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The Norman conquest of Apulia, Calabria and Sicily: Robert Guiscard, and all that


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By the 1020’s, Normans were showing up in southern Italy in numbers.  The often contradictory primary sources agree that the first of them arrived from pilgrimages to Jerusalem, and that they engaged in military activity from the onset, initially as mercenaries. The second, more mundane but lucrative prospect soon had knights arriving directly from Normandy.  

Newer arrivals included the occasional political and/or criminal exile, but increasingly ran to being younger sons of aristocratic families, keen to carve out prospects that were lacking in their duchy of birth. The Normans’ employers included local Byzantine nobility, in revolt against what remained of direct imperial rule; the no less residual Lombard presence; and (further north) the Papacy, variously engaged against Byzantines and Muslims --the latter based in Sicily, themselves under the increasingly nominal rule of the Fatimid Caliphate.  (See esp. Bates 241 ff.; Loud, Robert, 60-2.)  

(Below: from Shepherd’s Historical Atlas; unknown edition.  While the dates on the map are of the Normans’ conquest, the borders aspire to show how things looked on the ground at the time of their arrival, decades before.)


...In other words, this relatively small area was a patchwork of mutually hostile, no less mutually compromised interests, across political, religious and cultural lines.  The ensuing structural anarchy made the region as ripe for the picking as any conventionally predatory, 11th-century Norman could wish.  

Before long, especially under the eight sons of Tancred de Hauteville, the Normans’ depredations saw a pronounced acceleration, both in Apulia /Calabria and Sicily, gradually but inexorably leading from brigandage to conquest.  The two leading actors were Robert ‘Guiscard’ (variously translated as ‘The Shrewd’ and ‘The Weasel’) and his brother, the future Count Roger I of Sicily.  Robert arrived in the 1040’s, initially with a small band of knights, acting as bandits in a less than hospitable part of Calabria.  (Brown 57-60; Loud, Robert 105).  But within a couple of decades, Robert was well enough established in the region to undertake the successful siege of Palermo, with the help of his brother Roger, who had arrived in the 1050’s.  In 1057, Robert had succeeded his elder brother Humphrey as the “overall leader” of the Normans in Apulia (ibid. 123), and in 1059, he was awarded the titles of Duke of Apulia, Calabria and Sicily.  –Still in variously hypothetical capacities, but by papal investment, which gave him and Roger the green light to proceed with the outstanding conquests.  The papal wording, as translated by Loud, is ‘by the grace of God and Saint Peter, Duke of Apulia and Calabria, and in future, with the help of both, of Sicily.’  (Loud, Robert 128-30.  For the Hauteville genealogy, along with more on the evolving political landscape, see also Cawley, Medieval Lands: SICILY.)

At the same time, the diversity and proximity of so many ethnicities allowed for a cultural ‘perfect storm,’ in the best sense of the phrase. Across the region, this included a substantial Jewish presence, politically unenfranchised (of course), but of pronounced cultural influence, with Talmudic scholars in correspondence with Simon Maimonides as late as the end of the 12th c. CE.  (Cf. this webpage –others are eluding capture: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Jews_in_Apulia#Medieval_history.) 

This confluence led to a phenomenon familiar over the breadth of the northern Mediterranean coast, from this period into the 13th century CE.  Across media and disciplines –from coins, to the arts, to a wide-ranging spectrum of scholarship– Europeans were actively appropriating influences from the Byzantines, Muslims and Jews among whom they found themselves.  This can be seen from Iberia (where Muslim and Jewish libraries were left intact but, by royal fiat, rigorously translated into Latin --reminiscent of the Great Library of Alexandria), to southern Italy, right across to the Crusader states of Antioch (whose founder, Bohemond of Taranto, was a son of Robert Guiscard), and, as late as the mid-13th century, the ‘Frankish’ kingdom of Jerusalem /Acre itself.  The sheer scale of cultural adaptation and evolution has to evoke the Normans’ Viking ancestors, who were sponges for foreign influence, whether in Kievan Rus,’ central Asia, or Anglo-Saxon England.  (In these contexts, I find the terms ‘appropriation’ and ‘assimilation’ a little revisionistic, if not simplistic.  But in each case, the cultural dynamism of the processes themselves is hard to ignore, independently of such ostensibly necessary interpretive glosses.) 

