Robert Guiskard

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Robert Guiscard is crowned Duke by Pope Nicholas II. (Depiction from the Nuova Cronica by Giovanni Villani , 14th century)

Robert Guiskard (* around 1015; † probably on July 17, 1085 near Porto Atheras ) was a Norman ruler and duke of Apulia and Calabria .

Guiscard ( guiscard , guiscart ) is the old French pronunciation of "Wiß-hart" / "Weis-hard" (or "Fischart": still today in southern Germany for "smart people"). The Normans , originally from Norway and Denmark , had continued to use their old Germanic names, although as the new masters of Normandy (northern France) they had adopted the old French language in everyday life (see History of Normandy ).

Wilhelm von Apulien wrote: "... his name was Guiskard, because he was superior to Cicero and Odysseus in cunning ."



Robert was the sixth son of Tankred von Hauteville , a member of the lower nobility ( Valvassor ) of western Normandy (today: Hauteville-la-Guichard near Coutances ). Robert was the first son of Tankred's second wife, Frensendis, and thus positioned sixth in the line of succession. Although his father's property passed to his son Gottfried as early as 1035 , Robert (in contrast to the older brothers) remained in Normandy until around 1045. In principle, nothing has come down to us from his youth. The Norman duchy was, however, shaken by bloody feuds in those years, since the Duke of Rouen, Wilhelm (later called "the Conqueror"), was still a child at the time of his elevation in 1035 and was struggling to survive.

The beginnings in southern Italy

The rapid rise of the brothers in southern Italy seemed tempting to Robert. A year after his eldest (half) brother Wilhelm , the leader of the Apulian Normans, died, he himself arrived there around 1047. The Hautevilles had already established a dynastic principle in the region with the election of the second oldest brother Drogo . The Hautevilles clearly stood out from the former 12 equivalent Norman counts as primi inter pares . They made Melfi the headquarters of their rule. Robert, however, initially seemed anything but welcome and received no fief from his brother. Therefore, he initially hired himself as a mercenary for the belligerent Pandulf of Capua. (For the prehistory of the Normans in Italy, see History of Apulia # Excursion: Rise of the Normans 1000 to 1050. )

Around 1048 he succeeded in winning the Scribla Castle on the Via Popilia in northern Calabria as a fief - from the point of view of his brother Drogo, at a sufficient distance from the center of power Melfi. However, he received the promise to keep all the land he had conquered. Scribla was just a small, wooden castle ( Motte ) in the then highly malaria-infested plain of Sibari . It is not surprising that Robert Guiskard soon swapped the inhospitable place for the not far away but high altitude San Marco Argentano . There he built a solid stone defense tower. In the absence of horses and trained fighters, he initially switched to a pure bandit life. Soon he commanded a gang of about 60 men, which presumably consisted of escaped Balkan slaves. The troops could do nothing against fortified cities.

Scribla, fortress ruins on an artificial Elevation, Sibari Plain, Calabria.

Robert Guiskard seemed to have compensated for this deficiency by marrying around 1050: after some resistance on the part of Drogo, he finally married Alberada von Buonalbergo , an aunt of the Norman leader Girard von Buonalbergo , who gave Robert 200 warriors as a dowry and thus considerably increased his options for action . Girard, with whom Robert now also worked more often, is likely to have his nickname Guiskard (for example "clever head") back.

A year later (1051) Count Drogo fell victim to a conspiracy. With Humfred, the next Hauteville brother moved up as leader. The oppressed population revolted against the Norman occupiers everywhere around St. Laurence's Day (9/10 Aug) and killed many of them. In addition, there were increasing difficulties with Pope Leo IX , who was enthroned in 1049 . , which culminated in 1051 when the people of Benevento handed over the supreme command of their city to the Pope.


Leo IX decided to take massive action against the Normans, branded as unbelievers, and to fight them down militarily. On his last petition to the Reich, he received from his compatriot and confidante Emperor Heinrich III. however, only 300–400 Swabians as protection forces. On the train back through Northern Italy to Rome, about 2000 people from the people and a contingent of the Lombards joined his army, so that Leo's awareness of victory increased.

When the armies faced each other at Civitate , the Normans, who appeared in unusual unity, initially offered their feudal dependence if in return they were given a free hand against Byzantium , allied with the Pope . After Leo rejected the proposal, the Battle of Civitate took place on June 18 , in which the Normans defeated the papalists despite strong resistance. Pope Leo was arrested and held in Benevento for nine months.

Robert was able to proceed largely independently in Calabria and take the two episcopal cities of Bisignano and Cosenza . The tactic used was primarily the siege, which initially meant simply cutting off the supply routes. Only in a second step did the Normans seek open combat. As a rule, the defeated were held hostage and had to pay tribute.

