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E - 185: How the Vikings got to Sicily

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

As a student in Senior High I loved historical maps. One of the maps which intrigued me most was a chart showing the Vikings’ journeys across the Atlantic. The blue arrows darting from Scandinavia to Iceland, from there to Greenland and eventually to Newfoundland fired-up my imagination. 60 people huddled together in a longboat for weeks, exposed to the elements, eating one warm meal a day (boiled cod) with only the stars as guides seemed dangerous but thrilling. On the map I found Viking states or settlements in Russia, Normandy, England, Southern Italy and Sicily. Naturally I assumed that the Vikings sailed to all these places. Who could cross the Atlantic could surely navigate the Mediterranean!

As ever so often, my perception was wrong. Not a single Viking or Norman arrived in the Mediterranean by sea. They arrived in the 9th and 10th century AD as fearsome warriers. Some from Normandy on the land route, many via the Volga river. Recognizing their military prowess, the Byzantine Emperors hired them into his army. Being newcomers they had no prior affiliations and were the “hired hands” an Emperor could use without having to strike a deal with his nobles. As long as the Viking mercenaries – called Varangians - got paid, they were the most loyal troops. Emphasis is on – as long as they got paid.

The Byzantine Empire in 1025 AD

But now the history gets complicated and confusing – will try to summarize it in a few lines.

From the 8th to the 11th century, the Byzantine Empire was under attack on several fronts. It suffered from Imperial overstretch which severely depleted its finances - big problem when your army is made up from mercenaries. At the turn of the millennium, the Byzantine Army numbered about 100’000 troops. Most of them had to be directed against the most serious threat, the Bulgars. A Turkic tribe from the steps of the Black Sea, they had moved into the Danube region and established a powerful state, besieging and almost conquering Constantinople. It required a centuries long effort to push them back and eventually subject them by 1018. Luckily, they converted to Christianity. Accepting the Greek Patriarch in Constantinople as their religious leader helped.

That the Byzantine Empire was forced to focus on the Bulgars did not go unnoticed. Arab leaders from Tunisia realised how thinly defended Sicily was and occupied it in 831 making it one of the most prosperous provinces in their realm. Charlemagne took advantage of Byzantium’s weakness as well. Not only did he declare himself as an alternative Emperor in 800 AD (with the help of the Pope of course) but also ripped the Duchy of Benevento (Italy south of Naples) away from Byzantium. Again, there were far too few troops to defend it. By 814 AD Byzantium’s hold in Italy was down to Calabria and Bari in Apulia. To add to the stress, the Fatimid Empire started expanding into Palestine and Syria in the 10th century and battled Byzantine Forces for Beirut in 975 and around Aleppo in 995 AD.

The Fatimid Empire around 1'000 AD

In this power vacuum, a few fearless mercenaries were a good solution to hold the enemies at bay until reinforcement could be brought in. The Byzantine Army shuttled between the various front lines and was mostly able to hold its ground until it was catastrophically beaten in 1071 by the Seljuk Turks at Manzikert. After that the Byzantine Army was a shadow of itself. The years following Manzikert, the Seljuks slowly moved into Anatolia. Nothing would hold them back. Byzantium lost its tax base and the ability to pay for a new mercenary army. Emperor Alexios I had to beg the Pope for military help. The age of the Crusades began

Two people perfectly illustrate the role of the Vikings or Norman during these turbulent times. The first one was Harald Hardrada who eventually became King of Norway. The second was Robert Guiscard from Normandy who would become Duke of Calabria, Apulia and Sicily. Both were from second tier noble families and attracted by Constantinople's glamour which was with 500’000 people still the wealthiest and biggest city in Europe.

Harald Hardrada - there is no contemporary picture of him

Hardrada (1015 – 1066) came to Constantinople in 1034 with only 500 followers and stayed to 1042. He served the Emperor in several military campaigns in Asia, Palestine, Bulgaria, Southern Italy and Sicily. With William I of Hauteville, Guiscard's older brother, he invaded Sicily in 1038 and reconquered the island for Byzantium. However, due to internal strife, the invading army dissolved and was withdrawn in 1040. Managing an army composed of various mercenary factions was always a challenge. Using his warrior skills, Harald returned to Denmark and became King of Norway in 1046 AD. But Norway was not big enough for him. He lusted for England which he invaded in 1066. Hardrada was killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge a few weeks before William the Conqueror arrived from Normandy

Guiscard on one his golden coins for which his reign was famous

Robert Guiscard (1015 – 1085) joined his older brother William I of Hauteville in 1047 in Calabria with 5 knights and 30 infantry. Alternatively, he worked for Byzantium, the Langobard (successors to Charlemagne in Italy) or the Pope. Whoever paid. And if he was not in someone’s service, he terrorized the countryside with his roving band of robbers. By 1048 he had his own castle. In 1053 he made a name for himself when his small army defeated a large force sent by the Pope. His specialty were heavy cavalry charges against much larger infantry formations. On average, Robert had around 100 – 200 knights with him. Since Byzantium had almost no troops left in Southern Italy, he and his younger brother slowly but steadily conquered all of Calabria and Apulia. By 1059 the Pope accepted the inevitable and made Guiscard Duke of Calabria, Apulia and Sicily which was still under Muslim control. Guiscard and his younger brother Roger invaded the island in 1061. Less than ten years later, in 1071, Palermo, the jewel of Muslim Sicily and a vibrant commercial hub, surrendered after a long siege. A smallish army had carried Sicily. The same year, the Byzantine Army was wiped out in Manzikert and Bari, their last stronghold in Italy, fell.

The Normans came to Sicily attracted by its wealth. Once they ruled it, they left everybody going about their business as long as taxes were paid and the Norman lordship accepted. The Normans took over even most of the Muslim government structures. Sicily continued to be a thriving commercial center and became for 200 years a vibrant melting pot of Arab-Byzantine-Norman culture. Long lost know-how flowed back to Europe via Sicily. It was almost as important as Cordoba in Muslim Spain. In Palermo, many lost classical Greek works were translated into Latin for the first time. Am going to talk about this in another blog. The Normans had a big impact on Sicily - they just did not arrive via the sea.

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