Norman conquests in Southern Italy and Sicily.

After Ibn al-Thumna called for their help, Robert and Roger crossed over to Sicily, quickly seized the port of Messina, and drove southwest toward Ibn al-Hawwas’s territory, taking the towns of Troina and Rometta in the interior. But, unable to defeat al-Hawwas, they halted their advance. Not long afterward, Ibn al-Thumna was killed—by his own subjects, who were outraged that he had gone to the infidel Normans to save himself. Robert and Roger turned this apparent setback to their rhetorical advantage, claiming that, since Ibn al-Thumna had been the legitimate ruler of Sicily and they had been his allies, they were now duty-bound to avenge his death by conquering the island in his name.

It may seem curious that the de Hautevilles would manufacture a formal pretext for their invasion; after all, they were Christians, and Sicily was ruled by Muslims. But at this time, a generation before the First Crusade had been conceived of, in practice conflict in the Mediterranean world was not a function of religious difference. The Normans may have been the most ruthless warriors on the island, but they were small in number and had few allies (even among their countrymen, such was their belligerence). They had to tread gingerly. The native Latin Christians of southern Italy regarded them as usurpers, and were continuously on the brink of revolt. The papacy was a fickle supporter, never hesitant to call in the Holy Roman Empire or threaten excommunication. The Byzantine Empire (the “effeminate Greeks” to the Norman chroniclers), though riven by internal conflict and facing new challenges from the papacy and the Holy Roman Emperor, still held important cities on the Italian mainland. And although the power of the Zirids of Ifriqiya had been crippled by the predations of the Banu Hilal—a Bedouin tribe unleashed against them by the Fatimid Caliphate—they, unlike the Normans (and like the Byzantines), had a sizable and experienced navy.

The Normans could call upon their unmatched bravery and appetite for violence, but even in an age of primitive, face-to-face combat, these alone were not enough. It was one thing to defeat an enemy, but quite another to win his loyalty and service. The prosperity of Sicily was a consequence of its agricultural and its artisanal output, as well as its role as a commercial hub of the Central Mediterranean. The Normans, much like Alfonso IV contemplating al-Andalus, understood that conquest would mean little if it involved the destruction of the economy of the conquered lands. But Sicily was a more complex environment than even al-Andalus. The Normans had to prove themselves to be fair rulers in a place where Byzantines, Latins, and Muslims had no choice but to adhere to a mutually recognized code of political conduct. Roger and Robert would set out to persuade Sicily’s Muslims to recognize Christian overlords—something that was virtually unprecedented at that point not only in Sicily, but across the Mediterranean—and to assure the substantial Greek Orthodox population, which would have been ambivalent about Norman rule, of their goodwill.

But the Normans were not the only foreigners who coveted the island. In the late 1060s the Zirids sent a force to Sicily with the stated goal of relieving the beleaguered Banu Kalb, but they seized Palermo and claimed the island for themselves. This occupation, however, was ended shortly after by the combination of a Norman counterattack and the resistance of local Muslims, who saw the Zirids as no better than the Christian invaders. At the same time, Robert and Roger dealt with revolts on the mainland by their Norman underlings and local Lombard lords, which were supported by the new Doukas dynasty of Constantinople. They viciously put down these rebellions, with public executions and violent reprisals, and next took the port towns of Brindisi and Bari, Byzantium’s last mainland possessions in Italy. Only then did the two brothers focus their efforts on Muslim Sicily. In 1071, less than eight months after the surrender of Bari, the city of Palermo found itself facing a Norman blockade, by land and sea.

Palermo would have been like no other city the Normans had seen, except for those very few among them who may have journeyed to Constantinople. Even though it was nearly a century past its peak and had endured more than fifty years of misgovernment, Palermo remained somewhere on the order of ten times larger and wealthier than Bari, Genoa, Pisa, Venice, and even Rome. Under the Kalbid dynasty in the late tenth century, its population reached approximately 350,000. It was a bustling metropolis, where Muslim converts and colonists rubbed shoulders with Byzantine Orthodox natives and numerous slaves of African and Eastern European origin, and where visitors from across the Arabo-Islamic world encountered Arabo-Judaic traders from Alexandria and the Maghrib, as well as enterprising merchants from Latinate Italy.

