His army amounted to just 136 knights and 500 infantrymen. This was all that Count Roger could muster for the invasion of Sicily. Yet, within a decade, the Normans had ended 200 years of Arab rule and made themselves masters of the island. It was one the most spectacular blitzkrieg operations of the 11th century.
The Normans had first come to Sicily in 1061 at the invitation of Ibn al-Thumna, the qayid of Syracuse. Sicily was an island in disarray: weak and ripe for conquest. The nominal overlords of the island, the North African Zirid dynasty, were beset by civil unrest and foreign invasion, while the last emir of the native Kalbite dynasty had died in 1053. As a result, Sicily was divided between four qayids or commanders, who vied with each other for power.
Hoping to overcome his rivals with foreign assistance, Ibn al-Thumna invited the Norman Duke Robert Guiscard and his brother Count Roger to send an invasion force.
The small Norman army quickly captured Messina and some nearby territory, before Ibn al-Thumna was assassinated by a rival faction. No longer beholden to their ally, the Normans had the opportunity to expand their conquests. By 1063, however, the Norman conquest had stalled.
Robert Guiscard was no longer in command, having been forced to return to southern Italy, where he briefly had a falling out with his brother. Though the two were reconciled, continuing unrest in Italy limited the number of troops available to Count Roger for a second attempt on Sicily to fewer than 700 men.
Roger led his forces to Troina, a large inland town close to the border of the existing Norman territory. From this base, he and his nephew Serlo raided nearby Arab territories, hoping to lure the Sicilian garrisons out from behind their fortifications. With such a small army, Roger had no hope of conducting a successful siege.
Meanwhile, the Zirids had decided to intervene on the island in support of their Sicilian co-religionists. The Zirid emir dispatched his sons Ali and Ayyub to Sicily at the head of an army. While the troops available were limited, the brothers quickly established themselves as rulers of Palermo and Agrigento. Their army was then augmented by Zirid troops already on the island and by local Sicilian forces.
The exact size of the combined Zirid/Sicilian army is uncertain: estimates range from between 3,000 and 30,000 to as many as 300,000. The latter is an absurd exaggeration by a contemporary chronicler. Even 30,000 would have been a huge army by the standards of the day. But the lowest estimate would still have meant they outnumbered the Normans by more than four to one.
The Arab military system
The military system of the Zirids and Sicilian Muslims was still very similar to that of the period of the Arab conquests. The bulk of their armies consisted of lightly armed and armoured infantry, carrying spears, javelins, swords, and bows.
The elite infantrymen were the foot archers, who utilised the new Turkish composite bows, a combination of wood, horn, and sinew, which had greater range and power.
In battle, the infantry was usually deployed in deep, solid formations intended to absorb and repel any enemy attack. These formations also provided a secure refuge for friendly cavalrymen, a secure place where they could regroup before launching further attacks.
Once the enemy had exhausted themselves in assaults on these dense formations, and been worn down by archery, the infantry, supported by the cavalry, would launch an all-out counter-attack to drive them from the field.
Both Sicily and North Africa had a long tradition of mounted warfare by lightly armed and armoured cavalrymen. Some fought as mounted archers but their numbers were few, as the terrain of Sicily was unsuitable and the Turkish influence on the island was slight. The majority fought using short spears, javelins, and swords, while relying on the speed and manoeuvrability of their horses to stay safe.
The cavalry fought by harassing the enemy flanks and rear, and retreating behind a screen of infantry if they were in danger of being overcome. Once the enemy was suitably weakened, the cavalrymen would join the infantry in a massed assault to deliver the final knockout blow.
The Norman military system
The Norman armies that invaded Sicily relied on the feudal military system of western Europe. The elite were the knights and their retainers, who fought as heavy cavalry. Norman knights were well protected and heavily armed. While they carried a variety of secondary weapons, their primary armament was the lance.
In battle, the knights sought to break the enemy through well-coordinated, massed frontal attacks. If the enemy did not break, the knights would form into a wedge, to penetrate deeper into the enemy formation, or feign a retreat to lure them out of position.
Norman armies also included large numbers of infantrymen. Although the infantry played an important auxiliary role, their reliability was often questionable. They were generally well-armed and -armoured, though not nearly so well as the knights. Their primary role on the battlefield was to provide a place of refuge where the knights could rest and regroup before launching further attacks. Occasionally they launched attacks of their own to exploit any opportunities created by the knights. Archers were few, and those there were tended to be locally raised and even included Muslims from the conquered parts of Sicily and southern Italy.
The disparity between the capabilities and numbers of troops available to the respective sides meant that the opposing commanders had very different strategies.
An asymmetrical war
Count Roger and the Normans sought to capture more territory, thereby expanding their foothold in Sicily, by bringing the Zirids and Sicilians to battle outside their fortifications. The Norman army was very small, so it could not successfully besiege a large city or town. It could, however, win battles in the field against superior enemy forces. The massed charge of the Norman knights was capable of putting most enemies to flight.
