December 25, 2009

The Seeds of the Kingdom

Detail of Christ Crowning Roger II
from the Church of La Martorana, Palermo
By Niccolò Graffio
“For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.” - William Shakespeare: Richard II, Act III, Scene 2, 1595.
Walking along the streets of Palermo, Sicily, one gets the feeling of being in a nexus of worlds. Whether one gazes at the Teatro Massimo opera house (the largest in Italy and third largest in Europe), strolls through the Church of Santa Teresa alla Kalsa (an outstanding example of Sicilian Baroque architecture!), walks along the ancient streets of La Kalsa with its many vendors, or peers at the mosaics in the Palazzo dei Normanni, one cannot help but notice the many cultural imprints left by this city’s former rulers.

Equally striking, however, is the level of poverty that exists there! Heavily damaged by Allied bombings during World War II, many of this city’s most majestic buildings remain unrepaired. The reasons? Neglect by both local government and Rome. Resources (financial and material) are severely limited on Sicily. The stranglehold of the Cosa Nostra on the economy is another reason. With most of Italy’s economic wealth concentrated (and kept!) in the North, there simply isn’t enough left to maintain these historic treasures, which are sadly left to crumble. It’s hard to believe less than 1,000 years ago this city was one of the wealthiest, if not the wealthiest, city in the Mediterranean region.  Such, however, was the case.

To be sure, Palermo is hardly unique in that regard. Many times in history a city was born, grew to prominence, then faded to obscurity as times changed. A little over 800 years ago the city of Angkor was the seat of the Khmer Empire, a powerful state that covered much of Southeast Asia. Today it is an abandoned ruin. The Khmer people, however, remain. We now call them Cambodians.

To really understand how the people of the now-lost Kingdom of the Two Sicilies arrived at their current state it is necessary to go back to the beginning; to study the forces and peoples who were instrumental in founding the kingdom in the first place. To be sure, that cannot be done in a single article. Volumes have been written about it. Rather, this article is simply an overview of the events and personages involved. The timing is not coincidental, either. This holiday season is special in more ways than one. Christmas, you see, is not just celebrated as the birthday of Jesus Christ (though it’s generally recognized by Biblical historians He was not born on December 25th). It is also the anniversary of the birth of the Kingdom of Sicily.

One could spend all day arguing where to begin. The roots of civilization in Southern Italy go back to ancient, pre-Hellenic times. For our purposes, however, we shall begin with the arrival in the region of the people who were most instrumental in setting up the actual apparatus of the kingdom itself. A people known in history as the Normans.

The Normans originated in the area known today, appropriately enough, as Normandy, France. They were a people of Scandinavian, West Germanic, Gallic and Roman stocks. They initially appeared on the world stage as a separate ethnos sometime in the early part of the 10th century AD.

The first Normans appeared in the area of Southern Italy/Sicily not as conquerors, but as religious pilgrims. It was not uncommon for Christians returning to Western Europe from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem to pass through this area, and such was the case with returning Norman knights. In the year 999 AD, a group of such knights were sojourning in Salerno (in the region now known as Campania, Italy) when that city came under attack by a horde of Muslim pirates from North Africa demanding the payment of an annual tribute. 

Prince Guaimar III, Salerno’s Lombard ruler, scurried to gather together the monies necessary to buy off his domain’s tormentors. The Normans, however, remonstrated Guaimar and his Lombard knights for showing cowardice in the face of a heathenish enemy and chose to attack the Muslims instead. Emboldened by the actions of their Christian brothers, the city’s defenders joined them on the battlefield and the combined forces routed the Muslims, winning much booty in the process.

After the battle, Guaimar begged the Normans to stay, who refused. Before leaving, however, they promised to “spread the word” amongst their brethren back home of the need for mercenaries. This first arrival of the Normans in that region of the world was immortalized by the Benedictine monk Amatus of the Abbey of Monte Cassino in his tome History of the Normans as the “Salerno Tradition”.

Within a comparatively short period of time numerous bands of Norman knights, hungry for “God, gold and glory” began arriving in the region as mercenaries. The next significant date in the history of the Normans of Southern Italy occurred on May 9, 1009. On that date the Lombard inhabitants of the city of Bari, under command of the rebel Melo (Melus), revolted against their Byzantine overlords. The Byzantines had previously ruled the city and most of the territories surrounding it as the Catapanate of Italy, a territory they in turn had retaken from Muslim conquerors in 873 AD.

