Harald Hardrada: Mediterranean Voyages

By James Turner

In 1937 while the people of Europe were becoming increasingly concerned if there would be a future, its medieval historians were engaged in a lively debate about its past. Published posthumously, Mahomet et Charlemagne, was the work of Belgium historian Henri Pirenne. While many were inclined towards liberal ideas, Pirenne and his peers were undoubtedly a part of the Establishment and moved unobstructed through the upper echelons of society. Henri was imprisoned by the Germans in World War I for his vocal opposition to their occupation of Belgium while his many volumed histories of Belgium penetrated the public consciousness to a degree undreamed of by twenty-first century historians. The arguments and analysis of Histoire de Belgique resonated deeply with believers in Belgium nationalism, seemingly arguing that the creation of a multilingual but political Belgium was both inevitable and natural. As a result, it was deeply popular and influential amongst those serving within the edifice of the Belgium state and was required reading for aspiring military officers. 

Somewhat ironically, the monumental Histoire de Belgique is Pirenne’s least influential or well-regarded work today. While the highly controversial Mahomet et Charlemagne, although seldom if ever accepted without serious revision or caveat, is still engaged with and debated within studies of historiography and its compartmentalization.  Mahomet et Charlemagne makes the bold claim that without Muhammad and the rise of Islam, Charlemagne or rather Frankish Hegemony in Europe could not have existed. The argument as laid out by Pirenne is that the political collapse of the Western Roman Empire and cessation of an imperial government did not reflect or precipitate a break from Roman culture and civilisation. Pirenne argues that the political dislocation of Europe did little to disrupt important aspects of Roman culture and economic practices which he totemically represents through urbanisation, having already written extensively on the origins and development of European cities. It is possibly tempting but ultimately impertinent and inappropriate to speculate if his experiences in World War I had any influence on his convictions regarding a civilisation’s ability to weather the barbarous intrusions of Germanic warlords.


Instead, he places central and western Europe’s true break from the Roman past as occurring in the 7th and 8th centuries as a result of the rapid expansion of Islam. The severing of the Mediterranean’s ancient and antique trade routes by the rapid Islamic conquest of Byzantine and Roman provinces in North Africa, the Levant and Asia minor cut much of Europe off from the wealth and resources necessary to retain Roman models of urban living which Pirenne held to be synonymous with civilisation. In their absence, the town and cities of Europe swiftly dwindled as they adopted a more agrarian-based lifestyle and economy. This redistribution of power to a warrior elite capable of dominating and harnessing these new sources of wealth and the drift of political power and cultural cachet from the Mediterranean set the stage for the rise of the Franks and the formation of the Carolingian empire.

As we have explored at some length in previous articles within this series, gauging the extent of continuity with the Roman past within medieval Europe is a complex and layered issue. The creation of new polities and areas of broad territorial interest by various barbarian military elites was both a staggered and top-down affair with incoming populations largely settling amidst existing Romanised groups. The extent of cooperation and synthesis within these new kingdoms was variable but it seems that elements of the traditional Roman elite survived and blended with this new political elite in many areas. Meanwhile elements and adaptations of Roman law, titles and administrative offices saw wide use in one form or another through the fledgling kingdoms of early medieval Europe, including the Franks who would soon come to dominate the region. The Church continued as the last great outcrop of the Roman state, albeit one whose connection with imperial identity and internal cohesion was initially shaded in ambiguity. The Church functioned as a receptacle that preserved and disseminated Roman language, learning and iconography while at the same time, its wealth, administrative expertise and moral authority made cooperation with local prelates extremely rewarding for the newly established secular elite.


Interrogating the thesis presented by Henri Pirenne in Mahomet et Charlemagne in greater detail, the intervening century has seen growing indications that urbanisation was already on the decline prior to the political collapse of the Roman Empire as the underpinnings of the imperial economy began to shift and change. It seems that this shift to agrarianism continued and was almost certainly accelerated by the chaotic and piecemeal transition from Empire to kinship-based successor kingdoms. However, while towns and cities disappeared or shrank dramatically across Europe, the situation never quite reached the state of desolation described by Pirenne. Indeed, there exists a compelling body of evidence that suggests that the mid-8th century, which Pirenne presents as the nadir of urbanisation and the European economy, was actually a period of modest growth and recovery. It is true that following the rapid expansion of Islam and its adherents throughout the Mediterranean, certain prestige resources such as papyrus and gold bullion disappeared or became vanishingly rare in Europe. Yet trade while perhaps stymied by roiling outbreaks of hostility never ceased entirely with new areas of contact such as Spain, which remained relatively heavily urbanised, and southern Italy becoming new vectors for the exchange of goods and ideas.

