One of the most important and yet unheralded battles in world history, Civitate (1053) pitted Normans against Lombards, Swabians, Byzantines, and a host of others in Southern Italy. The Great Schism (1054), the Battle of Manzikert (1070), and the First Crusade (1096) came as a result.
By Stephen Harris
Many people know about the Norman Conquest of England. The Battle of Hastings is one of the most famous events in medieval history and possibly even world history. It transformed England, and by transforming England, changed the world. However, many do not know that during the Middle Ages, the Normans conquered other areas of Europe as well. First, they were given the region now known as Normandy by the king of France to keep them loyal to the crown. Later, they took Southern Italy. Their control over Southern Italy was not brief either, as the Normans ruled Sicily for centuries. Norman control over what became the Kingdom of Sicily took decades, but the battle that enabled Norman control over Southern Italy was the Battle of Civitate, on June 18th, 1053.
In the 11th century, Italy was divided into various republics, duchies, and kingdoms. From 568 to 774, the Lombards had taken much of northern Italy from the Byzantine Empire. The Pope had his own country, the Papal States. Both the Lombards and the Pope were vassals to the Holy Roman Emperor, due to Charlemagne’s (747-814) conquests, but had a large amount of autonomy. The Muslims owned Sicily since 902 and had turned it into an emirate. The Eastern Roman, or Byzantine Empire, owned much of Naples, a remnant of Justinian’s (482-565) conquests in the 530s. None of these powers could become dominant. The Byzantines tried and failed to retake Sicily, while both the Lombards and the Pope were unable to effectively project power south of Central Italy. Into the complex situation stepped the Normans. They quickly became mercenaries to the kings and princes of Italy and were prized because they were very good at fighting. Their loyalties were also flexible, so they could fight for one prince, and later fight on behalf of his opponent. However, the Normans began envisioning a kingdom controlled by them alone. By the late 1040s, the Normans had created small fiefdoms in Southern Italy. The Hautevilles controlled two of those fiefdoms, Apulia, and Calabria. These fiefdoms did not border each other. The Hautevilles were a minor Norman family of whom two of the sons, Robert (1015-1085), and Humphrey (1010-1057), had gone to Italy to seek their fortune, following several of their brothers. The other fiefdom, Capua, was controlled by the Drengot family, another Norman family. By the late 1040s the count of Capua was Richard Drengot (1024-1078), an ally of the Hautevilles.
These moves alarmed the other princes and kings of Italy. The Normans were intruders who threatened to take over Southern Italy. Rainulf, the duke of Benevento, went so far as to swear fealty to the pope, as he feared otherwise the Normans would take his lands. However, the Normans still only had small fiefdoms in 1053, so preventing their rise was possible. The new pope, Leo IX (1002-1054), planned an invasion after hearing about Norman pillaging of Southern Italy. Normans had been taking property from the people of Southern Italy, who were all Christian, and had been for centuries. Pope Leo IX considered this behavior unchristian and Norman expansion a threat to his own power in central Italy. Norman raids increased after the duke of Apulia, Drogo de Hauteville(1010-1051), brother of Robert and Humphrey, was assassinated by the Byzantines. Leo IX asked the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry III (1016-1056), for support, and some Germans came. However, the emperor himself did not come, and was disinterested in the whole affair, preferring to remain in Germany. Across Italy, barons sided with the pope in the escalating conflict, most enthusiastically. Even the Byzantines sided with the pope despite their conflicting interests in Italy.
The Normans moved quickly, attempting to intercept the papal forces before they could link with the Byzantines, who had a garrison at Bari, a town on the Adriatic Sea. The Norman forces were led by Humphrey de Hauteville. Papal forces were led by Rainulf of Benevento. The Papal forces numbered 6,000 strong, a relatively large number for the Middle Ages. The Normans had 3,500 soldiers. However, the Normans had a far more professional force. The Papal force was also far more diverse, consisting of Lombards, Germans, and Italians. There was some desire to avoid battle on the Norman side, as they were fighting the pope, and fighting the head of the church as a Christian is something that should generally be avoided. However, negotiations broke down, and the two sides prepared for battle. Many on the papal side did not see the Normans as a serious enemy, a view that the Papal forces would come to regret.
Both sides had simple objectives. Pope Leo IX wanted Normans out Southern Italy, and the Normans wanted dominance over Southern Italy. The Byzantines wanted to restore and maintain their control over Southern Italy.
The two forces met on June 18th, 1053, near what is now San Paolo de Civitate, close to the Adriatic Sea. It was relatively far from the Byzantine garrison at Bari. Humphrey de Hauteville had put his brother Robert in command of the left wing of the Norman force, comprised mainly of infantry. The right was commanded by Richard Drengot, who was placed in command of the excellent Norman cavalry. The Normans took the initiative and Drengot pressed on the papal left flank. It quickly folded to the Normans, with the remnants of the flank running away. Dregnot’s forces pursued the fleeing Italians and Lombards. The Swabian cavalry held in the center and inflicted heavy losses on Humphrey’s force, primarily composed of infantry and dismounted knights. Robert de Hauteville was in command of the Norman left. He attacked the Papal right and managed to overwhelm the weak forces there. In the center, the Swabians fought bravely, and even retreated to the top of a hill, but Dregnot attacked them from the rear. Surrounded and demoralized, the Swabians fought to the death.