Under the Kalbids, Sicily had become a center of trade famous for the manufacture of silk, textiles, and ceramics, and a breadbasket for gold-rich Muslim Ifriqiya. Commerce enriched the island’s governors, enabling them to patronize Arabo-Islamic literature and art. It also financed the construction of a ring of lavish palaces and lush garden estates around Palermo. The geographer Ibn Hawqal, who visited Sicily in the 970s, claimed that Palermo had some three hundred mosques, second only to Córdoba, including a grand mosque that could hold seven thousand worshippers. Here he was shown a casket suspended from the ceiling that was said to contain the body of the philosopher Aristotle, and to which local Christians would pray in times of drought. Still, Ibn Hawqal decried the religious laxity and hypocrisy of the city’s inhabitants—a reaction, perhaps, to Palermo’s cosmopolitanism.

Decades into the Kalbid decline, Palermo remained a prize for any would-be conqueror. Much of the city was unprotected by walls, but there were two strongly fortified quarters, one inland, around the central fortress, and the other on the sea. Siege warfare was relatively new to the Normans. Like other contemporary Latin military elites, the Normans practiced a style of fighting based on professional medium-to-heavy cavalry trained to charge in unison with fixed lances. The goal was to break a line of opposing cavalry forces or sword- and ax-wielding infantry. Norman knights were the superiors of any others, but their tactics and arms were ill-suited to attacking walled cities, which were common in the Mediterranean, unlike in the less prosperous north of Europe. Large cities, or their core neighborhoods, were typically fortified with stone and rock walls many stories high and many meters thick, and girded by towers, moats, and other defensive works. The walls of Central and Eastern Mediterranean cities often dated back to the time of the Romans, and had been reinforced and expanded over the previous thousand years. Assaults on such walls with ladders were relatively easy to repulse, wooden siege towers were cumbersome and vulnerable, and it was often impossible to dig tunnels under city walls that would cause them to collapse. Sieges frequently devolved into a waiting game in which the defenders enjoyed a clear advantage.

Defending walls, on the other hand, did not require a large professional army, particularly because all able-bodied citizens, including women and children, would be called on to serve in such a situation. Defending against betrayal—the bribing of a disloyal guard or the revenge of a discontented citizen—was perhaps more difficult. Medieval chronicles abound with such tales. According to contemporary sources, for example, during the 1098 Siege of Antioch, the first great victory of the First Crusade on its way to Jerusalem, the Latins only took the city because a certain “Firuz,” an Armenian Christian, unlocked a gate for them. But whether this and similar episodes were fact or fiction, the besieging army could not count on such an opportunity. Instead, they attempted to starve the inhabitants of the city into submission.

Many Mediterranean cities, however, unlike those on the Iberian Peninsula, could hold out almost indefinitely if there had been adequate time to prepare, and if they were not completely blockaded. Many were equipped with vast underground cisterns built to supply water during lengthy sieges; others, like Palermo, were supplied by wells. The rulers of rich Islamic cities were also often able to maintain substantial reserves of olive oil, grain, and other foodstuffs as a bulwark against both famine and attack. Even if a city’s food supplies were exhausted, the inhabitants could turn to consuming their animals, and, if necessary, their clothing and their dead, even their children—anything to forestall the pillage, rape, massacre, and enslavement that so often followed the conquest of a city.

At Palermo, this would have seemed to be an unlikely outcome. It took a considerable army to quarantine a large city effectively, and if Roger’s chronicler, Geoffrey Malaterra, is to be trusted, the brothers had mustered only five hundred knights for the campaign against the capital. Food and information would have trickled into the city through tunnels, secret gates, and gaps in their line. And they would have faced difficult challenges of their own. Besiegers, too, had to provision themselves, and were furthermore vulnerable to debilitating and fatal illnesses while camped outside a city’s walls, exposed to the elements and in crowded, unsanitary conditions. Dysentery spelled the messy and ignominious end of more than one Crusade. Moreover, in the Northern European tradition, warfare was essentially a private enterprise. Knights and noblemen followed their lord into battle, but they were responsible for their own upkeep. Campaigning drove them into crippling debt; it was a worthwhile proposition only because, if victorious, they would enjoy the right of pillage, or perhaps be apportioned new lands from the conquered territories. Yet even if they grew rich in gold or lands, warriors would still have to worry about what was happening on their own estates, which they often had no choice but to leave in the hands of vulnerable wives, untrustworthy relatives, or scheming subordinates. At the Siege of Lisbon in 1147, the Muslim defenders famously taunted the knights of the Second Crusade with the prospect of the sexual infidelity of the wives they had left back in Flanders and England.

