The Norman Conquest of Sicily

The Hautevilles - Brothers, brigands and conquerors

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A history in two parts, written by Lars Harald Gathe

Authors note: This two-part article concerns two key personalities of the Norman conquest of Sicily; a prelude to the establishment of the Kingdom of Sicily. It is meant to cover some overall political and military movements and events seen especially from the Norman point of view of the Sicilian conquest from 1061-1091, focusing on Robert and Roger of Hauteville, especially drawing upon the account of Benedictine monk Geoffrey Malaterra.

Part 1 – Before the Kingdom

“And so they (the Normans) spread out hither and thither to various parts of the world, into different lands and countries. And they departed, forsaking what was meagre in search of what was plentiful. And so they took up arms, and broke the bond of peace, and did great deeds of war and chivalry.” – Amatus of Montecassino

The Normans of the early 11th century had many young, restless sons with so little initial prospect in their original home province. Overpopulation, or the many internal struggles of the duchy of Normandy led to an exodus of knights; prized cavalry and sought after mercenaries. The bases around the mediterranean had affluent clients; and Italy, with its warring princes, its flourishing trade and religious significance, was a particularly prime destination. Five years prior to the battle of Hastings, the Normans would start a conquest of another island, in a story full of adventure, daring, sacrifice, love, betrayal and revenge. It is a tale of desperate sieges, epic pitched battles, of spectacular failures and triumphs.

Mercenaries, murder and Civitate

The collapse of order after the Western Roman Empire had left the south of Italy with a tapestry of different political loyalties, religions, ethnicities and laws. It had been invaded by germanic peoples, the Langobards – or the Lombards – then again, it had also been reclaimed by the Romans, or as we know them, the Byzantines, on several occasions. Territories had shifted hands so many times, that there was hardly any known central authority by the 11th century. The prime movers comprised mainly of the Lombard principalities of Capua, Salerno, Benevento and the independent city states Amalfi, Gaeta and Naples. The Byzantines remained a bleak shadow of their former empire; but still retained their status as nominal suzerains from their provincial capital of Bari, and through Calabria.

Italy was a crossing point for every pilgrim route to the Holy Land; Norman pilgrims would eventually be drawn from their pilgrimages to paid military service. As keen opportunists, the early adventurers served various Lombard lords; they learnt the ways of their paymasters, their languages; their customs, their politics and all their weaknesses. Norman began shifting their strategy from employment to conquest, ousted their former masters, pillaged, took towns, castles and extracted tribute. The Lombards and Greeks quickly resented the newcomers. In 1051 they had one of the senior Norman leaders, Drogo of Hauteville, murdered in a church. The Normans’ retribution was swift, violent and bloody. The escalation of the conflict got the desperate Lombard clergy to seek Pope Leo IX’s intervention. And Leo started planning a military campaign.

In 1053, Leo entered into an alliance with the Byzantines and their Catepan (Governor) in the Italian south, Argyrus. Hoping to join up with the Greek army Leo assembled an army of Italians, Lombards and Germans against the Normans. The Norman captains held council in a proper state of urgency. Their very spiritual leader was waging war on them, the Greeks were at their flank and the Lombards and Italians were in open rebellion. Calls for a truce were rejected, add to that they were outnumbered and starving as it was harvesting season. With little choice the Norman knights engaged the papal forces in battle near the town of Civitate The Italian infantry wing of the army fled upon contact with the Norman cavalry, but the Swabian mercenaries the pope had hired stood and fought; hard and viciously.

The battle swung in the balance, when normans who routed the Italians returned to the fight and outflanked the Swabians. Leo watched his army crumble from his vantage point at the nearby city walls. The townspeople cautiously handed him over to the victors. In a theatrical display of humility Norman knights prostrated themselves before him, pleading forgiveness. This “sorry we won” attitude must have surprised Leo. All the same Normans cautiously held him under armed guard for nine months, as a glorified captive, – ransom to all their demands.

