The Normans create a kingdom in Sicily and rule as 'baptized sultans.'
The Normans create a kingdom in Sicily and rule as 'baptized sultans.'
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“So especially ought you to have a regard for Sicily, O judges, for many, and those the greatest, reasons:--First, because of all foreign nations Sicily was the first who joined herself to the friendship and alliance of the Roman people. She was the first to be called a province; and the provinces are a great ornament to the empire. She was the first who taught our ancestors how glorious a thing it was to rule over foreign nations. She alone has displayed such good faith and such good will towards the Roman people, that the states of that island which have once come into our alliance have never revolted afterwards, but many of them, and those the most illustrious of them, have remained firm to our friendship for ever. Therefore our ancestors made their first strides to dominion over Africa from this province. Nor would the mighty power of Carthage so soon have fallen, if Sicily had not been open to us, both as a granary to supply us with corn, and as a harbour for our fleets.”
-Cicero, Second Pleading of Cicero in the Gaius Verres Trial
“The character of this, their king is surprising, for his decent conduct, his employment of Muslims, and the use made of completely castrated slaves, all of whom, or most of whom, conceal their faith and adhere to Shari’a law of Islam. He puts a lot of trust in the Muslims, relying on them in his affairs. Important matters of business to the extent that even the supervisor of his kitchen is a Muslim. He also has a unit of black Muslim slaves whose commander is picked from among them. His ministers and chamberlains are eunuchs, of whom he has a large number. They are the people of his state and described as his elite. Through them radiates the splendor of his kingdom because they abound with magnificent clothes and swift horses, and each has his own retinue of slaves and attendants.”
-Ibn Jubayr, Description of Sicily [quotes read by Dirk Hoffman-Becking of The History of the Germans]
Sicily is a geological marvel. The island rests on the northern tip of the African Continental Plate just south of the Eurasian plate. Regular tectonic activity pushes the ground upward. It is for that reason that 25% of the island is mountainous, 61% hills and only 14% are lowlands ideal for human habitation and agriculture. This scant habitable zone is largely along the coast, while the interior is difficult to traverse. Granite mountains tower over the north while the great Mount Etna crowns the east. In medieval times Etna was known as the “Mountain of Fire,” as it erupted 200 days of the year, making it one of Europe’s most active volcanoes. While the majority of the island was a largely impassable rocky terrain, the coastlines were idyllic. The rich soil was regularly fertilized by volcanic ash and frequent rains meant crops grew in abundance.
Sicily was among the most agriculturally productive places in Europe. Unlike most European territories, Sicily’s climate was ideal for growing hard grain which could keep on long journeys, allowing Sicilians to sell their produce to more distant markets. Before the Industrial Revolution agriculture was the mainstay of the world economy. Sicily’s ideal topography made it one of the richest in Europe as the island could feed its own sizeable population while exporting surpluses to North Africa in exchange for gold and slaves. Historian Matthew King writes that the abundant trade with North Africa, “permitted Sicily by the mid-twelfth century to be the only kingdom in Western Europe to mint gold coinage.”
The island’s inhabitants were also unique within Europe. When the Normans first conquered the island the majority of the population were Muslim, many of Arab or Berber descent. Mosques dotted the landscape, including those that had once been Christian churches, until Roger Bosso arrived and restored the churches to their original functions. The island’s primary language was Arabic, and its system of government and court culture largely based on the Zirid Empire and Fatimid Egypt. One major difference between Sicilian Muslims and most of their counterparts is that they followed an incredibly lax version of Islam. When the famous geographer Ibn Hawqal visited the island in the late 10th century he claimed that the inhabitants intermarried with Christians, they did not pray, they did not pay the alms tax or perform the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. They drank, ate pork and the men were not circumcised. The orthodox scholar may have exaggerated the waywardness of the Sicilians or lumped together non-Muslims with Muslims. Regardless, the tolerant, open society practiced on the island meant that native merchants were an ideal link between Christendom and the dar-al-Islam. Aside from the Arab-Berber Muslims there was a significant population of Greek-speaking and Greek Orthodox in the east around Messina; this was a holdover from the centuries of Byzantine rule. Finally, there was a significant Jewish minority.
