Harald Hardrada: Fighting in Sicily and Italy

By James Turner

Between 1038 and 1041, a Byzantine force attempted to take control of Sicily and southern Italy. Harald Hadrada would take part in this invasion, but were the saga stories of his victories true?

A piece of received wisdom in the popular consciousness over the last few decades is that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires. Certainly, Afghanistan has felt the tread of imperialist boots in its past and sadly seen far more than its fair share of bloodshed right up until the present day. However, this unenviable sobriquet, earnt by its position athwart the region’s great trade routes, could just as easily be applied to Sicily. As dissimilar and disparate as they may appear, both the Mediterranean Sea and the mountain passes of Afghanistan have served throughout history as conduits of trade and culture. Occasionally these cultural exchanges would be brief and involve the use of various sharp objects as that bounty had stoked the cupidity and ambitions of surrounding hegemonic powers. The Mediterranean has long been the proving ground of empires and Sicily, at its centre, the fulcrum around which control of this inner world, at once inward-facing and inextricably connected to transcontinental trade, turned.


A host of cultures and imperialistic hegemonies have reddened the earth of Sicily in their efforts to dominate the destiny of the Mediterranean. The Byzantine Empire’s enormous and repeated efforts to recapture the Island in the eleventh century were at once the product of eminently sensible logistical and strategic considerations and an attempt by the citizens of the resurgent second Rome to turn back the wheel of history and once again bask under the eye of providence. Prior to Harald setting foot upon Sicily, warring Greek city-states, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Vandals, the Ostrogoths, the Byzantines and their Arabs opponents had all raised their standards high above the island; a celebration of their power and challenge to their rivals. After Harald, it would be fought over by the Normans, Lombards, Holy Roman Empire, French, Spanish, Italians, Axis and Allies in their attempts to exert control over the Mediterranean.

Before diving into the nitty-gritty of the invasion of Sicily and Harald’s subsequent participation in the fraying Byzantine war machine, it is worth noting that the invasion of Sicily is the first time that flickers of the future king’s personality are presented within Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla. We can, if inclined infer from earlier discussions of his participation in battle and his youthful defiance of the vagaries of fate, that Harald was brave and resilient. But beyond the establishment of his essential competency as a war leader, Harald’s excursion to Sicily is the first time the saga presents a sense that he is actively shaping and directing the course of events. Of course, as we have discussed ad nauseam Heimskringla and the other thirteenth-century sagas are problematic sources. While these sagas claim to be based on more contemporary oral traditions, there is really no way of ascertaining their fidelity. Written in thirteenth-century Iceland, the Heimskringla and many of its accompanying works were commissioned with the purpose of fashioning a political pedigree and glorious past for the Scandinavian polity. This means that while the Heimskringla probably contains narrative elements drawn from older sagas, its characterisation of Harald is inevitably also going to reflect qualities and social mores admired within a thirteenth-century ruler.


Interestingly, the qualities most consistently expressed within the Heimskringla’s account of Harald’s involvement in Scilly are intelligence and sheer gall. The saga more or less positions the Varangians as the force involved in the invasion of Sicily and Harald as their sole leader, the controlling mind of the operation. A frustrating but sensible affectation when considering that the purpose to the saga was to present the gilded legend of a powerful Scandinavian monarch. The Byzantine general who actually presided over the invasion, George Maniakes, is relegated from being Harald’s military superior to a mere rival. More than that, Harald is shown to have thoroughly outfoxed him by cunningly manipulating the drawing of lots and winning the most prestigious campsite for the Varangians. The saga structures the exiled prince turned mercenary commander’s time in Sicily around the escalating sieges of four increasingly fortified towns.

In the first town, Harald burns the inhabitants out of their fortification by attaching burning tapers to captured birds and then releasing them to return to their roosts in the eaves of the town’s buildings. Why this tactic would not work in the next town the Varangians sought to plunder is unclear but instead Harald opted to tunnel under its walls before leading his warriors out of a cellar they had broken into. The third town falls after Harald cunningly lulls the enemy into a false sense of security by directing his men to stage sporting matches and other games before the town’s walls. When the defenders grew too complacent to notice that the course of the Norse games inched them ever closer to the walls, they stormed the fortifications, taking the defenders by surprise, although the attackers suffered casualties due to their lightly armed and armoured state. When one warrior impugns Harald’s courage and refuses to carry his standard, fate intervenes to avenge this slight when the warrior suffers a disfiguring injury during the assault.