The Rise of Robert and Roger of Hauteville

Drogo’s half-brother, Robert of Hauteville or ‘the Guiscard’ (meaning ‘cunning’ or ‘resourceful’) –  had successfully commanded a cavalry wing at Civitate. He had, like the many sons of Tancred of Hauteville; moved from Normandy to the Italian south as an adult. Here he lived off the land as a petty robber baron in Calabria, harassing towns and caravans. With a sixty men strong Slavic war-band, Robert found himself in dire shortage of food and supplies. There was booty nearby, but it was guarded; and Robert would have to fight alongside his men, using his sharp mind and wit, schemes and stratagems to outfox his enemies, while always sharing generously the loot among his followers and motivating them with promise of riches yet to be gained.

Robert sure was ambitious, and probably not content with his lot. Ever the opportunist, when a chance presented itself, he seized upon it. His older half-brother Humphrey died in 1057. Humphrey had been made count of Apulia, the eastern part of the Italian south, and his sons were all too young, so Robert made haste there and was recognized as Humphrey’s heir. At the same time, Robert’s younger brother, Roger of Hauteville, arrived from Normandy. Wanting to test him; the new count of Apulia sent Roger ahead with only sixty knights into Calabria. Roger was a vigorous, skilled fighter, and an eloquent and cool-headed commander. He took towns and spoils. For some reason, Robert was continually cautious and stingy with his little brother, (who lived so poorly he had to sneak out at night to steal horses if we are to believe Malaterra). Though he was popular with the other Normans, Robert denied him the resources he had ample of. So Roger broke with Robert, laid waste to his lands in Apulia, taking caravans and booty so he could employ more and more knights. This gave Robert a constant headache. His Calabrian conquest had stopped entirely, and the populace, ravaged by Norman bandits, famine and disease, rose in rebellion. Robert gave in.

The two made peace, and agreed to share every Calabrian town and castle “half and half”. By 1059 the Guiscard was again on the offense. He had sieged and taken Reggio, one of the last towns defying him in Calabria. He had divorced, but remarried into Lombard nobility. Sikelgaita, daughter of the prince of Salerno, was a valuable ally, and a strong and resourceful wife. Lastly, the new Pope Nicholas II was ready to talk. He needed Robert as an ally, as a powerful check against the local nobility of Rome and the incursions of the Holy Roman Emperor into Italy. By the treaty of Melfi, Robert was invested with the Duchy of Apulia and Calabria –  and more importantly to this story – the “future lands of Sicily”. Alongside Richard of Aversa, Robert was by his own hand become the most powerful Norman prince in the land.

 

The first expedition – Messina and Dittanio

Sicily was a part of the Byzantine Empire up until two centuries ago when the Byzantines were evicted by the Arab conquest. By the 11th century it had been divided up between three independent emirs, ruling over a mixed population of christians and muslims. The island was characterized by an arid, hilly interior, and generally a rich temperate coastal climate. In the west ruled the emir Ibn-Manqut. In the central regions around Castrogiovanni and over the city Palermo ruled Ibn al-Hawas and in Catania and the east, Ibn at-Timnah. It needs mention that the Byzantines and the Varangian guard (under the then Norwegian King-to-be Harald Hardrade) had employed Normans auxiliaries in a short-lived attempt at subjugating the island in 1038. It was a campaign that all the older Hauteville brothers had fought in, and detailed reports of the land must have come back to Robert and Roger’s ears. It was only natural for them to consider this target early on.

An opportunity arose in 1060, when the emir Ibn at-Timnah of Catania arrived in Calabria, hoping to incite the Normans against his two rival emirs, who were at loggerheads. The emir might perhaps have viewed these crude Normans as gullible and simple mercenaries he could buy off, we do not know exactly what his motivation was. Following this, Roger headed a small reconnaissance mission across the straits of Messina, Ibn at-Timnah offering advice and help. The next year duke Robert assembled a force of two thousand men, knights with all their horses and foot soldiers, and loaded up on boats. Ibn al-Hawas was by then aware of the impending Norman invasion, and sent from Palermo his powerful fleet to stop the crossing. Seeing this, Roger took 300 men on boats from Reggio, and landed a little south of Messina, so he could approach the city from the landward side. The attack took the local garrison completely by surprise and Roger overran the city. Ibn al-Hawas withdrew his fleet, and duke Robert could land with the rest of the force.