In a word, Sicily was everything that 11th century Normandy was not. Urban-based, seafaring, cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual, with very few Latin Christians. Likewise, the Normans were everything that the Sicilians were not. They spoke French, had a martial culture based around horsemanship and followed Latin Christianity. They were unusually tall with fair skin and often sported red or blond hair. From a cursory glance the Normans could not have looked more out of place. Yet, because they were so unique and such an obvious minority they became the ideal rulers of the island. Roger Bosso and his fellows recognized that they had to adapt to those they ruled over and honor their customs and traditions if they had any hope of maintaining their power. In the process the Normans shaped one of the greatest kingdoms of the medieval period. Abundantly wealthy, populous, powerful, it produced cultural masterpieces and architectural wonders. It was also the most tolerant realm in all of Europe, where Muslims, Western and Eastern Christians and Jews lived together in harmony…most of the time.
When Roger Bosso assumed the title of Count of Sicily he offered generous terms to the cities he conquered. He respected the rights of all faiths. People could worship as they wished and were tried in justice systems in their own faith, with Muslims tried by Muslims, Christians by Christians and Jews by Jews. In the instances where a person of one faith wronged a person of another civil law or Christian law usually took precedence but the sentences were treated with enough delicacy that the Muslims did not revolt en masse. The central government patronized both Latin and Orthodox churches and monasteries while tolerating mosques. While the government favored Christianity it did not impose it on the Islamic population. In fact, quite the opposite. According to the contemporary English historian Eadmer many of Roger’s Muslim soldiers were willing to convert to Christianity but the count discouraged them from doing so. Apostasy was a major crime, carrying the death penalty in Islam and Roger feared offending his majority Muslim subjects by pressuring their fellows to convert. Thus, conversion from Islam to Christianity was a gradual and individual process which occurred over centuries. The largest disincentive for Muslims was the reversal of the gizya tax. Before the Norman conquest Muslim rulers placed a special tax on Christians and Jews. Afterwards the Normans made Muslims pay the tax. However, this tax appears to have been relatively light and was more than offset by the prosperity of the Norman rule. Before the Norman conquest the island had been divided among qadits whose qadis regularly warred with each other. These in turn came into conflict with African powers as when the Zirids fought their fellows in Palermo. Unification under the Normans meant that Sicilians could pursue trade without worrying about internal violence, leading to economic prosperity.
The Normans kept the existing administrative system in place. While the Count of Sicily had final say in all matters, daily operations were overseen by an emir. While the ruling nobility were all Christian, educated Muslims dominated the administrative functions, alongside Greek functionaries. Norman French was the language of the palace, but outside of these elite circles Arabic and Greek were the dominant language. Official charters were issued in these languages and occasionally Latin as the Normans appointed clergy of French origin to posts in Sicilian churches. In marked contrast to Christian kingdoms, the Normans retained palace eunuchs as powerful functionaries. These eunuchs, known as the ‘palace Saracens’ were Muslims who had converted to Christianity, though it was something of an open secret that they still practiced Islam in private. Sicily was also the only Christian kingdom whose royal palaces had harems: pleasure areas occupied by young women which the monarch could retreat to for emotional and sexual comfort. What evidence we have suggests that these harems did have a sexual element, though that was not their only function and may not have even been their primary function. Still, their presence was highly out of the ordinary for a Christian kingdom.
Then again, Sicily was not a Christian kingdom per se. All the nobility were Latin Christians, but the population was majority Muslim until the end of Roger II’s reign or during Guillaume I’s. Sicilian architecture was a mixture of Arabic, Byzantine and Italian, though it was more Islamic in nature than anything else, with its elegant use of geometric patterns, reflecting pools and fountains. At first the Normans adopted the local form of government which was based on Ifriqiya, the North African coastline south of Italy that today comprises much of Algeria, Tunisia and part of Libya. Under Roger II and his successors the Norman court emulated the Fatimids. These European Christian kings lived like Middle Eastern caliphs, their lives devoted to the finer joys of poetry-reading and palatial opulence.
