Throughout history, nascent civilizations have usually found themselves born directly into an existential fight for survival and dominance. Most don’t last long. Militaristic societies regularly rub against one another, often resulting in mass bloodshed. Some five decades before the birth of Christ, for instance, Consul George Washington of America took note of Viking King Harald Bluetooth Gormsson’s aggressively expansionary policies and warned him off in the strongest language. Washington eventually denouncing Viking society as a whole in A.D. 125. Gormsson was not impressed. In the world of the empire-building game Civilization V, at least, this burgeoning conflict would span millennia, and it would eventually lead to the razing of New York City by musket-toting berserkers in 1655.
Although the long-running Civilization series mines details from history, the course of a civilization’s in-game development is largely left up to the player. I often play as the Vikings, and I was curious how my empire compares with the real-life Scandinavian Viking communities, which flourished between A.D. 800 and 1000. To that end, I asked Robert Ferguson, author of a fascinating 2010 history, The Vikings, to help me make sense of the culture and why my fictional-historical civ developed as it did.
Harald Bluetooth Gormsson. All I’ve gleaned about him from the game is that he hates America, and is for all intents and purposes immortal. (Civilization’s leaders oversee their society’s development from start to finish. They’re more demigods than political leaders.) But Ferguson found the choice of Gormsson as a representative ruler to be a good one. “Gormsson is one of the most notable kings of the era,” Ferguson said. “He carried out the first unification of Denmark and was responsible for introducing Christianity and all that implies of cultural advances, including Latin and the art of writing on parchment. However his ‘modernity’—introducing Christianity to Denmark and Norway—upset a lot of his subjects. He was driven out of the country, and his son Sven Forkbeard took over, who by 1013 or so had established the Vikings’ North Sea Empire that included Denmark, England, Norway, and most of southern Sweden.” As a de facto deity, my Gormsson didn’t have to worry so much about being driven out of power by an ungrateful son. Further, if the citizens were upset with the real Gormsson’s embrace of “modernity,” then they were going to be really upset when I introduced nanotechnology.
In the game, civilizations aren’t required to adhere to their historical belief structures. India, under Gandhi, needn’t subscribe to Hinduism, nor is there any compelling reason for Isabella’s Spain to be Catholic. But once a civilization adopts a religion—be it Islam, Taoism, or Drewism (you can create your own)—it’s your job to spread that faith to the far corners of the world.
In my game, Bluetooth’s people founded Zoroastrianism in A.D. 840. We adopted it more or less at random, as there is no option for worshipping Odin and the rest of the Norse pantheon, and all of the major faiths were already spoken for. According to Ferguson, the Vikings engaged in no missionary activity to speak of—this was one of the major reasons they were generally so annoyed with Christianity—and I, too, took a relaxed view of converting the non-believers. “They were polytheists and believed in the Aesir, a family of mortal gods,” Ferguson explained.
“Each god to whom they prayed had one specialist field, and they would pray to whatever god knew most about the challenge facing them. Some, like the Icelander Helgi The Lean, had a nice relaxed attitude to the whole idea of Christ, and just added him to their pantheon and prayed to him along with the others. Helgi was baptized, but when he wanted to ensure good weather for a sea-trip, he prayed to Thor on the grounds that Christ was a foreign god who wouldn’t know anything about the weather around the coast of Iceland. In this sense, they seemed to have a geographical sense of where a god’s power operated.” Now there’s an admirable pragmatism noticeably absent from most belief systems today.
Interestingly, there actually was a historical connection between the Vikings and Zoroastrianism, if only due to a misunderstanding: “Some of the Arab chroniclers, on seeing the Vikings cremating their dead, thought they were fire worshippers like the Zoroastrians,” Ferguson said. He hastened to note: “They [the Vikings] were not fire worshippers.”
