Civitate 1053 – The Norman Conquest of Southern Italy

Battle of Civitate, 18 June 1053, in which the Norman conquerors of southern Italy, under the Count of Apulia, defeated an army twice their strength fighting on behalf of Pope Leo IX. The Papal army consisted of Swabian-German, Italian, and Lombard south Italian troops, led by Duke Gerard of Lorraine and Prince Rudolf of Benevento.

Initial dispositions: (A) Camp of Papal forces; (B) Pope Leo IX in town of Civitate; (C) Swabians in extended position on Papal right flank; (D) Italians and Lombard cavalry and infantry under Prince Rudolf, on Papal left flank; (E) Forces under Richard of Aversa on Norman right flank; (F) Forces under Count of Apulia in Norman centre; (G) Forces under Robert Guiscard, supported by ‘Slavic’ infantry, on Norman left.

Movements: (1) Normans under Richard of Aversa attack Italians and Lombards; (2) Normans under Count of Apulia clash with Swabians on top of small hill, and are forced back; (3) Italians and Lombards flee; (4) Normans under Robert Guiscard come to assist Humphrey of Hauteville; (5) Normans under Richard of Aversa strike Swabians in flank and rear, resulting in their defeat.

The Normans began arriving in southern Italy in 1017 to serve as mercenaries, both to protect coastal towns against Arab pirates, and also to help local Lombard princes in their continuing attempts to over- throw their Byzantine overlords.

Norman chroniclers put a positive spin on their arrival, claiming they had turned up as pilgrims the previous year at the shrine at Monte Gargano. As the story goes, during their stay the pilgrims learned of the Lombard princes’ need for experienced soldiers.

A far more likely course of events is that Pope Benedict VIII invited the Normans to the region to help him counter Byzantine power. 

The disparate accounts converge on one key point: the first mercenaries to arrive met with Melo of Bari, a Lombard rebel who had led a failed rebellion in 1009 in Apulia. Living in exile in Salerno, Melo still hoped the Lombards would supplant the Greeks as rulers of Apulia and Calabria – the Byzantine province known as the `Catepanate of Italy’.

Sandwiched between the vast Holy Roman Empire to the north and the far-flung Byzantine Empire to the east was a jumble of small Italo-Lombard states. The principalities of Salerno, Capua, and Benevento were all ruled by relatively weak Lombard princes.

A further complication was that the seaport republics of Amalfi, Gaeta, and Naples, once principalities that recognised the Byzantine Emperor as suzerain, had, by the early 11th century, achieved independence (though they retained strong commercial ties with the Byzantine Empire).


The Normans entered a power vacuum. The Byzantine grip on southern Italy was loosening as a result of more urgent military matters else- where. Few Byzantine military units remained in the Catepanate at the turn of the 11th century.

Thus, it fell to the Lombard population of southern Italy to raise militias for their own protection. The creation of these militias fuelled the fire in the belly of Lombard rebels seeking to throw off the Byzantine yoke and establish self-rule. Melo was the most prominent of these firebrands.

Realising what was at stake, the Greeks mustered sufficient military resources to crush a Norman-Lombard rebel army at Cannae in October 1018.

During the next three decades, Norman mercenaries poured into southern Italy, where they found employment, ironically, with both the Lombard princes and the Catapan (governor) of the Catepanate of Italy. Lombard princes and Apulian rebels hired Norman bands to sup- port their insurrections in Apulia; at the same time, the Catapan hired Normans to garrison Byzantine strongholds on the Apulian border.

The Normans were Europe’s premier feudal conquerors. King of Western Francia Charles III had signed a treaty in the early 10th century allowing Vikings to settle in Neustria if they furnished protection against further waves of Norsemen. The region along the English Channel north-west of Paris eventually became known as `Normandy’, a derivation from the Old French word for `northmen’.

Like their Norse ancestors, the Normans had good and bad traits. On the one hand, they were confident, ambitious, and quick-witted. On the other, they were selfish, cunning, and greedy.

