Sicily: The Other Norman Conquest

The Normandy Coast
The Normandy Coast

In the 11th century the Normans under Duke William II of Normandy, better known as William the Conquerer, invaded England and claimed the English throne. During that same century the Normans, under the leadership of Robert Guiscard and his younger brother Roger, invaded and conquered Sicily. The Normans left behind the verdant cliffs and hills of France and struggled into the dry, barren hills of Sicily. On 10 January 1072 they entered Palermo. That was the official beginning of the lesser-known Norman Conquest and the beginning of a change in the balance of Mediterranean power.

Robert and Roger were the sons of Tancred de Hauteville, a minor Norman nobleman. The Normans were the descendants of the Vikings who had moved into what is now the Normandy and Brittany areas of France. Over a period of about 200 years they became Christians and shed the Norse language they spoke. The Normans were great adventurers, and pilgrims too, and quickly plunged into south Italy, an area that was in constant rebellion. They searched not so much for adventure–but more for wealth and power. It took them 40 years of bloody battles with Byzantines and Arabs but eventually they became the dominant force in Calabria and Puglia.

A dry, barren Sicilian Landscape
A dry, barren Sicilian Landscape

Robert Guiscard, Duke of Sicily, claimed control of the island. One chronicler of the time described Robert as a “fair blue-eyed giant who was perhaps the most gifted soldier and statesman of his age.” Because of his dukedoms in the southern mainland he left Sicily to his brother Roger, who became the Great Count. Robert never returned to Sicily.

In 1059 Robert married Sichelgaita, a woman of an important ruling Lombard family in Salerno. The marriage solved problems between the Lombards and the Normans. She was the perfect wife for Robert. She was devoted and rarely left his side, especially not in battle. Sichelgaita was a woman of a large build and of colossal physical strength. She was described by Anna Comnena, a historian of the period, in very strong words—“When dressed in full armor the woman was a fearsome sight.” When in battle with Robert she charged into battle with her hair streaming from her helmet. Her shouted commands were loud and demanding and encouraged the Norman knights to fight like hell. And they did.

Roger At The Battle Of Cerami1061
Count Roger in the battle of Cerami

Another great asset to Robert and especially to Roger in Sicily, was their young nephew Serlo. He was Roger’s ablest commander despite his youth. During the Battle of Cerami in June 1063 Serlo displayed his most brilliant tactics. When Roger heard that the Arabs were attacking Cerami he sent Serlo and his 30 knights to hold the town. When Roger arrived with the main part of his army he found that Serlo had maintained control of the town. The Arab forces had fled but returned several days later. Roger was nearly defeated but was saved by Serlo and his knights. The battle was of great importance to Roger because he now controlled the entire region between Troina and Messina.

During the summer of 1072 Serlo and his knights were tricked into an ambush near Nicosia. They were greatly outnumbered by Arab troops and were brutally slaughtered.  According to historian Geoffery Malaterra, a Benedictine monk at thecathedral monastery of St. Agatha in Catania who wrote a history of the Norman conquest of southern Italy, the Arabs tore out Serlo’s heart and ate it, hoping that Serlo’s brilliance in battle would be transferred to them. Roger knew his nephew best and upon hearing of Serlo’s horrible death became inconsolable. Robert hid his tears, not wishing to upset his brother even more. Serlo, the most loved of the young Norman knights, was gone.

Count Roger
Count Roger

Roger was faced with the monumental task of wresting control of Sicily from the Arabs. Making the task even more difficult was his small number of knights, not enough to wage major battles. Malaterra described Roger as “very handsome, tall, well-proportioned, extremely eloquent, clever in decision-making, far-sighted in his plans, friendly and affable with everyone, very strong and fierce in battle.” In other words, he was almost a carbon copy of his older brother Robert.

How was it that the Arabs grabbed strong control of Sicily but then many years later were defeated by the fierce and clever Normans in the 12th-century Norman Conquest? The Arab rule of Sicily began several centuries earlier. In 625 Arab forces from Syria landed in Sicily. Almost 200 years later, in 827, there was a full-scale Arab invasion of the island. In 831 Palermo fell to the Arabs and within 20 years half of the island was under their control.

Conversion to Islam was not encouraged. The Arabs did, however, encourage economic development and strengthened Sicily so that it became a central power that stretched from Spain to Syria. There were hundreds of mosques in Palermo, the Arab capital. Visitors to the island found an exotic population of Greeks, Lombards, Jews, Berbers, Persians, and Blacks.