Returning to the more immediate context, the numismatic record is resonantly evocative.  A century before the Norman Kingdom of Sicily evolved into the resonantly pluralistic polity it became, the local Lombard and Byzantine interests were already imitating the Fatimid taris (comparable to a tremissis) which had been circulating since the 9th c. CE.  (Cf. esp. Loud, “Coinage, Wealth and Plunder.”)

 This is a late Lombardic (or perhaps Byzantine) AV tari, already imitating  Fatimid prototypes.


Anonymous; mint of (often Byzantine) Amalfi or (more consistently Lombardic) Salerno, c. 1000-1050.  Tari, imitating Fatimid issues of the 10th-11th c.s CE.  (Both sides:) Pseudo-Kufic legend around central pellet.  9 mm, 0, 56 g.  Cf. MEC v. 14, 38; Biaggi 14.

And here’s a tari from Sicily, more or less on the eve of its capture by the Normans.  It’s issued in the name of the Fatamid caliph, al-Mustansir Abu Tamim Ma‘add, 427-487 AH / 1036-1094 CE, but likely predating the first Norman issue of Palermo in 1072 (see below).




Quoting Stephen Album, Checklist of Islamic Coins (3rd ed., 2011: db.stevealbum.com/php/albumcat.php): 

“722       AV ¼ dinar, stellate type S

“Struck principally in Sicily (non-Sicilian mints are extremely

rare). The legends are arranged as a complex hexagram, and are

very difficult to decipher. The mint & date are usually off flan.

Debased examples are common, both in silver and in copper,

often gilt, probably contemporary forgeries, although some are

perhaps emergency issues officially struck during conflicts with

the Normans.”

(Cf. Spahr 41.  To Album’s point, cf. D’Andrea 71, attributing an electrum imitation of this issue –with “pseudo-cufic,” rather than literate, Arabic legends– to Roger I, minted “during the conquest.”)

This page, on the Numista website, offers further elucidation about the denomination, which evokes the late Roman tremissis –with its own extensive adventures, from early Anglo-Saxon England to Aksum /Axum:

“Born as Arabic gold coin weighing about 1 gram worth about 1/4 of the Arab-Islamic Dinar and initially called ruba'i (literally as "Quartino").

It was introduced in Sicily around 913 [CE] by the Fatimids.”



Meanwhile, in the process of becoming autonomous of meaningful Fatimid rule, Sicily had split into competing emirates, with the major port city of Palermo largely under the control of local mercantile elites.  Further complicating the landscape was a large, semi-permanent contingent of Berber mercenaries, from which the local Arab population became increasingly alienated.  Following a major defeat of the Berbers in 1068 CE, the Berber leadership withdrew to their base in modern Tunisia.  As Brown notes, “[t]he situation in Sicily had ripened for the Hautevilles” ([125-] 127).  After an unsuccessful attempt in 1064, the newly coordinated land and sea forces of Robert and Roger captured Palermo in January 1072, after a siege of five months.  (Loud, Robert (157-) 161.)

…More anecdotally, this is a neo-Byzantine follis, more tenuously attributed to Robert ‘Guiscard’ d Hauteville, the eventual antihero of this post.  Imitating a common anonymous type (Class B), corresponding to the reign of Romanus III, 1028-1034 (Sear, Byzantine 1823).  Relative to the prototype, the dramatic decline in weight, module (c. 14 mm) and style strongly suggests that it’s from southern Italy, whether Norman, local Byzantine, or Lombard.