They embraced the feudal system characteristic of north-western Europe by which a vassal paid homage to his lord. They excelled at mounted warfare, and they built castles in conquered territory to secure their conquests.


A new Pope assumed control of the Holy See in 1049. His intervention in the politics of southern Italy had a profound influence on the course of events in the region.

Appointed Pope by Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II, Bishop Bruno of Toul came from an aristocratic German family. He had military experience, having led an army during one of Conrad II’s military campaigns in Italy. He came to the Papacy at a time when the lower classes of the Lombard principalities were weary of the Normans’ unrestrained plundering of the countryside.

By the close of the 1040s, the Normans had established a secure foothold in southern Italy. They were striving – by means of the territories bestowed on them in return for service, and marriage into the Lombard aristocracy – to become legitimate feudal lords in the region.

Norman power was centred in three areas, each controlled by a gifted mercenary captain.

One was Richard Drengot. He had arrived in the region in 1046 with 40 mounted men. Richard was a nephew of Count Rainulf of Aversa, who had emerged as the first great captain of the Norman immigration. Prince Sergius of Naples had bestowed the Aversa fief on Rainulf in 1030 for services rendered. Appointed regent for Rainult’s infant son on the count’s death in 1048, Richard took over the fief on the infant’s mysterious death the following year.

Another leading Norman was Drogo de Hauteville, the second son of minor Norman baron Tancred de Hauteville. Three of Tancred’s sons by his first wife – William, Drogo, and Humphrey – had arrived in southern Italy in 1035 seeking their fortunes.

After his eldest brother William died in 1046, Drogo succeeded him as commander of a Norman band based at the Apennine stronghold of Melfi on the Apulian border. Emperor Henry III bestowed on Drogo the title of `Duke and Master of all Italy and Count of all the Normans of Apulia and Calabria’ in 1047. These areas were still controlled by the Greeks, so Drogo or his heirs would have to conquer them first.

The third Norman commander was Robert de Hauteville. He was the eldest of Tancred de Hauteville’s seven sons by his second wife. Robert arrived in the region in 1035. He eventually became known as Robert `Guiscard’, his surname being a derivation of the Old French word viscart, meaning `cunning’ or `resourceful’.

In 1049, Drogo appointed Robert to command a Norman band based in Calabria, a much poorer region than Apulia. Robert subsequently established his base at San Marco Argentano.


Following his selection by a great council held at Worms in 1048, Pope Leo IX was consecrated in Rome in January 1049. Later that year, he undertook a tour of southern Italy to assess the political situation first-hand.

The red-haired Alsatian, who looked as much soldier as future saint, heard nothing but bad things about the Normans from the local peoples of southern Italy. The new Pope was deeply disturbed by the Normans’ fondness for using strong-arm tactics against innocent people.

As routine practice, the Normans stole food and plough teams. They also destroyed vines and olive trees as a way of punishing those who resisted them. Leo travelled to Germany in the winter of 1050 to discuss with Emperor Henry III the possibility of war to exorcise the pest.

On his return, in early 1051, Leo visited the Principality of Benevento, which had tradition- ally been a papal fief, to meet Drogo. The Norman leader promised the Pope he would exercise greater control over his troops.

Drogo had little time to act on his promise, however, because he was assassinated by a Lombard on 10 August 1051. The Melfi-based Normans would eventually appoint Humphrey de Hauteville to lead them.

Leo, meantime, decided that he had no choice but to take up arms against the Normans in an effort to protect the people of Benevento. The Pope appealed to Henry III, but the Emperor declined to send troops. Leo then appealed to the princes and barons of southern Italy. He also received an offer of support from Argyrus, the Lombard Catapan of the Catepanate.

