Robert Guiscard

views updated May 21 2018

Robert Guiscard

The Norman adventurer Robert Guiscard, Count and Duke of Apulia (1016-1085), was the most famous of the Norman brothers, members of the Hauteville family, who entered the wars of southern Italy and carved out important principalities for themselves.

Of the early life in Normandy of Robert Guiscard, very little is known. In the 1030s his older brothers William, Drogo, and Humphrey went to southern Italy to serve as mercenary captains in the numerous wars between Lombards and Byzantine Greeks. Within 2 decades they had begun to establish themselves in castles and to carry great weight in the affairs of their adopted homeland. In 1046 Robert came to Italy to join them. Robert received no immediate benefits, and he, like other Norman knights ambitious for land and wealth in southern Italy, had to occupy himself in the many military campaigns and small battles that filled its 11th-century history. In 1049 Robert's brother Drogo offered him a castle in Calabria, and for the next 4 years Robert lived a life of brigandage and robbery, earning for himself the nickname Guiscard, the "Crafty One, " which he was to retain throughout his life.

Robert came out of Calabria in 1053, when a papal army, backed by the forces of the German emperor, threatened the Norman possessions in the south. In the battle of Civitate in that year, the forces of Norman-controlled Apulia crushed the armies of Pope Leo IX and won papal recognition for their conquests in the south. Robert spent the next 2 years completing the conquest of the last Byzantine lands in Italy. In 1057 Robert's brother Humphrey, Count of Apulia, died, and Robert, by now the most renowned leader of the Normans, succeeded him. To his younger brother Roger, Robert gave the task of driving the Arabs out of Sicily and adding the island to his possessions.

In 1059 Pope Nicholas II formally confirmed Robert's titles:Duke of Apulia and Calabria and Duke of Sicily, although the island had not yet been conquered. Robert, in his turn, swore an oath of loyalty to the Pope and agreed to pay tribute. In the brief space of 6 years the Norman-papal relations had been reversed. Instead of thieves and usurpers, the Normans were now loyal and faithful papal vassals, servants and allies of the Church. By 1060 Robert and Roger had expelled the Greeks from all of southern Italy except Bari, and they now concentrated upon the conquest of Sicily. This task took 30 years, years that Robert spent in suppressing revolts in Apulia and Calabria and in pressing the remaining Byzantine stronghold at Bari. In 1071 Bari fell to Robert, and the last Byzantine enclave in the West was lost. In the same year Norman forces finally captured Palermo, the capital of Sicily, and in 1072 Robert entered his new domains in triumph.

After dealing with yet another rebellion and surviving a protracted illness, Robert renewed his attempts to crush pockets of resistance to his rule. In 1077 he conquered Salerno, and in 1080, after years of disputes, wrangling over rights, and personal insults, Robert renewed his oath of loyalty to the papacy in the person of Pope Gregory VII and was in return confirmed in the possession of his lands. From 1080 on, Robert began to form another plan, this time to attack the Byzantine Empire itself, across Greece and the northern Aegean Sea to the very capital city of Constantinople. Throughout 1081 Robert assembled a massive fleet and army at the ports of Brindisi and Bari. In May 1081 Robert's fleet crossed the Adriatic. In a furious battle at Durazzo, Robert defeated the army of the Byzantine emperor Alexius I Comnenus and forced him to retreat. Alexius, however, had instigated a revolt in Apulia, and this revolt, along with an appeal from Pope Gregory VII for aid against the army of the German emperor, Henry IV, recalled Robert to the Italian mainland, where he spent 1082 and 1083 in suppressing the revolt in Apulia and preparing an assault on Rome to rescue the embattled Pope Gregory.

In 1084 Robert attacked the city of Rome, the German defenders fled, and the Normans entered the city and sacked and burned it, taking Pope Gregory with them. Gregory was installed in a palace at Salerno, where he died in May 1085. Several months earlier Robert had returned to the campaign in Greece. He resumed the campaign, which had faltered during his absence, and captured the island of Corfu. After wintering on Corfu, the Norman army was suddenly struck by a ravaging epidemic, possibly typhoid fever, and on July 17, 1085, Robert himself succumbed to it. He was buried at Venosa in Apulia.

Further Reading

There is no better introduction to Robert Guiscard's life than John Julius Norwich, The Normans in the South, 1016-1130 (1967), an excellent popular history of Norman expansion in southern Italy. See also David C. Douglas, The Norman Achievement (1969), the best survey of Norman activity in France, England, and southern Italy, and Denis Mack Smith, Medieval Sicily (1970). □