Prostitution is widely known as the world’s oldest profession. The professional mercenary is probably the second oldest. Long before the advent of national armies, knights and “free companies” dominated the battle spaces of Europe, Asia, and North Africa. These mercenaries can best be considered as the precursors to modern military contractors. They even had administrative personnel tasked with collecting and distributing captured loot. When these mercenaries were not paid or went without work, peasant rebellions usually erupted.
The private armies of medieval and Early Modern Europe provided some of the best fighting men on the Continent. More importantly, these private armies proved quite capable of defeating Christendom’s greatest enemy, Islam, and retaking Sicily.
The conquest of the Emirate of Sicily began inauspiciously. At the time, Sicily, an island with a long history of conquest including Greek and Carthaginian overlords, belonged to Arab Muslims who conquered the island in 827 A.D. Because the Eastern Roman Empire (best known to the West as the Byzantine Empire) was in retreat in North Africa, Italy, and in the Near East, the Arab Muslims easily vanquished Sicily. For two centuries, these Muslim rulers profoundly altered Sicily’s native culture. They changed Sicily’s cuisine (couscous, arancini, and saffron are all Arab imports), while Siculo-Arabic geographers and poets contributed to a flourishing academic culture on the island. Even after Christian armies reconquered Sicily, Muslims and Greek Christians continued to speak the island’s idiosyncratic Arabic. The Arab and Berber Muslims also left behind their genes. Modern Sicily has one of the highest rates of the North African subhaplotype Va in Europe, although Portugal and Andalusia have higher incidents on average.
However, much like Islamic Spain, the Emirate of Sicily was no paradise full of convivencia. While Sicily’s Muslim rulers were largely more cosmopolitan than their Spanish coreligionists, they nevertheless considered the island’s Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox Christians as “infidels.” Early on, Islam was established on the island through vicious raids that helped to decimate the local population. These raids were not just confined to Sicily, either. Muslim armies attacked mainland Italy as early as 652 A.D., when Arab troops attacked cities in Lombardy. For thirty years, between 847 and 871 A.D., Muslim forces ruled the Apulian city of Bari. The Emirate of Bari was a thumb to the eyes of both the Vatican and Constantinople, which desperately clung to its final Italian possessions in Apulia.
This was the political status of southern Europe until the mid-eleventh century. Far to the north of Sicily, in the cold lands of Normandy, a minor noble family called Hauteville specialized in private warfare. Several years before the Norman conquest of Anglo-Saxon England, Norman warriors were busy fighting as mercenaries in southern Italy. Tancred de Hauteville, the scion of the large Catholic family, sent two of his sons, William and Drago to Apulia in order to fight alongside the Pope and Lombards against the Orthodox Byzantines. William in particular distinguished himself as an excellent warlord. Nicknamed “Iron Arm,” William first entered southern Italy in 1035 at the request of the Norman warlord Count Rainulf of Aversa. His most famous exploit came when a Norman-Byzantine army laid siege to Syracuse and William managed to kill the city’s emir during the height of the battle. William later showed his potency to his fellow Christians when his men rebelled after their overall commander was recalled back to Constantinople.
In 1042, William d’ Hauteville was named as the Count of Apulia following a Norman-Lombard conquest of the region and his marriage to the daughter of the Lombard prince of Salerno. However, even after showing his worth in the fight to reclaim Sicily and southern Italy for Catholicism, William’s army eventually fell afoul of Pope Leo IX (later canonized as a saint). The main issue of contention was the fact that the Hauteville family, which was later joined by two other military geniuses named Robert ‘Guiscard” (“the Resourceful”) and Roger, ruled Apulia as a private kingdom. After using the Normans to secure a Byzantine-free Italy, Pope Leo IX turned on his mercenaries and hired other private soldiers in order oust the Hautevilles from Apulia.
The penultimate battle between the Normans and the Pope’s forces occurred outside of the Apulian city of Foggia. At the Battle of Civitate, a Papal coalition composed of Italian and Lombard foot soldiers and German cavalry from the Holy Roman Empire faced off against a Norman army of 3,000 mounted soldiers and 5,000 infantry. On the Norman side, dragooned Apulian and Calabrian foot soldiers were flanked by Norman horsemen who were considered some of the best fighters in Europe. Utilizing cutting-edge armor and the wedge tactics that their Viking forebearers had perfected, the Norman cavalry outmatched and outclassed their German opponents. The Normans managed to hold their lines against repeated charges of the German (mostly Swabian) cavalry, thus winning the day for the Hauteville family. Six years later, a new pope, Pope Nicholas entered into an alliance with the Hauteville family. Robert and Roger consolidated their family’s gains in Apulia and were rewarded with full control Calabria.
It was the duo of Robert “Guiscard” and Roger who took their combined Norman and Italian armies to Sicily beginning in 1061. In a series of impressive battles, the Hauteville brothers captured a string of Sicilian cities, including Messina (1061) and Palermo (1071). The Apulian town of Bari fell to the Normans in 1072, while Roger, then already the ruler of Salerno, fully took the city and expelled the remaining Greeks of Sicily and the city’s Lombard prince in 1076. A year later, Roger laid siege to the city of Trapani. By 1085, Muslim Sicily was no more. It had been replaced by a new Norman Christian dynasty.
Later Hauteville conquests reached Malta (where Arabic-speaking Greeks from Sicily created the Maltese language), Naples, and the Byzantine Empire. Thanks to their holdings in southern Italy, northern France, and in England, a Norman Empire stood as the most powerful Christian kingdom in the West.
While the Norman Hautevilles let elite Muslims maintain some semblance of power well into the 12th century, they also began expelling Sicilian Muslims as early as 1061. The cathedrals which had been turned into mosques became Christian cathedrals once again. New edifices built by the Norman rulers show a considerable influence from the Arab world, along with Greek and Roman architectural styles.
These days, travelers in Sicily cannot help but see the traces of Norman culture. Statues of Hauteville warriors abound in cities like Caltagirone and Palermo. The island’s many basilicas are perfect examples of the particularly Norman approach to Romanesque design. Thousands of Sicilian men bear Norman names like Ruggero (Roger) and Guglielmo (William). Overall, the island’s inhabitants take great pride in the civilization that the Normans built out of the ashes of an Arab-Berber-Greek emirate.
The Norman influence on Sicily arguably reached its greatest heights during the Kingdom of Two Sicilies. With roots reaching back to 1130, Roger II d’Hauteville established the Kingdom of Sicily, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was the largest and most prosperous Italian state prior to the Risorgimento. While southern Italy and Sicily have a reputation for being backward, rural, and mafia-controlled, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies launched the world’s first steel ship in 1818, built the world’s first iron bridges in 1832 and 1835, and oversaw one of the most prosperous economies in Europe.
Until the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia unified and reshaped Italy in its own image, southern Italy and Sicily exuded a unique inheritance in terms of civilization that owed much to a roving band of blonde and blue-eyed barbarians.