The Lombards chafed under the high taxes and centralized rule of the Byzantines. Melo had convinced hundreds of Norman mercenaries to join him and his Lombard allies to take on the Byzantines. At first it appeared the rebellion would succeed. Territory was taken and cities along the Apulian coast joined the rebels in the hopes of throwing off the yoke of their Byzantine rulers. Unfortunately for the rebels, however, the Emperor in Constantinople possessed the resources necessary to crush the rebellion. 

A large Byzantine army, commanded by the newly installed Katapan (military governor) Basil Boioannes arrived and in 1018 AD routed the Lombards and their Norman mercenaries at the Battle of Cannae. Melo was forced to flee to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry II at Bamberg, Bavaria, where he died. His wife and son, Argyrus, were taken captive by Basil and sent back to Constantinople. The Normans lost most of their ranks including their leader, Gilbert Bautère. The remainder of this group, though, formed the vanguard of the Norman invasion of Southern Italy.

The next couple of decades saw Norman mercenaries fighting for and against the various factions (Lombard and Byzantine) in Southern Italy. Like true mercenaries, they sold their swords to the highest bidders; all the while, however, biding their time for when they would become the true power in the region. As the observant Amatus wryly noted:

“For the Normans never desired any of the Lombards to win a decisive victory, in case this should be to their disadvantage. But now supporting the one and then aiding the other, they prevented anyone being completely ruined.” – Amatus of Monte Cassino: History of the Normans, Book I, c. 1080 AD.

That time would arrive in 1030 when the Duke of Naples, Sergius IV, himself a nominal vassal of the Byzantine emperor, gave the Norman mercenary knight Rainulf Drengot the County of Aversa as a fief for services rendered. He also gave him his sister’s hand in marriage. Sergius also entrusted his new count with the job of building a fortress from which to rule his new (although admittedly tiny) domain. 

This series of events catalyzed the Normanization of Southern Italy. No longer were the Normans just mercenary soldiers in the employ of Lombard or Byzantine overlords. They were now permanent denizens with a realm of their own from which they could lash out at their neighbors in search of booty and additional territory! Rainulf quickly sent word back to Normandy for more bodies and the call was just as quickly answered. Within several years the ranks of his knights swelled. Rainulf also allowed local miscreants to join his growing army with no questions asked. United by the language and customs of the Normans (as well as their avariciousness and bloodlust), this motley crew formed the nucleus of a new nation; a fact that did not escape the pen of Amatus.

Rainulf’s fortunes quickly escalated. In the year 1034 his first wife died, allowing him to marry the daughter of the Duke of Amalfi. She was also the niece of Pandulf IV of Capua. In 1037 his title as Count of Aversa was formally recognized by the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II. The following year he routed the Byzantines in battle, seizing large amounts of their territory. He conquered the principality of Pandulf IV of Capua, with the blessings of Conrad II. He thus achieved several important objectives: the rank of prince, a stronghold for continued Norman hegemony in Southern Italy and the largest polity in the region. In 1042, at the height of his power, he received suzerainty from the Byzantines over the territories of Sipanto and Monte Gargano. Norman domination of the area was now a reality. He died in June of 1045.

The next chapter in the Norman history of Southern Italy deals with the life of a remarkable individual by the name of Robert Guiscard (lit: “Robert the Crafty One”). Born in Normandy around the year 1015 to a petty noble family, he was, according to one account, one of 12 brothers. He left for Southern Italy with only five mounted riders and 30 followers on foot to seek his fortune, arriving in the lands of Langobardia Minor (Central-Southern Italy) in 1047. Beginning his career there as a brigand, he eventually (but briefly) found employ as a mercenary in the service of Pandulf IV of Capua. He left the following year, to seek service with his brother Drogo in Apulia, who granted him a fief.

Guiscard showed his mettle at the Battle of Civitate (June 18, 1053), distinguishing himself against a Papal coalition of Lombard, Italian and Swabian troops. Though outnumbered, the Normans, using guile and duplicity, succeeded in defeating the Papal forces and were even able to capture Pope Leo X, forcing him to sign numerous treaties advantageous to the Norman presence in Southern Italy.

In 1057 Guiscard succeeded his half-brother Humphrey of Hauteville as Count of Apulia over his elder half-brother Geoffrey. Together with Roger, his youngest brother, Robert Guiscard completed the Norman conquests of Apulia and Calabria.