Historians of Pirenne’s generation, and they’re far from alone in this, had a tendency to implicitly view history as a progression of improvements and innovations which culminated inexorable in the natural zenith of civilisation, themselves and their own society. Indeed, they often took any perceived regression or deviation from this pattern, such as the shift to agrarianisms and away from urbanisation, rather personally. Hence in part, the conviction that the origins of such a shift have to be located in some dramatic and tumultuous break from the past. Mahomet et Charlemagne and its core thesis was not widely accepted either at the time of publication or now, but it has frequently been rewardingly interrogated and examined. It challenges many of the underlying assumptions regarding world and European history; its effects on the papyrus trade and 8th-century urbanisation aside the book rightly identifies the rapid rise of Islam and its accompanying political manifestations as one of the most singularly momentous turning points in world history.

Not least of the book’s contributions is presenting us with the simple idea that political and cultural changes within the Mediterranean and the Middle East could have an impact on the development and direction of Europe. This far-reaching and encompassing view is of particular importance to this series and its driving interest in globalism and the movement of ideas and individuals between various polities in the eleventh century. The connectivity at the heart of the Mahomet et Charlemagne thesis is doubly relevant for us in view of Harald Hardrada’s participation in the centuries-long struggle for control of the Mediterranean. A conflict that had raged and sputtered on and off since Arab forces overran the Byzantine holdings in North Africa, the Levant and much of Asia minor.

Byzantine naval power in the Mediterranean

Naturally, sea power played a crucial role in this cascading series of hostiles. Access to trade and centuries of Roman domination of large swatches of the Mediterranean meant that coastal regions tended to be relatively wealthy and urbanised. Indeed, the Byzantine capital of Constantinople was itself a coastal city, sitting athwart a major trade route that simultaneously connected Europe to Asia and the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. As imperial power wanned over the early Middle Ages, the new Rome was forced to endure several perilous sieges from which it was only saved by its natural geographic advantages and the persistent efforts of the Byzantine navy. The Mediterranean’s numerous islands, both great and small, made ideal staging posts from which raids or invasions could be launched and highly lucrative trade routes could be dominated. With the conquest of Spain by Islamic forces in the 710s, the Byzantine Empire had become enveloped by hostile coastlines. Sicily, Crete, Rhodes and the Lycian coast became the bulwarks of the Byzantine Empire shielding it from attack, enduring numerous naval battles, raids and invasion.


The logistical demands and high cost of navies meant that few polities or rulers within the early Middle Ages were able to operate and maintain one as a standing force. Instead, most monarchs on the rare occasions they required a fleet would assemble one on an ad hoc basis through the hiring or impressment of vessels. Indeed, one of the primary reasons for the Scandinavians’ great success as traders and raiders was their expertise and tradition of ship production at a grassroots community level which allowed comparatively large numbers of them to travel far and wide in search of wealth. Despite the massive loss of revenue and prestige entailed by their near calamitous loss of territory, the Byzantines were, as a highly centralised state with an established and pervasive bureaucracy, able to maintain a powerful naval presence in the opening decades of the war. In 644 a bold strike by the Byzantine fleet was able to briefly retake the city of Alexandria, ably demonstrating the benefits and limitations of naval strength. However, the Battle of the Masts fought in 654 off the Lycian coast brought a decisively end to Byzantine supremacy at sea.

By 674 after two decades of further seaborne skirmishing and raiding, Arab sea power and overall military position had advanced to the stage that they were able to support a siege of Constantinople itself. The siege skilfully exploited control of the seas to bypass Byzantine holdings in Asia Minor and strike at the political and spiritual heart of the empire. According to the Byzantine chronicler, Theophanes the Confessor, writing in the early ninth century, the siege was broken by a sudden attack by the Byzantine fleet which made devastating use of their new superweapon, Greek fire. One of the most iconic and often mythologised elements of Byzantine military history, in part due to the mystery surrounding its composition, Greek fire was a combustible naphtha-like substance capable of burning on water.  In a potent and military advantageous display of the Byzantine’s continuing scientific expertise, they furnished many of their ships with rigs and machines capable of launching streams of Greek fire directly at enemy ships to obviously deadly effect. Of course, given Theophanes pronounced chronological dislocation from the events he is writing about and the lack of corroborating details in more contemporary but rather sparse accounts of the siege, it’s possible that the siege was abandoned out of frustration, exhaustion or some other reason. If this is the case, it’s possible then that Theophanes description of a naval action is a reflection of their importance in his own time.

