Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The Deeds of Robert Guiscard: Book III, lines 167-304

Rumour has it that in the waves of the Adriatic, not far from the shore, there was a great fish, horrid of body and incredibly shaped, of a type not seen before by the people of Italy, [170] and that the springtime wind had induced it to come there because of the warm water. The duke’s cunning, using a number of methods, led to its capture. The fish swam into rope netting and sank to the bottom of the sea along with the heavy iron weights which had been attached to the nets. Finally, after being wounded by the sailors from a number of high places [in the boats], [175] the monster was dragged ashore to be gazed at by the populace. Then, on the duke’s orders it was cut into pieces on which he and his men fed for a long time, as did the people who dwelt in Calabria. [180] Even the people of Apulia far and wide shared in this. The dorsal spine, when it was cut off, measured four palms in circumference.

After remaining here for a little while Duke Robert set off for the city of Reggio. While he was staying there a bridge was built, [185] and as a result the whole area is now called Pons Guiscardi. The Bariots carried out his orders, and he prepared everything that had to be made ready within the walls of Reggio. After gathering together knights, supplies and ships, the duke crossed the sea to Sicily with a large following.[1] [190] This sea, although narrow, is difficult to cross. Scylla and Charybis here present different sorts of danger; the one turns boats over; the other shatters them on the rocks.

[195] In Sicily[2] the assistance rendered by his brother Roger, who had already conquered a substantial part of the country raised the duke’s spirits. Roger was younger than him, but no less valiant. None of his brothers, excellent though they were, entered upon so noble a war, [200] for wishing to exalt the Holy Faith in which we all live, he fought continually against the Sicilians, enemies of the Divine Name, and dedicated his youth largely to this work until the time when the submission of the Sicilian race would allow him the right to rest.

Confident of his assistance, and in the great army which he had brought with him, the duke [205] was not without hope of laying siege to and conquering Palermo, which he had heard was the most noble of the Sicilian cities[3]. Surrounded by Robert’s many soldiers the city grew fearful. The inhabitants reinforced their walls and towers, prepared arms and men, [210] closed the vulnerable gates and placed a numerous sentries on guard throughout the city. The duke ordered his well-armed knights to approach the gates, that by doing this they might provoke the enemy within to battle. He astutely intended to do all in his power to cause the citizens damage and difficulty. [215] Unable to stand this the Sicilians sortied out from the gates and once outside fought back bravely; they were unable however to resist the fierce Normans. The people of the Agarenes held their own for a while but could not overcome the followers of Christ. [220] They fled, followed by our men who slew many of them with their swords and lances. Javelins and arrows flew everywhere from the top of the walls, and they [also] tried to injure our men with rocks and spears. Driving them back within the city defences, our troops returned joyfully to camp.

[225] The Palermitans then approached the Africans asking for their help, and joining their forces together they undertook on the sea the battle that they did not dare to attempt on land[4]. They believed that this element would be more suitable for waging war. [230] Drawing up their ships according to the rules of naval warfare and covering them all over with red canvases as a protection to ward off the impact of stones or javelins, they sailed bravely to battle, ready to act as men and heedless of whether they lived or died. [235] The duke ordered the Normans, Calabrians, Bariots, and Greeks whom he had [previously] captured, to strengthen themselves with the Body of Christ, and after they had received this and the Blood to engage in battle. Under the protection of this nourishment the forces of the faithful went forward to battle, their ships furnished with all the arms needed for success. [240] The unbelievers filled the whole sea with the sound of their trumpets and clarions and with their shouting. The Christians by contrast sought the help only of the Eternal Ruler, on Whose Flesh they had fed. They were not a bit frightened by the noise and resisted their enemies fiercely, manfully dealing out blows. [245] At first the African and Sicilian ships fought back; but finally and by Divine aid they were forced to retire. When they did seek to flee, some of them were captured and others sunk. Most of the ships narrowly escaped because of the rapid use of their oars. After their return to port, they immediately raised the chains with which they were accustomed to close the entry channels. [250] The Christians however broke through these chains captured some of their ships and set fire to most of the others.[5]