One problem the Papal forces faced was the disorganization of their army. Diversity without unity, unclear command structures, inadequate training and poor leadership made it a feeble fighting force. The Papal forces did not have clear division of forces in their army either, with cavalry and infantry spread randomly around the units. The Swabians were the exception, but there were far too few of them to obtain victory. Reportedly the Papal forces had no right flank, which is why it was so easily overrun by the Norman assault. The Normans, on the other hand, were quite disciplined and made one cohesive unit, aided by their ethnic and linguistic unity. The command was clear, and Robert, Humphrey, and Richard all knew what their roles were. When the Norman center was fraying, Robert de Hauteville aided his brother, and the three Normans obtained victory as a result.
The pope was captured shortly after the battle, but the Normans treated him with respect, as befitted the head of the church. Pope Leo IX desired for a great alliance between himself, the Byzantine Emperor, and the Holy Roman Emperor, to drive the Normans out of Italy, but Henry III was not interested, and so Leo IX confirmed Norman control over Southern Italy. As a result, the papacy became important Norman allies in the centuries-long struggle for the Mediterranean. Norman power could now increase unabated, with lands to the east and south ripe for the taking. The Papal lands were secure too, as the Normans would not attack the pope. This allowed the pope to focus on Northern Italy and his long power struggle with the Holy Roman Emperor.
To understand what might strike modern people as strange reactions to the pope by the Normans, who had just fought him, it is important to realize that during this time, the pope was considered the Vicar of Christ on Earth. Popes could not be wrong. Leo IX himself was an unusually moral figure for a pope in that era, making efforts to reform the church and end some of its worst practices. His morality earned the pope respect, even from his enemies.
The battle is important because it confirmed Norman control over Southern Italy. Before the battle, the Normans had to compete with other powers in Italy. After, they had a free hand to do whatever they wanted south of the papal states. Over time, the Normans took Sicily from the Muslims, and even invaded North Africa. Robert’s son Bohemond went on the 1st Crusade and became Prince of Antioch, so the Norman presence went far. The Norman presence in Sicily weakened the Byzantines, as the Normans were a consistent thorn in the Byzantine Empire’s side for at least a century, launching invasions and raids of Byzantine territory. The weakening of the Byzantine Empire led to its replacement by the Ottoman Empire as the power of the eastern Mediterranean. One could argue the Normans are indirectly responsible for Columbus and the colonization of the New World, as Ottoman control of Eastern trade routes motivated Spain and Portugal to attempt other ways of passage to the Indies, which is the most cited reason for European colonization of the New World.
Some have argued the Norman victory at Civitate precipitated the Great Schism. While theological differences had been building for years, Leo IX had enjoyed fairly friendly relations with the Byzantine Empire. The fallout from Civitate, which included Leo’s death shortly after the battle, arguably enabled the break between Rome and Constantinople, which has had massive impacts on history.
This break may have set the stage for the Fall of the Eastern Roman Empire, as the two halves of Christianity were no longer united against the persistent threat of Islam, and gradually drifted apart. Western armies of the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople in 1204, causing an irretrievable breach between Orthodox and Catholic. That led to the rise of the Ottomans, who had an immense impact on world history. The Normans also became great Papal defenders, fighting many wars to preserve his (the pope’s) independence, generally from the Holy Roman Emperor, who had his own designs in Italy. Therefore, the Battle of Civitate probably weakened the connection between Pope and emperor, whose relations worsened in the following centuries.
The Norman Conquest of Southern Italy also made Sicily into its own unit. Even after the Norman line of kings ended, the Kingdom they created endured, only coming to an end in 1860 with Italian unification, over 800 years after Civitate. The kingdom was important in fighting Muslims in North Africa, and as a power projection device for France and Spain. Both France and Spain controlled Sicily at times during the Middle Ages and Renaissance and fought over it frequently until Spain successfully gained it in the early 1500s. Therefore, the Battle of Civitate is quite important to the history of the west, despite not being well known.
Another indirect effect was on the future of England. It is impossible to know for certain, but the fact the Hautevilles were making glory for themselves in Southern Italy may have been a contributing factor to William of Normandy’s decision to go for the throne of England in 1066. The Norman Conquest of England had massive effects on England, and eventually huge effects on the rest of the world, as England became one of the greatest empires of all time. These are the most commonly mentioned examples of how the Battle of Civitate changed the world, for better or for worse.
Cavendish, Richard. “The Battle of Civitate.” History Today, 2003. https://www.historytoday.com/archive/battle-civitate.
Donvito, Filippo. “The Norman Challenge to the Pope: The Battle of Civitate, June 18, 1053.” Medieval Warfare 1, no. 4 (2011): 27–34. https://www.jstor.org/stable/48577885.
Serafin, Christopher. “Battle of Civitate.” World History Encyclopedia, 2023.