What followed these early engagements was a century’s long see-saw conflict in which the military fortunes of both sides waxed and waned as a succession of internal disputes and disruptions influenced their respective ability to mobilise and maintain an effective navy. In the mid to late eighth-century the Byzantine navy was able to gain the upper hand, consistently outfighting or routing its counterpart. In the early 9th century, a series of military reversals were compounded by the systemic weakness of the Byzantine government brought about by Bulgar aggression in the Balkans. The bitter harvest of this decline was the capture of Crete and Sicily which further abetted the proliferation of piracy throughout the Mediterranean. We have seen in the previous articles in this series how the efforts of a series of highly effective soldier emperors from the Macedonian dynasty brought about the renewal of Byzantine prestige and power.


The restoration of the Byzantine navy and prosecution of a series of revanchist campaigns within the Mediterranean islands were important steps in this process and were closely supervised by a series of emperors. In 960, a massive Byzantine force led by the general Nikephoros Phokas successfully recaptured Crete, a task which had frustratingly eluded a previous Byzantine expedition launched in 949 by Constantine VIII. When Emperor Romanus II died in 963 his two sons, Basil and Constantine, were mere children. Acclaimed emperor by his army, Nikephoros Phokas was opposed by a faction in Constantinople led by the court’s chief eunuch Joseph Bringas which had between them exercised control over the empire’s bureaucratic machinery. The result was blood in the streets of the imperial capital and sprees of mob violence, as supporters of the two factions clashed in which the supporters of the dashing and heavily lauded soldier emerged victorious. In the aftermath of this struggle, Nikephoros married Romanus’ widow, Theodora, and was proclaimed co-emperor alongside her two sons. Now as supreme commander of the Byzantine military forces, he returned to his campaigns in the Mediterranean supervising the recapture of Cicila, Cyprus and the northern Levant all of which had been outside of Byzantine control for centuries.

By the time Harald Hardrada, exiled prince of Norway, entered into this long struggle for control of the Mediterranean in 1034, the Byzantine navy had once again begun to decay, in part a victim of its own success and extended inaction. The regional Themes fleets were, alongside their land-based garrisons, seen as increasingly obsolete by the Imperial centre which had either disbanded them entirely or allowed them to wither on the vine, keeping the financial resources needed to maintain them firmly within the imperial orbit. This developing reliance on military forces sourced and commanded directly by the Emperor and Imperial government within Constantinople is surely one of the reasons that Harald and his band of followers received such a warm welcome upon their arrival in the Byzantine capital. That Harald’s forces were allowed to operate as a semi-autonomous force within the Varangian guard and larger menagerie of Byzantine mercenary forces is indicative of a pressing need for warriors on Emperor Michael’s part. A supposition further supported by the swiftness with which they were deployed as part of a campaign to drive Arab pirates out of the Greek Islands.

Such pirate groups were active throughout the Mediterranean and were prolific raiders, sacking a city in the Cyclades during this period. Operating from Sicily and Tunisia such groups sailed across the Mediterranean but seldom acted in concert with one another. Nor did they seem capable or temperamentally disposed to seriously challenge Byzantine naval forces. Who these raiders were and what role they occupied in the conflict between the Byzantine Empire and the successive political incarnations and factions of their Arab rivals are fascinating and important questions. Not least of all because of Harald’s looming participation in the Byzantine war effort in Asia Minor and the prominent position he played in the campaign of the invasion of Sicily which was a staging post and homeport for many of these piratically engaged groups.

The Fatimids and regional powers

Snorri Sturluson, who also conflates Africa with Asia Minor, uses the equally broad ‘Saracen’, a contemporary term used by medieval Christian sources which came to simultaneously denote regional and religious affiliation. Of course, Snorri’s audience weren’t particularly interested in gauging this delineation or the extent to which regional and cultural identities existed under Islam. All that was required for the audience to understand is that they constituted a distinct other and that Harald’s efforts against them were particularly laudable. Elements of the historiography surrounding the Byzantine Empire in the eleventh century simply refer to their successive rival polities as Arabs. While occasionally useful as a shorthand and not a wholly incorrect reference to Arab military forces and polities within the eleventh century it is somewhat reductive and misleading.