System Of Government
By 1240 B.C., my small but hardy country included the cities of Copenhagen, Kaupang, and Aarhus. We had adopted “Liberty” as a defining social principle, as opposed to “Tradition” or “Honor.” I defined “liberty” as the liberty to plunder our neighbors, Pacal of the Maya, and Kamehameha of Polynesia; liberty to trade goods with the mercantile-minded son of the Sun God, Ramesses of Egypt; and liberty to smash barbarian hordes pouring over our borders. We were the horned sons of John Stuart Mill, perfectly willing to pillage the homes of any country that would threaten our freedom. As champions of liberty, our society began as a Republic (one completely dominated by me), grew into a Meritocracy, and later blossomed into full Representation. Everyone has a vote, even if I have supreme veto power.
The real Vikings were not so different, if not quite as tyrannically progressive. “In the early years of the Viking Age—let’s say to the conquest of the east coast of England by the Great Heathen Army in the 860s—they were militarized tribal societies,” Ferguson said when I asked about Viking political structures. “There was no hereditary kingship, and the leaders of the great bands were simply those generally acclaimed as such by the rest of the group—not necessarily the best and most brutal fighter, but the best leader. This kingship was probably sacral, meaning that the chosen leader was ultimately responsible for the good or ill fortune of the people he led, and if things were going very badly indeed, he could be sacrificed in a last desperate gesture to the gods.” Unlucky leader sacrifice is not something, on the other hand, that my Vikings practiced. If my foray into Theordora’s Byzantine empire was bloodily repulsed by thick artillery fire, or Bergen was starving because of my neglect, my people have no recourse but to suffer silently under my gross misrule. Hooray for in-name-only democracy!
I never go out of my way to rattle my battle ax at my neighbors, but more often than not in my Civilization playthroughs, diplomacy gives way to cannon fire. (Nobunaga and the Japanese are just so impossibly arrogant, with their samurai swords and advanced mathematics.) As Vikings, it seemed best to develop a strong navy, taking advantage of their innate bond with the sea. This jibed with Ferguson’s assessment of the Vikings’ greatest technological achievement. “Their best tactic was the shallow-drafted and very fast longship,” he said. “It meant they could land almost anywhere, even on shores people had thought it was impossible to land on. The side-mounted rudder also meant they could reverse down narrow rivers just by hoisting the rudder up out of the water—again, a very unexpected talent for the ship to have. The longship was their stealth bomber.”
Although the actual stealth bomber would eventually became my stealth bomber as my Viking empire entered the modern age, in the early 18th century I both honored and diverged from the Viking naval tradition by sailing an extremely unstealthy armada to the outskirts of Osaka, led by an adopted Viking, Great Admiral Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. “Let’s see your advanced math save you now,” Agrippa probably uttered before unleashing hell.
Among the various empires vying for supremacy in Civilization V, there are also dozens of unaffiliated “city-states”—Kuala Lumpur, Stockholm, Zanzibar, and Dublin, to name a few. World leaders can court these city-states for an alliance (or destroy them, or shake them down for tribute). As borders expand, their aid can be invaluable. Around A.D. 300, I rescued some refugee workers from Hanoi, which signaled the start of a strong bond between our peoples.
Venice also occupied a particularly contentious spot on the globe. My Vikings enjoyed a long and fruitful trade relationship with the merchants of Venice, until Dido of Carthage invaded. Our forces moved quickly to liberate our allies, in an initiative I deemed Operation Hairy Breeches. We were greeted as liberators, and later, after expelling the invaders, I moved several cruise missiles near the border so Dido would trouble them no more. If Venice thereafter made regular gifts to us in thanks, we weren’t going to say no.
