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Dec. 13, 2022

74 Chapter 3: The Conquest of Southern Italy and Sicily

74 Chapter 3: The Conquest of Southern Italy and Sicily

The Normans conquer Southern Italy and Sicily, creating a new country.


“I Robert, by the grace of God and Saint Peter, duke of Apulia and Calabria and with the help of both in future of Sicily, in confirmation of the grant and in recognition of fealty, promise to pay annually from all the land which I hold personally under my rule [a tribute]…to be paid to you, my lord pope Niccoló, and to all your successors, or to you and your successor’s representatives. This tribute shall be paid each year by the Sunday of the Holy Resurrection. I shall bind myself and my heirs or successors to this obligation by paying tribute to you, my lord pope Niccoló, and to your successors. So help me God.”

-Robert Guiscard, Pledge to Pope Niccoló II, 1059

“Duke Robert had conquered Apulia and Calabria and daily his honor grew and in everything the hand of God gave him aid.”

-Amatus of Montecassino, History of the Normans [Quotes read by Allan Ayers of the Political History of the United States Podcast]

Tancred de Hauteville is only known to history for siring children; in fairness, he was very good at it, having 12 sons who lived to adulthood and an unknown number of daughters. With his first wife Murielle he had five sons. The first, was Guillaume, named ‘Iron Arm’ after he slew an emir in Sicily. In 1035 he left Normandy to seek his fortunes abroad. In southern Italy he won renown for his martial ferocity and military prowess, uniting his countrymen who arrived as mercenaries.

Tancred’s second son was Drogo, who followed Guillaume to Italy. When Guillaume died, Drogo assumed the leadership of the Normans. Through vassalage to the Holy Roman Emperor he gained the title “Count of all the Normans of Apulia and Calabria,” further legitimizing his countrymen’s presence in a faraway land, and establishing an official position of leadership over them. Drogo’s power scared the Greeks and Lombards who had him assassinated.

Tancred’s third son was Onfroi, who either joined his two elder brothers from the outset, or followed shortly thereafter. He led the Normans against the combined German, Italian, Lombard and Greek coalition, commanding the main host at the Battle of Civitate. Afterwards the Normans had no equal in the Southern Italian peninsula, and he led further conquests of the region, though he was not as successful as his younger half-brother Robert Guiscard.

Tancred’s fourth son was Godefroi. Godefroi arrived in Italy in 1053 with his two younger half-brothers Mauger and Guillaume. After Onfroi’s death, Robert Guiscard took up the mantle of Norman leadership, passing over Onfroi’s sons and Godefroi. Godefroi did not challenge Robert for supremacy and accepted life as a count in Apulia.

Tancred’s fifth son and the last by Murielle was Serlo. Serlo remained in Normandy as a petty noble. His own son left for a better life in Italy while the Hauteville family who remained faded into obscurity.

With his second wife Frédésende, Tancred had seven sons and at least one daughter.

The eldest of these was Robert, called ‘Guiscard’ for his cunning. He traveled to Italy in 1047 and became one of the Normans’ most respected leaders. He succeeded Onfroi to become their official leader, and in 1059 arranged with Pope Niccoló II to be named Duke of all of Southern Italy and Sicily. Word of Robert’s success spread, until Guillaume, Duke of Normandy heard of it. Some historians postulate that Robert’s success in Italy may very well have spurred Guillaume to pursue his conquest of England. Perhaps Guillaume was inspired that a fellow Norman could travel to a foreign land, win great battles and increase their standing in the world. More likely, he was jealous. Despite their name, the Hauteville were the lowest of nobles, so poor that their patriarch had nothing to pass on to most of his children. Yet, their leader was now Guillaume’s equal, while many of his family were counts in their own right. There are few things more vexing than other people’s success, and mayhaps the Duke of Normandy became convinced he could and should take the English crown so as not to be outdone by Robert Guiscard. In doing so, Guillaume courted the pope and received his banner, having far more success with it than His Holiness. It was Robert Guiscard who later invaded the Balkans and may have even planned to conquer the entire Byzantine Empire.

Tancred’s second and third sons with Frédésende were Mauger and Guillaume, who arrived in Italy and became counts.

