Negotiation and tolerance or brutal show of force? The Normans in Southern Italy

By Georgios Theotokis

The Norman expansion in 11th century Europe is a movement of enormous historical importance which took men and women from the duchy of Normandy to settle in England, Apulia, Calabria, Sicily and the Principality of Antioch. The Norman expansion in the South is particularly interesting, because it represents a story of a few bands of Norman mercenaries who managed to subdue local Lombard princes, drive out Byzantine and Muslim rulers who ruled the areas for centuries and began the process of unifying a political entity that would later develop to the Kingdom of Sicily.   

I want to focus on a series of questions: What was the strategy of the Norman expansion in Apulia, Calabria and Sicily and what were the factors that shaped it? Was there any consistent plan of expansion developed by the Norman leadership after their initial conquests? What were the tactics used by the Normans to subdue the local communities and how did this affect their relations with the locals? What was the political, social and religious background of the different urban societies in southern Italy and Sicily and in what ways did this present a favourable ground for the Norman expansionist strategy? Was there any aspect of religious enthusiasm in the Norman conquests especially in Muslim Sicily, and if so, did it develop to some sort of religious persecution?


Arabic sources are particularly ill-informed about the Norman expansion in the south and it is, rather, the Latin sources which are our primary source of information for the events in Italy and Sicily in the 11th century. They include:

The History of the Normans, by Amatus of Montecassino – compiled around the year 1080 and it is the earliest chronicle material we have for the Norman establishment in southern Italy and Sicily. The author was a contemporary of the events he describes and he must have had access to people who were present in the events.


The Deeds of Robert Guiscard, by William of Apulia – William was a layman and a member of Roger Borsa’s court, the son of Robert Guiscard, thus his position would have allowed him to meet and talk with certain high-ranking officials of the dukedom and to the veterans of Robert Guiscard’s campaigns.

The Deeds of Count Roger of Calabria and Sicily and of Duke Robert Guiscard, by Geoffrey Malaterra – Malaterra was writing in Sicily at the end of the 1090s under the patronage of Roger Hauteville and his main focus is the Norman expansion in Sicily. Although he was not an eyewitness himself, his sources were primarily oral, gathered from people who had witnessed the events, whether knights, foot soldiers, other followers of the Norman army, or the Count himself.

When the first Normans arrived in southern Italy early in 1017, the region to which they came was already very fragmented not only politically but also ethnically, religiously and culturally. Apulia and Calabria were part of the Byzantine Empire, also known by their official administrative term as Longobardia. Sicily had been conquered by the North African Muslims in the ninth century and still remained under Muslim rule, while the western coastal region of Campania was ruled by princes and inhabited by people who still considered themselves to be Lombard, although they had long since been assimilated both linguistically and socially.

Apulia’s northern limits are fixed by the lower Fortore River, with the area between the rivers Fortore and Ofanto known by its Byzantine name – Capitanata. Between Ofanto and the Brindisi-Taranto line, we have central Apulia where most of the cities in this area were – and still are – situated in the shoreline, mostly due to the absence of any rivers in the Apulian interior. Calabria retains the same geographical contrast with Apulia, with all the major towns being built either in the major river valleys or in the southern coastal areas. Although Longobardia was seen as a distant frontier province, it nevertheless formed a peripheral part of a highly centralised governmental organisation – the themata, with the highest military and administrative authority being exercised by the general (later promoted to Catepan) based at Bari. Although unified in theory under a single official, both provinces were by no means alike: the population of Calabria was largely Greek and loyal to the Patriarch of Constantinople, while that of Apulia was predominantly Lombard and under the influence of Rome.


It is no coincidence that one of the key events that sealed the future of the Normans in Italy took place in the Apulian border region of the Capitanata, only recently occupied by the Empire and with a population more than willing to overthrow the Greek officials. The strategic town of Melfi in the Apulian-Campanian border areas was “betrayed” to the Normans of Aversa by its Milanese commander (topoteretes) called Ardouin, who was probably hoping for a wide-spread rebellion against the Imperial authority. The “twelve Norman captains,” as called by William of Apulia, and their followers established themselves in one of the most strategic towns in mainland Apulia, an event with major long-term consequences for the status quo in the region.

