Celebrity historical personalities! Archived

Tancred of Hautville, fl. 1020 AD. He came from a line of Norman (that is, French descended from Vikings -- "Norse men") fighting men drawn into adventures in southern Italy thanks to the chaos caused there, across centuries, by Greek Byzantine absentee government and Arab Muslim conquest. Throwing our minds back a thousand years, we must picture French-speaking "Counts of Apulia" with their capital city in Amalfi, having carved out a fiefdom amid poverty and olive groves -- but having done it originally in the service of a Byzantine emperor in distant Constantinople who then shorted their pay. They stayed, these Williams, Drogos, and Rogers, and eventually expanded their power base into the rest of sunny southern Italy and then Sicily. Romantic sites of classical antiquity, all marble-columned ruins, cathedrals on the palm-lined piazza and tumbling, rocky Mediterranean coasts, places like Bari or Naples or Palermo, turned hard-fought possessions of the Norman kingdom of Sicily.

Of Tancred personally we know little. He is more famous for his twelve sons. Among them were the first three counts of Apulia, William "Iron Arm," Drogo, and Humphrey, and Robert Guiscard and the youngest, Roger, count of Sicily. Though in time these men and their successors freed southern Italy from Byzantine imperial neglect and endless Muslim invasion, to local people these warlords must often have seemed like gangbangers in chain mail. Edward Gibbon writes that, when not actually fighting to win territory or impose new rule, "Every object of desire, a horse, a woman, a garden, tempted and gratified the rapaciousness of the strangers ... to surprise a castle or a convent, to ensnare a wealthy citizen, to plunder the adjacent villages for necessary food, were the obscure labors which formed and exercised the powers of [Robert's] mind and body." Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. III, chapter LVI.

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