Sunday, 21 October 2007

The Normans in Italy: The time of conquests 1060-1080

In this period, the Normans further extended their control over southern Italy. After 1059, Robert Guiscard continued his personal conquest of Calabria[1] with increasing success finally taking Reggio and Squillace in 1060. However, this left Bari and much of southern Apulia in Byzantine hands. Among the twons that still had Greek garrisons and acknowledged imperial rule were Brindisi, Oria, Taranto, Otranto and Gallipoli. The complete subjugation of Apulia too Guiscard a further twelve years and was not completed until the seizure of Brindisi and more importantly, Bari in 1071. Then, with the help of Richard of Capua, he took over the principality of Salerno in 1076 and the cities of Benevento and Naples in 1077. By 1080 the Normans controlled all of the southern Italian mainland and much of Sicily.

Robert Guiscard’s position was considerably strengthened by the Melfi agreement. He decided to intensify the conquest of the whole of Mezzogiorno while controlling potential rebellion by other Norman barons (for example, Robert of Montescaglioso, Geoffrey of Conversano, Peter of Trani etc.). In 1060, he captured Troia, the only town of any size in the Capitanata, albeit already paying tribute to the Normans. It became the centre of ducal authority. A year later, he captured Acerenza though it is unclear from whom[2]. The ways in which Guiscard’s authority in Apulia developed during the 1060s is not covered particularly well in the chronicle. William of Apulia’s poem ignores events in Apulia between the synod of Melfi and the beginnings of the siege of Bari (1059-1068) and Amatus of Montecassino has only a little to say about Apulia but is more than usually disorganised. Historians have to rely on the annalistic sources and they are especially cryptic for this decade.

The continued resistance of the Byzantine towns in southern Apulia owes as much to extraneous factors as to any very coherent response from the Byzantine empire. Robert Guiscard was engaged elsewhere: in 1061 and again in 1064 he was in Sicily with a substantial force. Early in 1062, Robert captured Brindisi and Oria but most of the campaigning season that year was devoted to a fruitless revival of his dispute with his brother Roger that this time led to fighting between the rival forces. The dispute ended when both parties agreed to abide by the terms agreed earlier: Roger was to have the southern half of Calabria. There was also a rebellion in the Cosenza region in 1064-5 that took several months to suppress. Consequently, Guiscard was unable to turn his attention to the completion of the conquest of Apulia for several years.

Advances were made in Apulia by other Norman lords in the early 1060s. In 1063, Godfrey, a son of count Peter of Andria (one of the ‘sons of Amicus’ kin-group) captured Taranto, one of the main Apulian ports. The following year, the duke’s nephew Robert of Montescaglioso took Matera and the nearby town of Montpeloso. These victories ended the Byzantine presence on the Apulia-Lucania border. At the other end of Apulia, Robert’s brother Geoffrey and after his death his son Robert (who became known as the count of Loritello) pushed northwards across the Biferno and Trigno rivers into the Abruzzi. By 1064, Robert’s attacks had begun to destabilise the lands of the abbey of St Clement of Casauria in the Percara valley. Guiscard had appeared briefly in the area to help his borther in 1060-61 but after this the success of the other Normans in Apulia were carried out independently of the duke. Robert’s brother William and his allies attacked the principality of Salerno and in 1067 he was excommunicated, along with Guimund des Moulins and Turgisius of Rota for their attacks on the property of the archbishop of Salerno.

Besides the Byzantine territories, to the south, his attention was drawn to the north of his territories, next to Campania and the Abruzzes, where he was faced with a most dangerous rival, occasionally an ally but more often an enemy, Richard of Aversa, who, since he had become prince of Capua in 1062[3] had launched attacks against the Lombard territories coveted by Robert Guiscard. Richard of Aversa strengthened his authority by acquiring the duchy of Atenulf of Gaeta and the county of Aquino in 1063. Richard’s authority in the north of the principality was not finally secured until 1065 despite his alliance with the abbey of Montecassino that profited considerably from the lands of the Lombards who had rebelled in 1063.