The success drew rivalry with the older brother and liege lord Roberts, Humfred. While Humfred, as the leader of the Apulian Normans, is permanently facing the other Norman counts, Some of them were there for as long as he had to fight off, Robert expanded his sphere of power many times over in a very short time. That fueled envy. A source reports that Humfred had Robert imprisoned for a short time. Hardly in freedom, of course Robert continued to conquer without worrying.

Around the year 1057, Robert's younger brother Roger , the later ruler (count) of Sicily, appeared in southern Italy. Despite some quarrels between the two brothers, Roger Roberts was to become the most important pillar in the conquest of the south. Without Roger, a southern Norman empire would probably never have emerged. There was more constant happiness in his successes than that of his older brother.

Also in 1057, Humfred died. Although he left a possible, albeit still underage, successor in Abelard, he could not avoid appointing the much more powerful Guiskard as his successor. At this point Robert was the only leader who had what it takes to advance the Norman cause against external and internal adversaries. Apparently the Hauteville dynasty was now so well established that none of the Norman counts contradicted his claim.

Leader of the Apulian Normans

In the year 1057 Robert took up the conquest of Calabria again, but could now fall back on several hundred warriors. The siege of Reggio Calabria , the largest city in Calabria, was unsuccessful. Robert transferred the command of Calabria to the young and ambitious brother Roger in order to be able to act against an Apulian uprising under Count Peter von Trani . Another attempt to take Reggio Calabria failed. In 1058 the brothers fell out because Robert owed Roger the pay for his scholarship . Roger now sought to approach his brother Wilhelm , who left the fortified Scalea to him. From here, Roger and his gang traveled the country like Robert once did. Although the latter suspected his brother, he was reconciled with Roger when the Calabrian uprisings broke out again. Perhaps a division of Southern Calabria has also been agreed. Each of the two was awarded half of each conquered city.

During this time, Prince Gisulf von Salerno , oppressed by Wilhelm , turned to Robert. This took the opportunity and played both off against each other. Gisulf paid an annual tribute to Robert for peace, for which Robert guaranteed peace with Wilhelm. Robert also got the hand of Gisulf's sister Sichelgaita in 1058/59. The marriage with Alberada was previously dissolved because of (alleged) consanguinity.

It was around this time that Roger put down the last major uprising in Calabria. By the end of the year Byzantium had been completely ousted from Calabria with the exception of the extreme south.

Melfi 1059: Robert becomes the Pope's feudal man

In 1059 the Pope made a radical change in his attitude towards the Normans. If they were considered unbelievers up to that point, on a par with the Saracens, the Curia was now looking for an alliance. The primary reason was the weak military position of the reform papacy itself: in 1059 the reform party around Archdeacon Hildebrand was able to depose the incumbent Pope Benedict X and enthrone its candidate Nicholas II . In the Lateran , however, the realities were quickly recognized: against such strong enemies as the Roman nobility and the German king, the Pope needed a strong ally. The greatest power factor in the south were the Normans, and so the Pope probably sought a pact with the Normans through the mediation of Desiderius, the abbot of Montecassino .

In August 1059 the Melfi Synod took place . Pope Nicholas not only confirmed the territorial claims of the two princes Richard von Capua and Robert Guiskard, but made them his feudal people. Robert was raised to the rank of Duke of Apulia, Calabria and the future Sicily. With this procedure the Pope explicitly supported the reconquest of Sicily from the hands of the Saracens. Robert had to pay an annual fee and from then on carried the Pope's banner. The enfeoffment, especially the legal basis of the Pope, is the subject of an intensive historical discussion.

1060-1072: Sicily and Apulia

Under the papal banner, the Hauteville brothers began the conquest of Sicily. Around the year 1060, Reggio Calabria fell. The townspeople surrendered to the besiegers without a fight. From there, Roger crossed to Sicily in 1061 and conquered Messina. By 1064 he was able to bring northeast Sicily under his control. After Roger had raised more soldiers in Calabria and built up a fleet, the brothers again undertook conquest expeditions to Sicily. After three years of tough siege and a successful blockade of the navy, they took the port city of Bari in 1071 , from where the Byzantines had instigated revolts against the Hauteville. After Palermo had also fallen in January 1072, Robert Guiskard made his brother Count of Sicily as his liege lord, but kept Palermo, half of Messina and the northeastern part of the island, the Val Demone, to himself and returned to Apulia. In 1062 the two had already signed a contract for a condominium for the conquests of Calabria.