[255] This victory made the duke very confident.[6] He now devoted all his attention to force an entrance into the city, employing a number of schemes to secure its capture. He had the infantry furnished with slings and bows, and ordered the armoured cavalry to follow him. [260] The infantry came close to the [city] wall and bombarded the ramparts with stones and arrows. The infidels came out from the city to oppose them and the foot-soldiers, unable to withstand them, fled. When the duke saw them give ground and scatter all over the plain, [265] he gave the signal to his whole force for an immediate attack, encouraging them by voice and gesture as an energetic general should. The Sicilians remained for a little while after battle was joined and then, terrified by the sight of the duke, turned tail. The duke cut them down, and encouraged his men to strike the unbelievers in the back, [270] nor did he cease to kill his enemies until he had reached the city gates. The duke’s people inflicted all sorts of different wounds upon the enemy, some with swords, others with the lance; many with shots from slings, most of all were caused by arrows. [275] Passing over the bodies of the slain, he tried to enter the city gates along with the fleeing Sicilians, [hoping] to capture it and put an end to his labour. But the city was so filled with terror [280] by the enemy attack that its inhabitants closed and bolted the doors, leaving a large number of their men outside, all of whom were massacred.

[285] Seeing his cavalry discouraged by the long battle, Robert asked them to persevere with what they had begun. ‘Men, your courage has stood up to a number of tasks, but it will’, he said, ‘deserve either praise or blame. This city is an enemy to God, and knowing nothing of the Divine worship it is ruled by demons. Deprived of its old strength, it now trembles as though it is broken. If it sees you continue bravely, it will not dare to make further resistance. [290] But, if you cease your efforts, then tomorrow, with its strength renewed, it will resist you more fiercely. Hurry, while you have the chance! This town is hard to take, but, with the mercy of Christ, will be open [to us]. Christ makes difficult work easy. [295] Trust in His leadership, let’s put an end to this conflict, and all hurry to storm the city’!

With these words Robert heartened his men. They rushed to climb the walls with scaling ladders, promising to fulfil the duke’s wishes. In a similar manner a good charioteer who realises that his speedy horses are giving up the race spares them and allows them a breather. [300] Then, when they are rested and their wind is restored, he makes them return to the track, urging them on with regular spurring until they finish the course. So, under the guidance of a wise driver, those who seem beaten pass the ones who are used to victory.[7]


[1] Guiscard assembled his army, consisting of Calabrians and ‘people of several races’ according to Amatus, in Calabria crossing the sea to Messina in 40 boats.

[2] 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.

[3] Palermo was besieged by land and sea by Roger in the west and Guiscard in the east with his Calabrians and Apulians.

[4] The other sources do not speak of either the naval battle or the assistance of African Muslims, almost certainly the Zirids of Mahdîyah. In the previous decade, the Sicilians had appealed to them for help to stop the progress of the Normans. However, Ayub, the son of Tamim who was installed in Palermo was forced by the ‘Sicilian faction’ to return to Africa around 1068.

[5] The capture of Palermo marked a very clear stage in the conquest of Sicily. It represented the last direct involvement of Robert Guiscard in the conquest of the island and he never returned to the island after he left in early 1072. Guiscard granted Count Roger the fiefdom of Sicily, except Palermo, Messina and the Val Demone, which were possessed jointly. Although Roger was nominally subject to his elder brother, in reality he was left to govern the island and to continue the conquest as and when he could. By 1072, the Normans had conquered about half of the island. They had displayed considerable flexibility in exploiting Muslim divisions and in granting lenient surrender terms and toleration for Muslim worship.

[6] Malaterra gives details of the role of Roger in the attack on Cassaro, the main Arab fortification.

[7] Guiscard had fourteen ladders made and in the night sent seven to Roger who placed them against the walls in the morning: Amatus and Malaterra. Guiscard left 300 soldiers in the gardens near his fleet while Roger attacked the Cassaro where the defence of the city was concentrated. Guiscard managed to get soldiers over the walls and took the new town while the defenders retreated to the old town.

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