On a windswept island twenty times the size of Manhattan off the coast of Sweden, investigators are scouring a crime scene for clues, to understand who was behind a terrifying massacre whose details are only now coming to light. Yellow crime scene tape circles the remains of homes, and the remains of their former inhabitants, under a slate grey sky. Many dozens of people, men, women and children fell victim to a horrendous attack on the island. Most remarkable is that the dastardly attackers had to overcome towering fifteen foot stone walls capped with battlements and manned by some of the most fearsome warriors Europe has ever known to commit their crime.
So what does it have to do with Rome?
To begin with, this attack happened some 1,500 years ago.
And the investigators that even now study this dark deed are archaeologists from Kalmar County Museum, located on the mainland just across from the island.
As described in Archaeology Magazine (link to the full article below):
“Built around A.D. 400, it encircled an area the size of a football field. Now called Sandby Borg, the site is one of more than a dozen similar “borgs,” or forts, on Öland, all built during the Migration Period, a tumultuous era in Europe that began in the fourth century A.D. and hastened the collapse of the Roman Empire.”
But there is more “Rome” in this story than simply the time period in which Sandby Borg was devastated by unknown assailants. Again quoting from Archaeology Magazine:
“Archaeological excavations and chance finds [on Öland] have turned up hundreds of Roman coins, bronze statues, glass beads, and vessels dating to
the first four centuries A.D., when Öland had extensive contact with the Roman Empire. As the empire began to decline, Scandinavian warriors from the islands of Bornholm, Gotland, and Öland found that a set of skills different from what they had sharpened before was now in demand. They had traveled thousands of miles south between a.d. 350 and 500 to work as mercenary bodyguards for the last of the Roman emperors, who paid well to guarantee their loyalty. Ölanders had long brought their wages back to the windswept Baltic island in the form of Roman solidi, gold coins commonly issued in the late empire. The solidi found on the island are distinctive, matching dies that have been uncovered in Rome. “A lot of them are very fresh, in mint condition,” Victor says, without the characteristic wear of coins that have been passed from hand to hand in trade. “There’s a direct link to Rome, and later to Milan and Arles.”
So this long, exposed island was populated by retired bodyguards that had enriched themselves in service of Caesar, the last Caesars to rule the Western Empire. And when they were released from duty they returned home with the gold that they had accumulated and they stashed that wealth in homes with turf walls that they raised behind massive stone fortifications knowing that word would spread of their wealth. That their hard won wages would prove to great a temptation in their horrendously violent age.
And that concern would prove to be terribly prescient.
Caesar’s bodyguards, and their families, fell not long after those protective walls were built.
Their story is dark, and fascinating, and well recounted in Archaeology Magazine for those interested in more..