Sicily had a highly centralized government, overseen by administrators appointed by the count, later king, of the island. These administrators were primarily Muslims who were often fiercely loyal to the Hauteville family for their tolerance. In fact, most Muslims favored the Hauteville who they viewed as more accommodating than the Christian nobility, who had a reputation for abusing them. Aside from the Islamic population, the rulers of Sicily had immense power over the church. In 1098 the Pope granted Roger Bosso the rite of apostolic legateship, allowing him and his heirs to create bishoprics and nominate bishops. This meant that powerful clergy largely depended on the Hauteville for their positions. With such power concentrated in the hands of the Hauteville family, their patriarchs and occasional matriarchs could rule Sicily with little fear from the other nobles. Not no fear; at times the Italo-Norman nobility did threaten their position; but during the medieval period when so many polities had constant fighting between upstart nobles and the monarch, Sicily had remarkably centralized control under the Hauteville and their capital. It is for this reason that women were able to exercise remarkable power; because Sicily had a uniquely modern government. During the European medieval period government was largely personal with families retaining certain rights and privileges, while modern governments separate the person from the office to prevent abuses of justice. In Sicily the nobles were remarkably weak while the central administration controlled the country, and that administration drew its authority from the royal family.
Roger Bosso ruled at the beginning of Sicily’s golden age and only began to taste the fruits of this great new realm in the making. If conquering was Roger’s primary concern his second was siring an heir. His first love, Judith of Évreux bore him four daughters, all of which married powerful French or Italo-Norman lords, but no sons. After 14 years of marriage Judith died in 1076. The following year, Roger married Éremburge de Mortain. None of her male children survived into adulthood, although, like Judith, Éremburge gave birth to many daughters who married powerful lords; the middle child Félicie, even became the wife of Coloman, King of Hungary.
Roger was growing old and still without a male heir. He had some illegitimate children, though his eldest died young while another contracted leprosy. In 1089 Éremburge died. After a brief period of mourning his emissaries searched for a third wife. In hardly any time they arranged for the 50-year-old Roger to marry the 14-year-old Adelaide del Vasto, from northwestern Italy. Before the year’s end the young woman and elder count married in Mileto. Within four years she gave birth to Simon. Two years later, in 1095 she bore Roger II.
On 22 June 1101 Roger Bosso died at the age of 70. He had left Normandy at the age of 15 or 16, and with his brother Robert Guiscard conquered Byzantine Calabria before spending the next thirty years taking Sicily. His death exposed one final unique trait of the island’s culture: under Norman rulership queens had the opportunity to rule as the most powerful individuals within the realm; the caveat being that they had to do so as regents for a young son, as was the case of Adelaide del Vasto and later Marguerite of Navarre. Otherwise, women could rule with a strong foreign husband, as with Constance.
Adelaide became regent for her son at the age of 26, ruling from Messina so as to keep an eye on her son’s possessions in Calabria. She proved a competent and just ruler. She was respected by her diverse subjects and was a patron of the church, sponsoring the restoration and construction of Latin houses of worship while protecting historic Greek churches. Unfortunately, we know very little about Adelaide’s rule because Norman Sicily had adopted the Arabic practice of using paper rather than vellum in their charters. However, there are still some few remaining artifacts from the period, including a Greek and Arabic charter from March 1109, which is the oldest surviving paper document in Italy and among the oldest in Europe. Adelaide even managed to put down a minor rebellion of barons on behalf of her son Simon. Tragically, the young count would never reach maturity, and Simon died at the age of 12. This sad event left 10-year-old Roger II as count of Sicily, though power rested in the hands of the boy’s mother, and the emir Abd-Ar-Rahman, who converted to Greek Orthodoxy and took up the name Christodulous.
Unlike his mercenary father, Roger II was born to power. He was raised in palaces and tutored by the finest minds of his age. His mother tongue was French, and he learned to speak Greek and Arabic, though he never learned how to write the last two. As Roger II approached the age of maturity Adelaide moved the court to the great city of Palermo where it would remain for the rest of Normans’ rule. There the royal family lived a cosmopolitan life, interacting with the diverse peoples of the realm and with many noble travelers who passed through Sicily.