1073-1080 Guiscard and Gregory VII: The Normans benefit from the investiture dispute

Soon after Hildebrand was elected Pope Gregory VII in 1073, there was a dispute between the self-conscious and mission-conscious pontiff and the duke. Robert always acted from a position of military strength in this conflict and Gregor soon needed him as an ally against the German king. Thus the Norman was able to benefit from the epochal investiture dispute between Pope and Emperor.

An incident from the year 1073 clarified the Pope's claim to power: Robert fell ill, so that the rumor quickly spread that he was dead. Meanwhile, his wife Sichelgaita swore the Norman barons to their son Roger Borsa, who was around 13 years old . Pope Gregory, on the other hand, expressed in a letter of condolence that he expected Sichelgaita to bring his son to Rome for investiture. Without the papal placet - according to Gregory's point of view - there should be no Norman duke. The Pope regarded the fief as tied to the person to whom it was granted and not hereditary. To the Pope's surprise, Guiskard, believed dead, answered the letter of condolence personally.

After the Duke frequently raids into the Patrimony of St Peter had taken imposed Pope Gregory on the Lenten synod of 1074 the excommunication of him. The Pope was now pursuing a double strategy. An army should be raised to help the Byzantines in the fight against the Seljuks . In a first step, the Pope wanted to defeat the Normans. But it did not get to that.

Landscape near Melfi, Basilicata (Monte Vulture)
Ruins of the Castello di Arechi in Salerno

The ban failed to work. He did not care at all for the Norman, who was not known to be very scrupulous. On the contrary, it seemed as if he was only now feeling really free and as if the excommunication was convenient for him. When the dispute between Pope and King came to a head in the course of 1076 and Heinrich asked Pope Gregory to abdicate, whereupon Pope Gregory excommunicated Heinrich, the Pope showed himself ready to give in to the Normans for the first time. Robert received an offer of peace. But the duke initially pretended to be deaf and instead listened to the ambassadors of the German king. This offered himself to him as liege lord. Robert politely declined. He preferred the Pope as liege lord. Because unlike the king, he had no troops. And only troops could be dangerous to Robert.

Robert was reconciled with his Norman adversary Richard from Capua in the spring of 1076. Together they took advantage of the Pope's entanglements. Robert besieged and conquered the rich and important Salerno and drove out the last Lombard prince. As much as Pope Gregory condemned the Normans and accused them of perjury - Robert knew how to use arguments. The Pope, according to the Duke, had always refused him the transfer of the fief, so he was not his vassal - a relationship without a treaty. A circumstance that the Normans, who always tried to legitimize their rule, took advantage of it. The hostility continued to glow unabated until 1080, with clear advantages for the Normans. After going to Canossa, Pope Gregory had to reckon with a counter-attack from Germany. In fact, King Heinrich had Pope Gregory deposed Pentecost in 1080. The Pope was all the more interested in a quick peace agreement with the Normans. So he released Robert Guiskard from the shackles of excommunication in June - after six years. In June, Guiscard and Pope Gregory met in Ceprano . Out of fear of the developments surrounding Heinrich, Pope Gregory was finally forced to make the notorious duke his ally.

1080–85: Between Byzantium and Rome

Porto Atheras beach, where Guiskard died

The research is cautious about the Duke's goals. Was he actually aiming for the Eastern Roman emperor? If one takes into account the meticulousness and tenacity with which Robert tackled the Greek campaigns, this conclusion is not far away. As early as 1074 Robert arranged the engagement of his daughter Helena to Constantine , son of the Eastern Roman emperor Michael VII. Dukas. With this he already indicated his ambitions. After all, he was strong enough to bring the Byzantine Empire to the brink of defeat. The main reason why his plans failed was the permanent unrest in Italy, which left him in promising positions without having achieved anything. Significantly, he died on Greek soil.

In 1081 Robert moved against the new Byzantine emperor Alexios Komnenos . He was accompanied by the monk Raiktor , who had assumed the identity of the deposed Michael VII, in whose name Robert pretended to act. After initially severe setbacks - the Venetians sank the fleet - he defeated Alexios near Durazzo in a great battle (October 18). The city itself was captured on January 16, 1082. Robert got almost as far as Saloniki before he had to hurry back to see if everything was going in Italy. Rebellions in Apulia and the plight of his liege lord Pope Gregory VII forced him to do so. In the course of the year Robert suppressed the rebellion and raged in the countries of his opponent Jordan of Capua. In the meantime Pope Gregory VII had got into trouble in Rome. King Heinrich besieged Rome and finally invaded the city of Leo (June 1083), the following year he let the antipope Clement III. crown emperor. Meanwhile, Pope Gregory waited at Castel Sant'Angelo and sent requests for help to his vassal Robert. The emperor moved again demonstratively to the south, but there was no fighting between the German and the Normans. When Robert finally raised new troops, the German king had withdrawn. In 1084 the Norman troops conquered Rome. Robert entered the city to reinstate his liege, Pope Gregory, against the will of the Romans. When they met resistance, the Duke's troops sacked the city and burned it down. The sack of Rome in 1084 is considered a turning point for medieval Rome (beginning May 28, 1084). An estimated 3/4 of the city was in ruins. Pope Gregory could not hold out and followed Robert to his court in Salerno , where he died in 1085.

