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E - 184: What Legacy did the Normans Leave behind in Southern Italy?

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

Castello di Svevo

Yesterday, I talked a lot about Vikings or Normans who came to Southern Italy for adventure and getting rich quickly – which indeed they did in the prevailing power vacuum. Also mentioned how small their forces were – usually a few dozen knights – sometimes a few hundreds. How did these small forces dominate the country? Not surprisingly, they did the same thing that William the Conqueror did, the Norman Duke who invaded England in 1066 and became King after winning the battle of Hastings: He built castles on all strategically important places such as the fords crossing the river Thames. Two of them, Windsor Castle and Tower Hill, still stand today and attract thousands of tourists every day.

Robert Gisecard, the new Duke of Calabria, Apulia and Sicily, did exactly the same. In the vicinity of important ports or towns he built powerful fortresses - usually on the nearby mountain ridges or on dominant hills. These places were difficult to access thus easy to defend with the few troops available. Of course they needed large storage facilities since they were besieged ever so often during local rebellions. Even more important was the fact that there was no water on these mountain tops. All these castles have thus impressive cisterns – something the Normand learnt from the Arabs with their sophisticated irrigation techniques.

Castello Ducale di Corigliano

On our week-long journey along the coast of Calabria, mostly long, sandy beaches formed from the sediments of the mountain rivers, we will always see the Calabrese Mountain range in a distance not further than 2 – 3 miles from shore. And there they are – the Norman castles. Looking out into the sea to detect enemies fleets – be they Byzantine or Arab. Tried to find an article of Norman castles in Calabria but did not get much further than the website of the Office for Tourism. But counted 13 Norman Castles on Google Map. Am glad someone earmarked their position and added some spectacular photos to the location.

Castles in Calabria as per Google Earth - only 13 were built by Normans

We are going to visit two of them. The Ducal Castle of Corigliano Calabro which was built on the order of Guiscard himself to tower over the fertile plans of Sybaris, the ancient Greek town we already talked about and the Castello Svevo di Cosenza a bit further north on the way to Taranto.

The Ducal Castle of Calabro was apparently built because Guiscard was unhappy with the existing fortifications in the region and desired a stronger and easier to defend place. How much of this is local gossip, I do not know. As we learnt from past expeditions, you need to go to visit and talk to local people to find out. Not even Italian websites offer a lot of information. But it is the perfect excuse for a visit.

View on the fertile planes of Sybaris from Castello Svevo

The Castello di Cosenza dates back to the 10th century and was built over an old Roman watch tower – not so sure about this explanation either. Since the Roman Navy dominated the sea, there was no need for watch towers. Maybe it refers to Byzantines who did not fully control the Mediterranean any longer? Again, we will find out when there - I hope!

Planned journey in 2021 - one week of Calabria!

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