The rapid expansion of Islam, began by the Rashidun Caliphate, was predicated upon a programme of conquest and the vigorous military activity of what was rapidly emerging as the Arab elite. It was therefore a fundamentally and unavoidably political as well as religious movement. Indeed, the ideological basis and organisation of the Rashidun state hierarchy was such that there was very little if any distinction between political and religious authority. While the extent and form of this symbiosis were unique, it should be noted that Byzantine rhetoric and dogma held that the Empire was the earthly manifestation of God’s kingdom on earth and therefore its Emperor held an important role in the cosmological hierarch.

The four Rashidun Caliphs were all companions of Muhammad and elected to a position of pre-eminence by their fellows. Such personal and familial connections to the Prophet translated easily into positions of authority in the rapidly expanding empire. The first Rashidun Caliph, Abu Bakr, was Muhammad’s father-in-law and oversaw the conquest of the Sassanids, a powerful Persian-dominated successor state to the Roman’s Parthian nemesis, and the Byzantine held Levant. This imperial cadre was stratified with those who had known Muhammad in Medina afforded precedence over those who joined him later at Mecca, a situation which began to cause friction as the pace of conquest slowed as the companions and their families began to vie with one another for power.

Unity was preserved, after a brief period of disastrous infighting, through the accession of Mu’awiya I in 661, one of the Prophet’s youngest and most recent companions. The founder of the Umayyad dynasty and caliphate, Mu’awiya undertook a series of military and administrative reforms, crucially determining that the caliphate would pass to his son and subsequent descendants. This was a dramatic departure from the somewhat ad hoc system in place in its formative years which facilitated the Umayyad’s creation of a powerful centralised state which continued to simultaneously expand into north Africa and the east while also, as we have seen, waging an effective and aggressive war for control of the Mediterranean. However, despite the Umayyad dynasty’s numerous achievements and tenacious grip on power, the descendants of Muhammad’s relatives and closest followers remained politically and culturally influential within the newly reorganised Islamic hegemony. The Umayyad family’s rather tenuous claim to political pre-eminence and status within the Islamic world inspired numerous revolts and the exertion of regional autonomy by several members of these extended familial groups. This culminated in the overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty in 750 by the Abbasids and their supporters.

Descended from one of the Prophet’s uncles and therefore able to claim a far closer familial relationship to Muhammad than their Umayyad rivals, the Abbasid’s further built upon the moral and spiritual authority granted through this connection by rhetorically attacking the vices and excesses of the Umayyads and their entrenched class of regional governors. In addition to this, the nascent Abbasid regime gained considerable support from marginalised groups such as the Shi’ite Muslims or the Caliphates still considerable non-Arab or non-Muslim population. While adoption of Islamic religious practices to an extent entailed the adoption of some elements of Arabic culture under the Umayyads, the Arabs very much formed a distinct and self-identified military and social elite. This cultural and ethnic-based hierarchy placed the Arabs above their numerous subject peoples regardless of religious affiliation. The reversal of the policies which maintained this distinction and Abbasid rulers’ broad tendency towards encouraging cultural integration and the extension of religious tolerance played a considerable role in their consolidation of power.

The conflict between these religious and familial factions persisted, however, albeit in a temporary muted form. The relative religious tolerance extended to various non-Muslims, did not apply to Shi’ites or other Islamic denominations, probably because they posed far more of a threat to the Abbasids and the manner in which doctrinal issues were intimately connected to familial politics. By the time Michael IV ascended to the Byzantine throne and unleashed Harald Hardrada upon the Mediterranean, the resurgence of dynastic factionalism, alloyed with sectarian tension had fractured the political unity of the Islamic world in a more complete and fundamental way than ever before. A decline which both abetted and was hastened by Byzantine recovery under the Macedonian dynasty in the tenth century.

The Fatimid dynasty, the descendants of Muhammad’s daughter Fatima, had carved out a formidable power base for themselves in Tunisia and in 909 declared not only their autonomy from the Abbasid centre but the establishment of a rival Caliphate. By our period, the Fatimids, now presenting themselves as the sole legitimate political manifestation of the Islamic faith, had succeeded in snatching North Africa and the Levant from their Abbasid rivals. As a consequence of this, they also took on the mantle of the Byzantine’s primary rivals within the Mediterranean, completing the conquest of Sicily. Notably, however, they faced determined opposition in this theatre, not only from the Byzantines but from local aristocratic Arab affinities that had become firmly established within the area and resented the imposition of outside authority.