It fell to commanders like Robert and Roger to maintain the morale and resolve of their men for the duration of a siege, and to prevent them from giving up and returning home. A failed siege could destroy a warlord’s reputation and undermine his authority. Given the pressures on defenders and attackers alike, many sieges were resolved by negotiation—either a promise from the city to pay tribute in exchange for the attackers’ withdrawal, or an agreement to surrender the city and guarantee the lives and at least some of the property of the defenders.

In 1071, as the Norman Siege of Palermo wore on through the fall, provisions and spirits in the city would have begun to run low. The prospect of relief from the Zirids, the only possible saviors, became increasingly remote. Not only had the Normans crippled the Zirid fleet, they had seemed to reach a diplomatic understanding with the Muslim kingdom: Robert and Roger could have Palermo. Beyond the immediate hardship of the siege, the city’s residents, especially the merchants, would have grown more and more worried about the toll of the blockade. Palermo’s Christian minority may have also been a cause of concern for the city’s rulers; there was always the chance that one among them might cut their own deal with the Normans and betray the city. In this siege of a Mediterranean city, however, time may have been on the Normans’ side; aside from the city’s internal troubles, Robert and Roger’s knights could raid the countryside for food, and the duke and his brother could bring in reinforcements and supplies from the mainland.

Nevertheless, by the turn of the year 1072, the two brothers felt it was time to act. In the early days of January they mounted a coordinated assault on Palermo’s harbor and walls. Norman troops broke into the city on both fronts, and, in the looting and killing that followed, the city’s leading citizens took refuge in the fortress. On either January 9 or 10, a delegation representing the authorities of Palermo agreed to parley. They would surrender, although not unconditionally. As Malaterra wrote:

they were unwilling to violate or relinquish their law … but [said] that under the present circumstances, they had no choice but to surrender the city, to render faithful service to the duke, and to pay tribute. They promised to affirm this all with an oath according to their own law.

The offer was a calculated risk. There was no guarantee Robert and Roger would accept, and no guarantee that if they did they would then keep their word. Only eight years earlier, another Norman-led force had accepted the surrender of the Muslim town of Barbastro, far off in the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees. The Christian forces had granted the Muslim inhabitants safe-conduct to leave their town and take with them whatever they could carry. But as the populace left the safety of their walls, the Christians could not restrain themselves at the sight of their abundant wealth, and swept down on them, massacring the men, looting their belongings, and carrying off the women as slaves and concubines. Though they may have known of this event, the Muslims of Palermo did not see another option. They could not hole up in the fortress indefinitely, and they would have felt reassured by the fact that over the previous decade a number of towns in eastern Sicily had surrendered to the Normans, and thus far their treaties had been honored.

Robert and Roger likely did not have the stomach for the sort of drawn-out fight that taking the fortress of Palermo would have required, and were probably eager to agree to the city’s offer. Unrest was again brewing back on the mainland, and they did not want to disturb the economy of their new prize any more than they already had. They would need Palermo’s resources to complete the conquest of Sicily.

Upon the conditional surrender of the Muslim leadership of Palermo, Robert made an unprecedented move for a Christian, declaring himself before the city’s Muslims to be the new malik, or king. Roger, for his part, began referring to himself as “count” (qumis) or “sultan” of Sicily. He had new coins struck at the city’s mint, on one side bearing the Islamic profession of faith, “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is His Messenger,” and on the other a stylized T, signifying, perhaps, “son of Tancred.” There was no Christian imagery on the coins, but they bore a clumsy Arabic transliteration of Guiscard’s name—“Arbart”—along with his new title, King of Sicily. The message for the Muslims of Palermo was clear: Robert and his Norman knights would provide peace and stability in exchange for submission and loyalty. The Normans would not infringe on the Muslims’ religious rights or freedoms, nor would they undermine the civil and religious authorities within their community.

Robert Guiscard took most of the men under his and his brother’s command back to Italy, to stamp out the various rebellions in his lands. Though he maintained a nominal half share of the Sicilian territories he and Roger had conquered, he would never again return to the island. Guiscard and his heirs would remain the rulers of Apulia, and it would be left to Roger, with a handful of his close family members and dependents, to establish a new realm in Sicily. This would take a full twenty years, and Roger’s ultimate success would see him acquire the epithet “Bosso,” or “the Great Count.”

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