The Arabs made great contributions to the Sicilian economy. They taught the Sicilians how to do terraced farming and a variety of ways to irrigate crops. Wanting Sicily to be like home the Arabs brought with them lemons, bitter oranges, sugar cane, cotton, mulberries for silk worms, date palms, papyrus, pistachio nuts, melons and rice. Eventually Sicily developed a silk industry that became a major supplier to Europe.

Count Roger had one very distinct advantage over the Arabs. The Arabs were in total disarray. Sunnis fought Shiites. Berbers, Moors, Fatimids and other groups all battled for control. Their disagreements weakened their ability to control Sicily. Still, they governed Sicily for about 250 years.

In 1060 Roger landed near Messina—Arab control of Sicily was in its last days. Knowing that his forces were inadequate Roger was clever enough to know that he would have to rely on diplomacy. He drew on his Viking heritage for his successes in combat but was also an administrative genius. He was not the least bit sheepish about pillaging towns and villages in his efforts to smash Arab control of Sicily; he needed to build his fortunes. Both he and his brother knew that they would one day soon have to build a Sicilian navy.

One of Count Roger’s first moves in seducing the Arabs was to make Arabic one of the island’s official languages, along with Greek, Latin and Norman French. Muslim soldiers formed the core of his army. They were commanded by Arab leaders and were devilishly good at combat. They were under no circumstances allowed to convert to Christianity.

Roger could see that Arab Sicily had a superior culture and a very efficient administrative system. He brought Arab accountants into his court because they were superior mathematicians to the Normans. He allowed all religious groups to maintain their own rules, regulations and courts. Arabs and Jews however had to pay a special tax. Roger used the different traditions of these groups to build a colorful and tolerant society and in the course of doing so became one of the most successful and richest rulers in the world. Sicily became as prosperous and powerful as it was under the ancient Greeks.

Count Roger was married three times, his third wife being Adelaide del Vasto of Liguria. This marriage produced two sons, Simon and Roger. The Count died in June 1101 and was buried not in Sicily but in Mileto in Calabria. Countess Adelaide, who was twenty-six at the time, became regent for Simon, the eldest of the two sons. Simon died when he was twelve years old on September 28, 1105. Adelaide then became regent for Roger, who would become King Roger II. She was indeed a strong and successful regent. We know little about the Countess but we do know that eventually she fixed Palermo as her capital and took over what is today the Palazzo dei Normanni, the oldest royal residence in Europe. Adelaide and young Roger depended on their Arab subjects to develop Sicilian prosperity and to run the state. Roger grew up with Greek and Arab tutors and studied state affairs in three languages. He has been described by some historians as exotic.

Palazzo-dei-Normanni, Palermo
Palazzo dei Normanni, Palermo

The Great Count Roger, sometimes known as Roger I, laid the foundations for the brilliant reign of his son, King Roger II. Together they turned Sicily into a tolerant society—a society made up of Norman Christians,  Muslims from many parts of the Mediterranean , Jews and Greeks Orthodox Christians—and into the leading economic powerhouse of the Mediterranean during the 12th century.

Today’s world leaders would do well to study the careers and reigns of Count Roger and King Roger II. They perhaps could see that peace and tolerance and cooperation will produce economies that are more robust and thriving than those of the intolerant, racist and violent societies that exist in so many parts of the world today. The Norman conquest of Sicily was a kind of success—a success in caring, tolerance and peace—that we all need to understand and strive for.



Todd Lehman
Todd Lehman
Todd Lehman is an artist and a writer. He has exhibited paintings in New York, Washington, DC, Toronto, Tucson, Munich and Tuscany. Many of his paintings, which are abstract, were inspired by Sicilian landscapes, Sicilian architecture and Sicilian puppet theater. He has a graduate degree in journalism and English literature and studied art at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and the Art Students League in New York City. Recently he completed a book entitled Sicily: Sirens, Satyrs and Seductions in which he discusses the various cultures that have shaped Sicilian life over the centuries and links life in Sicily today to various art objects and other cultural influences. He is a member of Arba Sicula and serves on the board of directors of The Sicilian Project, an organization that teaches English language skills to young Sicilians. While New York City has been his home since leaving graduate school at Penn State University, he visits Sicily every year and considers Palermo his home away from home.

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  1. Very interesting essay on a distant period of time. I had no idea about Vikings invading Sicily or the infiltration by the Arabs.

    Interesting description of Robert Norman and his wife Sichelgaita.

    Sharply written, thanks for sending!

  2. Thank you for posting stories of Sicily’s history. I have learned so much from them. Both my maternal and paternal grandparents came to the US from Sicily.

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