Tuesday, 2 March 2010

The Deeds of Robert Guiscard: Book V, lines 210-284

[210] An unusually cold winter led the people quartered near the River Glykys to sicken. A great many of them suffered from cold and hunger, and disease spread so rapidly that almost ten thousand men died in less than three months. [215] Nor did the rest of the army escape this deadly peril. In a very short period disease killed five hundred knights; and a large number of the common people also died. Neither knight nor sailor nor anybody [220] else could avoid death striking them down.

However, no misfortune could depress the duke, who remained brave and resolute whatever the circumstances. His son Bohemond[1] fell sick and requested his father to allow him to return to Italy, [225] a country where doctors and medicines were to be found in abundance. The duke reluctantly allowed him to go, since he wanted his distinguished offspring to recover his health. He gave him everything he needed for the journey. After his departure the duke ordered Roger to go with his troops to Cephalonia, [230] to conquer and tame this island, which had been in rebellion for a long time. He knew that when this island had been captured all the other Greek cities would be terrified. Roger obeyed his father’s orders, hastened to the town[2] with the duke’s forces and laid siege to it.[3]

[235] The duke [meanwhile] returned to the ships stationed in the River Glykys. He wanted to refloat these, for he was anxious to tame the proud Greeks at sea as well as on land. He worked ferociously to prepare both his cavalry [240] and his fleet for battle, to terrify the islands by bringing out his ships and to force them to pay the tribute owed to the empire into his ducal fisc. With the return of summer the water level was very low, and the river was too shallow for the sailors to re-float their ships. [245] The duke’s ingenuity made a difficult task easy. When he saw that the river lacked its usual flow of water - in fact only a trickle ran through a narrow channel - he ordered a large number of stakes to be brought up and fixed to both banks of the river, joined together with osiers. Then he had a lot of branches cut [250] and [from them] built hurdles which were filled from above with sand, and the water which had been widely spread was concentrated together in one pool. The river became fuller and deeper, and thus a navigable channel was created through which the ships could return unharmed to the sea.

[255] It was at this time that Pope Gregory died in Salerno. He was a venerable man, never influenced in any way by either personal considerations or love of gold, but always acting with just severity. Good things never made him rejoice unduly, nor did unhappy events render him downcast. [260] He was the consolation of the afflicted, the way of light, the teacher of the honest; he restrained the proud with his laws and protected the humble. He was the terror of the impious, but the shield of the just, and scattering the seed of the Saviour’s Word, and never ceased to summon the faithful away from evil [265] and towards that moral behaviour which leads to Heaven. His life was led according to [Holy] doctrine, nor was he unstable and swaying like a reed. Hearing of this great man’s death the duke could not restrain his tears. [270] He could not have cried more for the death of his father, nor if he had seen his son or his wife about to breath their last. His grief at the pope’s death was great, because in life great love had bound them together. Once their mutual peace treaty [275] had been confirmed, neither of them had cast away their love for the other.

The pope was buried in the church of St. Matthew, and enriched the city with the great treasure of his body. Since the translation of the Apostle Matthew[4] had already given this town a great reputation, [280] and this was further enhanced by the pope’s burial there, the duke had chosen it [as his residence] in preference to all other cities, if life had been granted to him. But in fact after the death of Pope Gregory he was not to return to the Italian lands which he had left.


[1] Orderic Vitalis said that Sichelgaita sought to have her doctors poison Bohemond. His statement, written some years later, should be treated with caution but concerns by Bohemond might well explain his return to Italy. Either way, he was not present when his father died in mid-1085.

[2] Hagios Georgios, medieval capital of the island is near to modern Argostoli.

[3] The capture of Cephalonia could have acted as the first stage of an attack on Constantinople.

[4] The body of St Matthew was transported to Salerno in 954 by prince Gisulf II and is found in the crypt of the cathedral.

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