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main index    © Jeff Matthews     entry Sept. 2003


The Other Norman Conquest


Roger the NormanBy the year 1000 Italy south of Rome was a hodge-podge of Lombard duchies plus a number of small city-states such as Naples as well as various Byzantine provinces; there was also a massive Arab presence on Sicily and the southern mainland. Into this already complicated setting rode the Normans, only a few generations after wading ashore in France as the justifiably feared warrior-race, the Vikings. 

Now, the nicest thing ever said about the Vikings was that, yes, they were ferocious, cunning and absolutely ruthless—completely given to pillaging and plundering—but not because they liked it! It was because they realized that ruthless pillaging and plundering was the most efficient way to get what they wanted: namely, the property and possessions of others. 

If the Vikings were only half as nasty as their reputation, it is little wonder that within 150 years of their first raids on Britain and the continent they had maneuvered the French king, Charles the Simple into the wise move of ceding to them in 911 the land in the north of France which would become known as Normandy, named for them, the Northmen or Normans. The real wonder of it all is that they decided to settle down, and even more wondrous was that in a few generations' time, all their fire and rage would be diluted by southern climes, and their empire in southern Italy would be known for its tolerance, culture and laid-back way of life. But that is precisely what happened. 

If you stand in front of the royal palace in Naples and look at the statues of the rulers of the city, Roger II, the Norman, is the first one (photo, above). He is the monarch who represents the beginning of modern history in Naples. He was the beginning of what might be called a European dimension in southern Italy. 

The feudal redistribution of land in Normandy had meant that a number of young Norman knights wound up with nothing, so they sought their fortunes elsewhere. By the early eleventh century, bands of them were already wandering around this area, fighting for anyone who would pay them—Lombards, Byzantines, the Papacy, the Dukes of Salerno, Capua or Naples. In return for helping the Neapolitan Duke, Sergio IV, in 1029, they were given the hill-fortress in Aversa with its dependencies, and that area soon became a jumping off point for Norman adventurers who wished to take part in the struggles going on for control of the south. In the middle of the eleventh century they were fighting for and against everyone, managing to take over piecemeal much of what had been Lombard land. By 1090 they had taken Sicily from the Arabs. 

Robert of Hauteville arrived in 1047. He was described as very tall with eyes that all but emitted sparks and a voice that put his enemies to flight. His ambition and lust for adventure are said to have been an inspiration to William ("the Conqueror") back home and so, at least second hand, he may have played a part in the invasion of Britain in 1066. [Also, see this entry about Robert's wife, Sichelgaita.] 

The Papacy, originally glad to have Norman help against the Byzantines and Lombards, realized that the Norman tail was now wagging the Papal dog. Normans were raiding monasteries in Italy with as much abandon as had their Viking grandfathers a few generations before in Britain and France. The Normans consolidated their gains in a victory over the combined Papal forces of Lombards, Italians (from the Papal States) and German mercenaries at Benevento in 1054. The Pope as well as the Western Empire were forced to ratify Norman gains. It was a brilliant move by the Normans: they now pledged allegiance to the Church, in return for which, of course, the Papacy consecrated the Norman Empire in the South, now virtually all in Norman hands, anyway. 

By 1060 there were three separate Norman holdings: Aversa, Capua and Apulia, the last of which was the most important, because it was from there that the Normans, under Roger I, (Robert's brother) went on to take over Sicily and, by default, all Norman holdings in the South. 

Shortly after William the Conqueror had successfully invaded Britain, Robert, who saw himself as eventual lord of the whole Mediterranean went on to try and mop up the entire Byzantine Empire in Greece, and failed. His less ambitious sibling, Roger, stayed on in Sicily. Roger's third son became Roger II, and was crowned King of Sicily in 1130. 

Roger II marched north in a campaign to unify Sicily with the southern Italian mainland. He entered Naples in September 1140. Story has it that he got on the good side of his Neapolitan subjects immediately by calling them together and asking them how long the city wall was. No one knew, so he personally marched it off at 2,373 paces and announced that he was going to enlarge it for the good of Naples and it citizens. 

The city thus lost its independence, but gained a king who called himself Rex Siciliae et Italiae, and membership in an ambitious empire, one with designs on North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean. The capital was Palermo, one of the richest and most opulent cities of the day, efficiently and benevolently ruled by a mixed aristo-bureaucracy of Greeks, Sicilians and Arabs. It was a place where your god, language and race took a back seat to whether or not you could get the job done. For a brief period, the overused phrase "Golden Age" truly applied to this empire, as the collective voices of centuries of Mediterranean cultures joined together almost as if to announce the coming of the Renaissance 

Roger died in Palermo in 1154, and a few years later the Norman Kingdom of the South fizzled out because of lack of male issue. One of Roger's granddaughters had married the son of the German emperor Barbarossa. Their child would become Frederick II and, thus, the Kingdom of Sicily (eventually to become the Kingdom of Naples and then the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies) would pass to German rule. (There is a chronological chart of dynasties here.)

It was a strange end for the Normans. In the South they were victims—fortunate ones, perhaps—of their own flexibility. They started out as almost caricatures of themselves: ferocious, aggressive, asking no quarter and certainly giving none. They wound up as a blend of cultures, languages and faiths, a society apparently ruled by "an aristocracy of talent" (to use Thomas Jefferson's choice phrase) In hindsight, coming as it did on the eve of that atrocity known as The Crusades, their rule here seems to have been one of the last great periods of understanding and tolerance in European history, one in which there was a fortunate and rare reversal of the roles described by Yeats: This time it was not "the worst," but "the best," who were "full of passionate intensity".

[to next in history series: Swabian Naples]


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