From the city of Rome to the Arctic circle is a distance of about 2,750 km. At its greatest extent, the northernmost tip of the Roman empire was more than 1,000 km from the Arctic. Even across such a distance, however, there were connections. A couple of little pieces of evidence show us how knowledge of Rome could reach the far north, and how knowledge of the far north could reach Rome.
In Føre, Nordland, on an island in far northern Norway, is an ancient burial site. Over several centuries in the late iron age around 10 mound burials were raised of earth and stone. (The number is uncertain because some of the mounds have been destroyed by erosion and farming.) Not all have been excavated, but those that have have yielded the evidence of extraordinary wealth by local standards, including a Roman drinking glass buried in the only female grave so far known at the site. (The glass pictured is of a similar type, but not from the same site.)
It is very unlikely that Føre had any direct connection to the Roman world. Rather it was at the northern extreme of a network of trade and alliances that spanned Scandinavia and the Baltic Sea region which used Roman imports as high-status trade goods and diplomatic gifts. The people of Føre may have had very little idea of what the Roman empire was, but they had some access to Roman goods and valued them as precious objects.
To make the connection in the other direction, we can look at a brief mention in Caesar’s Gallic War. In his description of the Germans, he mentions some of the unusual wildlife of the north:
There is an ox formed like a deer from the middle of whose forehead, between the ears, rises a horn, higher and straighter than those familiar to us. This horn spreads out wide at the top like branches or the palm of a hand.. The female has the same shape as the male and their horns are of the same shape and size.
– Caesar, The Gallic War 6.26
Although this is all rather vague, it seems likely that Caesar is describing a reindeer. It is very improbable that Caesar saw a reindeer in the flesh so far from its Arctic and Siberian habitat (if he had, he would probably have noticed that it actually has two horns, not one), but may have seen artistic depictions and reindeer antlers imported as trade goods from the north. His description of the shape of reindeer antlers is not too bad, and he is right to note that both the males and females have them. It’s also interesting that Caesar compares the animal to an ox when he could have just described it as a deer, an animal familiar to his Roman audience. Oxen were mostly used as draft animals in the Roman world, so Caesar may have had some knowledge of reindeer being used to pull sledges in the far north. That’s a fair amount of information to get across thousands of kilometers of distance.
Thoughts for writers
The way history is traditionally taught tends to break the world up into smaller pieces, often along national and cultural lines, and tends to downplay the importance of the connections that go across those lines. This can leave those of us who look to history to inspire our writing with a sense of past cultures as insular and unaware of one another. Connections between past cultures, however, were stronger than we often realize. Long-distance travel in the pre-modern world was difficult compared with the ease with which we move about today, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. People moved, objects moved, and information moved. There is no reason for our imagined worlds to be closed in on themselves unless we choose to make them that way.
Images: Drinking glass, photograph by Sailko via Wikimedia (currently Getty Villa; 1st c. CE; glass). Reindeer, detail of photograph by Jürgen Howaldt via Wikimedia
History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.