As soon as there was a little calm in Italy, Robert hurried back to Greece, where his son Bohemond of Taranto was involved in retreat skirmishes. After a few defeats against the Venetian fleet allied with Alexios, the Normans decisively defeated an opposing ship formation near Corfu . Robert was now preparing to penetrate the Ionian Sea , via which he reached the island of Kefalonia . There Robert died surprisingly, probably on July 17, 1085, near Atheras of typhus or dysentery . He was succeeded as Duke by his son Roger Borsa. Bohemond of Taranto, his eldest son from his first marriage, joined the First Crusade in 1096 , during which he conquered the principality of Antioch . In 1130 his nephew Roger II merged the Duchy of Apulia with Sicily to form the Kingdom of Sicily .

Robert Guiscard as a literary subject

  • Friedrich Lorch : Robert Guiskard. Drama in five acts . 1907
  • Michele Scozia : Sickle gaita. Signora del Mezzogiorno . 1994. The protagonist of the book is Robert's second wife.
  • Gabriella Brooke : The Words of Bernfrieda. Chronicle of Hauteville, the Chronicle of the Life of Fredesenda, Wife of Tancred of Hauteville and Mother of Robert Guiscard . 1999. The protagonist of the book is Bernfrieda, Robert Guiscard's mother.
  • Karl Simrock describes Guiscardus as a lover of Gismunda , the daughter of Prince Tancredus , widow of the Duke of Capua and title character of the story of the same name in the German Folk Books Vol. 6 (1847).
Literature on Kleist's drama
  • R. Samuel, H. Brown, Kleist's Lost Year and the Quest for Robert Guiskard . Spa 1981.
  • Heinrich von Kleist: Robert Guiskard, Duke of the Normans. Study edition . Stuttgart 2011.


  • Finch Allibone, In Pursuit of the Robber Baron: Recreating the Travels of Robert Guiscard, Duke of Apulia, Calabria and Sicily ; Luton 1988
  • Richard Bünemann , Robert Guiskard - Terror mundi. Conquerors between Rome and Constantinople ; in: History in Science and Education 10 (1987), 627–644
  • ders., Robert Guiskard. A Norman conquers southern Italy ; Cologne, Weimar u. Vienna 1997.
  • Salvatore Impellizzeri, (ed.) Anna Comnena: La precrociata di Roberto il Guiscardo ; Bari 1965
  • Graham A. Loud , Coinage, Wealth and Plunder in the Age of Robert Guiscard ; in: English Historical Review 114 (1999), 815-843
  • ders., The Age of Robert Guiscard: Southern Italy and the Norman Conquest ; London 2000
  • Marguerite Mathieu (ed.): Guillelmus Apuliensis: La Geste de Robert Guiscard, Testi et Monumenti , Testi 4, Palermo 1961
  • Léon Robert Ménager, Les fondations monastiques de Robert Guiscard ; in: Sources and research from Italian archives and libraries, Vol. 39, Tübingen 1959, 1–116
  • Huguette Taviani-Carozzi, La terreur du monde. Robert Guiscard et la conquête normande en Italie. Mythe et histoire ; Paris 1996
  • Otto Vehse , Robert Guiscard ; in: ders., Nordic State Founders , Hamburg 1943, 105–122
  • John Julius Norwich : The Normans in the South 1016-1130 . London 1967. (German translation and T .: The Vikings in the Mediterranean: The Southern Empire of the Normans 1016–1130 . Wiesbaden 1968.)

Web links

Commons : Robert Guiskard  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Josef Deer: Papacy and the Normans (= studies and sources to the World Emperor Frederick II. 1). Böhlau, Cologne / Vienna, 1972, ISBN 978-3-412-95872-5 .
    Also: Graham Loud: The Age of Robert Guiscard.
  2. ^ Durazzo - Passage justice. In: Brockhaus Konversationslexikon. 14th edition, Volume 5, 1894, p. 620 , accessed on July 17, 2020 (reproduced in the retro library).
predecessor Office successor
Humfred Count of Apulia
from 1058 Duke
Roger Borsa
Pandulf IV. Duke of Benevento