Robert Guiscard (i.e. "the resourceful") (c. 1015-1085) was the most remarkable of the Norman adventurers who conquered southern Italy and Sicily.
From 999 to 1059 the Normans were pure mercenaries, serving either Greeks or Lombards, and then Sergius of Naples , by installing the leader Rainulf in the fortress of Aversa in 1029, gave them their first pied-ŕ-terre and they began an organized conquest of the land.
In 1035 there arrived William Iron-Arm and Drogo , the two eldest sons of Tancred of Hauteville, a petty noble of Coutances in Normandy. The two joined in the organized attempt to wrest Apulia from the Greeks, who by 1040 had lost most of that province. In 1042 Melfi was chosen as the Norman capital, and in September of that year the Normans elected as their count William Iron-Arm who was succeeded in turn by his brothers Drogo, "Comes Normannorum totius Apuliae e Calabriae", and Humphrey , who arrived about 1044. 1047 saw the arrival of Robert, the sixth son of Tancred of Hauteville, who was tall in stature, had blonde colouring, blue eyes, and powerful voice.
Guiscard soon rose to distinction. The Lombards turned against their allies and Leo IX determined to expel the Norman freebooters. The army which he led towards Apulia in 1053 was, however, overthrown at Civitate on the Fortore by the Normans united under Humfrey, Guiscard and Richard of Aversa . In 1057 Robert succeeded Humfrey as count of Apulia and, in company with Roger his youngest brother, carried on the conquest of Apulia and Calabria, while Richard conquered the principality of Capua.
The Papacy, foreseeing the breach with the emperor over investitures, now resolved to recognize the Normans and secure them as allies. Therefore at Melfi, on August 23 1059, Nicholas II invested Robert with Apulia, Calabria, and Sicily, and Richard with Capua. Guiscard "by Grace of God and St Peter duke of Apulia and Calabria and future lord of Sicily" agreed to hold by annual rent of the Holy See and to maintain its cause.
In the next twenty years he made an amazing series of conquests. Invading Sicily with Roger, the brothers captured Messina (1061) and Palermo (1072). Bari was reduced (April 1071) and the Greeks finally ousted from southern Italy. The territory of Salerno was already Robert's; in December 1076 he took the city, expelling its Lombard prince Gisulf, whose sister Sikelgaita he had married. The Norman attacks on Benevento, a papal fief, alarmed and angered Gregory VII, but pressed hard by the emperor, Henry III, he turned again to the Normans, and at Ceprano (June 1080) reinvested Robert, securing him also in the southern Abruzzi, but reserving Salerno.
Guiscard's last enterprise was his attack on the Greek Empire, a rallying ground for his rebel vassals. He contemplated seizing the throne of the Basileus and took up the cause of Michael VII, who had been deposed in 1078 and to whose son his daughter had been betrothed. He sailed with 16,000 men against the empire in May 1081, and by February 1082 had occupied Corfu and Durazzo, defeating the emperor Alexius before the latter (the Battle of Dyrrhachium, October 1081). He was, however, recalled to the aid of Gregory VII, besieged in San Angelo by Henry IV (June 1083).
Marching north with 36,000 men he entered Rome and forced Henry to retire, but an émeute of the citizens led to a three days' sack of the city (May 1084), after which Guiscard escorted the pope to Rome. His son Bohemund, for a time master of Thessaly, had now lost the Greek conquests. Robert, returning to restore them, occupied Corfu and Kephalonia, but died of fever in the latter on July 15 1085, in his 70th year. He was buried in S. Trinità at Venosa.
Guiscard was succeeded by Roger "Borsa," his son by Sikelgaita; Bohemund, his son by an earlier Norman wife Alberada, being set aside. At his death Robert was duke of Apulia and Calabria, prince of Salerno and suzerain of Sicily. His successes had been due not only to his great qualities but to the "entente" with the Papal See. He created and enforced a strong ducal power which, however, was met by many baronial revolts, one being in 1078, when he demanded from the Apulian vassals an "aid" on the betrothal of his daughter. In conquering such wide territories he had little time to organize them internally. In the history of the Norman kingdom of Italy Guiscard remains essentially the hero and founder, as his nephew Roger II is the statesman and organizer.
In the Divine Comedy Dante sees the spirit of Robert Guiscard in the Heaven of Mars with the other noteworthy crusaders.
- F. Chalandon, Histoire de la domination normande en Italie et en Sicile (Paris, 1907)
- L. von Heinemann, Geschichte der Normannen in Unteritalien (Leipzig 1894)
- Graham Loud, The Age of Robert Guiscard (ISBN 0582045290)