In the winter of 1052, Leo returned once more to Germany to request troops from Henry III. This time, Henry obliged, and an army began marching south. But one of the Emperor’s key advisers – a rival of the Pope’s, the Bavarian Bishop Gebhard of Eichstatt – persuaded him to recall the army before it had crossed the Alps.

Leo then appealed to his chancellor, Frederick of Lorraine, to ask his brother, Duke Gerard of Lorraine, to furnish troops. Frederick succeeded, and Gerard ordered 700 Swabian infantry to march to Rome.  The Pope also received troops from Apulia, Gaeta, Campania, and half a dozen other pro-papal regions in Italy.

Although some sources place the total strength of the papal army as high as 6,000 men, it may have been only 4,000. Nonetheless, it represented a wide anti-Norman alliance of various southern Italian states. The coming battle would pit the Normans against the rest.


The papal army assembled at Benevento the first week of June 1053. From there, it marched into northern Apulia via the Biferno Valley. Argyrus had proposed that it rendezvous with the smaller Byzantine army at Siponto near Monte Gargano.

To the Normans, it seemed that all of southern Italy was against them. In the face of such a massive threat, they temporarily put aside their internal differences and united to meet  the common threat. Humphrey de Hauteville saw the need to move quickly to prevent a union of papal and Greek armies. He sent word to Richard of Aversa and Robert Guiscard to join him at the Norman stronghold of Troia. Approximately 3,000 Normans and 500 Lombard militia gathered at the town, and Humphrey led them north  in search of Leo IX’s army.

The Normans took up a blocking position south of the Fortore River to await the arrival of the enemy host. The papal army crossed the river on 17 June and bivouacked on the south bank under the walls of Civitate. The Normans had misgivings about fighting soldiers in the service of the Pope, and they therefore sent envoys to ask Leo to enter into peace negotiations with them. Not only was the proposal rejected, but the Swabians surrounded the envoys and shouted insults at them.

Word soon spread through the Norman ranks that the Germans had mocked them.  This enraged them, and they vowed revenge. Because his army had no supplies and was in hostile country, Humphrey decided to attack the following day.


On the morning of 18 June, Duke Humphrey and his subordinates reconnoitred the papal deployment from a 50m-high hill that was the only high ground on the plain where the battle would be fought. While the reconnaissance was in progress, the Norman horsemen readied their mounts and took up their weapons.

Each of the army’s three divisions or `battles’ was nearly equal in size at approximately 1,000 cavalry. All of the Normans were superb warriors, as they were constantly in the saddle conducting small-scale operations against brig- ands or carrying out mercenary assignments for their Lombard or Greek employers.

Humphrey intended to fight in the centre. He instructed Count Richard to deploy his men on the right, and he told his half-brother, Robert, to deploy his men on the left, a short distance behind the main line. Humphrey told Robert that his division was to serve as the reserve. The 500-foot soldiers with the army were ordered to guard the Norman camp.

Leo IX watched the deployment of his army from the safety of the walls of Civitate. The papal army was divided into two wings. Rudolf, the captain of the Swabians, led the right wing, which included his troops, as well as other papal troops. Commanding the left wing, which was composed entirely of papal troops, were several Abruzzian counts: Trasmund III and Atto of Chieti, and Oderisius II of Sangro. Their experience was limited, and this was demonstrated by their inability to deploy their companies into a cohesive line of battle.


Richard’s mounted knights were the first to advance. `The Italians stood all crowded together on the other side because they neglected to draw up a battle line in the proper manner,’ wrote Norman chronicler William of Apulia.

The Norman cavalry easily penetrated the enemy’s left wing. The majority of the Italic-Lombard troops fled immediately. The Norman cavalry swirled around the few pockets that stood their ground. Those brave men were slaughtered.

Richard’s horsemen then chased the fleeing remnants of the papal left wing off the battlefield. This took Richard’s division out of the fight. Whether it would return quickly, or at all, before the battle was over was uncertain.

Next, Humphrey’s cavalry charged the Swabians, but these veteran soldiers stood their ground. The Swabians fought with round shields and long swords. Some of them cast aside their shields to wield their swords with both hands.