Therefore, to lure the enemy from their fortifications, the Normans established their forward base at Troina from which to launch raids into enemy territory in the hope of provoking a response. For this strategy to work, however, the Normans needed to defend their base at Troina and their lines of supply and communication with southern Italy. The loss of either would have doomed the campaign and probably spelled the end of Norman Sicily.
Ali, Ayyub, and their Sicilian allies, meanwhile, sought to destroy the Norman army to protect their territory and recapture what had already been lost. Previous Zirid and Sicilian armies had not fared well against the Normans on the open battlefield, but a battlefield victory was not necessary in this instance.
The Zirid army was large enough to suppress the Norman threat by capturing or isolating their base at Troina. If the Zirids cut the lines of supply and communication between Troina and Messina, the Normans would eventually be forced to retreat or surrender.
The problem was the time needed to implement such a strategy. The Zirids required a large quantity of supplies to stay in the field, and political unrest in North Africa and Sicily made it difficult to keep the army together. Therefore, if an opportunity to shorten the campaign presented itself, the Zirids would be inclined to seize it – despite the risks.
The defence of Cerami
The small town of Cerami is located in a river valley surrounded by hills. For three days after their arrival, the two armies faced each other, encamped on hilltops on either side of the river.
Eventually, the Zirid army moved off a short distance, but still did not cross the river. Count Roger, with his meagre forces, then returned to his base at Troina, some 13km away.
The Zirids had probably hoped to deceive or at the very least mislead Roger about their intentions. Opposed river crossings are notoriously difficult, so the Zirids were probably trying to outmanoeuvre the Norman army. Regardless, four days after their initial withdrawal, the Zirid army suddenly reappeared at its initial hilltop encampment. On receiving word of the Zirid movements, Count Roger ordered his army to march back to Cerami.
When the Normans had covered roughly half the distance, the Count received word that the Zirids had launched an attack on Cerami itself. This was a serious matter, as the loss of Cerami would have threatened the Norman position in Sicily.
No more than a small fortified town, Cerami’s importance lay in its strategic location. From there, it would have been possible for the Zirids to threaten Troina, block any Norman advances on Palermo, and cut the Norman lines of communication with Messina. If the Normans were to maintain or expand their territory in Sicily, Cerami could not be allowed to fall.
Roger quickly dispatched his nephew Serlo with 36 knights to defend the town. Serlo’s advance force arrived at Cerami to find a Zirid detachment of perhaps 3,000 cavalry and an unspecified number of infantry outside the town setting up camp.
The Zirids, confident in their superior numbers, probably sought to cow the defenders into submission or simply overwhelm the town. In any event, they had set up a sizable camp with walls and gates, but were apparently unaware that any enemies were near.
Serlo’s orders were to garrison the town and await Count Roger’s arrival with the rest of the army. However, perhaps observing the unpreparedness of the Zirids, he launched an immediate attack on their camp. Surprised by this unexpected sortie, in which Serlo came crashing through the gates of the camp ‘like a raging lion’, the Zirids panicked and fled.
Advance to battle
When Roger arrived on the scene with the rest of the army, he was unsure how to proceed. Serlo’s sortie had saved Cerami, but the main Zirid army was still in the field, and still very much a threat.
After a heated conference with his trusted lieutenants, including Roussel de Bailleul, who said he would no longer provide support if the enemy were not pursued, Roger continued the advance.
The Norman army was formed into two ‘battles’: a vanguard under Serlo, Roussel, and Arisgotus, and a rearguard led by Roger himself. The Norman battles each arranged themselves in a wedge or rhomboid formation, which allowed them to wheel and change direction more easily, better protected their flanks, and ensured that their charges would have greater penetrative power. Shadowed by Zirid cavalry, the Normans then marched towards the main enemy camp.
By this time, the Zirids were aware of the Norman army’s approach and had marched out of their camp. After forming a battle-line, possibly consisting of three divisions one behind the other, they moved to engage.
As the two armies approached each other, the lead division of the Zirid army, probably under the command of Arcadius, qayid of Palermo, moved to occupy a hill overlooking the Norman position. By occupying this hill, Arcadius’ division had effectively turned the flank of the Norman army.
The Zirid attack
Moving quickly to exploit his advantage, Arcadius launched an attack, bypassing Serlo’s vanguard to focus on the battle commanded by Count Roger.
The Normans were understandably alarmed by the vast size of the Zirid army. Both Roger and Roussel de Bailleul offered words of encouragement. Then, rather than retreating or waiting to receive the Zirid assault, Roger launched a charge of his own.
The wedge or rhomboid shape of the count’s battle had allowed him to turn quickly to face the danger of Arcadius’s flank attack.