The most important figure in Sicilian history that Roger II met as a youth was George of Antioch. George was born to an Armenian family in the fortress-city of Antioch, where he grew up. The family was violently displaced with many others when the armies of the First Crusade besieged his hometown under the leadership of the Norman Bohemond. George’s family fled to the safety of Constantinople where they became high-ranking officials. But his family fell out of favor, which in the intrigue-filled Eastern Roman Empire was incredibly dangerous. The family sailed westward along the North African coast where they were captured by warships belonging to the Zirid emir Tamim ibn al-Muʿizz. George’s family offered their services to the emir and the young man rose up through the ranks until he became governor of the major port-city of Sousse. Tamim became a great patron of the family, though the emir’s son Yahya hated them. While Yahya was still the heir-apparent he ordered George’s brother strangled to death. Fearing for his own life, George wrote to the emir of Sicily, Christodoulos, who secured his passage to the island.
George was ideal for the Sicilian court: he was a brilliant administrator, he spoke Greek and Arabic and was familiar with the inner workings of the Byzantine and Zirid courts. Before long he became an ambassador to Fatimid Egypt and absolutely excelled, in large part because the caliph’s vizier, Bahram, was also a Christian Armenian who had probably been displaced from Antioch during the First Crusade.
Without doubt the most interesting figure that Roger II met during the regency was Sigurd I Magnusson, King of Norway, who stopped at the city with an army of Northmen in 1110. Sigurd was then leading his legendary voyage known as the Norwegian Crusade. A fascinating saga, Sigurd I had left Norway in 1107, becoming the first king to go on crusade. His army warred against Muslims (and sometimes fellow Christians who would not give him food or gold) all along Iberia’s coastline and the Balearic Islands before wintering in Sicily on his way to the Holy Land.
In 1111 Bohemond and Roger Borsa died, both leaving behind sons too young to assume lordship. Constance, daughter of French King Philippe I, became princess of Antioch while Adele of Flanders became regent of Apulia. For a year all the Norman realms in the Mediterranean were ruled by women. But in 1112 Adelaide del Vasto ended the Northwomen’s matriarchy when she knighted her son, officially passing on her rulership.
Adelaide retired from politics at the age of 36, though politics was not done with her. At that time Baudouin I [Baldwin in English] King of Jerusalem was in desperate need of cash and a male heir, as his first two wives had produced no children. Apparently not knowing what a common denominator was, Baudouin I figured that a third wife would do the trick and he sent emissaries to ask for Adelaide’s hand in marriage. She and her son agreed, but on the condition that if Baudouin I and Adelaide produced no heir of their own then Roger II would inherit the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Baudouin I agreed. In summer 1113 Adelaide boarded a treasure fleet and sailed east. The voyage was remarkable; first the ships were attacked by pirates, then caught in a storm which left them in hostile waters controlled by Islamic powers before they finally arrived at Acre. From there Adelaide’s retinue travelled to Jerusalem where she became its queen.
Adelaide was unhappy with her new home. The French did not rule like the Normans. Their leaders were intolerant, promoting Latin Christianity at the expense of Greek Orthodoxy, while their priests condemned Muslims in fiery terms. Meanwhile the queen and her husband had no children. In 1116 Baudouin I fell seriously ill and the local nobility worried that Roger II would inherit the kingdom rather than one of their own. A cabal of aristocrats decided that this was intolerable and declared that the marriage between Baudouin I and Adelaide was invalid. They argued that because Baudouin I’s second wife might still be alive that marriage was not ever rightfully dissolved. They appealed to Pope Paschal II who agreed with their reasoning. Adelaide was humiliated and virtually exiled from Jerusalem without her expansive dowry. Meanwhile the nobility elevated Baudouin I’s cousin to replace him. Adelaide returned to Sicily in disgrace in 1117 and joined a nunnery, only to die the following year. This scandal infuriated Roger II who afterwards refused to offer any aid to the Crusaders.