From these heights, the Fatimids had entered a period of decline in part due to their failure to curb or dispel growing cultural and sectarian tensions within a vast hegemony whose geographical quirks tended to facilitate strong regional identities. The original Fatimid heartland, the area around modern-day Tunisia, along with the majority of North Africa was under the control of the Zirid dynasty, the descendants of the Fatimids’ most celebrated and successful military commander. While the Zirid’s nominally remained subordinate to the Egyptian-based Fatimid Caliphs, they were in practice largely autonomous. Meanwhile, Abbasid Caliphs continued reign after a fashion over northern Anatolia and Islam’s extensive eastern domains but by the 1030s they had politically and militarily fallen firmly under the thumb of the Buyids, an ethnically and culturally Iranian regional dynasty.

Following their ousting from power in 750, elements of the Umayyad family had eventually been able to establish themselves in Spain which they came to unify and rule, first as an emirate and then as a separate Caliphate from the 929. This Caliphate collapsed in 1131, a handful of years before Harald’s arrival in the Mediterranean, after decades of civil war. This drawn-out inter-dynastic conflict attracted the involvement from interventionist factions within the wider Islamic world as rival family members in Spain deliberately courted the support of various cultural and ethnic groups through displays of favouritism, promises and pre-eminence. This endemic sectarian and cultural factionalism throughout the formerly unified Islamic world and its manifestation in the political rivalry and contest of various Islamic families resulted in a huge amount of economic disruption as well as the displacement of populations and aristocratic families. The hardship and instability brought about by these conflicts and the process of political fragmentation resulted in an increase in piracy, as increasingly militarised regional groups and affinities, strove to establish their own powerbases or improve economic prospects which had been badly damaged by the disruption of traditional trade routes.

The piratical endeavours of groups adversely affected by political fragmentation of the Islamic world, whether acting independently or sponsored by regional dynasties, were given definition and form by the example of the Ghazi. Derived from a pre-Islamic Arab word pertaining to raiding and guerrilla warfare, the term acquired strong religious connotations as a result of its application to the warriors of the early Islamic conquests. As a result, the term came to be applied most commonly to border groups who would habitually raid non-Islamic populations and support the caliphate armies as irregular troops during major campaigns. The existence of this cultural practice and the esteem that Ghazi had traditionally been held in goes some way to explain the proliferation of piracy during this era and why in the absence of coherent centralised rule groups and individuals across the Zirid territories turned to raiding non-Muslim populations as a means of sustaining and enriching themselves.

Did Harald visit Jerusalem?

The anti-piratical campaign in which Harald Hardrada and his Varangian following participated seemed to have been a relative success, their freebooter opponents evidently lacking the cohesion and coordination to meaningfully contest control of the sea. Certainly, Emperor Michael judged the situation in the Greek islands to be secure enough to launch major Byzantine offensives which succeeded in further pushing back Fatimid forces in eastern Anatolia and the Levant. The Varangians played important role in these campaigns serving at the cutting edge of the Byzantine army. Snorri Sturluson’s account of Harald’s participation of a Byzantine invasion of Africa following the conclusion of his efforts against the pirates is almost certainly a geographic misrepresentation of this campaign. Snorri claims that Harald oversaw or participated in the sacking of eighty enemy towns, some of which were apparently fortified, should be treated with some caution. Harald was the leader of single warband brought into military service of the Emperor on an essentially temporary basis on uncertain terms. As we have seen in the 1030s, the Byzantine military contained an increasing number of these regional or ethnically based semi-autonomous military groups which were alloyed together with one another and the shrinking pool of more traditional recruited Byzantine levies.

Harald Hardrada was by no means part of the command coterie of Imperial forces. While it is of course possible that his men, either alone or in conjunction with other elements of the Byzantine army, spent time operating as a detachment from an independent force, eighty towns is an amount that would take considerable sacking. Given the opacity of any connections between Snorri’s thirteenth-century saga and Scandinavian oral traditions, the inclusion of the exact number of towns conquered by Harald on this campaign is oddly specific and a likely fabrication meant to awe and impress the saga’s intended audience. Equally suspicious but of considerably more interest are Snorri’s assertions that Harald’s forces grew during this period and that he sent his plundered wealth back to Grand Prince Jaroslav of Kiev-Rus for safekeeping.

