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Why The Romans In Vikings Have Fans Scratching Their Heads

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but it doesn't always come with awesome costumes and dramatic storylines. This is why, despite being History's flagship show, it's fair to ask, is the Vikings TV series based on history, or is it purely made up?

The show strays from historical fact in aspects big and small — including in its timeline, the characters' relationships, details of the Vikings' lives, and in the way the characters look. But creator Michael Hirst doesn't seem that bothered about this. He previously told History's website, "Everything I write begins with the real ... It's all based on proper research, but it's always a drama, not a documentary. I'm a storyteller, and this is my saga." Hirst also claimed that the Swedish head of Scandinavian Studies at Harvard praised the series as "the first time [their] culture has ever been taken seriously and intelligently" — even while they admitted they're "sure it's full of inaccuracies" given that it's "the Dark Ages and we don't know a lot of things about that period."

Given the success of Vikings, it's fair to say that at least some viewers are willing to overlook the less-than-realistic elements if it means getting to enjoy more of that sweet, sweet bloodthirsty drama. But one season 4 episode pushed some Reddit-using viewers to the edge. And funnily enough, it wasn't the Vikings who caused the scandal. 

This is why the Romans in Vikings have fans scratching their heads.

The Roman armor shown in Vikings was so third century

There's a portion of Vikings fans who are happy to watch graphic depictions of human sacrifices and torture — another thing Vikings gets wrong about history — but who get very upset when costumes are historically inaccurate.

Unless you happen to be an Ancient History buff, when you picture Roman soldiers, chances are that you think of them wearing improbably short tunics, leather sandals, a breastplate of metal or leather, and a helmet — possibly with a big feather or other decoration. And a sword, of course. It's a strong look, which is probably why it's lasted thousands of years and made it into various movie interpretations. That's the version of the Romans that appeared on Vikings season 4. When Pope Leo IV (John Kavanagh) blesses young Alfred (Conor O'Hanlon) in Rome, we see a couple of grim-faced Roman soldiers standing behind him, dressed in that stereotypical style of armor.

However, various Redditors have now expressed their horror over the perceived inaccuracies in the scene. First of all, as many Redditors pointed out, that armor style is off by about 600 years. Some said that this could have been a conscious wardrobe choice Leo IV used for ceremonial purposes, or as a nod to tradition. It would be similar to the famous red uniforms and bearskin hats worn by the Queen's Guard outside Buckingham Palace in England, for example.

However, user u/FabulaXXVII claims that there's no evidence that Vatican officials wore Roman armor, even for ceremonial purposes. And even if they did, according to Redditor u/Mr_sludge, the uniforms "look more like theater props than anything." Say that to their faces.

Vikings costume designer Joan Bergin admits she takes liberties

Just like the show's creator, Vikings' long-time costume designer has openly admitted that although she starts with historical research, she ultimately takes liberties with her looks to keep viewers from getting bored.

Joan Bergin came to the show with a set of impressive credentials. She'd worked on Christopher Nolan's The Prestige before winning three Emmys for costuming another raunchy historical drama, The Tudors. Bergin worked on the first four seasons of Vikings, including the episode that caused so much controversy on Reddit.

Of her process, Bergin told Entertainment Weekly that she started by looking through artifacts at Scandinavian museums. She later incorporated dying and weaving techniques the Vikings really used when making the costumes. Then, she took some creative liberties. "I built up a very general picture of how they looked, but I discovered that perhaps there wasn't enough there to sustain visual interest ... you just try to be as true and as original as you can and take some liberties to make it interesting," she explained.

Costuming period dramas — especially ones that put the emphasis on the drama instead of the period — is more about interpreting what historical clothing was supposed to symbolize for a modern audience, not about reproducing exact replicas of real clothing. If costumes designers put what people actually wore way back when on screen, the audience would probably be too distracted by things that seem completely whacky now. For example, when working on The Tudors, Bergin explained that studio Showtime was immediately against one particular Tudor item: "They were afraid that ... the audience would be just gazing no higher than the codpieces, so they decided no codpieces!" she told Clothes on Film editor Chris Laverty. That's what museums are for.