The Swabians repulsed several charges by Humphrey’s division. Each time the Normans regrouped and charged again; some threw javelins, while others charged with couched lance.

Once they had lost their lance, the Normans resorted to their swords. The fighting took on a gruesome character as the casualties mounted. `You could see human bodies split down the middle and horse and man lying dead together,’ wrote William of Apulia.

After the third or fourth charge, Robert Guiscard led his troops into battle to reinforce his half-brother Humphrey. Robert’s men easily shattered the less-experienced papal troops of the right wing, leaving the Swabians to fight alone against the combined weight of two Norman divisions.

Robert’s cavalry then wheeled and attacked the Swabians’ exposed right flank. In response, the Swabians formed a tightly packed square. They continued to beat back the Normans’ desperate mounted attacks.


Fortunately for the Hauteville brothers, Richard returned to the main battle with the bulk of his horsemen. His cavalry attacked the Swabians from behind. The two other divisions renewed their assaults in concert with Richard’s fresh attack.

Assailed from all sides, the Swabians could not withstand the numbers arrayed against them. When gaps opened in their ranks, the Normans rode among the Swabians, hacking and stabbing. With no place to retreat and no desire to surrender, the Swabians fought to the death.

Pope Leo IX watched the disaster unfold beneath his eyes from his perch inside Civitate. The Normans lost 500 cavalry and the papal army 1,500 men. After the battle, the townspeople turned the Pope over to the victorious Normans.

The Normans transferred the captive pontiff to Benevento, where he was kept under close guard for the next nine months. After he agreed to recognise their hereditary claims and accepted them as papal vassals, Leo was freed on 12 March 1054. Although he had been treated well in captivity, he died on 19 April.

The Norman lords continued slowly reducing the Catepanate of Italy well into the 1060s. When Humphrey died in 1057, Robert succeeded him as Duke of Apulia and Calabria. Pope Nicholas II confirmed Robert’s hereditary title and claim to these territories at the Council of Melfi two years later.

Robert, together with his younger brother Roger, spent the last part of his career in the subjugation of both Sicily and the Catepanate of Italy. Roger II, Roger I’s son, consolidated their territorial gains in the former into the Kingdom of Sicily in 1130.

The Normans had come to southern Italy seeking pay, booty, and land. Many were younger sons without an inheritance for whom the profession of arms was the only way to secure wealth and rank. Such was their prowess, and such eventually their numbers, that they became more powerful than their former employers. And when the minor states of southern Italy combined to overthrow them, it was the Normans who triumphed at Civitate, establishing their supremacy in the region, and creating a launch pad for the conquest of Sicily.

Medieval Warfare I.4

Theme: Mercenaries and mighty warlords – The Normans in the Mediterranean

  • Historical introduction – Sidney Dean, ‘The d’Hauteville brothers in Italy’.
  • The Source – Martijn Cissen, ‘Bohemond I of Antioch in the Alexiad’.
  • Theme – Will Stroock, ‘How to fight and win like a Norman’.
  • Theme – Nils Visser, ‘The use of Saracen mercenaries in Norman South Italy’.
  • Theme – Matthew Bennett, ‘Norman naval activities in the Mediterranean’.
  • Theme – Filippo Donvito, ‘The Battle of Civitate, 1053’.
  • Theme/The Siege – Vassilis Pergalias, ‘The Siege of Bari, 1068 – 1071’.


  • The Weapon – Peter Vemming, ‘Incendiary arrows in Bengedan’s Warbook’.
  • Special – Brian Burfield, ‘Treatment of wounds in the Middle Ages’.
  • The Battle – Jean-Claude Brunner, ‘Charles the Bold’s English Archers at the battle of Morat, 1476’.
  • Weapon Handling – Murray Dahm, ‘Hans Talhoffer’s instruction manual on weapon handling’.