The rest of Tancred’s children all remained in Normandy and disappeared from the historical record, save for the youngest son. That son was Roger, later called ‘Bosso.’ Roger was born around 1031 and was only a child when his three eldest half-brothers went chasing glory in the Mediterranean. At the age of 15 or 16 he left his ancestral home to join his siblings. After a decade apart Roger reunited with his brother Robert Guiscard, who became his great patron. But Roger was never content with the amount of support Robert offered him. Roger continually asked for more men to conquer, much as Robert himself had done with his elder half-brother Drogo when he had first arrived. History repeated itself, and Robert turned down Roger’s requests. Like Drogo, Robert’s forces were stretched thin, a predicament exacerbated by a famine. To satisfy his baby brother, Robert made him lord of half of all of Calabria; the catch being that that half was still under Byzantine control. In essence, Robert was telling him that if baby brother wanted to have land, titles, wealth and glory he would have to do as his elder sibling had done and seize them. So he did, and Roger quickly conquered southwestern Italy. In 1060, Robert and Roger combined their forces and successfully besieged the fortress-city of Reggio.

In just a few years Roger Bosso emerged as the second-most powerful man in southern Italy, and his ambitions were still unsatiated. To prevent intra-Norman conflict, Robert offered to help Roger conquer Sicily. Had Sicily been united it probably would have repulsed any Norman invasion, but in 1044 the emirate fragmented into four qadits whose individual qadi regularly warred with each other for dominance. Around the time that the Normans took Reggio the qadi of Syracuse, Ibn Thumna, went to war with Ibn al-Hawwas, qadi of Castrogiovanni and Castronuovo. Ibn Thumna’s initial attacks failed and in 1061 he traveled to Italy to seek Norman help. Roger and Robert could not pass up such an invitation and in May they sailed for Sicily.

The Norman invasion of Sicily was not a crusade in any recognizable form. First, the Normans had been invited by a Muslim ruler. Roger Bosso initially conquered in parallel with Ibn Thumna, though when the qadi was killed in an ambush in 1062 the Normans seized territory for themselves, while remaining allies of Syracuse. Second, most of the Normans’ army were native Sicilians, probably self-described ‘Muslims.’ I say ‘self-described’ because the situation in Sicily was quite complex. As is the case in every Islamic country, the Sicilian government imposed the gizya tax, a special tax on non-Muslims. This led most people on the island to declare their conversion to Islam. However, Sicilian Muslims were notoriously liberal in their faith. Despite the Qur’an calling alcohol the work of Satan, Sicilian Muslims regularly drank wine and had a well-established wine culture, which was celebrated in the highest levels of society. Likewise, Sicilians regularly ate pork despite prohibitions on consuming pig. Naturally this might make one conclude that many Sicilian Muslims weren’t real Muslims but were Christians who merely became Muslims every tax season. This was probably the case in some circumstances, though it is also likely that the governors of Sicily did not impose orthodox Islam on their population due to their lack of power. Sicily was closer to Christendom than it was to the Islamic world. If a particularly pious politician tried to impose orthodox Islam on his people he could face serious revolt without hope of quick reinforcement from allied Muslim countries. As such, Sicilian leaders allowed a ‘live-and-let-live’ style of Islam to flourish on the island. Thus, when the Normans began their invasion the majority-Muslim population did not resent them as Christian interlopers but welcomed them as potential political allies against rival rulers. The Normans treated the native Muslim population similarly, viewing them as potential recruits for the expansion of their realms. The Normans later claimed that they set out for Sicily on a holy mission to retake the island for Christ and his people, but Christianization was a lengthy process that took place long after conquest. Until Roger Bosso was in charge of the whole island he was more than happy to command Muslim troops and maintain Islamic laws and customs in conquered territory.

Roger Bosso first arrived in the northeast with a small force of perhaps 150 knights in May 1061 where they ravaged the countryside. When the eastern coastal metropolis of Messina learned of this they sent out a small army to meet them. The two sides fought a battle which ended indecisively, after which the Normans retreated northeastward to board their ships and return home with their plunder. But their ships weren’t where they were supposed to be. After waiting for three days, Roger Bosso realized that a local Muslim navy must have driven them off. Meanwhile the force from Messina was approaching their camp. With no other choice the Normans retreated northeastward as far as they could, until they finally encountered their lost ships. The Norman force returned to Sicily, having failed in the conquest, yet the vast wealth they accrued convinced them to return in greater numbers.