Most bizarrely of all, the final town was taken after the seriously ill Harald faked his own death, causing the prominent citizens of the town to flood out of the gates in the hope of claiming the body of such an august individual for monasteries they patronised.  While Sicily retained a large Christian community, it is not clear what the town’s Muslim rulers made of this or why any monastery would want the corpse of a far from home, semi-royal, mercenary commander. Overall, as entertaining as it is, the principal goal of the Heimskringla’s account of the invasion of Sicily is to build Harald’s credibility in the eyes of its thirteenth-century Icelandic audience.

Sicily in the ninth and tenth centuries

While the target of extensive raids since the mid-half of the seventh century, the ninth century saw the systematic erosion of Byzantine power in Sicily at the hands of various Arab dynasties and coalitions. This steady collapse began when Euphemius, the rebellious Byzantine military commander, courted the intervention of the rulers of neighbouring Ifriqiya, the Aghlabids dynasty, in 827. Perhaps a tad ironically given Sicily’s future status as a centre of multiculturalism, the Aghlabids, who were vassals of the Abbasid Caliph, were experiencing domestic problems as a result of friction between the small Arab elite and the majority Berber population. The Aghlabid Emir, Ziyadat Allah I, entered into an alliance with Euphemius, at least partially, as a way of marshalling his troubled regime against a common enemy, after earlier attempts to disband fractious units of Arab troops had led to mutiny and revolt. Things initially did not go well for the new allies with an attempt to besiege Syracuse ending in failure. Euphemius was then murdered in 828 while negotiating the surrender of the city of Enna and the Aghlabids soon found themselves hard-pressed by a Byzantine counterattack. This Byzantine resurgence was checked by reinforcements opportunistically sent by Umayyad ruled Spain in 830. Both forces suffered heavy casualties from fierce fighting and outbreaks of disease, but the momentum slowly turned in favour of the Arabs. What followed was a process of staggered piecemeal conquests that concluded in 902 with the fall of the Byzantine stronghold of Taormina which removed the last serious caveat to Arab rule of Sicily.


In 909, however, the Aghlabids were decisively overthrown by the Fatimid dynasty which claimed descent from the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter Fatimah. In fact, this process was abetted and enabled by the Aghlabid’s military commitments in Sicily; the first significant Fatimid victories occurred in 902 when the mainstay of Aghlabid power was concentrated on the reduction of Taormina. With their control of Ifriqiya secure, the Fatimids went on to claim the Caliphate and established themselves as the premium political power within both the Mediterranean and the wider Muslim world. In 962, the Fatimids appointed Al-Hasan al-Kalbi as Emir of Sicily. A member of an aristocratic family with a history of service within the extended Fatimid government, he had distinguished himself by quelling a sectarian motivated rebellion led by the eccentric but charismatic Abu Yazid. Al-Hasan al-Kalbi and his immediate descendants, the Kalbids, ruled as proxies and vassals of the Fatimid Caliphate but became functionally autonomous as Fatimid authority began to decline in the eleventh century.

Map of Sicily in the anonymous Arabic manuscript called “Book of Curiosities”, 13th-century copy of an original written in the second half of the 11th century and preserved at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. The detailed city plan corresponds to Palermo.

The Kalbids sponsored and conducted raids on the Italian mainland, control of which was contested by the Byzantines, the Holy Roman Empire and members of the regional Lombard aristocracy. In 982, these raids had become so severe they provoked a response from Holy Roman Emperor Otto II. Having made great strides in securing control of the region, Otto resolved to answer these raids with a punitive invasion of Sicily. The fledging imperial control over southern Italy was shattered with the complete destruction of Otto’s invasion fleet during the Battle of Stilo. Despite considerable early successes, the Kalbid star began to wain as its members became embroiled in a generations-long conflict for the rulership of the emirate. This early eleventh-century disintegration of political and military unity saw the Kalbids lose an increasing amount of influence and territory on the island to the Zirid dynasty, the now equally autonomous Fatimid appointed governors of Ifriqiya.