One cannot continue writing on the subject of Robert Guiscard without taking a moment to comment on the character of this man, who played a pivotal role in the Norman conquest of Southern Italy/Sicily. Perhaps no better assessment of him was made than the one by Princess Anna Komnenos, daughter of Byzantine emperor (and Robert’s nemesis) Alexios I Komnenos.

“This Robert was Norman by descent, of minor origin, in temper tyrannical, in mind most cunning, brave in action, very clever in attacking the wealth and substance of magnates, most obstinate in achievement, for he did not allow any obstacle to prevent his executing his desire. His stature was so lofty that he surpassed even the tallest, his complexion was ruddy, his hair flaxen, his shoulders were broad, his eyes all but emitted sparks of fire, and in frame he was well-built ... this man's cry it is said to have put thousands to flight. Thus equipped by fortune, physique and character, he was naturally indomitable, and subordinate to no one in the world.” – Princess Anna Komnenos: The Alexiad, Book I, 1148.
Roger I of Sicily at the Battle of Cerami in 1063 Painted by Prosper Lafaye
The Norman campaign for the then Moslem-held island of Sicily began with the capture of the city of Messina by Robert and his brother Roger in 1061. In military terms, the capture of Messina was a joke! Roger launched the invasion at night with a force of only 300 knights. Robert stayed behind in Calabria with a much larger force (and most of the ships) in order to deceive the enemy. The Muslims, fearing an enemy of unknown size, abandoned the city and fled. The success of the Norman operation was no doubt due in part to intelligence supplied to them by Greek Christians living in the northeastern part of the island who travelled frequently back and forth across the Straits of Messina. With Messina now acting as a pied-à-terre, Robert and his brother could now move large numbers of knights and supplies onto the island from the mainland with no fear of harassment by Muslim ships, since there were no other friendly ports in the vicinity for them.

Quickly fortifying the city of Messina, Robert signed a treaty of alliance with Emir Ibn al-Timnah against Emir Ib al-Hawass. These two Islamic rulers had been at odds with one another for some time (so much for Islamic unity against the infidel!). By 1072 Robert had seized the city of Palermo. A year earlier the last Byzantine forces had departed from Southern Italy, further cementing the Norman hold on the region.

Robert Guiscard’s successes in Southern Italy and Sicily took him to new heights of power and hubris, for he now dared to challenge Emperor Alexios I Komnenos for control of the Byzantine Empire itself! Sailing in May, 1081 to Byzantium with an army of 16,000 men (including 1,300 Norman knights), Guiscard’s forces captured the main town on the island of Corfu on May 21st. Guiscard finally faced his nemesis personally in the Battle of Dyrrhachium on October 18, 1081. In a gruesome engagement, Guiscard and the Normans defeated the Byzantines (and almost killed their emperor). Alexios was able to flee, however, but not before losing 5,000 men!

Robert was unable to follow-up on his victory and take Constantinople. Alexios had paid the Holy Roman emperor Henry IV a bribe of 360,000 gold pieces to invade Northern Italy. Byzantine agents had also been instrumental in stirring up rebellions in the Norman-held regions of Apulia, Calabria and Campania. Robert was forced to return to Italy, leaving his son Bohemund to continue the campaign against Alexios. Bohemund, though a capable commander, was not his father. After Robert’s departure, Alexios was able to turn the tide against the Normans, capturing the city of Kastoria by November, 1083.

Robert, in the meantime, forced Henry IV to retire from Central Italy, and sacked the city of Rome in May, 1084. He then escorted the Pope back to his temporal/spiritual throne. Upon hearing the news of his son’s debacles, he set sail with a fleet of 150 ships to reclaim his lost possessions, reoccupying the island of Corfu and seizing the island of Kefalonia. However, he died of fever on July 18, 1085. Bohemund lost his father’s last remaining Adriatic possessions shortly afterwards. He later carved out a minor principality for himself during the First Crusade in the area surrounding the city of Antioch (modern day Antakya, Turkey), but succumbing to the hubris that all too often accompanies the acquisition of power, foolishly attacked Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, who defeated him once again in 1108, forcing him to sign the humiliating Treaty of Devol, depriving him of disputed territories and effectively reducing him to the status of a vassal of the Byzantine Empire. He returned to his Italian dominions a broken man, never to return to the East again.