In Spring 1062 Roger Bosso and Robert raised a force of 2,000 infantry and 450 knights. Despite this impressive army, the Normans still had a problem. The Normans were ferocious on land, though they were not nearly as skilled at sea warfare as their Muslim counterparts. However, if one recognizes one’s own weaknesses they can be turned into a strength. In this case, Robert Guiscard led the majority of his army to the northern coast of Italy’s toe to draw out the Muslim navy. Meanwhile Roger Bosso took a smaller force and sailed out from the southern coast to take Messini. The plan worked spectacularly, as Roger took Messini easily. Realizing they had been duped, the Islamic army in the northeast retreated westward, allowing Robert to land with the main host. Shortly thereafter Ibn Thumna’s forces connected with the Normans and they jointly took the northeast. The Norman-Sicilian force conquered until it reached the center of the island where the qadi Ibn al-Hawwas held the fortress of Enna. Rather than besieging the city, the Normans ravaged the countryside to force al-Hawwas to take the field where the Norman cavalry overwhelmed his forces.

In winter Robert Guiscard and Roger Bosso returned to the mainland, leaving behind garrisons to secure their holdings. When Roger was in Calabria he reunited with an old acquaintance: Judith d'Évreux. Judith was born to a high noble family. Her great-grandfather was Duke Richard I, known as ‘The Fearless,’ who ruled Normandy for 54 years, while her grandfather was Robert II, the Archbishop of Rouen. Her father Guillaume d'Évreux was not as accomplished as his forebears but he was still a respectable lord; he and his family were certainly much richer and more powerful than the Hauteville when they were all living in Normandy. Following Guillaume’s death, Judith’s half-brother Robert de Grandmesnil became her guardian. In 1059 Robert fell afoul of court intrigue, and learned that Duke Guillaume was set to strip him of his possessions. Robert and Judith fled Normandy and went to Rome, where Robert sought to appeal his ecclesiastical rights to the Pope. While in Italy, the two ventured southward, meeting with their countrymen who now ruled much of the southern half of the peninsula. There, Judith met with Roger Bosso. The meeting was almost something out of a fairytale, or perhaps a steamy romance novel. Roger had been born the last son of the lowliest of noble families, set to live a life of poverty in a small village. At the age of 15 or 16 he left home for the ancient land of Italy, where he became a great warrior, then a wealthy and powerful count. In contrast, Judith had been born to a wealthy, privileged family, until her second cousin Duke Guillaume, effectively banished her half-brother, who she followed into exile. Their fortunes had utterly reversed, and the proud woman came to him humbled and he exalted. The two rapidly fell in love and married in Mileto.

In Spring 1062 a Byzantine-backed rebellion in Apulia forced Robert Guiscard to remain on the mainland to restore order. Meanwhile, the recently-married Roger Bosso departed again for Sicily, only to learn that his ally Ibn Thumna had been killed in an ambush. The conquest of the island was slow, in part due to opposition by locals to Norman rule. Meanwhile, Muslim lords united against the invasion while calling upon their Berber allies from North Africa to expunge the Normans.

In June 1063 the united Muslim force met the Normans at the small town of Cerami. We cannot know how many soldiers each side had, as the Norman sources claim they possessed roughly 600 hundred while Al-Hawas commanded 50,000. In all likelihood, the Sicilian Arab and Berber force numbered in the thousands and was larger than the Norman army but not overwhelmingly so. Despite their inferior numbers, Roger Bosso’s heavily-armored infantry and cavalry held against a charge by the enemy’s light infantry. Then, Roger Bosso’s relative Serlo II led a cavalry charge into the enemy’s left flank. The Muslim army began to collapse. Sensing defeat, its leaders ordered a retreat back to Palermo, allowing the Normans to kill many in the disorganized flight. Victory at the Battle of Cerami solidified the Norman presence in Sicily; unlike the Byzantines a generation earlier, the Northmen were here to stay. But the jewel of the island, Palermo, was still beyond their reach. In 1064 Roger led a siege of the city but without an adequate navy Palermo could resupply with men and arms. Final conquest was still a number of years off.