The expedition turned inland, taking Rometta and a few other towns of the Val Demone. In many places east on the island the local population were mostly of Greek christian extraction. They would have likely viewed the Normans as liberators. However, the town of Centuripe would have nothing of the invaders, and resisted with archers and catapults. So the Normans abandoned the town, and made for Castrogiovanni (west of Etna) where Ibn al-Hawas was ready to give them battle. By the river Dittanio, the Normans faced an enemy army numbering fifteen thousand (Malaterra’s inflated numbers should be taken with a pinch of salt, but it is still clear the Normans were outnumbered).

Robert put Roger in command of the first line of attack, himself in the second, and charged. The battle gave the Normans a chance to utilize their superior, heavy cavalry. The Sicilians were routed from the field in the first great, major victory for the Normans. The amount of loot and horses captured was plenty, they plundered the entire province and “put it to the torch”. Satisfied, they retired to Messina where they reinforced its defenses and returned to the mainland. Roger would return right before winter, taking the town of Troina with 250 knights, where he celebrated Christmas.

Morgengab

Yet again, a quarrel between the brothers disrupted any outward conquest. The next year, Roger’s beautiful bride Judith d’Evreux, arrived from Normandy. She was the granddaughter of the Duke of Normandy. This was an enormously important alliance to be made for Roger, who felt he needed to endow his bride her morgengab (a quarter of his wealth). As it was, he didn’t posses very much save from what his elder brother had promised to split half-and-half of Calabria. Robert reneged on his vow and refused to give any of it up, so Roger took up arms. The duke was no less outraged, and besieged Roger in Calabria, where the two came to blows in open battle and men died on each side.

This threatened to start a serious civil war in the Norman camp. Then came an episode where Robert left his men and went ‘undercover’, looking for his brother in the city of Gerace hiding under a cloak. Rumor spread in the town that the duke was about, and Robert was captured by an angry mob of townsfolk. Roger caught whiff of it and intervened. Pretending he would justly punish Robert, he convinced the townspeople to hand him over. Guiscard escaped an uncertain destiny and the two brothers reconciled, “burst into tears and delighted in each other’s embrace”. He would finally partition Calabria with Roger, who could travel to Sicily, his wife and himself enriched; and his retinue supplied with new horses, clothes and arms.

The second expedition – Siege, starvation, and Cerami

As time would show, the brother’s paths diverged. Robert grew increasingly more concerned with his mainland possessions, Roger, who was made Great Count of Sicily, became the chief architect and engine behind the Sicilian conquest. In 1062, Roger and Judith led their small expedition force back at Troina, and the town openly welcomed them. This peace wouldn’t last. Angered by the presence of Norman knights quartered in their homes, local Greeks rose up in rebellion and aided by the Saracens, sieged the city garrison and Judith.

Roger returned from his raids to a bleak situation. His wife and the besieged had scarce supplies to last a long and bitter winter siege – they were too few and unable to forage and attain supplies. Soon, they were starving and thirsting. The count and countess had to share one cloak, “which they alternated using according to which of the two had the greatest need for it.” Yet they remained vigilant, hiding their hunger and struggle under a demeanor of cheerfulness. In a skirmish with the siege force, Roger was so bold he at once charged straight at the enemy. His horse was felled under him by javelins and was nearly captured but cut the assailants down with his sword, and “returned to his own men on foot carrying his saddle, so that he would not appear to be in any hurry or fear.” The four-month siege was eventually broken by the starved-out and miserable Normans, but the relief was only temporary. A powerful adversary was about to descend upon them, intent on ending their adventure for good.

