St George’s Hill, Damoulianata, Kefalonia

Last summer, one day stands out. While on holiday on the Ionian island of Kefalonia, I persuaded three friends to spend a morning investigating a castle that has intrigued me. Situated on a high hill, the ruins command breathtaking views of the island’s mountains and blissful seaways. Picturesque though this place is, it is its association (which may be true or false) with an 11th-century anti-hero – Robert Guiscard – that has gripped my imagination.

Looking south from St George’s Hill on Kefalonia. Back in the 11th century, this commanding feature appears to have been the military target of an extraordinary Norman buccaneer: Robert Guiscard. Back then, the hill was crowned by churches and a castle protecting a key settlement, but how much can be said about the visible ruins today?   

Kefalonia is the largest of the archipelago of Ionian Islands running up the western flank of Greece. Unlike Corfu to the north, it struggled to maintain a major town in antiquity and after. Much of it is mountainous, with fine arable ground restricted today to the south coast near the airport, as well as around the small ports of Lixouri and Sami. In the Roman period, its ports at Fiskardo (known as Panormos) and Sami were modest and Kefalonia’s one maritime villa at Skala, south of Poros, is relatively small. This makes the supposed status of Kefalonia in the Byzantine period all the more intriguing. Little is known about the island between c.700 and 1000, except its propensity to issue distinctive lead seals. Its administration, far from Constantinople, certainly made itself felt, to judge from the dispersal of these seals, far and wide. Possibly this was down to Kefalonia’s position. It sat on the seaways leading up the Balkan coast to Venice and across to Sicily. Later in its Venetian history, its role as a Mediterranean stopover is well documented. Massive Venetian forts were erected at Assos on the west coast and at St George’s overlooking the island’s luxuriant south coast.

One historical incident illustrates the esteem in which it was held in Mediterranean circles. In mid-July 1085, the irascible Norman buccaneer Robert Guiscard was heading for landfall on the island when he suddenly died. He was master of much of western Byzantium from Dyrrachium, modern Durrës, down to Vonitsa. Robert the Weasel, as he was sometimes known, was the architect of Norman dominance over southern Italy. His curriculum vitae was extraordinary. He had sacked Rome, captured a Pope, and, in 1085, aged 70, was hell-bent on conquering no less a state than Byzantium itself. Kefalonia was his next objective. He never quite made it.

Richard spent the morning investigating the ruins on St George’s Hill with three friends, seen here: John Crawshaw, John Moreland, and Prue Chiles. They are standing beside the east face of the castle tower.  

According to the later Byzantine chronicler Anna Comnena (1083-1153), Robert Guiscard passed away at Atheras, a bay on the north-west angle of Kefalonia. Why this bay? He was heading, it has been supposed, for the Byzantine stronghold of St George’s, 10km to the south. This little castle, so Kefalonians believe, was the diminutive Mid Byzantine precursor of the better-known St George’s, today a much-visited 13th-century and later Venetian castle on a ridge at Livatho above Argostoli airport. This redoubt was effectively the island’s capital until Argostoli replaced it in the 19th century. Largely forgotten, its diminutive precursor exists on a prominent saddleback hill a kilometre south of Damoulianata. Its ruins and archaeology shed a modicum of light on Robert Guiscard’s world and the intention of his planned invasion.

Robert the Weasel

Atheras bay, on the north-west coast of Kefalonia, was identified as the place where Robert Guiscard passed away in 1085, by the Byzantine chronicler Anna Comnena.

To put this Kefalonian incident in perspective, we need to remind ourselves about the biography of Robert Guiscard. He was a man of vaunting ambition. Aged about 22, being the sixth son of Tancred of Hauteville, he quit Normandy with 30 companions and headed to the fragmented kingdoms of central southern Italy – the former Principality of Benevento – to join his brother, Drogo. Anna Comnena, the daughter of Robert’s arch-enemy, the Emperor Alexius I, has left a colourful picture of this freebooting Frenchman:

This Robert was Norman by birth, of obscure origins, with an overbearing character and a thoroughly villainous mind; he was a brave fighter, very cunning in his assaults on the wealth and power of great men; in achieving his aims absolutely inexorable, diverting criticism by incontrovertible argument. He was a man of immense stature, surpassing even the biggest men; he had a ruddy complexion, fair hair, broad shoulders, eyes that all but shot out sparks of fire. In a well-built man one looks for breadth here and slimness there; in him all was admirably well-proportioned and elegant… Homer remarked of Achilles that when he shouted his hearers had the impression of a multitude in uproar, but Robert’s bellow, so they say, put tens of thousands to flight.