Perhaps even more important than securing Norman possessions, the battle opened up a wedge between Islamic leaders. I cannot stress enough that the labels ‘Christian’ and ‘Muslim,’ while important, often massively oversimplify the real situation. In this case, the Arab Sicilian Muslims and the Berber North African Muslims had many political and religious disagreements. The Berber Muslims were part of the Zirid emirate, a vast and powerful country stretching west into modern-day Morocco and east where it bordered Fatimid Egypt. The Berber princes viewed themselves as superior to the qadits of Sicily. Moreover, there was almost certainly tension over the divergence in their religious practices. Sicilian Muslims were perhaps the least orthodox in the entire Muslims world, eating pork, drinking wine and otherwise ignoring many of the mandates observed in much of the rest of the Islamic world. It is likely that the Zirid Berbers accused the Sicilians of inviting Norman Christian invasion due to their sinful lifestyle. After all, the Muslim Ibn Thumna had literally invited a Christian power to the island in the first place. Zirid Berber haughtiness insulted the Arab Sicilians and both sides blamed each other for defeat at the Battle of Cerami.

The Muslims were not the only side dealing with internal conflict. The Byzantines routinely stirred up the Normans in Apulia against Robert Guiscard. Without his brother’s aid, and occasionally facing rebellions of his own, Roger Bosso’s advances across Sicily were slow. After re-subjugating his vassals, Robert resolved to conquer the Greek coastline. In hardly no time at all Robert subjugated all remaining Byzantine land in Italy save only for the capital of Bari. Shockingly, the Byzantines sent no aid to their fellows across the Adriatic because at the time they were dealing with a major Turkish invasion.

On 5 August 1068 Robert laid siege to Bari. Bari was the largest city in all of Apulia, and the capital of Byzantine Italy. The city stood on a promontory extending northward into the Adriatic sea, and contained a large harbor. Not too distant across the narrow sea was Dyrrachium in modern-day Albania, a metropolis that could regularly resupply its sister city. As was typical of a Byzantine city, Bari boasted high and thick walls.

The Normans had proved themselves over and over again on land, but to take Bari, Robert would have to defeat them at sea as well to prevent them from resupplying. Robert raised a navy of Italian sailors who blockaded the city. Historian Vassilis Pergalias writes that the Normans, “[Drew] the ships into line abreast, and harnessing each one to its neighbours with great iron chains forged especially for the occasion, he formed his fleet into a single, solid barrier encircling the entire promontory on which the city stood. The last ship at each end was moored to a heavily fortified jetty, so that it could be easily boarded by the land forces, which, crossing from ship to ship, could rapidly relieve any part of the line that might be attacked.”

Vassilis Pergalias further writes, “Despite this display of Norman determination and capabilities, the people of Bari showed contempt for the besiegers. They paraded along the ramparts, disdainfully brandishing the city’s treasures, mocking Guiscard’s ambitions by reflecting sunlight from their gold and silver plates into the Normans’ eyes. Defying – and underestimating – their enemy, the Bariots challenged Guiscard to come and help himself to what he saw. Guiscard’s answer, as recorded by Malaterra, reveals his own intriguing personality. He replied with equal contempt that “those things which you have shown me are mine and, since you have presented them to me of your own free will, I thank you. Keep them safe for the time being. You will certainly lament their loss, for in the future I shall give them away generously.”

The people of Bari did everything they could to break the siege. They sent out their soldiers in sorties, which the Normans repulsed. They shot arrows, hurled javelins and possibly even used Greek fire against the wooden siege towers against their walls. When the Normans dropped walkways from the tops of the towers they fought on the ramparts. At one point the Byzantines broke part of the blockade, allowing its governor Byzantius to sail to Constantinople and implore the Emperor for aid. In early 1069 Byzantius returned with reinforcements, despite the Norman navy’s attempt to deter them.

As the siege dragged on, Robert Guiscard employed more subtle methods. He managed to hire someone within the city to assassinate Byzantius. The city leaders refused to give in to intimidation and instead sent their own assassin to kill the Norman leader. According to a story by Geoffroi of Malaterra, the assassin stealthily approached Robert’s encampment and threw a poisoned javelin at him. Luckily, Robert was suffering from a bad cold and at that moment bent over to hack out some phlegm, narrowly dodging the hurled weapon.