This is an AV tari, much less ambiguously issued by Robert, his very own, very bad self, within a year of the Norman capture of Palermo.d4b4uG6Q2mLJjmBbevn8HBR6eNzO3QkbPJyYlvpYQlRoT43NhJ70ldhwUSvTniDYlbANPMP3wCEHUt31I1h-1AtX5TDPKWgxmnXmX4tTnrO28s871meiv5UbByobUPH0WD6vx4mSzoJQchplH0Z0SkGqEYZMaXXuvW4Agaf5072xDdYD57NX_OHagWyLSg


Sicily; Robert Guiscard, nominal Duke of Apulia, Calabria and Sicily as of 1059; d. 1085.  AV tari of Palermo, dated AH 466 /1072 CE, issued in the immediate aftermath of its capture, by the combined forces of Robert and his younger brother, Roger.  Here, already, the legends are in fully literate Arabic, with an accurate AH date.

Obv.  (In field, in three lines; using D’Andrea’s translations:) 

‘By order [/] of Robert [/pellet] the very glorious King [/] Sicily.’

(Along the border:)  ‘In the name of God was minted this dinar in Sicily the year 466.’

Rev. (In field: the first Kalima:)  ‘God [/] There is no divinity but [/pellet] Muhammad is the Messenger [/pellet] of God.’

(0.94 g.)  Andrea 26-7, citing MEC v. 14: 66; Spahr 138; Travaini 148; and several other references of which I’m completely innocent.


From Palermo’s capture, Robert invested Roger with the city and the rest of Sicily, whether Norman or not (yet), nominally as his suzerain.  Robert, meanwhile, was keen to return to the Italian mainland, to consolidate his position in Calabria and Salerno.  From this interval, one of his main gestes was the conquest of the city of Salerno (conspicuously under Lombard control) in  Dec. 1076, after a siege of five months.  (Brown 152-4; Loud, Robert 137-141.)

Here’s this coin from the siege.  You’ll be spared the full explication of the issue –by Grierson, at his most arcane– but I’ll include a link to the .pdf, for people who want to inflict this on themselves –and no one here is doubting your motives! 


Except, I’ll just leave the junkpile of what else I found online.  Aggregately, it advances the narrative.  




ITALY, SALERNO, Gisulf II (1052-1077) or Robert Guiscard (1077-1085), AE follaro. 

Obv.  Profile to right (vaguely neo-LRB?), between two stars; cross above. 

Rev.   + ME/N[SE O/CT]VB/R. 

Worked 26; DUDE. XIV, 31; Cappelli 52. 4.94g  (All cited by Elsen.)

This remarkable coin is dated October. There is also a type dated August (M.E.C. XIV, 29), which obviously suggests brief and successive emissions, probably related to military events. This is why they were attributed to the siege of Salerno by Robert Guiscard in 1076. The city fell to the Normans in December 1076 after a terrible seven-month siege. Gisulf II, the last Lombard prince of Salerno, negotiated his capitulation and obtained exile in the Papal States.  Grierson 1956

 SALERNITAN COINAGE 55 The evidence brought forward above shows that the Octubr coins are to be associated with the S later than the Gisulfus coins but earlier which in their turn must have been struck is therefore every reason to suppose that th siege of 1076-1077. This began in May 1076 the citadel in June 1077, though the greater from December 1076 onwards. Whether besieged there is nothing to show, but un forthcoming we can fairly assign them to other coins that appear to b

 The evidence brought forward above show Octubr coins are to be associated with the S later than the Gisulfus coins but earlier  which in their turn must have been stru is therefore every reason to suppose that th siege of 1076-1077. This began in May 1076  the citadel in June 1077, though the greater from December 1076 onwards. Whether besieged there is nothing to show, but un forthcoming we can fairly assign them to  other coins that appear to be a contemporary issue of Guiscard.

Sorry for all of that.  I don't know why the link to the operative .pdf of Grierson doesn't just work, the way you could wish the technology did, without having to treat the issue as something on the level of ransomware.  As in, Okay (expletive of choice), just How much Money do you want?  

Meanwhile, Robert’s brother, Roger I (d. 1101) succeeded as Great Count of Sicily in 1085, on the death of his brother and nominal suzerain.  From the conquest of Palermo over a decade before, as de facto count, Roger had been steadily consolidating his rule in the island, both territorily and administratively.




Norman Calabria /Sicily.  Roger I; trifollaro (an unusual denomination; nominally three neo-Byzantine folles).  Issued, c. 1098-1101, either in Mileto (just north of Reggio, in southern Calabria, in the map above) or Messina (immediately on the Sicilian side of the strait between Calabria and Sicily).