George Maniakes in Italy

As disused in the previous article in this series, in the decades prior to Harald’s arrival within the Empire of the Romans, the Byzantines had gone through a period of renewal and recovery, once again emerging as the dominant military power within the eastern Mediterranean. Emperor Michael IV’s successful expedition to Anatolia and the Levant, in which Harald participated, was an expression of this restored Byzantine confidence and the once again flickering embers of a sense of Roman manifest destiny. However, unregulated and misunderstood, the military reforms and bureaucratic centralisation enacted by Michael’s predecessors had begun to yield diminishing returns and would, when left unchecked, begin to drag down the recovery they had once buoyed. With the Theme system of standing regional militaries a shadow of its former self by the 1030s, the Byzantine’s traditional defence in depth strategy was thoroughly undermined and the Imperial centre was forced to assemble military task forces on an ad hoc basis from whatever resources were available to them at the time.


Considering these logistical limitations, the command echelons of the invasion force assembled in 1038 was impressive. Contemporaries would have been heartened to note that ultimate command of the expedition lay with one of the Byzantine’s most capable generals, the pugnacious and physically imposing George Maniakes. Maniakes had gained favour in court as a result of his capture of Edessa and subsequent robust defence of the city during Byzantine offensives in the early 1030s. Another court notable attached to the invasion was the emperor’s brother-in-law, Stephen, whose appointment as admiral of the expedition’s considerable fleet elements, signalled considerable imperial interest and investment in the success of the campaign. With the benefit of hindsight, other notables become clear. Obviously, there is the subject of our study, the elusive Harald, a now proven battle commander and raider who led a significant contingent of Varangian mercenaries in the invasion.

The Varangian Guard was far more a category of a mercenary than a standing and regulated force. Their origins were diverse, drawing recruits from all over Scandinavia and the principalities of the Kyivan Rus’. Like other culturally and ethnically distinct mercenary groups employed by the Byzantines, the Varangians often entered Imperial service as large self-regulating warbands with their established leaders and hierarchies, with little or no real fixed terms of service. The steady stream of Varangian adventurers and warriors seeking employment with the Byzantines were not so much recruited into the imperial army as they were inducted into one of the guard’s often competing factions. By dint of his personal prowess, leadership capabilities, pseudo royal status and relationship to Prince Jaroslav the Wise of Kyiv, Harald, who had already led a considerable band of warriors upon entering Byzantine service, was now leader of one such faction and wielded considerable influence throughout the collective. Harald as we shall go on to see would establish himself as the sole king of Norway, and reconstruct much of the North Sea Empire of Swyven Forkbeard and Cnut the Great before dying in battle during a bid for the English throne.

The Normans

Another yet to be sung legend of the expedition was William de Hauteville, the leader of a contingent of Norman knights in the employ of the Prince of Salerno and one of the foremost architects of the soon to unfold Norman domination of southern Italy. Byzantine control of the region had persisted since late antiquity and even survived, albeit in a reduced form, the collapse of the Exarchate of Ravenna in 751. However, it had come increasingly under pressure and began to erode in the tenth and eleventh centuries as a result of opposition from the neighbouring Lombard aristocracy, the expansionistic efforts of certain Holy Roman Emperors, the Emirate of Sicily, an increasingly assertive Papacy and an influx of Norman mercenaries to the region. The most powerful Lombard ruler in the region at the time of the invasion of Sicily was Guaimar IV of Salerno who had spent the preceding years tactfully appeasing both the Byzantine and Holy Roman Emperors while he attempted to deal with his Lombard rivals and harness the ongoing Norman diaspora.