In 1117 Roger II married Elvira Jiménez, princess of Castile. Their age difference was not nearly as scandalous to our modern sensibilities as his father’s; Roger II was then 22 and she 17. Elvira appreciated Sicily having been brought up in a similar climate, cultural and political atmosphere in her hometown of Castile. Her father was Alfonso VI, a Christian king who conquered territories from Islamic subjects. As with the Normans he promised to respect their religious rights and protect them from persecution, even taking up the title al-Imbraţūr dhī-l-Millatayn, "Emperor of the Two Religions". The union was a happy and fruitful one; she gave birth to a son every year for four years which is the sort of thing that medieval European lords usually only dream about. In order, she bore Roger, Tancred, Alfonso and Guillaume. Later on she gave birth to a daughter who died young and another son, Henri.
During the late 1110s and onward Roger II became increasingly aggressive, due in part to the goading of George of Antioch. George had a score to settle with the Zirids and when he was not at court, he was serving as an admiral in the Sicilian navy raiding the coast of Ifriqiya. Driven to vengeance for the murder of his brother, George did everything he could to rise up the ranks and push Sicily into conflict. He even turned upon his former savior, Christodoulos, spreading rumors about him. The intriguing had its effect; Christodoulos was deposed and then executed while George replaced him as the emir of emirs.
Count and countess lived a blessed life in a wealthy and prosperous island raising their four children. Then the course of history changed when Roger II’s cousin, Duke Guillaume II of Apulia, died childless. For roughly sixty years southern Italy had been divided between two branches of the Hauteville family: Robert Guiscard’s line ruled the southern half of the peninsula while the line of his brother Roger Bosso ruled Sicily. Guillaume II’s death meant that one of those lines had failed.
Roger II sensed his opportunity and claimed all of Apulia and Calabria were rightfully his. Roger II had a strong legal claim, but his power-grab worried every other leader in the region, particularly Pope Honorious II. The Pope decided he could not allow the Count of Sicily to seize the Duchy of Apulia and Calabria. He urged Rainulf of Alife, Roger II’s brother-in-law, to lead the Normans to resist Roger II’s intrusion. In response, Roger II crossed the strait of Messina to his Italian territories and marched with an army into Apulia where he handily defeated his rivals. His humiliated Holiness humbly anointed Roger II Duke of Apulia at Benevento in August 1128. With a large, and largely Muslim, army under his command, Roger II spent the next year campaigning across southern Italy until all his territory submitted, and he forced those on his northern border to recognize his authority. Roger II was determined to be a strong ruler, unlike prior dukes who were nominal rulers of what was essentially a confederation of loosely-knit territories. He outlawed wars within the country, took control of the justice system and made law more uniform across the territory, restricting the barons’ autonomy.
On 13 February 1130 Honorious II died after a year-long bout with an unknown illness. Immediately after the pope’s death a faction of cardinals convened without dutifully informing their fellow, rival cardinals. This faction elected a new pope who took the name Innocent II. The excluded cardinals were understandably outraged and elected their own pope, Anacletus II. As had been the case with prior schisms, one pope, Innocent II, was popular and recognized by most of Christendom, while the other pope, Anacletus II, was beloved in Rome. The first of His Holinesses held the support of the Holy Roman Empire; to counter this, His Other Holiness turned south. Anacletus II asked for Roger II’s support. Roger II sided with the papal claimant, and on 27 September 1130 Anacletus II issued a papal bull naming him King of Sicily. That Christmas a bishop representing the pope in Rome travelled to Palermo and crowned Roger II and Elvira.
Roger II’s seizure of southern Italy was enough to disturb neighboring states and his own Norman vassals. His claim to kingship was a long step beyond the pale. That year the Duchy of Amalfi became the first to rebel, though George of Antioch successfully besieged the capital. Then a force loyal to Byzantium took Bari, prompting Roger II himself to leave Sicily and take to the mainland with his son Roger III to teach the boy the art of war. Roger II retook the city then moved to Nocera where he was defeated by a rebel force and had to retreat.
In 1134 the German King Lothair III arrived in Rome for his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor. The Norman lords assembled to meet him and combine their forces but Lothair III refused to join them. Without German support, Roger II defeated his upstart vassals one by one, until he subdued Southern Italy a second time. Late that year he sailed back to the comfort of Palermo and his beloved wife, who had ruled the island in his stead.