Obv. Roger, helmeted, on horseback with long, ‘kite-shaped,’ Norman shield; across his shoulder, a lance tipped by a banner.

(From 1 o’clock; punctuated by elements of the design:) ROg [/] E [/] RIVS [/] COME [/] S.

Mary seated, holding the baby Jesus (haloed), in ‘swaddling clothes.’

(From 2 o’clock:) MARI/\ [/] MATER DNI.

D’Andrea 131, extensively citing MEC v. 14 no. 93 (cf. note 15); Travaini, and other references that go sailing over my head.

The depiction of Roger evokes this scene from the later 11th-c. Bayeux Tapestry, in which the Breton castle of Dinan surrenders to William ‘the Bastard,’ extending the keys on the point of another lance, received by the same means.


(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayeux_Tapestry_tituli#/media/File:BayeuxTapestryScene20.jpg.  From this Wiki article: Bayeux Tapestry tituli - Wikipedia.) 

In this issue, at the end of his comital reign, Roger seems intent on affirming the Norman and Latin character of his rule.  –In dramatic contrast to the tari of his elder brother, nearly two decades earlier, and his own early, illiterate, debased imitations of the last nominally Fatimid taris of Sicily.  

But even here, the more ambiguity you look for, the more you find.  Brown notes that “Roger had outlived his elder brother by fifteen years, but the era had already changed.  The great adventures were over, the great conquests achieved” (193).  While cementing ties with an increasingly compliant Papacy –who had already transitioned from toleration of the Norman presence, to reliance on it in the immediate geopolitical context– Roger was known both for “sponsorship of Greek rite monasteries, as well as his toleration of Muslim practices” (ibid.).  

One factor which allowed Roger to pursue his own agenda to this extent was his acuity in following the recent precedent of his cousins in Norman England.  Brown emphasizes that, from the onset, the “direction” of his rule in Sicily was “very centralized.”  Not unlike the feudal ‘blank slate’ that William ‘the Bastard’ imposed on England, allowing him to mete out fiefs, large and small, as he wished (in contrast to the sometimes chaotic duchy of Normandy), Roger was able to enforce his own, central rule on the island which he conquered, effectively from the ground up (in contrast to Calabria and Apulia, to which he and his brother had already arrived relatively late).  To an only more pronounced degree than William, Roger was able to “grant[...] major fiefs only to loyal members of the extended family, or to Church foundations that owed him their loyalty.”  Meantime, symbiotically, the preexisting “Oriental and Lombard concepts of absolutism and regal display” were conveniently ready to hand. (192.) 

As Brown summarizes, “the Great Count’s rule in Sicily and Calabria [...was] tolerant and inclusive in its application (at least vastly more so than was the norm in an intolerant era) [...].”  (Ibid –but I have to wonder, in the complete, summary absence of the mere invention of modern, pseudo-scientific racism, what era Brown might have found more favorable.) 

This is a follaro of Roger’s successor, II of the name; first King of Sicily, 1130-1154.  …Yes, from this point, the Norman follaros make no pretence of being of the same weight and module as the Byzantine folles which they imitate.  This one clocks in at under 15 mm.  ‘…How are the mighty fallen!’


Messina (at the northeastern tip of Sicily, just across the strait from Reggio, in southern Calabria).  Follaro, dated 553 AH /1138-9 CE. 

Rev. Christ facing, imitating more anonymous Byzantine folles.  In field: IC [...XC, off the flan].

Obv. (in four lines of relentlessly literate Arabic:) ‘By order [/] of the King the magnificent Roger [/] the powerful through God [/] 533.’

D’Andrea 229, citing, just for one, MEC vol. 14, 197.

Under Roger fils, both the pluralism of the court and the royal political agenda went into high gear.  Roger II had already been tutored by Byzantine Greek and Muslim scholars, and is reputed to have been fluent in Arabic.  (Cf. these, Yep, websites: 



Meanwhile, Abulafia emphasizes that, in imposing an ethos of theocratically informed autocracy on his kingdom, Roger drew not only from Byzantine legal precedent (conspicuously back to Justinian), and its earlier Roman underpinnings.  More locally, Lombard practice had already made inroads into appropriating the same aggregate tradition, extending to royal ritual and other visual rhetoric.  (See esp. 31-4.)