In light of our earlier discussion on the make-up of the Byzantine military during this period it is highly unlikely that Harald’s increased following was the direct result of a promotion he earned during the campaign. It seems that mercenary commanders were meant to organise and provide their own forces. Such individuals could and were granted ranks and titles within the Byzantine’s labyrinthine and often ill-defined system of prestige and precedents, but the granting of such titles were essentially courtesies meant to reaffirm the barbarian’s loyalty to the Byzantines and raise their status amongst their own people. It is of course possible that the death of the leader of another contingent of the Varangian Guard on the campaign resulted in Harald forces absorbing part of this group.

An alternate rationalisation for Snorri’s Sturluson’s assertion is that the wealth and plunder that followed from the Byzantine’s revanchist campaign attracted more Rus and Scandinavian warriors, some of whom fell into Harald’s orbit. While seemingly unverifiable at this point, the idea of Harald remaining in periodic contact with Jaroslav and trusting him with his burgeoning wealth is a tantalising one that would if correct articulate the enduring connections and steady stream of mutual affiliates that connected the Scandinavian, Rus and Byzantine cultures. Certainly, it is true that upon leaving Byzantine service in 1042, Harald returned to Kiev where he married Jaroslav’s daughter Elisabeth making the existence of a long-time arrangement and alliance between the two far from unlikely.

In 1036, having evidently established his military credentials to the power brokers of his court and demonstrated Byzantine military dominance to his satisfaction, Emperor Michael entered into a peace treaty with the Fatimid Caliph, Al-Mustansir Billah. The Caliph was only seven and firmly under the control of his mother Rasad who ruled the Caliphate as regent but would become increasingly mired in highly politicized disputes between the African and Turkic elements of the Fatimid military. Snorri and other thirteenth-century saga sources maintain that Harald visited Jerusalem during his time in the Mediterranean and state this trip took place around 1041 after the lengthy campaign in Sicily. Most historians now advocate that this trip, if it happened at all, took place in the immediate aftermath of this peace treaty with some speculating that Harald may have been part of a force that accompanied the emperor and his family to the city and oversaw repairs to the Holy Sepulchre, which had been a condition of the treaty.

While this is a very nice theory and may well be true, we once again run into a lack of reliable or corroborating evidence. Snorri very much suggests that Harald’s journey to Jerusalem had a martial component and that the region’s cities surrendered before his advance. Upon arrival he is depicted as bathing in the Jordan, donating generously to the city’s holy sites and forcibly clearing the area of bandits. It is highly unlikely that the Fatimids were content to entrust the enforcement of law and order to Harald Hardrada, Varangian warlord and Byzantine affiliate. On top of this, Harald’s activities in the Holy Lands, as presented by Snorri, suspiciously mirror the preoccupations which formed amongst later Christian Crusaders and pilgrims. It seems likely that Snorri wanting to further inflate Harald’s reputation in the eyes of his Christian audience imposed recognisable and laudable near-contemporary modes of behaviour onto an excursion to Jerusalem which may or may not have happened.

While formerly at peace with the Fatimid Caliphate, the Byzantines did not refrain from attacking the Fatimid’s rebellious former vassals. Indeed, while simultaneously fending off mounting aggression from the Serbians, Bulgarians and Pechnegs in the Balkans, the Byzantine made concerted efforts to capitalise on the weakness of the Fatimid government. In 1038 the celebrated Byzantine general George Maniakes, who had masterminded the recapture of Edessa in 1031 embarked upon the reconquest of Sicily. The rule of the now autonomous Emirate was fiercely contested between its traditional Emirs, an offshoot of the Fatimid dynasty, and the Zirid’s of North Africa. As we shall see in the next installment of this series this division was to be skilfully exploited by Byzantine forces. This fateful invasion force, commanded by the Byzantine’s best general was bolstered by a considerable contingent of Varangians commanded by Harald, the future King of Norway and Norman knights commanded by the future count of Apulia and architect of Norman dominance in southern Italy, William Hauteville. The rivalry and eventually clash between these two paragons of their respective martial cultures in some strange but fundamental way foreshadowed a changing of the guard and the end of Scandinavian military supremacy in Europe.

James Turner has recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University before which he attended the University of Glasgow. Deeply afraid of numbers and distrustful of counting, his main research interests surround medieval aristocratic culture and identity.

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If you are interested in reading more about this important figure, see also the new book The Last Viking: The True Story of King Harald Hardrada, by Don Holloway. You learn more about this book from the publisher’s site, or purchase this book on | |

Top Image: Illustration by Julia Lillo