According to Geoffrey Malaterra’s The Deeds of Count Roger of Calabria and Sicily and of his Brother Duke Robert Guiscard, the only source for the battle, it was at this point that the Normans were joined by St George, who rode ahead of them and attacked the enemy where their ranks were thickest. Others reported seeing the saint’s banner appear at the end of Count Roger’s lance. Inspired by these sure signs of divine intervention, the Normans enthusiastically charged forward.
Arcadius had probably hoped to end the battle quickly, by overwhelming the Normans with his superior numbers and capturing or killing the Norman leader. He appears to have been leading his division from the front, accompanied by his personal bodyguard of elite troops. This was the point of the Zirid division that St George supposedly directed the Normans to attack; and attack it they did.
Leading from the front, Roger appears to have personally killed Arcadius in the first charge, despite the latter’s magnificent armour. However, the Norman charge carried them deep into the Zirid formation. So deep, in fact, that Roger’s battle was now surrounded.
The fighting quickly devolved into a chaotic mêlée, as both sides became intermingled and the Normans struggled to break free.
The Norman counter-attack
While Roger’s battle could do little beyond defending itself, Serlo’s battle appears to have launched a series of charges into the flank of the Zirid formation. The Zirid division was thus, effectively, fighting on two fronts.
Exhausted by the long fight and demoralised by the stubborn resistance of the Normans, the loss of Arcadius, and mounting casualties, the Zirid division broke and fled.
The other two Zirid divisions, which had not taken part in the battle, were panicked by the rout of their comrades and joined the flight. They were closely pursued by the Normans, who captured the main Zirid camp.
Following a restful night in the Zirid camp, the Normans rode out and put to flight the remnants of the Zirid army, which had taken up position on a nearby mountainside.
The Normans remained in the area around Cerami for several days hunting down fugitives, before returning to their base at Troina laden with spoils.
The Battle of Cerami was an overwhelming victory for the Normans against a numerically superior foe. Norman casualties are not recorded, but according to Malaterra some 15,000 Zirid and Sicilian soldiers were killed. This, like the figures for the overall size of the Zirid army, is clearly an exaggeration, but the implication must be that a very high proportion were killed in the battle or the rout.
The Normans came away with a large quantity of booty looted from the captured Zirid camps. So much was taken that Roger was able to send four camels laden with spoils to Pope Alexander II (1061-1073) in Rome. In return, the Pope granted Count Roger a Papal banner to carry in battle and proclaimed that all those who assisted in his conquest of Sicily from the Muslims would receive absolution from their sins.
The strategic impact
The Normans had succeeded in their immediate strategic goals of defending their base at Troina and opening the road to Palermo. In doing so, they secured their foothold in eastern Sicily and their lines of communication and supply with the Norman territories in southern Italy. The Straits of Messina, a maritime chokepoint, were now firmly under Norman control.
The Normans also began receiving support from the maritime city-states of Italy, especially Pisa and Genoa, which became more hostile towards the Muslim powers of the western Mediterranean.
It would, however, be a mistake to assume that the Norman victory at Cerami broke the back of Zirid and Sicilian resistance. Or even that the victory accelerated the Norman conquest of the island. After the battle, two-thirds of Sicily remained firmly under Muslim control, and Zirid forces still drastically outnumbered the Norman. The Zirids had suffered a severe defeat and failed to capture Troina, but they did not lose any territory after the battle.
Having failed on the battlefield, they retreated behind their fortifications, which the Normans were too few in number to besiege. Roger would subsequently face serious manpower shortages as political unrest, siege operations, and a lack of spoils in Sicily kept most of the available Norman forces in southern Italy.
The Zirids and Sicilians set ambushes and launched raids when the opportunity arose, but it was not until 1068 that they again attempted to face the Normans in open battle. Defeated once more, Ali and Ayyub, having contributed little to the defence of Sicily, returned to North Africa.
Following their departure, the Sicilians would receive only occasional support from the Zirid fleet. The withdrawal of the Zirids from Sicily removed the last unifying force in the island. Without their support, there was little left to prevent the Normans from eventually conquering all of Sicily.
The Battle of Cerami in 1063 was a decisive victory for Count Roger and the Normans. Their superior leadership, cohesion, and tactics enabled them to overcome a vastly numerically superior Zirid army. The Norman victory effectively ended direct Zirid intervention in Sicily, and further exacerbated the political disunity of the Sicilians. The Cerami campaign was the Muslims’ best and, as it turned out, last real chance to expel the Normans from the island. Sicily’s eventual destiny as a Norman kingdom was determined. •
Robert Holmes has an MA in Ancient and Medieval History from Villanova University and a BA in Archaeology from Lycoming College. He is an independent historian and author, specialising in the military history of the ancient and medieval worlds, and has published numerous articles on related topics. When not writing, he can be found working to educate people about local Florida (USA) history by leading tours and giving lectures.
Images: WIPL, unless otherwise stated.