In the short-term, however, this prompted the swift reaction of the Catepan of Bari who campaigned against the Normans and the Lombard rebels, only to be defeated three times in the same year (1041). What is important to underline here is that none of the primary sources mentions the exact number of the Normans sent to Melfi, nor can we be certain about the total number of them in Italy in general in the mid-1040s. The sources give us a hint about the Norman cavalry forces in the aforementioned battles – some 500 which may sounds reasonable after two decades of fighting and conscripting from parts of France and Italy.

However, the fact that many territories in the north and west of Apulia, like “Monopoli, Giovenazzo and, most importantly, Bari and several other cities, abandoned their alliance with the Greeks and came to an agreement with the Franks”, as William of Apulia tells us, does not necessarily imply that this came as a result of their numerical strength or was part of a well-conceived plan – by this stage the Normans in Italy still did not have a coherent political and ethnical identity. It was rather more of a change of loyalties from cities already restive under Byzantine authority and only loosely controlled by Constantinople.


Throughout this period, from their establishment at Melfi (1041/2) to the battle at Civitate (1053), the Norman Counts of Melfi systematically conquered large areas of Apulia from the Byzantines, although not without any reaction from the Byzantine Catepan. Although the latter regained control of key coastal cities like Bari and Otranto and tried to win over the local Lombard communities by giving out tax exemptions, by 1047 almost all of northern and western Apulia belonged to the Normans, while in the next two years they began their incursions further to the south and east, reaching as far as Lecce and Scribla. But even at this stage of their expansion, it was only the smaller inland settlements of Apulia that had been subjugated, and even those were not under the complete control of the Normans despite dating evidence given by the charters as Graham Loud argues, with the Byzantines retaining possession of most of the larger coastal cities like Bari, Trani, Brindisi, Taranto, and Otranto.

The biggest chance the Byzantines and the Papacy had to stop this systematic erosion of their territories presented itself in 1053 with one of the most crucial confrontations in medieval Italian history. Pope Leo IX’s coalition army was defeated at Civitate, and apart from the obvious political consequences that it had upon all the political powers of southern Italy, it also opened the way to the Normans for further conquests in all directions. By the end of 1055 large areas of the “heel” of Otranto came under their strategic control, including Oria, Nardo, Lecce, Minervino, Otranto and Gallipoli, while many others were paying tribute like Troia, Bari, Trani, Venosa and Acerenza, according to William of Apulia. But why were the Normans still unable to conquer the major Apulian and Calabrian coastal cities?

Historians have identified two types of fortifications in Byzantine Longobardia, the enclosed cities (kastra), which were administrative centres and the seat of the bishop, and a number of smaller fortified sites (kastellia), situated either in a strategic area or usually in the surroundings of a major fortified city, like the small towns of Troia, Fiorentino, Montecorvino, Dragonara, Civitate and Melfi. The most striking element of the Apulian society was the contradiction between these enclosed urban societies of the coastal areas and the undefended rural population of the mainland (chorion). This phenomenon was far less striking in Calabria, however, with only a handful of major coastal cities being well-fortified like Reggio or Cariati, while defensible hilltop sites – not that far from the coast though – had emerged as a result of the Sicilian-Muslim naval raids of the mid-10th century. Thus, it was the geography of the castle-building in Italy that dictated the direction of the strategic expansion of the Normans, along with their limited manpower, money, experience and equipment – something which can be confirmed by their failed attempts to besiege Bari (1043) and Benevento (1054).

The Norman expansionist strategy in the 1050s had to do rather with the extraction of tribute from the majority of the cities and the establishment of outposts in order to have effective control of the countryside. The Norman tactics appear to have been the seizure of a smaller fortified place, or the building of a fortification in a strong natural position (like St-Marco Argentano or Scribla in northern Calabria), using it to raid and spread terror to the surrounding areas and force the local population into submission, thereby swearing fealty, paying tribute, providing some sort of military service, and handing over hostages, but not necessarily surrendering the town or its castle (if there was any) into the hands of a garrison. Here is what Malaterra writes about Robert Guiscard’s tactics in Calabria in the 1050s:


After receiving such a large amount of money [ransom paid by the Peter of Bisignano], Guiscard strengthened his men’s fidelity toward him by abundantly rewarding them. He launched attacks against the Calabrians, assailing the inhabitants of Bisignano, Cosenza, and Martirano with daily attacks, and forcing the adjacent region to enter into a peace treaty with him, that is, a pact whereby they retained their fortresses while paying tribute and rendering some sort of service to Robert. This agreement was secured with oaths and hostages.