Thanks to his brother, Robert soon obtained a Calabrian castle and estate at Scribla. Still in his 20s, according to his biographer, William of Apulia, he could not contain his restlessness. A crisis soon offered him his opportunity. Pope Leo IX unwisely set out to evict the Normans from Italy. Leo allied himself with Beneventan forces and Swabians, and hoped for support from the Byzantine garrison at Bari. The two sides battled it out at Civitate sul Fortore on the thankless plain north of Foggia in northern Apulia in 1053. Leo was humiliated: his army was defeated, and he was captured. Robert, on the other hand, distinguished himself as both brave and instinctively clever. Ever the opportunist, he now used his papal prisoner to fast-track his career.

The Venetian gate in the well-known 13th-century and laterSt George’s castle at Livatho. Was this the successor to the more modest Byzantine stronghold on St George’s Hill?  

Like the Battle of Hastings in 1066, Civitate well and truly upturned the political apple-cart. It established Norman dominion over southern Italy, replacing the squabbling Lombard princes. Significantly, it also established Robert Guiscard, not yet 30, as a leader. Within four years, he had become Duke of Apulia, controlling much of its rich Adriatic Sea trade with North Africa, Byzantium, and Venice. Two years later Pope Nicholas II, troubled by the German Emperor and his Roman peers, invested Robert as Duke of Apulia, Calabria, and Sicily. With this prompt, in 1061 he crossed the Straits of Messina and over the following decade prised Sicily from Muslim control. With Palermo – the greatest metropolis of the central Mediterranean – in his hands, he returned to Apulia and promptly expelled the Byzantine garrison at Bari in 1071. This ended centuries of Byzantine colonisation of Italy’s mezzogiorno. The fall of Bari simply whetted Robert’s appetite for conquest. Audaciously, in May 1081, he mounted an attack on the Byzantine Empire itself.

Supporting a certain Raiktor, who had briefly titled himself Michael VII as Emperor and been deposed in 1078, Robert set sail from Apulia with, so his biographer tells us, 16,000 men including 1,300 Norman knights. The terminus of the Adriatic Sea trans-Balkan highway, Dyrrachium, was soon taken. Fine mosaics in a chapel from the town’s great Roman amphitheatre are thought to be testament to the passage of the Norman forces. Other Ionian ports soon fell in quick order – first, Valona, then Butrint, Corfu, and Vonitsa. After four years of struggle, Robert was tempted to invade Kefalonia. Then catastrophe struck.

Robert Guiscard – also known as Robert the Weasel – had an eventful life. He is seen here on a coin issued during his lifetime. 

Robert’s sycophantic biographer William of Apulia states that the Norman fell victim to a malady at Vonitsa. Anna Comnena tells it differently. Writing in a convent half a century later, in about AD 1148, she describes how her father’s satanic nemesis arrived at the Kefalonian bay of Atheras in July 1085 with a single ship. He had already sent his son, Roger, with the rest of the Norman fleet to conquer ‘the city of Kefalonia’. On arriving, aged 70, he fell ill and died. A century was to pass before Norman forces from Sicily completed Robert’s ambition of conquering Kefalonia.

Did this conqueror of popes and kings really die on Kefalonia? One factor favours Anna’s history as opposed to William of Apulia’s version. It is to be found in a Kefalonian name that lives on today. The former Roman port of Panormos on the northernmost headland of Kefalonia – directly opposite Ithaca – was then renamed Fiskardo, a mangled version of Guiscard. The story goes that Robert’s body was brought from Atheras bay to the seamark that is Fiskardo’s great basilica. The abbey-church had been erected to command these seaways in late antiquity. By 1085, it had acquired, following the new Byzantine fashion, a prominent west front with two flanking towers. From here, Robert’s body was taken by his shocked compatriots to a mausoleum at Venosa in Calabria.

