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Book Review: Mercenaries to Conquerors

By HistoryNet Staff
12/28/2016 • Military History Book Reviews

Mercenaries to Conquerors: Norman Warfare in the 11th- and 12th-Century Mediterranean, by Paul Brown, Pen & Sword, Barnsley, U.K., 2016, $39.95

In Mercenaries to Conquerors Brown, an independent scholar and author of numerous essays on Byzantine history, investigates the role the Normans played during two centuries of conflict in the southeastern Mediterranean Sea. Southern Italy had remained under Greek control, both militarily and religiously, since 740, when Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Emperor Leo III transferred Calabria and Apulia from the jurisdiction of the Roman papacy to the patriarch of Constantinople. That sparked an ongoing conflict between the old and new Rome, which went from insurgency to open warfare. In the early 11th century the Normans, who had first arrived in Italy as pilgrims, began selling their services as warriors. In 1018, for example, some 300 Normans led by Gilbert Buatère took part in a Lombard insurrection led by Melus of Bari that met disaster at the hands of the eminent Greek general Basil Boioannes at Cannae, only seven of the Normans surviving. Twenty years later, however, Byzantine General George Maniakes began his campaign to drive the Arabs from Sicily with an army that included a Norman contingent under Guillaume de Hauteville.

In spite of notable successes the Byzantine efforts ultimately were in vain, but in the process the Normans, ensconced in the region, began a remarkable campaign to carve out an empire of their own. By 1071 the Byzantines had permanently lost southern Italy, and problems arose in mainland Greece. Characteristically exploiting the situation, the Normans for a time seized control of such cities as Corinth, Thebes and Thessaloniki. Succeeding where Maniakes failed, the Normans restored Christianity to Sicily and during the First Crusade Bohemond I, son of the powerful Duke Robert Guiscard of Apulia and Calabria, displayed exceptional gifts as both warlord and diplomat to play a leading role in securing Antioch and Jerusalem.

Although best known to Westerners for taking over England under William the Conqueror, the Normans deserve more attention for their equally remarkable feats in the Mediterranean and the Balkans. Brown’s important book brings this to light in a way that will satisfy all historians interested in the Byzantine era as well as medieval warfare.

—Thomas Zacharis

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