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Chapter 12

Dextera Domini


When Guiscard died, the Norman conquest of Sicily had been left unfinished. His lands in southern Italy convulsed in the usual power struggle between his sons, and it seemed for a moment as if the remarkable Norman advance had at last ended. No obvious leader of Robert's caliber rose to take his title, and the Sicilian campaign the most important of the southern Norman fronts devolved onto the shoulders of Guiscard's youngest brother.  

Roger de Hauteville was an unlikely conqueror. The twelfth son of old Tancred, he was sixteen years younger than his famous sibling. He had always been a bit different from his brothers, less physically imposing but more thoughtful, displaying a rare talent among the Hautevilles for keeping his temper in check.  

Not much is known about his early life other than the fact that he spent it on the family estate in Normandy. He probably had the same education as his siblings, spending his formative years apprenticed to a wealthier knight. By the time he was twenty-four, all but one of his brothers had left to seek their fortunes in the south. Roger might have been content to stay in the now empty family home had it not been for a chance meeting with the beautiful Judith d’Evreux. Despite a huge gulf in social status she was related to William the Conqueror they fell in love, and before long Roger announced his intention to marry her. Unfortunately he had neither land nor wealth, and Judith’s father wasn’t amused by the thought of some lowly knight stealing his daughter away. If Roger wanted her hand he would have to find a suitable dowry, so he left for Italy to find fame and fortune.  

It so happened that Roger’s brother Guiscard was busy trying to subdue Calabria and was glad to make use of his skills. The two made daring raids along the coast and within five years had subdued the region. The experience seems to have given Roger a taste for more and he suggested a richer target. Just across the narrow straits of Messina, less than two miles from the Italian seacoast was the Arab-controlled island of Sicily, now fortuitously in complete disarray.  

The Arabs had first arrived in Sicily in the mid-ninth century from North Africa and spent the next hundred years wresting the island away from the Byzantines. They had finally conquered the last imperial outpost in 965 and settled down to enjoy the fruits of their labour. For a century Sicily was a relatively peaceful part of the North African Muslim Empire controlled by the city of Mahdia on the present-day Tunisian coast.  But Mahdia was involved in the power struggles of the Islamic world; war with Cairo abroad and civil wars at home weakened its control over the island. As communications broke down, ethnic tensions in Sicily rose. The first Arab arrivals were resentful of the Berbers who crossed over from Mahdia in increasing numbers, and both groups distrusted the native Greeks. By the time Roger arrived in Italy, Sicily was split between three rival emirs, and a racial war had broken out between Arab and Berber. It was the perfect time to invade, and surprisingly enough, it was one of the emirs who offered the invitation.  

Ibn Timnah was a rogue even by the standards of the time. He had seized control of Syracuse by killing his predecessor and helped himself to the man’s widow. He then tried to expand into his neighbor’s territory that of the Emir of Messina who also happened to be his new wife’s brother with disastrous results. The humiliating treaty he had to sign was bad enough, but he made it worse by getting drunk and taking out his frustrations on his wife. She fled to her brother in Messina and in a rage he swore that he would have Ibn Timnah’s head. The now quite sober emir was chased out of Syracuse and had to flee to Italy for safety. Finding Roger in Calabria he offered to partner with the Normans in exchange for a joint control of Sicily.  

Roger couldn’t have asked for a better invitation. Although it was the middle of winter and hardly the time to start a campaign, he gathered a force of a hundred and fifty knights and crossed the straits. At first all went well. The governor of Messina was tricked into an ambush and killed, and when the garrison rushed out to avenge him they were badly mauled by the Normans. Unfortunately, it was Roger’s youthful enthusiasm that let them down. Seeing the chance to grab Messina, and his own claim to greatness, he led a hasty attempt to rush the walls but was driven back with heavy losses. He retreated to the ships, but when he arrived at the beach he found that a storm had driven his fleet away. For three days the Normans were obliged to camp miserably on the beach fending off the incessant Muslim attacks and trying to stay warm. Finally on the fourth day the Norman ships returned and Roger made his escape.  