But what exactly do we know about the military institutions introduced in Italy by the Normans and what role did the local population come to play in the Norman armies of the period of the mid-11th century? Coming from the same institutional background, we would expect that the Normans would have introduced to Italy the administrative system of pre-Conquest Normandy. What is striking, though, is the absence of any primary or charter material from the eleventh century that would confirm this assumption. But from whatever information we can get from our primary sources, it is highly likely that stipendiary household troops and mercenaries would have played a prominent role in the territorial expansion in Apulia, Calabria and Sicily, under the command of Robert Guiscard, his brother Roger and other great magnates.

Robert Guiscard is claimed by Pope Nicholas II as a Duke. Illustration from the Nuova Cronica of Giovanni Villani

In addition, military service from vassals and fideles was asked but only for large-scale operations like the siege of Bari (1068-71) and Palermo (1071-72) and the 1081 campaign in Byzantine Illyria. Thus, relations between the Norman Counts and the local population depended on the military service demanded by the Normans and the ways with which the latter sought to maintain and increase the numbers of their stipendiary soldiers in their service.

Extracting money from the local population and living off the fertile lands of the Apulian and Calabrian valleys served two purposes for the Normans: economic and psychological. As the Norman expansion in Apulia, Calabria and Sicily would have largely depended on stipendiary household knights and mercenaries, ransom money like the case we saw of Peter of Bisignano would have served to maintain and increase the numbers in Guiscard and Roger’s households fighting for extended periods. But the consequences on the local Greek and Lombard populations were much more devastating as the sources confirm:

“… He [Drogo Hauteville] went to the very limits of Calabria where he found a very secure mount which was well supplied with timber [St-Marco Argentano in the Saline Valley] and gave it to his brother. He [Robert] looked at the land and saw that it was vast, had rich cities, and many towns, and that the fields were full with many animals. Because he was poor and he had only few knights and there was little money in his purse he became a brigand. […] Wherever it pleased him, he kept plundering the land and he began to seize men whom he ransomed for bread and wine and golden bezants.” (Amatus of Montecassino)

Roger … directed his army wisely and within a short period of time he had secured the allegiance of eleven strong fortresses, sometimes by instilling fear with his threats, other times by offering the encouragement of his promises. In the end there was not one fortress in all of Calabria that dared to resist … (Geoffrey Malaterra)

But the combination of negotiation, tolerance, fear, and diplomacy can more clearly be identified in the following stages of the Norman expansion in Sicily.

The Normans in Sicily

The types of fortifications that the Normans found in Sicily were quite unique from what they had dealt so far in Normandy and mainland Italy. Historians and archaeologists have classified three main types of fortified sites of both Byzantine and Arab influence: first, the commercial centres and heavily fortified ports, like those of Palermo and Messina; second, the well-defended cities situated in closed valleys or not too far from the coast due to security reasons, like Mazara and Rametta; and third, the kastellia built in a naturally defended location that dominated a strategic crossroad, like Castrogiovanni.

The Muslim conquest of the island in the ninth century had also changed dramatically the demographic identity of Sicily, mainly through a combination of mass immigration, repopulation and gradual assimilation of the local communities, especially in the western part known as the Val di Mazara. By the middle of the eleventh century only the Val Demone in the east had remained overwhelmingly Christian and Greek-speaking. In this period, Sicily was also fragmented politically with three competing Emirates emerging with their bases in Catania (in the west coast), Syracuse (in the south) and Castrogiovanni in the central plateau. And it was the disaffection of a local Emir, Ibn-al-Timnah that would prove invaluable for the Normans as the latter would actively assist them by providing troops, guides, money and supplies in the first two years of their invasion.

As it was the case with Ardouin and the capture of Melfi, the Normans were always keen to take advantage of local rivalries to serve their interests as they were also prepared to instil fear and terror or be flexible and tolerant when it suited them when it came to securing the submission of strategic strongholds.