Regarding this first objective at least, he was highly successful. In 1036 Guaimar formed an alliance with the Norman mercenary commander Rainulf Drengot. Formerly employed by Guaimar’s uncle, Pandulf IV of Capua, the defection of the highly influential Rainulf fundamentally altered the balance of power within the region, bringing the majority of its Norman adventurers into alignment with Guaimar. The dolorous blow to Pandulf came the following year when Guaimar appealed to the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II to arbitrate their dispute over the rule of Capua and Pandulf’s attempted rape of Guaimar’s niece. When Pandulf proved unwilling to submit fully to Conrad’s authority, Capua was quickly captured, and the lordship of the surrounding County of Aversa was awarded to Rainulf. When the Byzantines, in need of additional manpower for the invasion of Sicily requested Guaimar’s support, he despatched a force commanded by one of his underlings, Arduin, and stiffened it by the inclusion of a contingent and Norman knights led by William de Hauteville. While this cobbled together Byzantine army was waging war against Sicily’s Kalbid and Zirid masters, Guaimar dramatically expanded his northern frontier on the mainland as well as capturing or subjugating the duchies of Amalfi, Sorrento and Naples with the help of his Norman allies.


Fittingly, given this series’ preoccupation with the essential interconnectivity of the world of the eleventh century and the permeability of its cultural and political barriers, the Normans were the product of hybridization and integration. Like the Kyivan Rus’ and the English of the eleventh century, Norman culture and history had been shaped to some extent by Scandinavian settlement. The late ninth and early tenth centuries saw significant, but largely defused and decentralised, Scandinavian settlements across northern France. One such incoming group was led by a Danish exile named Rollo, who took over the city of Rouen and its hinterland, possibly as early as 876. An early adopter of Christianity amongst the Scandinavian settlers, Rollo may have allied with King Charles the Simple of West Frankia against the region’s other Scandinavian groups. Later chronicles attest that as part of this agreement, Rollo was betrothed to one of Charles’ daughters, Gisela, but the origins of this tradition are murky and it seems probable that it, like the notion that Charles seceded the Duchy of Normandy in its entirety to Rollo, was an invention of later sources meant to shore up the dynasties pedigree and right to rule.

In reality, Rollo and his descendants expanded their authority by subjecting or reaching accommodations with their Frankish and Norse neighbours, piecing the Duchy together gradually over the course of several generations.  These rulers adopted and further adapted developing Frankish social structures and landholding practices to build a powerful and relatively centralised polity whose leaders had consistent access to the resources of the duchy’s constituent ecclesiastical fiefs and lay vassals.  In his Historia Normannorum, Dudo of Saint-Quentin, writing under the patronage of Richard II, the first of his family to style himself as Duke, provides a vision of Norman identity based not upon a single ethnic origin but rather a shared and mutually recognised martial prowess.

While the region’s Scandinavian elite effectively merged with their Frankish neighbours, adopting Frankish social mores and material culture, this was not necessarily a straightforward or swift process. In 946, the young Count Richard I joined many of the region’s Scandinavian-derived aristocracy in siding with King Harold Blue Tooth of Denmark against Louis VI. In 1000, Duke Richard II provided a safe harbour and financial support for Vikings raiding the British Isles, provoking a retaliatory attack from the English. Dudo while attempting to glorify the duke’s line and provide the Norman aristocracy with a model for shared identity, also notes that the inhabitants of the city of Bayeux were as likely to speak Danish as they were French. Indeed in 1014, Richard employed Harald’s elder half-brother, Olaf, who was yet to declare himself King of Norway, for his attack on the county of Chartres.