A historical enigma

 The ruins of the abbey at Fiskardo. Robert’s body was reportedly brought here after his death in Atheras bay, while the very name ‘Fiskardo’ seems to be a corrupted echo of ‘Guiscard’ (above and below).

Kefalonia’s local Byzantine historian Diana Antonakatou first identified St George’s Hill at Damoulianata as Robert’s military objective in 1085. Researching the local records on Kefalonia 40 years ago, she showed how important the western arm of Kefalonia known as Paliki was in Byzantine times. Apart from the principal settlement at St George’s Hill, it boasted the ‘city of Kefalonia’ as well as several well-endowed Mid Byzantine monasteries and churches. St George’s castle, she believed, housed the General of Kefalonia (Στρατηγός Κεφαλληνίας) whenever he was visiting the island, as well as the Orthodox Episcopacy. An unnamed settlement referred to as the ‘City of Kefalonia’ (Πόλις της Κεφαλληνίας) was the capital of the Thema Kephallenias (Θέμα Κεφαλληνίας). Likely as not, this occupied the ruins of Classical Greek and Roman Pali (at Lixouri).

According to Diana Antonakatou, the Byzantine thema based at Pali (the ‘City of Kefalonia’) not only issued coinage and seals but was also one of the Byzantine military and administrative districts, which included all the Ionian islands, and even for a time the rich province of Apulia. ‘The City’ was guarded by the castle of St George, giddily situated on one of the highest hills in western Kefalonia, a few kilometres to the north-west. Around these two key points lay the landed wealth that attracted the avaricious Guiscard. Later in the 12th century, when eventually the Normans took Kefalonia from the Byzantine Empire, the island became a palatine county along with the neighbouring island of Zakynthos under King William II’s Sicilian Greek admiral Margaritus.

 St George’s namesake at Livatho, on the south coast of Kefalonia. This site seemingly assumed the military, administrative, and ecclesiastical roles once focused on St George’s Hill, and grew into an imposing fortress covering some 16,000m2

Diana Antonakatou concluded that the castle at St George’s Hill, along with its military, administrative, and ecclesiastical duties, was transferred to its present location at Livatho (above Argostoli airport) at some point after 1264, possibly in 1357. The transfer occurred when Kefalonia was given as a County Palatine to the Tocco family of Naples by the King of Naples, triggering a change in the military surveillance of the Ionian Sea. So there were now two castles known as St George: one commanding Paliki, western Kefalonia, a few kilometres south of Atheras bay, and the other – far grander in scale – at Livatho, dominating Kefalonia’s southern coast.

The two castles possibly operated simultaneously for a period until the Livatho castle gradually took over the Paliki castle’s role and assumed its name. Today, its namesake at Livatho is a great polygonal castle covering 16,000m², boasting a mighty palimpsest of Byzantine, Venetian, and Ottoman phases. By contrast, St George’s castle on Paliki guarding the ‘City of Kefalonia’ was abandoned altogether and faded into anonymity. One source found by Diana Antonakatou indicates that this tower (Πύργος) was still standing in 1677 and was simply known as the old castle, Παλιόκαστρο. To support her identification, Antonakatou cites a German geographer, Joseph Partsch, who located the epicentre of the powerful 1867 earthquake on Kefalonia between the villages of Rifi, Damoulianata, Agia Thekli, Kalata, and Dematora: all settlements arranged around St George’s Hill. Partsch describes how the vertical blast levelled all the buildings in the nearby villages, the stone mills at Rifi, and, tellingly, two towers. He specifically mentions one tower in Skineas village, where, according to Antonakatou, the large monastery dedicated to the Prophet Ezra was located. The second tower mentioned by Partsch would probably be a relic of St George’s castle at Damoulianata, Robert Guiscard’s objective as he sailed to Atheras bay.

