Roger II, Sicily’s Greatest King

by Anthony Di Renzo | Mar 23, 2014

RogerIIRoger 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.

Anthony Di Renzo
Anthony Di Renzo
Anthony Di Renzo, a fugitive from advertising, teaches writing at Ithaca College. His books, such as Bitter Greens: Essays on Food, Politics, and History from the Imperial Kitchen (SUNY Press, 2010) and Trinàcria: A Tale of Bourbon Sicily (Guernica Editions, 2013), and the forthcoming After the Fair is Over, satirize the ongoing war between traditional Sicilian culture and American business and technology. Sicily usually loses. As Pasquino, Rome’s talking statue, Di Renzo contributes a monthly column to San Francisco's L’Italo-Americano. He lives in Ithaca, New York, an Old World man in a New Age town.

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  1. Thank you for this informative historical detail about Roger II and Sicily’s ties to Norman, Muslim, and Jewish history.

    My grandfather came to the US from Caccamo, Sicily. When I visited Caccamo, there was a Norman castle still intact there. Do you have any information about that castle?

    • Interesting read – John Julius Norwich’s book, Kingdom in the Sun is a great overview, including Caccamo and the Baron’s Revolt

  2. Caccamo’s castle, Holly, is one of the most striking and best preserved in Sicily. It stands on a rocky outcrop and spreads over several levels, following a spiral pattern along which are juxtaposed various buildings from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. The main fort, however, probably dates back to the eleventh century.

    During the 17th century, the Chiaramonte turned the castle into stately manor and enhanced the building with terraces, belvederes, and single and double windows. Currently, Caccamo is converting the structure into a conference center. The ground floor is now a restaurant called A Castellana.

  3. I’m not planning to write about Frederick II, Gary. Not because I’m not drawn to the subject but because two excellent novels already exist about the Siclian emperor: Maria Bordihin’s “The Falcon of Palermo” (Grove Press 2006) and John Jay Deiss’s “The Great Infidel” (Random House 1963). Deiss’s novel, long out of print, is available only in used book stores and libraries, but you can order the “Falcon of Palermo” on Amazon. Reviews remain posted at Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.

  4. An adjunct to the discussion of Roger II, is a wonderful book by Mary Taylor Simeti, “Travels with a Medieval Queen.” It’s the story of Roger’s daughter, Constance, and how she, at the astonishing age of 40, became pregnant with Frederick II and had to travel from Germany back down to Palermo to reclaim her throne, giving birth to Frederick on the way. So little is known about Constance that Simeti is forced to surmise a good deal, but the book is a most interesting read, as she also ruminates on what it meant to be a woman and a queen in the late 12th century.

  5. Constance’s bearing a child in her forties was considered a miracle. Medieval chroniclers compared her to such Biblical matriarchs as Hannah, the mother of Samuel, and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. Dante considered it a sign that Frederick was destined to be a political messiah. His hopes were dashed, of course, but he still places Constance in First Sphere of Heaven, influenced by the waxing and waning moon. She is among the Inconstant, saints who abandoned their religious vows and so were deficient in fortitude. Dante mistakenly believed that Constance was forced to leave the convent to marry Henry VI.

  6. Fascinating article, Anthony.
    It is about my favourite period of Sicilian history and probably my favourite Sicilian (second to my husband!!).
    I often think this must have been the most interesting time in all history to live in Sicily, when the island was so cosmopolitan and pretty much at the centre of the world.
    The authors of a book I reviewed recently (Arabs and Normans in Sicily and the South of Italy) think that Roger was not really idealistic in his religious and cultural tolerance, but rather, a pragmatist who realised the economy and admin of Sicily would collapse without Arab agricultural expertise, Jewish interpreters and scribes, and Greek craftsmen. What’s your take on that?

  7. Roger’s tolerance was purely pragmatic. Clear-eyed self-interest, however, often does more good than heartfelt altruism. Sicilians are jusitifiably wary of philanthropists, visionaries, and idealists. “Who will save us from our saviors?” Donna Zita asks in “Trinàcria: A Tale of Bourbon Sicily” (Guernica Editions 2013). Contrast Roger’s wordliness with Ferdinand and Isabella’s piety. Their Most Catholic Majesties ordered Sicily to expel its Jews and Moslems. This marked the beginning of the island’s long decline. Let us remember this lesson during Easter and Passover.

  8. Ran across this site while looking up my ancestors my last name is Rogers and he is a great grand pa way way back. Thanks for the info.

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