Saturday, 6 March 2010

The Deeds of Robert Guiscard: Book V, lines 285-415

[285] While this had been happening, his noble son Roger[1] had continued unceasingly to threaten Cephalonia. Robert intended to go himself to that island which he had sent his son to capture. He took ship there, but before he could catch sight of the camp he was stricken with fever. [290] The burning flux [canicula] began to rage, whose fearful heat is in the summer time usually fatal to men. His wife had come from Italy not long before and was present in her son’s camp[2]. When Robert arrived, she went out [to meet him], leaving the army and fleet behind. [295] When she realised that Robert, her great husband on whom all her hopes were based, had the fever, she rushed to him, weeping and tearing her garments. Seeing that her husband was dying and that his end was near, she tore her face with her nails, [300] ran them through her uncombed hair, and cried out.[3]

‘Oh horror! What have I done, unhappy woman that I could be left so unfortunate. When the Greeks learn of your death, will they not attack me and your son, and the people for whom you were the sole glory, [305] hope and strength? Your presence protected them when things were desperate. When you were there none of them feared the threats of the enemy, or to meet them in battle. [310] Your leadership made them safe, and they dared to enter battle even though the troops opposed to them were greatly superior in numbers. Seeing you no mortal courage could ever resist. Now your wife and son are left the prey of wolves, and will never be safe without you. When our people lose your courage, they will lose their own as well. [315] What can exceed the cowardice of the mob? Unholy death, I beg you to spare this man, whose death will cause so many others to die too! But if you are unwilling to grant my prayers, wait at least until he has led us back to our homes, so that there is a safe place for us after his funeral. [320] Oh, miserable one! My prayer is in vain; such prayers are ignored for death never spares anyone’.

Roger mourned no less tearfully than his mother, his lamentations and groans rising to the heavens. He cried for the loss of a father [325] before he fully knew how to defend what he had or to acquire new possessions, or to follow the example of his father’s brave deeds. Who could look with a dry eye on the tears of those present? Who could be so unyielding, so iron-hearted, not to share the grief suffered by so many? [330] Amidst all these tears he received the Body and Blood of Christ, and died, ending his life loved by all. So, in exile, the soul of this mighty prince left his body. [335] The man who had never allowed his men to show fear in his presence and who had been accustomed to raise the spirits of others now rendered up his own spirit.

Not wishing her husband’s body to remain on Greek soil, his wife tried to return to her own lands. She embarked on the galley which she knew to be the fastest, placing Robert’s corpse on board, [340] and crossed the sea, so that, although he had not been allowed to come back to his kingdom alive, Italy might [at least] have the consolation of the return of his body.

Roger went to his father’s camp, sadly announced his father’s death to everyone there, [345] and asked their advice. For he said that if he did not speedily return home then he would be deprived of his rightful lordship, to which his father had designated him the heir. They all promised that they were ready to serve him faithfully as they had served his father, and then they begged him to help them to return across the sea.[4] [350] He agreed to what the people asked. However he pleaded with them to wait until he had gone to the island of Cephalonia, where he had left their comrades. ‘The people’, he said, ‘remaining at the siege[5] would be right to call me faithless if I left without returning to their camp [355] and telling them (as I did you) the news of my father’s death, and of my own departure’. After saying this he returned to his siege camp, announced that his father had died and that he intended to withdraw. [360] Everyone there said that they would do what he wanted, and would continue to obey his orders, on condition however that a suitable agreement was concluded with him.

While Roger was thus absent visiting his camp, the men in the other camp became [365] absolutely panic-stricken[6], and abandoned all hope of escape, thinking that life and safety were to be denied them. If all the Greeks, Persians and Arabs [gens Agarena] had attacked them, and all the peoples of the world [370] flocked together, armed themselves, and come upon them while they were themselves unarmed, they could not have been more afraid than they were now. The death of this one man made all these people fearful. Those who, when the duke had been alive, were accustomed to defeating innumerable peoples were now, [375] once he was dead, afraid to resist [even] a few. It is well-known that one man is often more valiant than ten thousand, and a thousand men can put two thousand to flight. Fearing the enemy’s arrival, and with the bigger ships already burned, the terrified people did their best to prepare the smaller ones, so that they could cross the Adriatic and thus put an end to their fears. [380] So afraid were they that they gave no thought to money or clothing; they abandoned it all and humbly begged the sailors to carry their bodies alone in the ships. When the ships were some way from the shore a group of men mounted their horses [385] to ride out to them, and then, abandoning their mounts, climbed on board without them. Another group swam out to embark on the ships. However most of them were unable to return with the fleet, and being left there surrendered to the Greeks. [390] They were all so afraid that they forgot their native valour and remained timidly to serve the Greeks.

The ships were already close to the shores of Apulia when a terrible storm stirred the sea to a fury. Most of the sailors were drowned, and part of the army perished with the fleet. [395] The ship in which his noble body was being transported was dashed to pieces by the storm. The corpse fell into the sea and was only recovered with difficulty. Afraid that it would then start to smell unpleasantly, his wife (who always showed good sense) had the duke’s heart and entrails buried at Otranto, [400] then had the rest of the body embalmed with many sweet-smelling things and carried to the city of Venosa, where the tombs of his elder brothers lay.[7] The duke was buried near them in great state. The city of Venosa is made resplendent by such burials. [405] Since the time of Charlemagne or Caesar never has the earth produced such brothers as these. They are buried in the church built on their orders, the beauty of which illuminates the town. May the Heavenly King, three and one give pardon to them.

[410] You know, Roger, that I have written this song for you. The poet has joyfully done his best to fulfil your instructions. Authors always deserve kindly benefactors. You, my duke, are worthier than the Roman duke Octavian. So I ask you to give me hope of reward, as he did to Maro.[8]


[1] Roger Borsa.

[2] William of Apulia distinguishes between this camp (on the north of the island of Cephalonia) and the other camp of Roger Borsa (Book V: 359). According to Anna Comnena, Guiscard died at Cape Atheras and this tradition, established since the 12th century, places his death at the most southerly point of the island.

[3] Guiscard had anchored his ships at Vonitsa and then embarked for the island of Cephalonia. He was taken by fever at cape Atheras, in the north of the island and died six days later. Sichelgaita arrived just before Guiscard died and found her son, presumably Guy, in tears at his deathbed. William of Apulia situated Roger also at his father’s deathbed.

[4] Roger Borsa was fully aware of the pretensions of his half-brother Bohemond. On his father’s death, Bohemond left Salerno and took refuge with Jordan of Capua who assisted him in his rebellion against Roger Borsa.

[5] The siege of the town of Cephalonia

[6] Interestingly, Anna Comnena makes no mention of this nor of Normans entering Byzantine service at this time in her Alexiad though this is not unlikely. Many Normans passed into Alexius’ service following the capture of Castoria in 1083 and following Guiscard’s death Alexius wrote to the defenders of the citadel at Durazzo in an attempt to persuade them to surrender.

[7] William, Drogo and Humphrey.

[8] Maro in this context means the Roman poet Vergil.

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