Triumph turned to tragedy as sickness spread through the court. On the 6 February 1135 Elvira died at the age of 35. His beloved wife’s death sent Roger II into a deep depression which was exacerbated by a grave illness. Even though marriages among nobles in the medieval period were based on politics, some couples still found love, and Roger II was truly enamored of his Spanish queen. She had been his everything and more; she was beautiful, intelligent, the mother of five sons and one daughter, her counselor, aide, refuge and ruler of his kingdom while he was at war. Roger II was so downcast that he refused to leave the palace for months, leading to rumors that he had died. Those rumors ignited new rebellions in the mainland. When news of the uprisings reached Palermo Roger II knew that he had to overcome his grief and defend the realm, if not for himself then for his sons’ inheritance. In June 1135 he mustered an army and sailed for Italy. In short order he subdued the rebels yet again.
In 1136 the most dangerous phase of the war began when the Holy Roman Emperor descended on the south with financial support from the Byzantines and religious sanction by Pope Innocent II. Lothair III and his Germans allied with the rebel Normans and quickly took Salerno, the capital of Apulia. From there the anti-Sicilian forces took Bari and most of Apulia. In August 1137 Innocent II named Rainulf Duke of Apulia. But the pope’s blessing turned out to be a kiss of death, rather than the beginning of a new era. Lothair III was done with his Italian venture and returned home. Without the Emperor’s backing the Norman rebels’ forces were gutted. As the German Emperor marched north Roger II sailed to Italy and retook the southern half of the peninsula, even expanding his territory to include the Duchy of Naples.
Roger II nearly seized defeat from the jaws of victory when Rainulf smashed his army at the Battle of Rignano on 30 October 1137. The following January Anacletus II died, leaving Roger II without a pope of his own. That March, Roger II’s second son Tancred died at the age of 19. Fate was turning against Roger II, but this time he did not allow himself to wallow. He marched through enemy territory, razing Rainulf’s castles, forcing the upstart to hole up in Troja. There the presumptive duke caught malaria and died on 30 April 1139. Not content with his rival’s mere death, Roger II marched on Troja, removed the body from its resting place and threw it into a ditch. Soon afterwards, Roger II’s sensibilities got the better of him and he gave the body a Christian burial to show that he was a rational, magnanimous lord.
With the Normans mostly under his power, Roger II had one last rival. In summer 1139 a Papal Army invaded Apulia, only to be ambushed. The Sicilians captured the Pope and forced him to sign the Treaty of Mignano, proclaiming Roger II King of Sicily, Duke of Apulia and prince of Capua. Roger had outlasted his rivals and united Southern Italy and Sicily into one great kingdom. Papal recognition brought a swift end to what little resistance remained and in late Fall Roger II returned to his island home.
Despite leaving the mainland, Roger II had not abandoned the peninsula; from Palermo he busied himself remaking his state into a cohesive polity, rather than just a hodgepodge of territories brought together under a personal union. There he crafted the Assizes of Ariano which he delivered during a tour of southern Italy’s greatest cities. This law code drew upon long-established great codices such as the Code of Justinian and West European laws. The assizes established the predominance of the King of Sicily and set up a large bureaucracy to run the country while diminishing the power of regional lords. They affirmed the preeminence of country-wide laws, while respecting Christian, Islamic and Judaic law in local cases so long as they did not contradict the greater laws. These laws brought Southern Italy more in line with the Byzantine Empire or the great Islamic countries with their large central states staffed by expert administration and their codified laws. It also presented a sharp break from the earlier medieval European culture which was typified by local laws for each tribe, ethnicity or religion.
In addition to unifying the country by law, Roger II instituted a new coin to be used across the realm. This came to be called the ducato, or ‘ducat,’ in modern English. The Italian ducat ended up a failure as a common currency due to opposition by local minters. However, this innovation became incredibly important in the evolution of coinage; even after the decline of southern Italy, Venice issued their own, silver and gold ducats which became a common currency in the Mediterranean.
