Ancient Greeks vs. Vikings

May 2016
74
US
How did the following civilizations compare on a military level? In terms of tactics, naval technology, organization, logistics, weapons, unit discipline, metallurgy, etc.
  • Classical era Greece (Peloponnesian War)
  • Hellenistic Greece (Diadochi wars)
  • Vikings (Danelaw)
  • Vikings (Canute the Great)
  • Normans (Crusades)
 

Naima

Ad Honorem
Jun 2014
2,323
Venice
The interesting thing is that Vikings and Greeks had similar formation fight , but Greeks had a better discipline , training , organization and numbers, while Eventually what favored most the vikings was a more modern technological level of the weaponry.
 

Matthew Amt

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
3,108
MD, USA
The interesting thing is that Vikings and Greeks had similar formation fight , but Greeks had a better discipline , training , organization and numbers, while Eventually what favored most the vikings was a more modern technological level of the weaponry.

I'm not sure I'd agree with the discipline and training. Except for the Spartans, they were probably very comparable. As in, basic weapon skills and how to stay in formation, and a knowledge that staying in formation was fundamental, maybe not much more than that for the average man in line. We do know that the Greeks organized themselves into files and units which could very efficiently be deployed into line, but I don't know if anything similar is known for the Viking era. Of course, if a mob in column is just pouring into a mob in line, with the generally accepted standard of "better guys in front", that can be pretty quick and efficient, too! In my reenacting experience, it really doesn't take any prior training to line up behind the guy in front of you so that you can thrust your spear over his shoulder, so "files" naturally occur.


Both the Norse and the Classical Greeks raised their military with a system of obligations based on social status and wealth. The first hoplites were simply the upper classes, both because they had the money for armor and weapons, and because they wanted to stay that way--don't arm the poor if you want to stay rich. Eventually the poor were being enlisted and armed by wealthy men as supporters, either as skirmishers or as hoplites, and in some cities many poorer men signed up as rowers with the fleet. Cultures in the Viking era had regulations about who had military obligations, and what a man of any particular wealth level needed to have for equipment. So it was different but achieved a similar end, a core of armored elite backed by more lightly armored or unarmored commoners.



I suspect a Viking army would be very impressed with the amount of armor in a Greek phalanx! While the Greeks would be very impressed by long swords and those mucking great axes, though of course both sides would mainly fight with spears. You can do things with an aspis that you can't do with a Viking shield, and vice versa. All that long blond hair would be a real turn-on for the Greeks...


Once you get into the Hellenistic era, things change. I *really* don't think I'd want to be in a Viking force facing a Macedonian pike phalanx! Heck, NObody did. There'd also be supporting heavy and light infantry, archers, and lots of cavalry. Hellenistic armies were just BIG, overall, probably larger even on average than some of the great Viking forces that we know of. That went along with more training and discipline, more complex and organized logistics, etc. It was a real army, not just an ad hoc force or militia levy.



Now, I don't know any of the possible differences between Norse armies of different times and places. I don't even know how much of that might be known, beyond some low-level basics. Also not sure how much functional difference it might make, in that era, though obviously a force of professional housecarls is going to have some advantages over local fyrd!


There were developments in metallurgy and technology between the Greek era and the Vikings. But there were also massive changes in infrastructure and economics. How much that all made one culture better on the battlefield than the other is much harder to say! In the end, I'd lean towards metallurgy as one of the less important changes. Infrastructure and production is a much bigger factor, because it affects how many men you can arm and armor. Of course, that goes hand-in-hand with social changes, as well.


Too many variables!


Matthew
 

Edgewaters

Ad Honorem
Jul 2007
9,098
Canada
We do know that the Greeks organized themselves into files and units which could very efficiently be deployed into line, but I don't know if anything similar is known for the Viking era.
The Vikings were big on formation actually. They had several, the most feared was the Svynfylking array, which was essentially a flying wedge formation. It was an offensive formation, used like so:



The square formation in the first box is called a fylking, similar to a phalanx in some ways, but it could be arranged quickly into the svynfylking array for attack. The idea was to deliver maximum force against a small section of the enemy line to achieve breakthrough.

The Vikings were generally not keen on large, pitched battles. They preferred smaller fights, and they preferred to choose the location, which they could do because of their naval mobility. If they were facing a Macedonian phalanx, they would probably just get back on their boats, sail back around to the home provinces of the soldiers, and loot them before the army could get there. So what happened in places like France and England was everyone hid in walled cities and developed cavalry forces that could respond quickly.
 
Last edited:
May 2016
74
US
The Vikings were big on formation actually. They had several, the most feared was the Svynfylking array, which was essentially a flying wedge formation. It was an offensive formation, used like so:

The Vikings (and Anglo-Saxons) also had the "shield wall" formation, in common with the ancient Greeks.

Do you know of any other Norse battle-formations?

I suspect a Viking army would be very impressed with the amount of armor in a Greek phalanx! While the Greeks would be very impressed by long swords and those mucking great axes, though of course both sides would mainly fight with spears.