Surveying the tower. It is seen here with the present church in the background (top), and from the south side (bottom). 

The castle

Close to a Mycenean tholos tomb excavated by the celebrated Bronze Age archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos (who was born nearby) lies Aghios Georghios (as it is known locally), the high hill and the ruins of the probable castle that was the principal military target of the Normans in the fateful summer of 1085. We spent a blissful summer’s morning making a preliminary survey of it. What follows are my first thoughts on the visible remains.

A plan of the basilica, tower, and enclosure on the summit of St George’s Hill.  

The tower and succession of two churches lie at the highest point of the saddleback hill, 385m above sea level, towards its far-northernmost point. The saddle or summit itself is only about 40m across at its maximum, falling away steeply on the north, east, and south sides. It overlooks a vast viewshed encompassing south-west Kefalonia and beyond to the thin shadow of Zakynthos. Only the view to the northern seaway at (Venetian) Assos is obscured. The remaining structures almost certainly belonged to a medieval settlement that reached to the western limit of the hill, overlooking the tholos tomb and a defile through the hills. The Byzantine hilltop settlement may have occupied an earlier Mycenean-period site, as some decades ago a British archaeologist, Ken Wardle, found Bronze age sherds here.

Quite how much of St George’s Hill was occupied in the Middle Ages is not presently clear. A likely enclosure or fortification runs around the middle girth of the hill, marked today by a powerfully built wall on the western side, which in modern times almost certainly served as a narrow trackway between the lattice of drystone-walled fields covering the flank of the hill. Coarse Mid to Later Byzantine potsherds occur in some numbers, but distinctive polychrome glazed decorated wares are absent.

We found two connecting pieces of a high-quality window reused in a drystone wall. Although it is most likely Venetian in origin, if it were Mid Byzantine it would indicate the presence of an exceptional structure.   

The complex consists of only two ruined buildings, separated by a modern church. The lower courses of a large tower survive immediately west of the modern church, its ashlar partly covered in tendrils of brambles. Immediately east of the modern church are the footings of an axially-aligned church with a simple apse. Other stone buildings are likely to have once stood here, judging from the mounds of stone in the area immediately west of the church.

A plan of the visible ruins at Sami. This was also the site of a Mid Byzantine castle (see CWA 90), which was built using rubble and reused Hellenistic masonry.  

The ruined free-standing tower survives to a height of about 75cm in most places, six or seven courses high. Its form has evidently been skewed, probably by the earthquake of 1867. The building was 8.00m (east–west) by 5.30m (north–south) with an attached addition, probably an external staircase, on its west side. The walls, approximately 72-75cm thick, are constructed of fine-cut limestone ashlar with a rubble core mixed with friable cement. The staircase extension on the western side measures 2.70m (east–west) by 4.45m (north–south). This suggests that the building was entered from the west side, with stairs presumably rising to a door on the first floor, as in many medieval towers. A ground-level entrance 80cm wide existed in the west wall. Another door, 60cm wide, was concealed by the staircase extension. Set into its east and west walls are bevelled insets for fine window fittings. These features suggest the tower was modified over its centuries-long lifetime.

There is no obvious means of dating the tower. Its form and size are similar to a number known from western Greece and southern Italy. The only key to its construction date is possibly the fact that the same cut ashlar is employed in the remaining lower courses of the eastern apse of the adjacent, ruined church of St George, which is believed to pre-date the powerful earthquake of 1867. This church is likely to be of Mid Byzantine date.

The nave of the ruined church, judging from its footings, was 15.5m long and 7.35m wide. Its raised apse extended the church by a further 2.00m. The basilica’s walls were mostly made of rubble, 60cm wide, except for the ashlar walling of the apse. It is not clear if it possessed a narthex at its western end, as this area today is covered in rubble. It appears, however, to have been entered from a point in the south wall of the nave.

The apse of the ruined church of St George contains ashlar masonry, indicating that this was a place of importance.

The present church is about 3m shorter. With its half-moon windows and simple door in its west end, it appears to date from the later 19th century, probably following the devastating 1867 earthquake. It was constructed up against the south wall of its precursor, leaving much of the south nave wall as a low external bench. Presumably the new church was built with stone plundered from the earlier one.