Here’s a map, commissioned by Roger II, toward the end of his reign, from a famous, locally based Arab geographer.


And here it is, as converted to a globe (right, these people knew the earth was round) by the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization (UAE).




This is Roger’s royal mantle, bearing an inscription in Arabic with the Hijrah date of 528 (1133–34 CE).



And this is a mosaic of Roger, crowned by Christ in (pardon the pun) iconically Byzantine style, from a church which was built (c. 1143-1151) by Roger’s admiral and principal minister, George of Antioch, as an Eastern Orthodox foundation.  One thing that’s fun here is the inscription, with its Greek transcription of ‘ROGERIVS REX.’  (Thank you, ‘Rex’ is as Latin a word as you can get –and I can’t doubt that George and Roger were both paying a lot of attention to the rhetorical fine points.  It’s hard not to think that Roger’s influence was at work here, by way of avoiding the Greek ‘BACI/\EOC’ construct, out of something at least resembling the diplomatic equivalent of humility.  …Only the alphabet was changed, to protect the guilty.)


Church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio - Wikipedia 

This is a concave follaro (evoking Byzantine trachys) of Roger II’s son and heir, William I (1154-1166).  While not including a Jewish element, the legends and motifs represent all three of the other major ethnicities.


Obv.  (In field:) REX [/] .W. (Latin: check that box.)

(Around:)  In Arabic (check): ‘Minted in Messina the year 50 and 500.’  (An initially accurate AH date, corresponding to 1155/6 CE. D’Andrea notes that “this coin might have been struck for some years later with the same dies.”)

Rev.  A familiar Byzantine (ikon/) motif: Mary, holding Jesus.  In field (mostly unstruck:)  Μ[ήτη]ρ Θ[εο]ύ (Greek: Mother of God).  (Check, Thank you, That box.)

(D’Andrea 338, citing MEC 14, Spahr, Travaini, and several other references.) 


Stuff I looked at: historical sources, secondary and primary, along with a couple of numismatic ones.  (Others, notably MEC vol 14 –known only from online citations– and sundry historical web pages, are cited or linked in the text.) 

Abulafia, David.  Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor. Oxford UP, 1988.

D’Andrea, Alberto.  The Normans’s Coins of the Kingdom of Sicily [sic]. 2nd ed., 2015.  (Routinely citing MEC v.14, Travaini, and several other state-of-the discipline references in print.  Thanks, Alberto.)

Anna Komnene.  The Alexiad.  Tr. E. R.A. Sewter.  “Revised with Introduction and Notes by Peter Frankopan.”  1969.  London: Penguin, 2003.  (...Rats: since this only deals with Robert from a later interval in his career, I never found occasion to cite it.)

Bates, David.  Normandy before 1066.  London: Longman, 1982.

Brown, Gordon S. The Norman Conquest of Southern Italy and Sicily.  2003.

Grierson, Philip.  “The Salernitan coinage of Gisulf II (1052-1077) and Robert Guiscard (1077-1085).”  Papers of the British School at Rome 24 (1956), pp. 37-59. Accessible (I hope) here: ernitan Coinage of Gisulf II (1052-77) and Robert Guiscard (1077-85)


[= PH. Grierson, in Later Medieval Numismatics, Variorum Coll. Studies 98, London 1979, article II].  (From 



Loud, G. A.  The Age of Robert Guiscard: Southern Italy and the Norman Conquest.  Longman /Pearson, 2000.

—.  “Coinage, Wealth and Plunder in the Age of Robert Guiscard.”  The English Historical Review, Vol. 114, No. 458 (Sept. 1999), pp. 815-843.  (Xeroxed from a hard copy in a local four-year school.  …Never mind; just read all of it.)