The initial impetus which first led Norman warriors to seek employment as mercenaries in southern Italy remains obscure and there exist several contradictory late eleventh century traditions. Whether they first entered southern Italy as pilgrims, political exiles or even at the request of the Papacy, this vanguard of Normans evidently found conditions in southern Italy to their liking and sent word of the opportunities available to them in the region to their kith and kin back in Normandy. Located on the fault line of empires, southern Italy’s fragmented political structure combined with its relative wealth and urbanisation made it the perfect arena in which to monetize its martial skillset. At the same time, demographic shifts in Normandy, such as an increase in population and shift in patterns of landholding encouraged periphery members of the Norman aristocracy and knightly classes to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

William de Hauteville was the son of Trancered de Hauteville, a minor Norman noble whose modest fief was in no way able to support his numerous children into adulthood and the establishment of their own households. As such, William and two of his younger brothers heeded Rainulf Drengot’s calls for further Norman migration into southern Italy. Finding success and fortune there, they would be followed by their younger half-brothers. Between them, the Hauteville siblings would come to dominate the key territories of Norman-held southern Italy and William’s nephew, Roger, would eventually emerge as the first king of Sicily. It is apt then, given its future status as the seat of William’s soon-to-be royal house that his reputation and position of prominence amongst his fellow Norman adventurers was in a large part derived from his participation in the Byzantine invasion of the island.  William reputedly earnt the name ‘Iron Arm’ during the campaign for cutting down the Emir of Syracuse before the city’s walls.

Byzantine defeat

Indeed, the Byzantine’s incursion into Sicily had achieved considerable success, by skilfully exploiting the division between the rival Islamic dynasties, by 1040 George Maniakes had secured control over the island’s eastern half. However, these extraordinary gains were to be squandered as a result of the same petty rivalries and squabbling that had under-minded Arab resistance. William Iron Arm and his Norman contingent quit the campaign after their Lombard commander Arduin quarrelled with Maniakes over the distribution of spoils. Worse still was George Maniakes’ inability to cooperate or affect a reconciliation with his admiral Stephen.  Stephen, the brother-in-law of the emperor, retaliated by using his influence at court to undermine the general and bring his leadership into question. Eventually the situation in the imperial court became so poisonous and confused that Maniakes was relieved of command and arrested in 1040 and the Byzantines’ numerous gains on the island were allowed to swiftly fall back into Arab hands.

Unfortunately for Harald, their withdrawal from Sicily was not the last time he and his warriors would encounter the Normans. Perhaps embittered by Maniakes’ earlier lack of respect towards them, a number of Lombard nobles, including Arduin, rebelled against Byzantine overlordship in 1140.  The Byzantine military governor of Italy, Nikephoros Dokeianos, was killed by his own mutinous Lombard troops, leading to a rapid redeployment of the Byzantines’ overstretched military resources which accelerated the collapse of the Byzantine position within Sicily. Harald and his Varangians were the elite core of a force dispatched to southern Italy in 1041 under the command of the new military governor Michael Dokeianos, who had previously served as part of the Byzantine command cadre in Sicily.

The rebel Lombard lords had courted and won the backing of a large number of the region’s Norman mercenaries including Willian de Hautville, and with their support were able to inflict two ringing defeats on the Byzantine army at the battles of Montemaggiore and Olivento. As was so often the case with the Byzantines, diplomacy was employed to compensate for military weaknesses and the winners of the rebellion were won over with promises of riches, titles and positions within the labyrinthine machinery of the imperial government. However, the Lombard’s Norman allies were disinclined to end the fighting, electing William de Hautville as part of a triumvirate of new leaders, they continued without their erstwhile allies, carving Apulia and Calabria out of the Byzantine domains in southern Italy. They then divided these new territories amongst themselves while yielding nominal overlordship of these new counties to their ally Prince Guaimar IV of Salerno, setting the foundations for the Norman domination of southern Italy and their invasion of Sicily.

Harald was not to witness this emergent Norman destiny, however, as he and his warriors, bloodied but unbroken were recalled to Constantinople shortly after their disastrous defeat at Olivento. Despite the reversals they had encountered in Italy, Harald’s stock seems to have remained relatively high amongst the Byzantine leadership and would go on to receive a degree of acclaim and recognition for his participation in the campaign against the Bulgarian rebels later that year. However, he had also once again tasted defeat and experienced firsthand the manner in which the power struggles of the imperial court undercut and undermined the imperial war effort. In the next entry in this series we will explore and contextualise the Byzantines’ great rivalry with the Bulgarians, as well as chart the circumstances behind Harald’s sudden and dramatic withdrawal from Imperial service.

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