There were developments in metallurgy and technology between the Greek era and the Vikings. But there were also massive changes in infrastructure and economics. How much that all made one culture better on the battlefield than the other is much harder to say! In the end, I'd lean towards metallurgy as one of the less important changes. Infrastructure and production is a much bigger factor, because it affects how many men you can arm and armor. Of course, that goes hand-in-hand with social changes, as well.
On arms and armor, found an interesting bit on Wiki about Viking use of foreign weapons. Some may already know of this, but I thought it was interesting.

Foreign-made, specifically Frankish, weapons and armour played a special role in Norse society. Norsemen attained them either through trade (an extension of gift-giving in Norse society) or as plunder. Therefore, their possession and display by any individual would signify their station in the social hierarchy and any political allegiances they had. One example of an exchange of weapons between the Franks and the Vikings occurred in 795 when Charlemagne exchanged weapons with the Anglo-Saxon king Offa of Mercia.

Scandinavian affinity towards foreign arms and armour during the Viking Age had an eminently practical aspect. Norse weapon designs were obsolete and sources of iron within Scandinavia were of poor quality. Frankish swords like the VLFBERHT had a higher carbon content (making them more durable) and their design was much more manoeuvrable compared to Scandinavian-produced swords. Although smaller weapons like daggers, knives, and arrowheads could be manufactured in Scandinavia, the best swords and spearheads were undoubtedly imported.

Many of the most important Viking weapons were highly ornate—decorated lavishly with gold and silver. Weapons adorned as such served large religious and social functions. These precious metals were not produced in Scandinavia and they too would have been imported. Once in Scandinavia, the precious metals would have been inlaid in the pommels and blades of weapons creating geometric patterns, depictions of animals, and (later) Christian symbols.

Vikings also used foreign armour. According to Heimskringla, one hundred Vikings appeared "in coats of ring-mail, and in foreign helmets" at the Battle of Nesjar in 1016.

During the mid-9th century, there was an influx of these high-quality weapons into Scandinavia, and Frankish arms became the standard for all Vikings. As Ahmad ibn Fadlan observed in his account of his journey to Russia, every Viking carried a "sword of the Frankish type". The Franks attempted to limit the Vikings' use of weapons and armour produced in Francia—fearing that they would eventually face equally armed opponents. Chapter 10 of the Capitulare Bononiense of 811 made it illegal for any clerical functionary to supply swords or armour to non-Frankish individuals. Laws like this were enacted throughout Francia. Ultimately, in 864, King Charles the Bald of West Francia made the practice punishable by death.

Some scholars have proposed that such laws proved so effective at stemming the flow of Frankish weapons that they initiated the practice of raiding for which Vikings became notorious.​
 

Naima

Ad Honorem
Jun 2014
2,323
Venice
Erik the Viking vs Achilles. That wud be an intriguing clash.
Not much , unless the first is invulnerable like the second .. perhaps a better confrontation would be Siegfried vs Achilles lol , but the first isn't a Viking .
 

zincwarrior

Ad Honorem
Jun 2012
5,713
Texas
One question, we know Greeks during much of this period had linen armor. How would that stand up vs. Norse/Frankish arms?
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
5,097
Dispargum
Viking longships vs Greek triremes: Vikings have speed advantage so if Greeks had a numerical or other advantage the Vikings could avoid battle. If the Vikings had the numerical and other advantages, the Greeks could not escape. Triremes were much bigger than longships so the Vikings would have to swarm - multiple longships simultaneously attacking individual triremes.

More likely, the Viking raiders could attack Greece at will, and the Greek triremes would be unable to catch them. To ever have any hope of engaging Viking ships, the Greeks would have to develop smaller, faster, more maneuverable ships and abandon their triremes. Perhaps the best use of triremes would be for the Greeks to attack the Viking homelands. Triremes could never defend against Viking raiders, but they could attack Viking bases.
 

Matthew Amt

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
3,108
MD, USA
The Vikings were big on formation actually. They had several, the most feared was the Svynfylking array, which was essentially a flying wedge formation.

Sure, I'm very familiar with regular lines and the boar snout, etc., and I know a line could be bent back to a square or ring, and so on. But were these just ad hoc formations, with everyone jumping in where they could, or was it *organized* by ranks and files, with each man knowing his place in each formation, and the correct maneuvers to get from one to the other? Both can work, don't get me wrong!


The Vikings were generally not keen on large, pitched battles. They preferred smaller fights, and they preferred to choose the location, which they could do because of their naval mobility.

Sure, Viking raiders preferred to get their loot without fighting. But they came from societies which were very familiar with larger-scale battles, and if need be were perfectly capable of full-scale warfare (assuming they had the numbers!). Alfred the Great's battles, the Siege of Paris, Maldon, Fulford, plenty of big fights.



If they were facing a Macedonian phalanx, they would probably just get back on their boats, sail back around to the home provinces of the soldiers, and loot them before the army could get there.

Again, agreed that discretion is the better part of valor when facing a pike phalanx! Boats certainly help. But no army is more than a small percentage of the available manpower, so the Vikings shouldn't expect to land unopposed. Just sayin'...



So what happened in places like France and England was everyone hid in walled cities and developed cavalry forces that could respond quickly.

Oh, yes!


Matthew