Map of the Norman conquest of Sicily – created by OwenBlacker / Wikimedia Commons

In their first year, the Normans had managed to establish control over most of the areas of the north-east of the island, the Val Demone whose population was predominantly Greek-Orthodox Christian and to whom they relied for supplies. At the beginning, the feeling of the local population was that of enthusiasm; their anti-Muslim sentiment had already emerged since the Byzantine expedition of the 1038-41 due to aggressive Muslim policy of extending the colonies in the south and east of the island in the previous decades. But as it was the case for the Greeks and Lombards in Calabria and Apulia, the locals in Sicily were soon to be disappointed.

Although Muslim allied troops played a key role in the Norman expansion in Sicily, at least until the assassination of Ibn-al-Timnah in 1062, the main source of troops under Guiscard and Roger’s command were household troops and mercenaries, like i.e. Slavs from the Balkans. Thus, fortresses were built in strategic locations to serve as bases to subjugate the surrounding regions, like those at Gerace, Troina, Petralia, Paterno and Mazara, and the same pattern of looting and devastation that we saw in Calabria was followed in Sicily as well:

Count Roger, led three hundred iuvenes [young landless, unenfeoffed knights] in the direction of Agrigento to plunder and reconnoitre the land, devastating the whole province by putting it to the torch. When he returned, he supplied the whole army abundantly with spoils and booty. (Geoffrey Malaterra)

Fear and brutality was also a powerful weapon for the Normans:

Finding the city of Messina undefended, he [Guiscard] captured the city and stormed its towers and ramparts, killing all those whom he found within, except those who managed to flee to the Palermitan ships. […] The people of Rometta [just west of Messina] in order to avoid having the same thing happen to them, the terrified citizens sent envoys to meet the advancing army and sue for peace. (Geoffrey Malaterra)

The alleged speech of Roger to the people of Gerace in 1063: “Do you think that I will be incapable of taking control of this little bit of land [Gerace]? I am not someone whom you can put off with evasions. If you delay any longer, your vines and olives will be torn up before your very eyes and the punishment which will be inflicted to you will be terrible.” (Geoffrey Malaterra)

Guiscard and his brother, however, were well prepared to show the necessary tolerance and negotiate with both the Christian and the Muslim populations of Sicily. As their limited resources both in manpower and money did not allow them to take every Sicilian town by force or to install a garrison in each and every one of them, the Normans accepted the surrender of several Sicilian towns without inflicting any damage to the local population, sometimes only just taking an oath of fealty and a number of prisoners. Some examples include the towns of Rometta, Centuripe, Petralia, Troina, along with what we read in Malaterra about the surrender of Aiello and Palermo, a Christian and a Muslim city respectively:

The people of Aiello, knowing that if they resisted they would eventually be taken by force and everyone in the town would be pitilessly killed, sued for peace. The duke though most eager to avenge the killing of his men, he nevertheless made peace with the people of Aiello, so that, needing to be elsewhere, would not be delayed there any longer. He accepted the fortress which they handed over to him and disposed of it as he saw fit. (Geoffrey Malaterra)

The people of Palermo said that they were unwilling to violate or relinquish their law [Islamic] and wanted assurances that they would not be coerced or injured by unjust or new laws, and they had no other choice but to surrender the city, to render faithful service to the Duke [Guiscard], and pay tribute. They promised to affirm all this with an oath to their holy books. Rejoicing, the duke and the count accepted what was being offered to them. (Geoffrey Malaterra)

Finally, regarding the kind of service promised to the Normans by the Sicilians and the Calabrians – going back to the example of the people of Bisignano in the late 1050s, we understand that the great need of Robert Guiscard and Roger for locally raised troops would have developed into some sort of an agreement with the local Christian and Muslim communities for a quota of militias, most likely non-fixed, in addition to the expected tribute. Military service was demanded from the people of Iato, in the Muslim Val di Mazara, in 1079, while this year we also find the first mentioning of Roger Hauteville having distributed lands to Muslim knights from the areas of Corleone and Partinico in the Val di Mazara, who he called for service against the people of Iato. Amatus writes that Guiscard had used Muslim sailors in his blockade of Salerno in 1076; but the most significant deployment of Muslim troops came during the siege of Capua in 1098, when Muslim troops – both stipendiary and owing service – constituted the largest part of Roger’s army.