The last personage in this tale of a kingdom’s birth is Roger II, son of Robert Guiscard’s brother, Roger I of Sicily. If Rainulf was the Great Opportunist, Robert the Great Conqueror (and Bohemund the Great Failure!), to Roger II must be given the sobriquet of the Great Uniter. It was he who has the distinction of taking all the Norman possessions in Southern Italy and Sicily and uniting them into a single kingdom with a strong, centralized government; the first such government in Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire.

It is perhaps fitting, therefore, that he who would unite the peoples of Southern Italy into a single kingdom would himself have come about from a uniting of peoples. Born on December 22nd, 1085 of a Norman father and an Italian mother (Adelaide del Vasto), Roger II first came to prominence on the death of his elder brother, Simon of Hauteville in 1105. He received the title “Count of Sicily” under the regency of his mother. In 1112 having reached the age of majority, he was proclaimed “now knight, now Count of Sicily and Calabria” and began his personal rule. He married his first wife, Elvira, daughter of King Alfonso VI of León and Castile, five years later.

In 1122, William II of Apulia, a cousin of Roger’s, died childless. Roger then claimed all the Hauteville family’s possessions in Southern Italy as well as the Principality of Capua. This claim, however, put him at odds with Pope Honorius II, who was leery of the growth of Norman power in Southern Italy. The Pope tried to mount a coalition against Roger (involving his own brother-in-law!) which ultimately failed. In consequence he was forced to recognize Roger as Duke of Apulia in 1128. 

Following the death of Pope Honorius two men claimed the papal throne, with Roger II throwing his support behind Antipope Anacletus II against Innocent II. As thanks for his support, Anacletus crowned Roger II King of Sicily on December 25th, 1130 in the city of Palermo.

Almost immediately the armies of France, England and the Holy Roman Empire came out against him! Rebellions (no doubt fostered with outside help) also broke out in Southern Italy. In ten years of fighting, Roger was able to crush the rebels and drive out the invaders. In the interim, Anacletus died and Innocent II was proclaimed Supreme Pontiff. Roger desired peace with him, but Innocent wished an independent Principality of Capua as protection against the Sicilian king, something Roger would not allow.

Anticipating an attack, Innocent invaded Roger’s domains at the head of a large army, but was ambushed and captured at Galluccio on July 22, 1139. Three days later Roger forced him to sign the Treaty of Mignano, recognizing his title as King of Sicily. The treaty also recognized his son Roger III as Duke of Apulia and another son, Alfonso, as Prince of Capua. Four years later Innocent II tried to abrogate the treaty, but a show of Royal military might (in the form of a march on Benevento) reaffirmed its legitimacy.

By freeing himself from obligations to foreign suzerains and crushing the power of noble vassals, Roger II paved the way for the establishment of a strong, central government headquartered in Palermo with himself as absolute monarch. In an effort at establishing a uniform system of rule, Roger II wrote the Assizes of Ariano, the Great Law of Sicily. It regulated all affairs of the kingdom, limiting the powers of the nobility and affirming that all subjects in the kingdom were equal under the law; an unheard of assertion prior to Roger’s reign! A great fleet was also built up under Roger’s auspices, making his kingdom the leading maritime power in the Mediterranean. 

Roger II was also inclined to surround himself with some of the most learned and able men of his time at his court. These men came from as far north as England and as far east as Antioch.
The one black mark on Roger’s reign was his using the Second Crusade (1147-47) to continue the Norman assault against the magnificent Byzantine Empire begun by his uncle, Roger Guiscard. Though he did not personally lead the invasion, his underlings (led by George of Antioch) processed it, sacking the cities of Corinth and Athens. These attacks no doubt further weakened an already enfeebled Byzantium, leaving it vulnerable to further encroachment by the Muslim Turks pouring into Anatolia from the East.

Roger II’s legacy, the Kingdom of Sicily, would endure (in various forms) over the next seven centuries, until its destruction at the hands of Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1861. We, the children of the kingdom, have a responsibility to ourselves and our posterity to reclaim our birthright. We will never do this, though, until we reclaim our ethnic identity as Sicilians (peninsular and island). It remains to be seen if we are up to the task.

Further reading:
• “The Normans in Sicily” by John Julius Norwich, Penguin Books, 1970.
• “The Norman Conquest of Southern Italy and Sicily” by Gordon S. Brown, McFarland & Co., 2003.
• “The Age of Robert Guiscard” by G.A. Loud, Pearson Education, 2000.
• “Roger II of Sicily: A Ruler Between East and West” by Hubert Houben, Cambridge University Press, 2002.