Southern Italy experienced a long period of peace during the remainder of Roger II’s reign, though this was briefly interrupted in 1143 when Roger II again defeated the Pope and reaffirmed his kingly rights. Peace brought with it the flowering of the kingdom, whose wealth and cultural output was felt far and wide. Scholars from across the Christian and Islamic worlds flocked to the court of Palermo. Abu Abdullah Muhammad al-Idrisi al-Qurtubi al-Hasani as-Sabti, known simply al-Idrisi, was born in Cueta in North Africa, and travelled throughout the Mediterranean in his youth before travelling to Córdoba to pursue his education. In 1138 he arrived in Sicily and became the court geographer. Employing interviews from travelers as they passed through the city, he created perhaps the most complete map of the world at the time. The map depicted Earth as a sphere whose circumference was measured at 37,000 kilometers, only slightly off as its actual circumference at 40,075 km and remarkably accurate. Roger II had smiths inscribe the map onto two massive discs of pure silver six feet in diameter and weighing 450 pounds, preserving it for later study. This map was known in Arabic as "The Excursion of One Eager to Penetrate the Horizons," though today it is often called the Tabula Rogeriana, in honor of its patron. For centuries geographers studied and copied it. Additionally, al-Idrisi wrote geography books and a medical dictionary.
Another Muslim polymath to join the court in Palermo was Abu as-Salt; I’m not even going to try and pronounce his full name, it’s even longer and more complex than al-Idrisi’s. As-Salt was an Andalusian who was educated in Seville before becoming a functionary in Egypt. A scandal involving a boat full of copper sinking in the Nile forced him to flee to the Tunisian island of Mahdia where he served the Zirids. He travelled back and forth between Palermo and Ifriqiya, writing works on astronomy, music, plants, medicine, poetry, logic and alchemy.
I’ve already mentioned George of Antioch, who rose up the ranks to gain the title Amir al-umara, in Latin amiratus amiratorum, and in English, “emir of emirs.” Under George and his successors, the naval commanders of Sicily became renowned throughout the Mediterranean, and it is from this title that we get the word ‘admiral.’ George won fame through his invasions of Ifriqiya and the Byzantine Empire; more on those later.
Around 1130 Robert of Selby sailed from England to Palermo with a small child named Thomas Brun in his retinue. These two Englishmen served in various governmental roles, with Robert being governor of Campagna, and present in Salerno during its fall to rebel forces. Afterwards Robert became the chancellor, heading the civil administration of the kingdom. When Thomas Brun came of age he became the qaid of the diwan, or head of the treasury. Brun not only excelled at his job but innovated. He used Hindu-Arabic numerals, which are the precursors to our modern numbers, rather than Latin numerals which were more commonly used throughout Europe.
I believe I’ve painted quite a picture, with the French-speaking Normans as royalty and nobility, two Englishmen running the government and the treasury, an Armenian in charge of the navy, two foreign Muslims leading the sciences, and various Greek-speaking officials in other posts. At this point you might be wondering if there were any Italians left in Italy. There was an occasional Italian in the national government; one of these figures was Maione of Bari who was head of the royal archives under Roger II and then emir of emirs under his son Guillaume I. However, the Hauteville family generally did not uplift Italians or Normans to positions in the central government. This was probably due to the fact that the royals feared giving too much power to a rival house. Instead, they chose educated Muslims and Greeks and often foreigners because they had no powerbase within the kingdom, making them wholly reliant on the monarch for patronage.
Over the next two decades Roger II built up his kingdom in emulation of Fatimid Egypt. Arabic was firmly established as the lingua franca of the island. Decrees were issued in Arabic, Greek and Latin. Likewise, the royal diwan issued gold coins known as tarí, which had Arabic and Latin writing on opposite faces. Roger II kept the style of the Shahada, though he changed its wording from “there is no god but God, and Muhammad is his prophet,” to “there is no god but God— he alone has no companion.” Roger II took up the honorific ‘Allama,’ meaning ‘learned,’ alongside other Arabic titles such as “almu’tazz bi-llah,” “he who glories in the power of God.” Even if Roger II acted like a sultan, he still styled himself as a Christian, proclaiming himself a defender of the faith and slave of Christ. Historians Jeremy Johns and Nadia Jamil write that when he constructed royal palaces he, “imported mosaicists from Byzantium, painters from Fatimid Egypt, and masons and stone carvers from Campania and Puglia,” whose creations were a fusion of Mediterranean and Norman architecture.