In 1063, Ibn al-Hawas had received reinforcements from the Zirids of Africa. Numbering in the tens of thousands, he and the newly arrived African princes were in the field. Keen to avoid another prolonged siege, Roger rode out to engage them with his meagre force of no more than three hundred men, including all knights and footmen. The two armies camped on opposite sides of the river Cerami, where they came to an impasse and “stared at each other for three days”. Then the Saracens decided to shift focus, and to attack the nearby town of Cerami. Roger had with him his cousin Serlo of Hauteville, a courageous warrior. Serlo raced ahead to the town with thirty-six knights to man the gates. The Saracens made an assault, but Serlo repelled them; and furthermore he fell upon them with such ferocity that he pushed them back. The Norman forces had meanwhile arrived and after some hesitation, Roger decided to exploit the situation. But the numerically superior enemy recovered, and arranged themselves in battle lines. Malaterra writes that Roger organized his force in two wedges, first with Serlo, and himself at the rear, and attacked.

The battle raged. Roger had so few men to command, it must have seemed like a last stand, or a Thermopylae. The Saracens cautiously avoided Serlo and engaged Roger’s force, hoping to seize the hill above the men. His retinue was surrounded and buckling under the enemy onslaught; many times he called out upon God to assist them. St. George was then said to have appeared among them on a white charger, flying a holy banner off his lance (It might be strange for the modern reader to take this account very seriously, but seeing as Malaterra was an 11th century monk, writing this made perfect sense, and it also serves to remind us that Roger and his men were very well motivated and assured of victory. In prolonged melee, morale is a most important factor.)

They fought on determinedly, Roger slaying one of the enemy champions. The Saracens broke, having suffered heavy losses. The count gave chase and looted their camp, thousands were slain in pursuit the next day. Ibn al-Hawas survived, and returned to Palermo. Cerami was a crushing blow to the the Zirids and Ibn al-Hawas. Roger sent camels looted from the enemy camp to Rome. Pope Alexander II was not only delighted, he granted absolution from sin to Roger and to all his soldiers. He also sent them a papal banner. This would mark a shift of strategy from the Papacy, who would begin work to launch the Crusades some decades later.

Third expedition – Tarantellas and pigeons of terror

In 1064, Robert and Roger were confident they could take Palermo, and Robert returned to Sicily with five hundred knights. Their campaign got off to a rocky start. The brothers had the siege force camp up on a hill overseeing the city. Unfortunately the hillside was infested with tarantella spiders. Malaterra writes that anyone stung and poisoned by these nasty creatures “found himself filled with gas and suffered so much he was unable to keep the same gas from coming out of his anus with a disgusting rattle”. Tarantella poison has been known to produce rather violent muscle spasms, from which the dance tarantella is perhaps inspired. The Normans were utterly demoralized and the city resisted all their attempts; they simply gave up the siege.

Here, the conquest draws to a stalemate. Roger’s problem was becoming abundantly clear. It was the constant shortage of manpower, and the difficulty of the sieges with such dwindling numbers. Add to this, Robert would have to quell a major revolt in Apulia and return with most of the expedition. On their way back they ravaged the countryside, destroying towns and taking captives. Robert crushed the Apulian revolt, but Sicily became less of a priority. He focused on Greek Bari on the east coast of Apulia instead. It was a two-and-a-half years’ siege, a gigantic military operation. During this time Roger would carry on as best he could, attempting to consolidate his gains – but would not achieve much else in terms of conquest.

Then, in 1068, another combined host of Zirids and Sicilians came upon Roger in the battle of Misilmeri. Perhaps they were emboldened by the Norman passivity. But they had underestimated Roger, who was now like a hungry wolf for another pitched battle. As usual the Normans were outnumbered, yet this seems to have only encouraged them. The Norman charged with their horse and lance again, broke and routed the entire muslim army. Among the spoils of war they found a basket of living homing pigeons belonging to Palermo. Roger then had a macabre idea. They had notes written in blood, with news of the battle, sent home to Palermo by the pigeons. Upon these terrible news the whole city “was shaken; the tearful voices of the children and women rose up through the air to the heavens.”