One further architectural piece was discovered in the drystone wall enclosing the nucleus of these buildings. Here we found two joining pieces of a large window. The pieces belong to the moulded hood of a window that was once 69cm wide. It might have fitted above either of the two windows in the east and north walls of the ruined tower. The fine half-rolled beading is of the highest workmanship. It would suggest an exceptional building, if it is indeed of Mid Byzantine date. More likely, it belongs to the early to modern Venetian eras.

The view from the present church on St George’s Hill, towards Lixouri and the site of the ruins of Classical Greek and Roman Pali. 

The complex on St George’s Hill is an interesting enigma. The form of both buildings is consistent with Mid Byzantine secular and ecclesiastical norms. However, the ashlar and windows of the tower are unusually fine. Ashlar was not employed in the secular buildings of this period that I have previously surveyed on Kefalonia at either Pronnoi castle or Sami castle, both dating to this period. Only rubble construction and reused Hellenistic stonework defines these two less important fortified sites guarding the island’s eastern flank and seaway running alongside Ithaca. No less problematic is the fact that the two prominent towers flanking the west entrance of the later 11th-century basilica at Fiskardo, where Robert Guiscard’s body was briefly housed, are constructed of rubble with ashlar being reserved only for the quoins. On the other hand, a further thought comes to mind. As ashlar is used in the apse of the ruined (earlier) church of St George, it suggests that this was a place of some distinction. Its construction might be more consistent with a later Norman tower, around 1200, perhaps replacing a similar one of 11th-century date. Could it be that the tower was completely rebuilt when, a century after Robert Guiscard perished, the Normans returned to finish the job? Then, too, the finely bevelled window fittings may well have been inserted in Venetian times, when all parts of this Ionian island prospered.

Putting St George’s in context

It is obvious that this stronghold above Damoulianata was never a massive fort such as the present castle of St George’s at Livatho. In form, it resembles the diminutive fortifications occupying the monumental Archaic Greek fortresses at Pronnoi and Sami. Unlike these small contemporary castles, St George’s was a military sentinel either close to or possibly the nub of the island’s Byzantine and early Norman administration in the ‘City of Kefalonia’. Likely as not, the small port situated in ancient Pali, now lost to suburban sprawl at Lixouri, was Kefalonia’s premier Byzantine port. Just what it looked like can be judged from the discoveries made at Mid Byzantine Butrint up the coast. This had been captured from Byzantium by Robert Guiscard in 1081. Butrint was powerfully refortified in the earlier 11th century and boasted gravel streets. The new townscape was composed of substantial stone buildings, and plots occupied by post-built dwellings and small family churches. A tower commanded Butrint’s acropolis. Could such a small town, the objective of Robert Guiscard’s fateful invasion, be lying somewhere close to modern Lixouri today?

One final thought arises from our summer morning spent investigating this castle, as well as its apparent peers: the medieval cuckoos at Pronnoi and Sami. These were hardly formidable defences by the standards of the later 11th century. Mounting sieges or even storming the defences of places like St George’s Hill did not involve armies on the cinematographic scale envisaged in The Lord of the Rings or even as suggested in Anna Comnena’s Alexiad. Besieging a place like this called for a few irrepressible adventurers, not a cast of thousands. Robert Guiscard was plainly assaulting an underdeveloped world where the principal investment was in the church, not military engineering. Did Robert the Weasel grasp this, take his chances, and boldly envisage a Norman Empire supplanting a storied Byzantine one, beginning from the Ionian islands? We shall never know. With him, almost certainly in the picturesque tranquillity of Atheras bay, died such dreams.

Special thanks to Ioanna Faraklou for sharing her research into The Records of the Latin Diocese of Kefalonia, the work of Diana Antonakatou and Joseph Partsch, as part of a project for the Odysseus Unbound Foundation. Thanks, too, to John Crawshaw, Prue Chiles, and John Moreland for their congenial company as we surveyed St George’s Hill.

All images: Courtesy of Richard Hodges