The History of Sicily

King Roger II (1095-1154)

Roger came into his own at age 16. His dream was to unite all of the Norman possessions in Sicily and southern Italy under one rule. In 1128, Pope Honorius II (1060-1130) gave him Calabria and Apulia. But Roger knew that it would be easier to rule one united domain than three separate duchies, and he sought a royal crown.

When Honorius died, the College of Cardinals was divided as to a successor: one side favored Innocent II (d. 1143), the other Anacletus II (d. 1138). The latter sought the Normans’ support. In exchange, Anacletus made Count Roger King Roger II that year, and Innocent was forced to flee Rome, but, upon Anacletus’s death, he ascended the Papal throne.

Roger was trained by both Greek and Arabic tutors and by his Italian mother. A master of diplomacy who knew how to unite disparate factions and cultures to achieve peace and prosperity, he initiated government reforms, architectural projects, scientific research, and various cultural advances to make Sicily the wonder of Europe.

Arabic and Greek influences remained strong under Roger II. In Palermo’s Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (also known as La Martorana), built by his Greek admiral, George of Antioch (d. 1152), one still sees magnificent Byzantine mosaics throughout. The most startling part of the church is above the altar, where Christ Pantocrator, in traditional Byzantine style, looks down upon the congregation, making clear the Savior’s all-encompassing power.

Similar Byzantine influences appear in other medieval Sicilian churches, especially Cefalù’s Duomo, begun by Roger in 1131, and the Palatine Chapel in Palermo’s Norman Palace (now the seat of the Sicilian Parliament). Consecrated in 1140, it combines Greek and Arabic influences. Its golden mosaics and portrait of Christ Pantocrator lie under a wooden Arab ceiling composed of magnificent star-shaped panels.

John Julius Norwich, one of the most important medieval scholars in the world, calls Roger’s court “by far, the most brilliant of twelfth-century Europe.” An intellectual himself, Roger attracted many brilliant men to Palermo: scientists, mathematicians, geographers, physicians, writers, historians, and philosophers from a variety of cultures and nations.

The largest number of these were Arabs, of whom the best known is Abu Abdullah Mohammad al-Edrisi (1100-1165). A geographer who became the King’s trusted friend, al-Edrisi wrote The Avocation of a Man Desirous of a Full Knowledge of the Different Countries of the World (aka The Book of Roger), which became the most respected study of geography in the Middle Ages. It identifies the earth as a sphere!

Roger is also famous because Sicilian libraries and monasteries preserved ancient Greek manuscripts found nowhere else in Europe. Because Sicily had a close relationship with Byzantium, a great many Greek classics have come down to us in the original ancient language.

Committed to maintaining the rich Greek and Arabic traditions of his island, Roger is often pictured as wearing the robe of an eastern potentate. When he died at age 58, despite his wish to be buried in Cefalù, the city he founded, he was brought to Palermo Cathedral, where he lies entombed, wearing robes in the style of the Eastern Empire.


Roger II