The campaign had been discouraging, but Roger remained determined. A few months later he tried again, this time with the help of his brother Guiscard, and the two of them mustered an army of nearly five hundred knights. The Muslims were alerted to the danger and kept up a watchful patrol of the channel, so the brothers came up with a ruse. While Guiscard positioned himself at the north end of the straits noisily preparing to cross, Roger slipped across at the southern end with half of the knights. He landed five miles from Messina and found the coast completely deserted. Marching towards the city he intercepted a Muslim baggage train carrying the entire payroll for the Messina garrison. This stroke of luck was followed by an even bigger one. The majority of Messina’s defenders had marched north to repel Guiscard’s expected crossing, leaving the walls bare. The moment his first soldier cleared the battlements the inhabitants surrendered and Roger’s flag was hoisted above the city. The Muslim army on the coast, seeing the banner and realizing what had happened, fled into the interior.  

The Normans now had a foothold in Sicily, but there was no time to sit back and enjoy it. After attending a thanksgiving service hosted by the city’s Greek population, the brothers joined their Arab ally Ibn Timnah and headed deep into the island’s central plateau. Their goal was to take the great fortress of Enna and deal a knockout blow to Ibn Timnah’s brother-in-law, but when they arrived they found the castle impregnable. Even worse, the emir had gathered his entire army and was delighted that the pesky Normans had strayed so deeply into his territory. Seeing the chance to destroy them once and for all, he launched a ferocious assault.  

It was the first time the Muslims of Sicily had come face to face with a Norman army, and it would be an experience that would be repeated many times with the same result over the next three decades. Although they far outnumbered the Normans, the light Arab cavalry stood no chance against the heavily armored knights. The battle was quick, and from the Muslim point of view, disastrous; thousands were killed or captured, and the survivors fled to the safety of their fortress and refused to come out again.  

Enough spoils were taken from the battle to make every soldier who participated a wealthy man. The bewildered Arabs concluded that the Normans were invincible, and more importantly, the Normans believed it as well. In the coming years they would always be vastly outnumbered, but would never hesitate to fight.

The brothers had won a stunning success, but were divided on how best to exploit it. Guiscard, as always, had concerns on the mainland where yet another revolt was beginning and needed to withdraw, but Roger wanted to continue the advance. There was no question of trying to storm Enna since they had no heavy siege equipment, but they could at least extract protection money from the surrounding towns and further erode the emir’s support. As elder brother, Guiscard’s argument eventually prevailed, but Roger stayed long enough to seize the town of Troina, a largely Greek settlement on a hill that enjoyed a strategic view of the surrounding plain. Tensions between the brothers, which had always simmered, began to boil over, but Roger had no choice but to obey. By Christmas he had returned to Italy with the last of his troops, and was summoned to Guiscard’s court. There to his astonishment he was greeted by the long lost Judith.  

Roger and Judith were a rare love story in an age of political unions. Judith’s father was a powerful and ambitious noble who was determined to use his daughter to increase his connections. But Judith was in love, and had cleverly escaped him by joining a convent. There she was free from the attentions of better-qualified suitors, and waited patiently for five years. By that time her father had quarreled with Duke William and been forced to flee Normandy taking his daughter with him. When they arrived in Italy, Judith eagerly renounced her vows and headed straight for Guiscard’s court.  

After their joyful reunion, Roger proposed to marry her immediately and the humbled father gave his permission. This, however, brought up a rather embarrassing fact. Roger was about to marry into one of the great families of Normandy but didn’t have any land to give her as a dowry. He had plenty of wealth his recent campaign had provided that but Guiscard had refused to grant him any territory. The problem was that the older brother was jealous. He had had to fight for everything he owned; his early time in Italy had been ferociously difficult, and now his little brother was expecting him to just hand over some land. There was more than just petty resentment in this. Land – and its accompanying revenue - would allow Roger to have an independent source of power aside from Guiscard’s control, and turn him into a potential threat.  

But Roger was no longer the inexperienced youth who had entered his brother’s service, and could no longer be brushed off. He sent a formal request for land to Guiscard along with a notice that he had forty days to respond before Roger would resort to force. The older brother wasn't amused. Gathering his army he marched into Calabria. Roger was ready for him and the two sides were soon rampaging back and forth through the countryside. Guiscard managed to trap his brother inside a town, but when he demanded entrance, the villagers sided with Roger and slammed the gates shut in his face. At this point Guiscard realized that ravaging his own territory was counterproductive, so he attempted to end the war by trickery instead of force.  

He had supporters inside the town and if he could make contact with them there was the chance to undermine Roger from within. He managed to slip inside and meet with his partisans, but the plan backfired when some passersby recognized him. Guiscard was nearly killed immediately, only managing to save his skin by a mixture of bluffs, threats, and pleading. Considerably worse for wear but alive he was hauled in front of Roger.

