by Anthony Di Renzo | Mar 23, 2014
Roger II, Sicily’s greatest king, died 860 years ago on February 26. The nephew of Robert Guiscard and son of Count Roger I, Roger II came to the throne at the age of nine and wrested control from his regent when he was sixteen. Crushing all opposition, Roger ruled Sicily until his death at the age of fifty-eight. Contemporaries claimed that he accomplished more in his sleep than other people did when awake.
Raised by Greek and Muslim tutors and secretaries in an island populated by Arabs and Greeks, Roger was more sophisticated than his hard-bitten, rough-and-ready Norman ancestors, most of whom were illiterate. Through shrewd diplomacy and sheer audacity, he outmaneuvered his lunkish Hauteville cousins and annexed Apulia and Calabria. He still lacked a royal title so when Innocent II and Anacletus II squabbled over the papacy, Roger supported the latter in return for a coronation on Christmas Day, 1130 in Palermo Cathedral. When Anacletus died, Roger defeated Innocent’s army the following year, took Innocent prisoner, and forced the pope to confirm his position as King of Sicily and overlord of Southern Italy. In a mosaic in Martorana Church Roger had himself depicted like a Byzantine emperor, being crowned by Christ.
Roger built and beautified churches, most notably the Cathedral of Cefalù, but most of his subjects were Muslims and Jews, who adored him. Much to the Rome’s dismay, Roger was a paragon of religious tolerance. His scarlet and gold-embroidered mantle was inscribed in Arabic and dated according to the Islamic calendar. His kitchen was staffed with Sephardic chefs, who kept the Christian king kosher. He flirted with Greek Orthodoxy, whether out of piety or spite. To project divine munificence, Roger kept an ostentatious court. Behind the scenes, however, he counted every penny to create an efficient civil service and a powerful navy. His fleet captured every North African port between Tunis and Tripoli, seized Malta and Corfu, harried the coasts of Greece, and abducted numerous Theban workers to staff Palermo’s silk factory. The king steered clear of crusading, but his ships sailed up the Bosphorus and impertinently fired arrows into the Byzantine Emperor’s garden.
Roger, however, valued peace more than war. Known for his intellectual curiosity and his regard for learning, he presided over Europe’s most glittering court among scholars from both the West and the Arab world. He discussed everything under the sun with philosophers and mathematicians, doctors and geographers, in French or Latin, Arabic or Greek, and he appointed a commission to collect, sift, and assemble all available knowledge about the physical world. After fifteen years, the commission produced “The Book of Roger,” which John Julius Norwich rightly calls “the greatest geographical work of the Middle Ages.”
“The earth,” it begins, “is round like a sphere.” And for forty years Roger made Sicily its center. When he finally died of overwork, he was buried in Palermo Cathedral in a porphyry tomb fit more for an emperor than a king, dressed in Byzantine royal robes and crowned with a tiara hung with pearl pendants. His third and last wife bore him a posthumous daughter Constance, who married Emperor Henry VI. Roger’s grandson Frederick II (called “Stupor Mundi,” the Astonishment of the World) would rule the Holy Roman Empire from Sicily. Many historians consider his reign the beginning of the Renaissance.