To conclude, the period of the Norman expansion in the south can be divided in two distinct faces based on the role of the Norman knights in the armies of the existing political powers in the region. In the pre-Civitate period, the Normans were mere auxiliary units numbering a few hundreds, playing no significant role in the development of the political status quo of the region. After 1053, however, operating close to their bases, conscious of their numerical inferiority and certainly short of cash, the Normans were avoiding pitched battles and rather focusing on the piecemeal conquest of towns in mainland Apulia. Up until the middle of the 1060s the Normans were still unable to impress with their besieging techniques, thus a major battle would probably not have achieved anything due to the high number of fortified sites in Apulia.

The Normans in the South came to fight with and against three different nations and cultures that had developed their own identities in the region for centuries before the arrival of the first Norman bands. What linked all of them, however, was their insubordination to the central authorities. The Lombard and the Greek population of Longobardia could have been seen as restless and their faith to the official Byzantine State was questionable, at least, if not hostile, as the revolts of the previous century in both regions prove. The major cause would have been the nature of the financial exactions of the Catepans at Bari and the attempts to ensure that the bishoprics in Apulia remained loyal to Constantinople. Further, political uncertainty in the capital and the change of focus to the Patzinak and Turkish invasions in the Balkans and Asia Minor respectively, precluded any kind of military or financial support from Constantinople.

Civil strife and its effects on the local economy had created a favourable ground for expansion in Sicily, where the sources underplay the rapid capitulation of the Muslim cities and the role the Greeks and the Muslims played in the Norman-led army; indeed, the Sicilian expansion was characterised by sporadic campaigning and numerous skirmishes rather than major pitched battles or prolonged sieges. But the pillaging of the countryside and the exaction of ransom money eventually led the disillusioned people of the urban communities to mount spontaneous and uncoordinated – at least according to our Latin sources – rebellions, like the cases at Troina and Gerace mentioned by Malaterra.

Throughout the period from the 1040s to the 1060s, the key characteristics of the Norman expansionist strategy in the South were negotiation and tolerance. The paying of tribute was agreed, along with the building of outposts to control and raid a specific area, military service was demanded by the local communities – most likely on an irregular basis at this early stage – and garrisons were installed only in strategic cities. It seems as if the Normans were trying to conquer Apulia, Calabria and Sicily as quickly and as cheaply as possible, something which seems quite reasonable bearing in mind their limited numbers and resources, along with a number of rebellions by Apulian Counts in 1068 and 1072 that seriously impeded this process. The primary sources are also keen to over-emphasize the Norman strenuitas or the ruthless determination of the Norman leaders, with massacres of urban populations being reported, although in a handful of cases, that served to terrorise the locals into submission.

We would expect that this would have been more widespread in Sicily, where the Pope had already recognised the expedition as a Holy War in 1059 and we can certainly identify examples of religious enthusiasm in our sources. However, religious toleration of the Muslims dominated the period of expansion of the Normans in the west and south of the island after 1072 and the sources do not report any attempts of conversion to Christianity – at least not en mass. The Normans had practiced their negotiating skills in Calabria and they perfected them in Sicily, although the shortage of men and the Norman pre-occupations in mainland Italy and later in the Balkans would delay the complete conquest of the island for another two decades. However, what followed the military conquest of Sicily in 1091 was a process of consolidation similar to what have been seen in Italy, with the establishment of strong fortress to overawe the local population, encouraging immigration – especially of the local aristocracy – or even forcing the relocation of entire urban communities, the creation of a Christian Church and the wide distribution of lands to faithful knights.

Georgios Theotokis: Ph.D History (2010, University of Glasgow), specializes in the military history of eastern Mediterranean in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. He has published numerous articles and books on the history of conflict and warfare in Europe and the Mediterranean in the Medieval and early Modern periods. His latest book is Twenty Battles That Shaped Medieval Europe. He has taught in Turkish and Greek Universities; he is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Byzantine Studies Research Centre, Bosphorus University, Istanbul. 

Click here to read more from Georgios Theotokis

Top Image: 1467 map of Italy