It must have been gratifying for the younger brother to sit in judgment of the older for once, but Roger was too shrewd to give vent to his frustrations. They both needed each other and no petty feelings of revenge could trump their pragmatism. Roger may have taken his time to let Guiscard feel the pressure, but that was every bit as much public theater as what came next. Guiscard was brought before his brother,39 and Roger publicly embraced him, weeping loudly and promising to never let such enmity come between them again. Guiscard, for his part understood the lesson perfectly. The two never quarreled again.  

The settlement gave Roger some breathing room in Sicily, but unfortunately the family penchant for rivalries spilled over into the next generation. The moment Guiscard died his sons started feuding and once again it was up to Roger, now the elder statesman, to hold the splintering family together. In between battles with Muslim opponents, he had to periodically return to Italy to sort out the latest fratricidal mess, a nuisance that slowed down his conquest of Sicily considerably.  

During his many excursions to Italy, Roger usually left his illegitimate son, Jordan, in charge of the Sicilian operations. The boy had clearly inherited some of the élan of his uncle, because even at a young age he combined a mix of guile and brute force to keep the conquest going. He captured one city by stealing its livestock and another by luring its citizens outside, appearing calmly with his knights to demand the surrender. All this success, however, tempted him to try for more. His illicit birth excluded him from the succession, and in his mind that meant that he had to carve out his own dominion. When Roger returned from patching up yet another tenuous truce in Italy, he found Jordan leading a full-scale revolt to claim what he saw as his patrimony.  

The irony was that Jordan was Roger’s favorite son, and he would almost certainly have been left with a generous inheritance. Familial peace, however, seemed always just beyond Roger’s grasp. After ruthlessly suppressing Jordan’s revolt, he restored him to full favor only to see him die of a fever a few months later.  

While Roger had been distracted with family issues, the situation in Sicily had deteriorated around him. Not only had his ally Ibn Timnah been assassinated, which was not such a great loss since Roger never intended to share power, but far more seriously the local populations no longer viewed the Normans as liberators. Of course Roger had only himself to blame for this latter development, as his policy of intimidation was useful for enriching himself but terrible at building loyalty. The area he had conquered was full of potential Orthodox Christian supporters, but he had been too busy extorting money to cultivate local support.

A lesson in the importance of maintaining good relations with the native populations was learned the hard way. Roger returned to his base in northeastern Sicily to begin campaigning, pausing only long enough to appropriate a local palace for his new wife. The moment he departed with his army, the Greeks of the town made common cause with the Muslims and rose up en masse. Judith somehow managed to fight her way through the streets and made it to the safety of a nearby castle. The next day Roger returned, but the opposition was so fierce that he was only able to join his bride instead of freeing her.  

That winter was a particularly cold one, and although he had plenty of food, Roger was soon seriously short of fuel and warm clothing. Finally, in the early months of the next year they found a way out. Their besiegers had access to the town’s wine supply which they were consuming to stay warm. As time went by their discipline started to slip until one particularly cold night they got blindingly drunk and neglected to post a single guard. That night Roger and his soldiers managed to slip into their camp and slaughter the Muslims as they slept.

Both sides were chastened by the experience, and Roger never forgot the lesson. From that day he scrupulously courted all of his subjects regardless of their faith or ethnicity. It was good that he did so, because the North African Muslims were now on the offensive. The Islamic ruler of the coastal African city of Mahdia was determined to reassert his authority over Sicily, and he sent two armies under the command of his sons to crush the Norman upstarts. They marched inland and met Roger just west of Troina in a town called Cerami. The odds were hopelessly stacked against him. The Saracen army numbered thirty-five thousand against which he could only muster a hundred and thirty knights and three hundred foot soldiers. But the Normans had an unshakable confidence, and since Roger had situated himself on top of a hill, they had the better position. For three days the Muslim army waited for the Normans to come down. On the fourth day their patience ran out and they charged up the slope, eager to come to grips. The battle was furiously contested and lasted all day, but in the end the Norman’s superior discipline prevailed. Repeated charges failed to break their line, and the hours of charging uphill had exhausted the Muslims. When they withdrew, the Normans finally came down after them, turning an ordered retreat into a rout. By nightfall the Muslim camp and baggage was in Norman hands, and the Saracen army was hopelessly shattered.  

It had been one of the most extraordinary battles in history. A tiny force had not only fended off an army seventy times its size, but it had also decisively beaten it. If there was any doubt about the superiority of Norman arms before, there was none now. Despite still controlling three-quarters of Sicily, Muslim resistance was effectively broken. They would never again be on the offensive or offer a unified defense. From that moment on, the final conquest was only a matter of time.  