Roger’s plan of terror worked. A local riot rose up against the Zirid princes who must have been blamed for the string of defeats. Ibn al-Hawas was killed in the fighting, and as a result the land forces of the Zirids departed Sicily for good. Roger had dashed all the enemy’s chance of victory; he also retained the initiative; he and Robert could launch another major campaign.

Fourth expedition – Palermo’s fall and Serlo’s last stand

It was 1071 and ten years since the Normans had first landed near Messina. Robert had stormed Bari after a long siege, and had finally enough reserves and manpower to aid Roger. Making the enemy believe he was attacking elsewhere, the duke then sailed from Catania and northwest with a large fleet of fifty ships to outside the harbor of Palermo, enforcing a blockade. Roger approached the city from the landward side. For five months they sieged the city, starving the population, preparing ladders and siege engines. An attack was then orchestrated simultaneously on each side of the city, causing so much alarm that the defenders rushed to the fight, leaving other portions of the city wall unmanned. Here, Robert had men scale the walls with ladders, who took the outer city and opened the gates to the main host. The Normans poured into the outer city. By nightfall the fighting had died down, Palermitan leaders came forth under a banner of truce, offering submission and tribute on condition that they could still practice their laws, traditions and religion, in peace. The brothers proved themselves magnanimous and accepted. So the city was yielded peacefully, and it would be mostly left alone in return for tribute. The Normans were slowly transforming themselves from brigands to successful conquerors.

The first part of the Norman conquest of Sicily very nearly ends here. However, there would be no rest for the indomitable Hautevilles. Even though Ibn al-Hawas was dead, there were enemies at large and out for revenge. Serlo of Hauteville had been ordered to remain at Cerami to contain the Sicilians at Castrogiovanni while Roger campaigned for Palermo. After many victories this knight was greatly feared and hated by the muslims. So they laid a trap for him. Chronicler Malaterra goes into detail about how a certain Brachiem gained Serlo’s trust, and informed him of an imminent attack by “seven Arabs”. The day came and Serlo rushed confidently at the attackers with his own men, not knowing that a much larger force of seven hundred knights and two thousand foot soldiers waited in ambush. Serlo and his retinue fought against overwhelming odds, making their way to a rock. No relief came and they were simply too few and too unprepared. Serlo was pierced through and everyone died with him save two men who hid among the corpses. His head was cut off and taken through the streets Castrogiovanni; the Saracens had their symbolic victory. The rock where he fell was known as Pietra de Serlone, or Serlo’s Rock.

For Robert and Roger, the loss of their best loved cousin, the youngest, brightest of the Hautevilles, must have been a great blow. Roger “was afflicted with unbearable sorrow” while the duke attempted to hide his own sadness behind a layer of resolution, brushing off the grief as womanly and useless – only arms and revenge would satisfy. The Normans would have to stamp out all remaining resistance on the island before they could finalize their ambitions; and the island would be united.

The conquest was not over.

 

 

Sources:

  • The Deeds of Count Roger of Calabria and Sicily and of his brother Duke Robert Guiscard (Geoffrey Malaterra)
  • The History of the Normans (Amatus of Montecassino)
  • The Deeds of of Robert Guiscard (William of Apulia)
  • The Normans of the South (John Julius Norwich)
  • The Norman Kingdom of Sicily (Donald Mathew)
  • The Norman Conquest of Southern Italy and Sicily (Gordon S. Brown)
  • The Age of Robert Guiscard: Southern Italy and the Northern Conquest (Graham Loud)
  • The Normans (David Nicole)
  • The Norman Commanders: Masters of Warfare 911-1135 (Paul Hill)
  • The Campaigns of the Norman dukes of Southern Italy against Byzantium, in the years between 1071 and 1108 AD. (Phd thesis by Gerogios Theotokis)
  • How ‘Norman’ was the Norman Conquest of Southern Italy (G.A. Loud)

About the author:

Lars Harald Gathe (b. 1981, Oslo, Norway) is a writer, filmmaker and history enthusiast, especially interested in the Norman movements through southern Europe and in the Middle East. This is his first article on the subject of Normans in Italy.

www.larsgathe.com