strike when they could hit a gap in the enemy armor. They probably weren’t often able to punch directly through enemy chainmail even in their own time period, so it seems unlikely that they’d be trying to punch through viking chainmail rather than hitting weak points. Also, it’s not like a viking longsword is going to go through the lorica hamata or segmentata either. Roman armor might be a little more burdensome to wear, but it’s still going to provide great protection against most viking weapons regardless of its metallurgic quality.

      In short the Vikings would get a little bit of an advantage from having better metal, but the Romans didn’t rely on the sturdiness of their arms to win battles and their shields would have held up to Viking weapons just as well as any contemporary viking shields (which were generally made of wood anyway).

      Also while we’re talking about what this article left out, I think more importantly it completely overlooked the Romans’ vastly superior manpower and logistical support. Did the Vikings ever have battles where they brought 400,000 soldiers to the field? The Romans did.

      • Mooop

        The better question would be to ask if the Roman Legions had stayed, could they have held the province together and faced off Viking raids effectively over the decades and centuries to follow? The Vikings sort plunder, wealth, slaves and new fertile lands to colonise and migrate too, purely mercenary and they would certainly avoided being caught up by a Legion or two in open country…
        Eventually Alfred fortified the Wessex villages to Burghs which stemmed the Viking hoard once they got organised. The Romans were already organised and they would have got to grips with the Norsemen eventually utilising beacons and signalling, roads and forts to organise communications and defence I think but it would be incredibly hard to defend against the fast shallow draft Longboat, which could penetrate deep up river. It possibly might have forced the Romans to concede coastal areas to some extent but the Vikings would never have been able to stay and colonise for sure. The Vikings were in much smaller war bands mostly but could rely on the strong Shield Wall in pitched battle but mainly they would be reliant on speed, surprise, outright aggression and skilled mercenary fighters as their trump cards. The Romans unlike the later Saxons would have a much greater standing army and march directly to battle. It would have been a brutal encounter I feel with terrible losses on both sides if the Vikings were caught and they fancied their odds, being purely mercenary for their intentions. Unlike the conscripted Legionaries serving an empire for 25years as they did, the bleak odds of losing would have sent more mercenary soldiers running I feel. The Vikings would eventually see that the province of Brittania was no soft target and gone elsewhere instead. I think the water gap would have served the province well unlike on the continent where goths, vandals etc came unabated, wave after wave. Perhaps the Romans could have stayed in Brittania if they weren’t recalled. I wonder if a stubborn provincial consul general or commander could have held Brittania together whilst all around the Western empire was overrun and Rome eventually sacked by Alerick etc. Maybe not because the trade and support of the empire would have gone.

  • agff2

    I’m pretty sure the only time the Romans ever used something that could be called a “shield wall” was their Testudo formation which they would pretty much only use to defend against missile volleys as it greatly reduced their mobility. Unless the Vikings came down on them with an incredible number of archers, it’s not likely they would have advanced into melee combat in a testudo. The typical Imperial Roman battle formation gave about 3 feet of horizontal space per soldier, they were certainly close, but they didn’t typically overlap shields. They needed channels for flexibility and to be able to shift ranks.

  • Martin Telinius

    The answer is very clear. The Roman formation would win at any time of the day but in hand to hand combat individually, the Vikings would win.
    If we speak about a cohort vs a Viking shield wall, the wall would be smashed to pieces by ballistas and even without artillery, the Romans would smash it with pilas and then close in on the remnants.

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