...Please, anything that any of this makes you think of, for any reason, just Post it!  ...Yes, think Differently from me.  That will get you points! :<}


Edited by JeandAcre
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Its a shame the norman-Byzantine wars aren’t better known


Tangentially related:


Michael VIII and Andronikos II Palaeologus battled with the house of Anjou based in Sicily for the post 1204 Byzantine empire until Michael VIII pulled off a piece of realpolitik that echoes down the ages…

Thanks to those efforts, his son would disavow the church reunion between east and west, itself perhaps one of the main causes behind the slow and painful decline of the restored Byzantine empire

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An outstanding writeup @JeandAcre! Its funny that you bring up the Normans as there were a few coins early last year that I picked up, but didn't post yet as I haven't fully attributed them. Here are a few of them... 

Normans in Sicily: William II (1166-1189) BI Dirham Fraction, Palermo (Spahr 116; Travaini 367; MEC 400)

Obv: Kufic legend in three lines - الملك غليوم المعظم (King Guglielmo, the Great)
Rev: Kufic legend in two lines - المعتز بالله (Victorious through God); in center, cross potent flanked by pellets
Dim: 10mm, 0.52 g, 11h



Normans in Sicily: Roger II (1130-1154) Æ Mezzo Follaro, Messina (Spahr 77; Travaini 192; MEC 180-2)

Obv: Roger enthroned facing
Rev: Cross pattée; IC XC NI KA in quarters
Dim: 13.5mm, 1.08 g, 11h



Normans in Sicily: Roger II (1130-1154) Æ Follaro, Messina (Spahr 62; Travaini 193; MEC 197)

Obv: Facing bust of Christ
Rev: al–malik al–mu‘azzam Rujjār al-mu‘tazz bi–llāh 533 in four lines
Dim: 13.5mm, 1.08 g, 11h







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Wow, @quant.geek, those are all brilliant examples.  To say nothing of your familiarity both with the best references, and the Arabic legends.  The first two are uncommon enough to be completely outside my frame of reference; the ways they appropriate the Islamic and Byzantine elements really sing.  The enthroned Roger, with the Byzantine crown, is fantastic.

...Speaking of Western appropriation of Byzantine elements, I have to be reminded of the Salian kings and emperors who issued denars with the same style of crown, along with comparable ikonographic motifs.  (C. 11th c.; written up in a thread in this subforum.)  I know only less about the associated political agenda of the Hautevilles.  But in light of their sustained enmity with the Byzantines, it could easily have been much more pragmatic, focussed more on the coins themselves, and their circulation (cf. the Arabic legends), than the more ideologically fraught motives of the Salians, who were doing all they could to identify with the Byzantine imperial ethos.

But No, that Roger enthroned kicks stuff all over the block.  I'm wanting one!

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43 minutes ago, quant.geek said:

An outstanding writeup @JeandAcre! Its funny that you bring up the Normans as there were a few coins early last year that I picked up, but didn't post yet as I haven't fully attributed them. Here are a few of them... 

Normans in Sicily: William II (1166-1189) BI Dirham Fraction, Palermo (Spahr 116; Travaini 367; MEC 400)

Obv: Kufic legend in three lines - الملك غليوم المعظم (King Guglielmo, the Great)
Rev: Kufic legend in two lines - المعتز بالله (Victorious through God); in center, cross potent flanked by pellets
Dim: 10mm, 0.52 g, 11h



Normans in Sicily: Roger II (1130-1154) Æ Mezzo Follaro, Messina (Spahr 77; Travaini 192; MEC 180-2)

Obv: Roger enthroned facing
Rev: Cross pattée; IC XC NI KA in quarters
Dim: 13.5mm, 1.08 g, 11h



Normans in Sicily: Roger II (1130-1154) Æ Follaro, Messina (Spahr 62; Travaini 193; MEC 197)

Obv: Facing bust of Christ
Rev: al–malik al–mu‘azzam Rujjār al-mu‘tazz bi–llāh 533 in four lines
Dim: 13.5mm, 1.08 g, 11h







Great examples. Norman-sicilian would probably be the coinage I collected if I ever decided to expand from post 1204. Early lusignan coinage from cyprus is equally interesting 

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