Exactly how much time, however, was unclear. Roger followed up the victory with an attempt to take Palermo and deal the knockout blow, but the effort was a fiasco. Palermo was the third largest city in the Mediterranean with a quarter of a million population only Constantinople and Cairo were bigger and it would need a sizable army to conquer. Roger managed to talk Guiscard into providing the needed firepower, but the city still had access to the sea making a land siege useless. Even worse, the campsite Roger chose was infested by tarantulas, whose appearance and painful bite did a thorough job of undermining everyone’s morale. After only three months they cut their losses and withdrew, determined not to return until they had a fleet.  

Guiscard returned to Italy to make the necessary arrangements, but was delayed for seven years putting down revolts and fending off a major Byzantine attack. In the meantime, Roger exploited the old struggle of Berber vs. Arab to keep his enemies on their heels. He had learned patience from his chronic manpower shortage, and was content to slowly advance while consolidating his conquests. In 1068, the remaining Berber forces on the island managed to ambush him while he was out raiding, demanding his surrender in the face of overwhelming force. To their surprise he cheerfully opted to attack instead, smashing their army with a series of cavalry charges.  

The Muslims hadn’t risked an open battle with him for a while, and Roger made full use of his victory by engaging in a little psychological warfare. He had messages detailing the results of the battle written with the blood of his fallen enemies, and had them sent by carrier pigeon to Palermo. When he followed it up with his army, backed up by Guiscard’s long-awaited fleet, the city surrendered almost immediately.  

The terms Roger offered showed just how much he had learned since the revolt of Troina. Palermo was obliged to accept the usual Norman castle, but its Muslims were free to practice their religion as long as they recognized the authority of the state. This commonsense solution, the tolerance of the outnumbered, was the cornerstone of Norman rule. It was a slow and agonizing process; the full conquest took an additional two decades, but Roger extended the same offer wherever he went. The Greek population had its churches rebuilt and refurbished at state expense, and the Muslim population, still eighty percent of Sicilians, was allowed to live and worship where it had done so for a century. The local governments, tasked with collecting taxes and enforcing justice, were kept in place, absorbing both Orthodox and Muslim into the new administration.  

The only serious resistance left was from the Emir of Syracuse, the major city of Sicily’s southeastern coast, but Roger would have to confront him on his own. After Palermo fell, Guiscard left the island never to return, taking a large part of the army with him.  

The first step in taking Syracuse was to make sure it was cut off from North Africa. There were still Berber troops scattered around Sicily and the Emir of Mahdia was making ominous noises. But he had been cut off from the interior of North Africa by civil war and badly needed Sicily’s wheat. Roger, well aware of his difficulties, cleverly neutralized him by offering to supply Mahdia with all the food he wanted through an exclusive trading contract. 

The Emir of Syracuse struck back by raiding a convent in Roger’s territory and placing several of the captured nuns in his harem. This threatened to set off a religious war something Roger wanted to avoid at all costs and he acted at once. Raising the largest army he had ever mustered, he sent his fleet to blockade the city by sea and marched overland. The fleet arrived first and engaged the Muslim ships in the same waters where fifteen centuries before the Athenian navy had been defeated during the Peloponnesian War. The struggle this time was just as decisive. The emir took personal command of his ships but had the misfortune to fall overboard. Before his startled sailors could attempt a rescue, the heavy armor had pulled him straight to the bottom. Syracuse resisted for a few days, but without its emir it didn’t have the heart for a real struggle and surrendered.  

The victory virtually extinguished Muslim power in Sicily. There were still remnants to be mopped up, but by now both sides realized the end was in sight. For the better part of the next three decades Roger relentlessly pressed on and by the spring of 1086 only the single emir Ibn Hamud was left to oppose him. He was based at Agrigento on the southwestern coast, but his power stemmed from an impregnable fortress at Enna in the center of the island. Both Roger and Robert Guiscard had failed to take this citadel, and it was clear that with the limited resources available, another frontal assault wouldn’t work. But there were more ways to overcome opposition than brute force and Roger soon thought of one. As usual he prepared the ground carefully. The first step was to isolate Ibn Hamud from any possible allies. The Sicilian Muslims had traditionally received help from North Africa, but Roger managed to conclude an alliance with the Emir of Tunis, effectively cutting them off. Just after Roger’s diplomats returned with news of the triumph, another messenger informed him that one of his raiding parties had managed to capture the emir’s wife and children.  