Roger II ruled one of the most magnificent kingdoms in all of Europe. Moreover, under George of Antioch it expanded as he led a campaign to seize Ifriqiya. While the emir of emirs spent most of his time and energy conquering north-central Africa, he did spend 1147-1149 raiding across Greece in retribution for Byzantine support of the Norman rebellions of the 1130s. During the campaign George conquered Corfu and sacked Athens and Corinth, alongside numerous other cities. The Sicilians could not hold any of the territory they seized, though they did get away with precious metals and silk. At one point, the Sicilians sailed near Constantinople; while they knew they could not take the city, the Armenian emir audaciously ordered his men to fire at the windows of the emperor’s palace, perhaps as an act of personal revenge for his family’s exile almost four decades prior. Ol’ Georgie knew how to hold a grudge.
This period of unparalleled glory was mixed with profound sorrow. In 1144 Roger II’s third son Alfonso died in the midst of a campaign in Abruzzo to expand the kingdom’s borders northward. The following year his fifth son Henri died having only lived to the age of 10. In 1148 the eldest and heir to the throne Roger III passed away. Five of Roger II’s six legitimate children perished in their youth. Only Guillaume I remained alive.
Roger II feared for the kingdom and his own legacy; his entire line rested in just one young man. In 1149, after 14 years as a widower, he took a second wife, Sibylle of Burgundy who was the daughter of the Duke of Burgundy and related to the French and Portuguese royal family. Sibylle quickly gave birth to a boy, Henri, but he only lived one year. The following year Sibylle delivered a stillborn baby and died of pregnancy complications.
In 1151, the desperate king married a third wife, Beatrix de Rethel. Unlike his previous two wives, Beatrix did not come from a powerful family. Roger II was growing old, and the kings and emperors would not offer their daughters to him. Beatrix was from the lesser nobility, and her only job was to produce children. On 19 September 1151 the 19-year-old Beatrix married the 55 year-old Roger II. After three years of trying, Beatrix became pregnant. But Roger II would not live to see the babe; he may not even have known he was going to have another child, as he passed away only a month after she became pregnant. Beatrix would give birth to a healthy baby girl who she named Constance, and who would become the last Norman ruler of the kingdom.
On 26 February 1154 Roger II passed away. He was 58 years old and had ruled Sicily first as a count, then as king for 39 years. He had united Southern Italy and Sicily into one great kingdom, whose wealth, power, cultural and scientific output rivalled any country in Europe, North Africa or West Asia. During an epoch of crusade and jihad he ruled over a multi-confessional empire, reforming the law and establishing peace between Christians, Muslims and Jews. He took a region known for division and ruled by the children of mercenaries and subdued it under a powerful central state. Despite all that Roger II had accomplished Sicily still had not yet reached its zenith, though before it did it had to pass through troubled times.
A quick aside for something I could not quite fit into the main narrative: in 1130, as Roger II claimed the kingship of Southern Italy, Prince Bohemond II of Antioch died, leaving behind only a daughter, who was also a minor, named Constance. Roger II claimed that Antioch was his by rights. However, the Crusaders were still hostile to Roger II as he was to them, and so they rallied behind Constance and decided to marry her to Raymond of Poitiers, since they would not allow a woman to rule in her own right. Raymond set out for the Holy Land but realized to get there he had to go through southern Italy. As Raymond traveled Roger II had agents looking for him at every coastal city and Raymond disguised himself as a lowly pilgrim. The ruse succeeded and Raymond arrived in Antioch where he married Constance of Hauteville.
This was not the last time Roger II tried to assert his rights to Antioch. Later on the patriarch of Antioch arrived in southern Italy to meet with the Pope. He hoped to gain His Holiness’ support as he was on poor terms with prince Raymond. Roger II recognized that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and met with him many times. When the Crusaders learned of this they brought him to trial and convicted him of simony and fornication. The patriarch fled back to Rome to plead for papal intervention, only to be poisoned. No amount of scheming on Roger II’s part could win him Antioch and the Crusader state passed to a separate branch of the Hauteville family.