The Normans did not have everything their own way and there was a brief Byzantine counter offensive in the mid-1060s. Brindisi was recaptured at some point after 1062 and it is probable that Vieste on the Gargano peninsula was retaken in 1065-66. Whether these advances were linked to the arrival of a contingent of the Varangian guard at Bari in 1066 is debatable but the Byzantine revival was short-lived. In 1066, Robert was finally able to devote his attention to Apulia, retaking Vieste and also Otranto. However, the Byzantines were successful in stirring up and financing a widespread revolt among the Normans in Apulia in 1067-68 including Robert’s nephews Geoffrey of Conversano and Abelard. Geoffrey was the son of Guiscard’s sister and Abelard the son of his elder brother count Humphrey[4]. Guiscard was in Calabria when news of the revolt reached him. Acting quickly, he caught the rebels before they were ready and suppressed the revolt in the autumn of 1067 and spring of 1068.

By August 1068, Robert Guiscard was finally ready to move against Byzantine Apulia and to begin his most ambitious military operation: the siege of Bari. This was a difficult operation and could only be attempted when Robert had the full support of his Norman vassals. Count Roger also temporarily abandoned his conquest of Sicily to take part in the later stages of the attack on the city. Bari was a trading city with access to the sea for reinforcements and supplies from the Byzantine Empire and was strongly defended on the landward side. However, the Normans were by this time well versed in siege warfare. Bari was not prepared to surrender as, for example Reggio had been in 1060. Bari proved to be a formidable obstacle though the timing of Robert’s attack was fortuitous. By 1068, the situation on the eastern frontier of the Byzantine Empire was critical. Turkish raids had penetrated into Asia Minor and the emperor Romanus IV was determined to do something about this. The situation in Byzantine Italy was severe but it was not seen as a major priority in Constantinople. Even so, the siege of Bari lasted almost three years. Robert recruited ships and sailors from Calabria to blockade the town from the sea and he also was highly successful in exploiting divisions within Bari itself. The Byzantines made two attempts to break the blockade: in 1068 they were partially successful bringing in supplies so prolonging the siege but in 1071 the Byzantine fleet was intercepted from count Roger with ships from Sicily and defeated. The loss of this supply fleet led to Bari’s surrender on 16th April 1071. Although the city was near to starvation, Robert offered generous terms returning land seized from its inhabitants outside the walls, freeing it from tribute that had previously been paid to the Normans and refraining from imposing any new demands. It seems that the local patriciate remained largely in control of the city. Robert almost certainly had no choice but to do this. Bari was a large and prosperous town with a diversified economy that he needed to remain prosperous; coercion was not really a viable economic or political option.

The fall of Bari brought all of Byzantine Apulia under Norman hands. Brindisi, the only other substantial Byzantine town had been captured shortly before Bari fell. Guiscard then turned his attention to Sicily, transferring his forces to support Roger in the siege of Palermo which surrendered in January 1072. However, in 1072-3 he was distracted by another revolt among the Apulian Normans, encouraged by Richard of Capua and his troublesome nephew Abelard. This delayed further his attempts to bring the remaining Lombard territories under his control. Amalfi and its little duchy voluntarily submitted in late 1073 after the death of duke Sergius IV. However, he did not capture Aberlard’s stronghold of Santa Severina in northern Calabria until 1075. A peace treaty with Richard of Capua was brokered with difficulty by abbot Desiderius of Montecassino in 1076 and this allowed Robert to move finally against what was left of the principality of Salerno.

The reason for the attack of Salerno that all the chroniclers agree on was the continued poor and brutal government of Gisulf IV. However, Amatus, William of Apulia and Malaterra were pro-Norman apologists and it is important not to accept their witness unequivocally. Amatus’ denunciations of Gisulf are so extreme as to suggest a strong personal motive[5]. In addition, there is ample evidence for the growing internal weakness in the principality for at least a decade that meant that it was not a question of if Robert was going to attack Salerno but when. The siege of Salerno began in early May 1076 and lasted for seven months when the city was betrayed to him. Gisulf and his brothers took refuge in the citadel but this too surrendered early in 1077. They were expelled from the city and their land confiscated. Robert’s policy was to reconcile the local population to his rule as quickly as possible. Henceforward Salerno rather than Melfi or Venosa became the centre of his power. The acquisition of the city and the remaining part of the principality was the most significant and successful step towards the consolidation of the whole of mainland southern Italy in Norman hands.