By early 1071 the Bariots were growing weary and low on supplies. Moreover, Roger joined the siege, bolstering the Normans’ numbers and signaling to the besieged that the Normans were committed to conquering the city and expelling the Byzantine presence in Italy. But then the tide brought with it one final hope. In late winter a Byzantine fleet appeared on the horizon. The guards on the walls were so overcome with joy that they reportedly shouted in exultation when they saw their fellows approach. The cry awakened the Normans, who sailed out to meet their foes on the open waters. Shockingly, the Normans won the battle, sinking half the fleet and preventing any from reinforcing the city. A few weeks later Bari surrendered. The siege had lasted two and a half years, one of the longest in Italian history.

Robert Guiscard surprised his conquered foes by treating them with dignity, forbidding his men to plunder the city and even granting the Bariots a degree of autonomy. More than anything, Robert wanted peace within his realm; well, more peace than usual. Southern Italy was divided among numerous polities, most of which were run by former mercenaries. Revolt and betrayal were the bread and butter, of southern Italy. Sorry, that would be northern Italy, for Southern Italy it would be more like bread and olive oil. As great a prize as Bari was, Robert’s major aim was probably the removal of the Byzantines from Italy. The Byzantine Empire was an incredibly wealthy country that financed most of the revolts within his territory with their seemingly-endless supply of cash. Robert hoped that the fall of Bari meant an end to Byzantine involvement in Italy.

After Bari’s capture the Byzantines were far less active in the Italian peninsula, though this had more to do with events in the east. In 1071, the Byzantines lost the monumentally important Battle of Manzikert. In that battle Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes became the first Roman emperor to be captured by an enemy force since Valerian over 800 years prior. That battle meant the Byzantine revival was over and the Seljuk Turks progressed through Anatolia. Many Normans fought at Manzikert or in the greater campaign, including Robert Crépin and Roussel de Bailleul. These Normans became disillusioned with the Byzantines and rebelled, forming their own states in eastern Anatolia. That is a story for a little later; for now, what is important is that after Manzikert the Byzantines were a declining power without the resources needed to retake Italy.

While Robert was busy besieging Bari, Roger was pillaging Muslim lands in Sicily. In 1068 Roger and his knights were out raiding near Palermo when a larger Muslim infantry force marched out to meet them. The two forces met at Misselmari, where the Norman heavy cavalry smashed into the Muslim footmen, breaking their lines and leading to a slaughter. The massacre exploded tensions between the Zirids and Sicilians in Palermo who openly fought each other in the city. The Zirids defeated the Sicilian Muslims, even killing their qadit Ibn al-Hawwas. But by now the Zirid leadership decided that Sicily was not worth fighting for. Its people were given to factions, did not follow orthodox Islam and were just as likely to fight against their fellows as against the invaders. The Zirids sailed back to North Africa, leaving Sicily open to wholesale conquest.

When Bari fell in 1071, Robert Guiscard was free to join Roger to take the great city of Palermo. In January, Robert ordered his army to attack this city. This was merely a distraction for an amphibious landing which he personally led. This joint attack overwhelmed the defenders, who retreated to the inner walls. Realizing that defeat was inevitable, the city leadership agreed to surrender if their lives would be spared and if they would be allowed to practice their faith. Robert agreed, and became the lord of the greatest city in Europe west of Constantinople. There he converted the central mosque back into a cathedral and removed its Islamic symbols as a show to the local Christians that they would be the dominant force. But true to his word, the Muslim populace was protected, with many Islamic nobles remaining in high-level political positions.

Robert Guiscard was done with Sicily. He had taken the Mediterranean’s greatest city for himself, alongside some choice territory. The rest he left for Roger. Robert returned to Italy, putting down yet another revolt. In 1072, he fell ill and looked to be near-death. As Robert clung to life, his wife Sikelgaita had all the Norman lords swear allegiance to their son Roger Borsa as the heir. The only opposition came from Abelard and Herman, the two sons of Onfroi who claimed that Robert had stolen their inheritance from them…which wasn’t a total lie. The two launched yet another rebellion, which was joined by Prince Gisulf II of Salerno. Robert recovered from his illness with a renewed vigor. He crushed the rebels, forcing his nephews into exile. Then he marched across the peninsula, conquering, well, everything. By 1080 Robert Guiscard had subjugated all of southern Italy.