The only thing left to do was to plan the final coup de grace of Muslim Sicily. Robert Guiscard would undoubtedly have pressed home his advantage, storming Enna while Ibn Hamud was still reeling from his loss, but Roger had a more subtle strategy in mind. He was fully aware of the important card he now held and was careful to treat his prisoners with considerable respect. They traveled in comfort, sat at positions of honor at his table, and were granted every request short of their freedom. He deliberately took his time, rebuilding fortifications and consolidating the Norman grip over newly won territory. Ibn Hamud was left alone to meditate on the pointlessness of further resistance.  

It didn’t take long for the realities of the situation to sink in. The Muslim position was daily becoming more untenable, and there was no longer any hope of outside help. Thanks to Roger’s mild dealings with those he conquered, it was hard for the emir to whip up much enthusiasm against him, or inspire his remaining troops to continue sacrificing for a doomed cause.  

In the early months of 1087, Roger decided that the moment was right to make an offer. Accompanied by an escort of only a hundred knights, he rode to the foot of the great fortress of Enna and invited his rival to a parley. By this time the emir was visibly wavering and thanks to Roger’s generous treatment of his captive family, he had privately decided to come to some accommodation with the Normans. The two of them chatted amiably enough but when the talk turned to surrender the emir sorrowfully informed his rival that it would be an unacceptable breach of his honor. Even if he were the sort of man to cast aside his integrity, he continued, his men would never accept such a cowardly act and would kill him before he could open the fortress.  

Roger was astute enough to read between the lines, and he proposed an ingenious solution that would allow his rival to save face. A few days later the emir led the greater part of his forces into a carefully prepared ambush. To preserve his men’s lives he nobly offered to surrender, and Enna was captured without a casualty.  

Ibn Hamud gratefully had himself baptized and was offered extensive estates of his own choosing. He selected Calabria, far away from his old center of power where any revolt would make him look guilty of sedition, and was enrolled as part of the nobility. The irregularities of his past life were discreetly overlooked (he was married to his cousin) and he lived out his life in peace without incident, a perfectly respectable member of the minor aristocracy.  

Roger lived for thirteen more years, streamlining his government, and extending his influence to the Italian peninsula. For the most part he concentrated on increasing the prosperity of his subjects and refused to be drawn into any larger struggles.40 When the call came for the First Crusade he was virtually the only great prince who didn’t respond. Heavily outnumbered by Muslims in his own territory and dependent on trade with North Africa for wealth, the last thing he wanted was a religious war. He remained officially neutral and pressured his Muslim trading partners to be neutral as well, which turned out to be a sound economic policy. By the turn of the century Sicily was more stable, prosperous, and secure than it had ever been. Trade flourished, and the arts were blossoming. Thanks to the Crusading movement the trade of Europe and the Levant flowed through the markets of Palermo and Messina, greatly enriching all involved.  

Roger’s only regret was that his beloved Judith wasn’t around to enjoy it with him. She had died in 1080 after presenting her husband with four daughters. A second marriage had produced three more girls along with two sons, before the second wife died as well. Roger was now in his sixties and feeling his age. His most pressing concern, as with all responsible rulers, was who would follow him.  

The two legitimate sons clearly wouldn’t. The first didn’t survive childhood and the second had leprosy. There was an illegitimate son named Jordan who had proved to be a dashing commander in several of his father’s campaigns, but he died of a fever in 1092. That year Roger married for the third time, and his new wife Adelaide41 safely delivered two sons. The oldest was named Simon, and the younger Roger after his happy father, who could now rest assured that his name would be continued. Six years later Roger expired peacefully in his bed, having ruled wisely and well. His military victories had been legendary, but it was his administration that had been truly brilliant. He was that most rare leader, one who not only knew how to conquer, but more importantly how to rule. He had been only twenty-six when he entered Sicily, a young, ambitious knight seeking his fortune, and forty-four years later he had expired as the great statesman of the Mediterranean. His genius as an administrator is still remembered fondly by Sicilians today who gave him the nickname ‘The Great Count’.  

Roger's final gift for Sicily was only apparent after he was gone. Strong rulers can leave uncertainty and disorder in their wake, but Roger had devoted his life to good government and it continued without him. His younger son and eventual successor, Roger II, was only five years old at his death, and although long minorities often lead to chaos, he ascended twelve years later without opposition to a calm and stable kingdom. Few rulers have left a finer legacy.  

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