Success at Salerno did not mark the end of Norman attempts to extend their authority. Richard of Capua, with Robert’s support attacked the papal Campagna in 1076. Bad weather and problems with food supplies meant this achieved little other than the excommunication of Richard and Robert by Pope Gregory VII. In May 1077, Richard began his siege of Naples with the city blockaded with Duke Robert’s ships. The city was still resisting when Richard of Capua died on 5th April 1078. His son Jordan, who had been in dispute with his father for several years and had already made his peace with the pope, then abandoned the siege on the payment of tribute and a de facto Capuan protectorate over Naples. In December 1077 Duke Robert attempted to seize Benevento after the death of Prince Landulf IV on 17th November. This ended in failure after five months. The city was saved by the intervention of Jordan of Capua who was anxious to cement his good relations with the papacy but was also determined not to allow Guiscard to extend his power any further. Further revolts in Apulia in the winter of 1078-9, his preoccupation with the Byzantine Empire and his reconciliation with the papacy in 1080, all combined to prevent Robert from threatening Benevento again.

Norman aggression was not discontinued in the mountains of the Abruzzi where a group of Lombard counties lay under the nominal sovereignty of the German Empire. Guiscard’s nephew, Count Robert of Loritello threatened this region in the 1060s but the Capuan Normans were also probing northwards into the inland county of Marsia into which Richard of Capua led an expedition in 1067. By 1074, Normans were excommunicated after seizing the property of the abbey of Casauria and they were actively menacing the Pescara valley. Pope Gregory VII excommunicated Normans on three occasions in the 1070s for attacking the Abruzzi: in 1074, 1075 and 1078. This had little effect and the northward thrust into the Abruzzi did not peter out until around 1100. After this a degree of coexistence between Norman and Lombard counties appears to have existed with the Normans holding the coast while the Lombard count held the inland areas.

The impetus of Norman expansion ended in the 1090s largely because the internal cohesion of the Apulian and Capuan lands was breaking up. Guiscard died in 1085 and Jordan of Capua five year later in 1090. Both the dukes of Apulia and the princes of Capua faced serious challenges to their authority. In 1088, for example Amalfi threw off ducal authority and although Roger Borsa retored his authority there for a time, by 1100 the Normans had little impact on the duchy that remained effectively independent till its conquest by King Roger in 1131. The impact of the Normans on the larger towns like Bari and Salerno was limited. Most of these were captured late in the conquest and few Normans settled in them. They remained overwhelmingly Lombard in character and government. Benevento and Naples were never conquered. The duchy of Naples finally lost its independence to King Roger in 1137 by which time there is considerable doubt over whether southern Italy was really ‘Norman’ at all. Benevento retained its independence as a papal enclave in the southern Italian kingdom until 1860. Amalfi escaped from Norman control again in the early twelfth century and Bari was established as an independent principality under a Lombard prince Grimoald in 1118 that lasted until the time of King Roger. Most of southern Italy fell into the hands of the Normans in the eleventh century but the conquest always remained incomplete.


[1] Catherine Hervé-Commereuc ‘Les Normands en Calabre’, Les Normands en Méditerraneé, University of Caen, 1994, pages 77-88 is invaluable on what can be seen as the ‘forgotten’ conquest.

[2] The town had been part of the original share-out among the Norman leaders in 1042 when it was assigned to Asclettin, the later short-lived count of Aversa. Whether Asclettin had ever gained possession of it or whether the inhabitants may have later regained their independence, we do not know.

[3] Richard of Aversa had captured the city of Capua in 1058 but his authority in his nominal capital was limited by the agreement that secured the city’s surrender. It was only in 1062 that he foeced the citizens to hand over the defences to him and then only after a second siege.

[4] Abelard was a young boy when his father died in 1057. Robert had ignored his claims and took over the leadership of the Apulian Normans himself. Now in his teens, Abelard sought revenge.

[5] It is plausible that Amatus was a former bishop of Paestrum in the south of the principality of Salerno who had resigned his see in the 1050s and become a monk at Salerno. Why he did this is not known and Amatus himself provides no evidence for his reasons. However, we do know that in the 1050s Gisulf was trying to limit ecclesiastical privileges. If this is the case, then Amatus’ hostility to Gisulf is understandable.

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