While Robert Guiscard took southern Italy, Roger Bosso took Sicily, though it took him much longer. In 1078 he took the central fortress of Castro Novo. In 1079 he took Taormina and put down a revolt in the west. In 1080 he had to put his plans on hold and manage southern Italy while his brother invaded the Byzantine Empire; more on that later. Robert Guiscard’s death in 1085 meant his son Roger Borsa returned to Italy to claim his inheritance, freeing Roger Bosso to continue his invasion down south. That year he took Syracuse when the Norman navy won a stunning victory over the Sicilian navy. In 1091 Noto, the last Islamic holdout, surrendered. As if performing a victory lap, Roger Bosso then sailed for Malta where he assaulted the fortress of Mdina. The Arab Muslim garrison surrendered, and agreed to pay tribute and acknowledge him as lord. The victorious Normans then attacked the island of Gozo, effectively bringing Malta and its nearby islands under his dominion.

The Normans had accomplished something remarkable. When Robert Guiscard conquered all of southern Italy it was the first time that region had been united since the fall of the Western Roman Empire roughly six hundred years prior. Following Rome’s fall, the peninsula split into independent counties, duchies and principalities, until that is, Emperor Justinian I decided he wanted to remake the Roman Empire in its entirety. Try as they might, the Eastern Roman Empire never became THE Roman Empire of old, and while the Greeks established a presence in Italy they could not dominate it. In the following centuries Arab Muslims became the new great power, conquering Malta, Sicily and parts of southern Italy, though the Lombards and Greeks eventually pushed them off the peninsula proper. For six hundred years southern Italy was a divided country of small states, ruled by regional lords. By the late 11th century the two leading Normans were mighty lords who commanded respect far beyond their borders.

The Norman Conquest of Southern Italy is truly remarkable in how dissimilar it was to the Norman Conquest of England. The Norman Conquest of England was a planned invasion centrally-organized under one leader with specific goals, justifications and enemies. Furthermore, the Norman Conquest took place over a very short period of time. From the landing at Pevensey Bay to the subjugation of England was only a few months’ time. It took a total of two years for Guillaume to solidify his rule, after which he faced no serious challenges to his kingship.

Beginning with the arrival of the first companies of Norman mercenaries in the early 1000s until the final conquests on the peninsula and southern islands, the Norman Conquest of southern Italy took almost a century to complete. This was in large part because the Normans never set out to conquer the territory. If the chronicles are true, and there’s reason to believe they are, the first Norman warriors were merely passing through as pilgrims to the Holy Land. Then their homeland fell into a period of political chaos while the Lombards simultaneously sent out calls for aid. For around two decades dishonored, dispossessed and exiled Normans left for Italy as soldiers of fortune, not conquerors. They arrived on Italian shores to take orders, not give them. Yet, they emerged as the finest warriors in the whole realm, who outmatched the Greeks, Italians, Lombards, Arabs and Berbers alike. Norman supremacy derived from their expert horsemanship, which made them vastly more effective than the light infantry they regularly faced.

As large numbers of Normans settled in Italy they recognized how powerful they were. They demanded fair pay and treatment. They elected leaders who fought for their rights, wealth and honor, until in 1028 Rainulf of Drengot became the first of their own to hold a noble title. A mere 7 years later and over a dozen Normans held noble titles. Soon, Normans back home realized that there was more glory and wealth to be had in Italy and their numbers swelled. By the 1050s the Normans were the de facto power in the south, terrifying the de jure Lombard and Byzantine powers. Norman ascendency led the papacy to create a broad anti-Norman coalition. After the Normans won the Battle of Civitate the entire political dynamic changed. Before, they were trying to win patrons who gave them power. After Civitate they seized power. But even then, their conquests were not wholly planned. After all, Robert Guiscard only turned against Gisulf II and the rest of the Lombard lords when they joined Onfroi’s children in rebellion.

The Norman conquest of southern Italy was very unlike the Norman conquest of England. If anything, it more closely resembles the Viking conquest of Normandy. In that case, Vikings ransacked and pillaged northern West Francia, familiarizing themselves with the territory. They set up bases in the north, and even came to rule over some territory, until in 911 Charles the Simple made their presence official in exchange for fealty. In both of these cases, the invasions were gradual, unplanned and largely decentralized, though the Northmen did rally behind the most powerful among them whenever they were seriously threatened.