The actual Vikings took a different tack when it came to vassals. “Swedish Vikings ruled as an aristocratic military elite in Kiev—the old Russian state—and took tribute from the tribes around them,” Ferguson said. After particularly lengthy conflicts, one side or another might sue for peace, and offer goods such as salt, iron, or horses in return for a cessation of hostilities. Likewise, in the early going of the game, my empire often engaged in low-level skirmishes with Elizabeth of England. These always ended with one of us growing weary of the fight and paying the other off for a temporary armistice. For the real Vikings and England, though, it was a more one-sided affair. “At the close of the 10th century, kings of a now-united England paid huge sums of money to Viking armies to go away and leave them alone. Of course, it didn’t work. They took the money, went away, and came back again when they needed more. Ethelred The Unready was king of the English at the time [of heavy Viking raids],” explained Ferguson. “People think ‘Unready’ because he was never prepared for this, but in fact the Old English word actually means ‘the Poorly Advised’.”
Clash Of Civilizations (Or: Everybody Hates America)
Although a normal game of Civilization is peppered with random countries, one primary, particularly antagonistic rival usually emerges early on. For my Vikings, that nemesis was America, led by the warmonger George Washington. In A.D. 150, Washington joined with Ramesses of Egypt to declare war on my peace-loving country. This feud would put the 100 Years War to shame. It would only end some 1,500 years later when I circumvented the Great Wall Of Washington D.C. and ended the American experiment once and for all.
It’s well known that the real Vikings long terrorized nearby Great Britain, but they also had their share of spats with troublemakers in North America. “Vikings from Greenland tried to establish an outpost in Newfoundland,” Ferguson said. “Since they were short of timber for boats and houses on Greenland, they probably wanted to have a sort of timber depot. They came in contact with North American Indians. At first there was curiosity on both sides and some trading, but things turned violent, and lives were lost. The would-be colonists pulled back home. There were so few of them, so their real resource was human life and they could not afford to lose any.”
So my strategy of throwing bodies at the America problem was probably my biggest break with the Viking problem. But perhaps the Vikings ended up with a foothold in America after all, with assimilation rather than invasion. “The final disappearance of the Greenland colony in the late 1400s has given rise to many possible explanations,” Ferguson told me. “It was a sort of Mary Celeste experience, almost a ‘dinner plates on the table but no people around’ type of thing. An interesting idea is that the starving remnants of the settlements crossed the Davis Straits to try their luck in North America, and that they were taken captive by the Mandans, a tribe of Native Americans, with the men being killed and the women kept as concubines. There was a popular theory that this accounted for the fact that the Mandan tribe were unusually tall, and many had fairish hair and blue eyes.”
The End Of The Vikings?
With America defeated, it was only a matter of time before its erstwhile allies capitulated. The strongest of these, Egypt, made a concerted effort to develop nuclear weapons, presumably to survive via a policy of mutually assured destruction. They were too late. But rather than destroy and enslave the Egyptians, as I had done the Americans, I was content to strip them of strategic resources, in exchange for peace, in the year 2020. I quickly used the extracted uranium to build a number of Giant Death Robots (their actual name) and lay the groundwork for a thousand years of mechanized Zoroastrian Viking empire.
The real Vikings were not so lucky. When asked about the eventual end of Gormsson’s people, Ferguson said that scholars differ on when the final chapter was written. “Some say 1066. Some push it on to the end of the Greenland colony. Some even as far as the disappearance of [the Norse language] Norn. Some end the Viking adventure when the Danes returned these islands to the crown of Scotland in 1469.” Ferguson draws his own line in the Viking sand at the year 1104, “when the archbishopric at Lund in southern Sweden was established. The Viking countries were all Christian by that time, and Christian culture was on its way into Scandinavia. The reason this matters is that up until then, the popes had always feared the Scands might relapse into heathendom—the Swedes in particular—and so had run church affairs through the archbishopric of Hamburg-Bremen in Germany. By allowing Scandinavian Christians to take charge of their own institutional church, Rome was signifying its belief that Christianity had come to stay in the north.”
My own empire had no such twilight. When my playthrough ended, my Vikings arrived at a point of complete global hegemony, and we were on the cusp of revolutionary new Future Tech that would likely allow Gormsson and his bearded ilk to turn into ageless Viking cyborgs. They could raid and pillage and write epic poetry forevermore.