Dawn Marie Hayes' Roger II of Sicily offers both a responseto and a deep engagement with Hubert Houben's magisterial biography, Roger of Sicily: A Ruler Between East and West (Cambridge University Press, 2002) which Graham Loud and Diane Milburn translated into English almost two decades ago. Despite the general praise Hoeben's biography rightly received, it drew criticism for failing to analyze the kingdom of Sicily in the context of other Mediterranean polities, like the Latin kingdoms of Iberia or the Crusader States, which emerged at roughly the same time and adopted similarly pragmatic approaches to governing religiously pluralistic populations.  Dawn Marie Hayes does not attempt to offer a comprehensive biography of Roger's life but instead highlights a handful of individual instances that she sees as illustrating the way Roger's court used elements of "oblique power"--networks of marriage alliances, patronage of religious institutions, and creation of visual imagery--to connect Roger to other Mediterranean courts in Iberia, the Latin East, the Kingdom of France and Byzantium. These connections not only helped Roger craft a Sicilian royal identity but also furthered his political ambitions to forge a thalassocracy, a maritime empire that spanned the sea.
Throughout the text, Hayes also pushes back against projecting any modern notion of religious tolerance onto Roger II. She adopts the language of Brian Catlos's model of "conveniencia" , a reaction to the idea of convivencia, that stressed a strategic and pragmatic, self-interest that guided interactions between Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the period. But Hayes also envisions Roger himself as a devout Christian who yearned to convert his populace to Latin Christianity and usher in a religious transformation of his territory. He was restrained by the utility of conveniencia, specifically the presence of high-ranking Greek Christians and Muslims within his administration, who restrained him from ushering in that transformation (57). Such rhetoric appears in sources about the Kingdom of Sicily, even more so in the late twelfth century after Roger's death, but Hayes argues that, in the final years of his life, Roger II made a strategic decision to abandon "pragmatic tolerance" to "legitimize his kingdom in the eyes of western Europe's rulers" (189).
The book begins by focusing on Roger II's marriages and the ways they formed ideological connections to other Mediterranean kingdoms. The first chapter focuses on the marriage between Roger II and Elvira, the daughter of Alphonso VI of León and Castile. Houben's biography claims that Elvira might have influenced her husband to adopt Iberian policies of convivencia, an idealized model of Muslims and Christians co-existing peacefully. In contrast, Hayes asserts that Roger II used the marriage to associate himself with the image of her father Alphonso. She draws on evidence from early twelfth century Iberian chronicles and poetry to show that Alphonso was represented as a powerful Christian warlord who subjugated a Muslim population and reestablished an ancient Christian Kingdom and that these depictions paralleled Roger II's own ambitions. Hayes argues that Alphonso sought to associate himself with the French monarchy through a series of marriage alliances with the nobility of Burgundy, a strategy that Roger would emulate later in his reign. Roger II of Sicily provides ample evidence for the crafting of these images. For instance, it draws on scholarship that illustrates ways in which the Song of Roland subtly conflates the image of Charlemagne and Alfonso VI but is more speculative in establishing either the transmission or the shared understanding of these allusions.
The second chapter shifts focus to various relationships between the Kingdom of Sicily and the Latin East. Hayes details Roger's territorial claim to both the Principality of Antioch, through his cousin's family, and to the throne of Jerusalem, because of a marriage that he arranged between his mother and Baldwin I. While most works on Roger acknowledge this relationship, Roger II of Sicily distinguishes itself by tracing the way Roger cultivated alliances to maintain these relationships over more than thirty years. Hayes traces this history, elegantly interweaving complex genealogies with a detailed and multifaceted political narrative, which she then uses to contextualize Roger II's decision to marry Sibylla of Burgundy in 1149 and, after Sibylla's death, Beatrice of Rethel in 1151. Hayes establishes that both women came from families with numerous connections to the Latin East and that the marriages survived to respond both to the political crisis of the moment, and to reinforce his longstanding claims to power in the region. Further, she posits that strengthening this relationship was particularly important at the moment, because, in the wake of the collapse of the Second Crusade, the Abbott of Cluny had implored Roger to launch an anti-Byzantine crusade in alliance with the French monarchy. The marriages then, both connected Roger to the French nobility and strengthened contacts with the Latin East in preparation for a potential expansion into the region. These plans never came to fruition, in part from tepid support from the papacy.
The second section, "Faith," focuses narrowly on the veneration of St. Nicholas of Myra, particularly in his role as a patron for sailors and a saint who protected his worshipers from the dangers of the Sea. It does not offer the important comparative work that runs through the previous section. Hayes includes a previously published article that discusses the growth of the Cult of St. Nicholas in Bari in the late 11th century and explains how the Norman conquerors in Southern Italy adopted the devotion of St. Nicholas and spread the cult. The subsequent chapter explores Roger II's veneration of St. Nicholas, which Hayes sees as "personal devotion, rather than fostering any sense of communal devotion" (113). Hayes depicts Roger's veneration as an act to appeal to divine forces that could help him erect a maritime empire. "Roger," she asserts, "was in desperate need of a patronage who could assist him in military operations." She concludes that Sicily's Mediterranean position all-but required Roger to venerate such a saint, arguing that "there were significant limits to what Roger could achieve and maintain without the protection offered by Nicholas" (135). Hayes deploys a range of evidence to support these claims that comes from Nicholas' inclusion in the mosaics at the Cathedral of Cefalù, the Church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio, and the Capella Palatina, a church, and monastery Roger founded and dedicated to Nicholas. She also cites a sermon delivered by Philagathos, one of Roger's court preachers, on Nicholas's saint's day, and the inclusion of Nicholas on coins produced in Bari during Roger's reign. This section demonstrates that Nicholas was an important component of Roger's religious devotion. A fuller contextualization of Nicholas's role within the artistic program of the churches in question, as well as the wider religious program of Roger's kingdom as a whole, is necessary to support Hayes' larger contentions about the centrality of Nicholas' role in erecting Roger's maritime empire.
The third and final section, "Empire" begins with a chapter that uses the inclusion of what Hayes argues are fleur-de-lis, and other scholar have described as golden crosses, on Roger's robes in the iconic mosaic depiction of King Roger II in the Church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio as a point of departure for a discussion of Roger's attempts to emulate elements from both the Byzantine Imperial tradition and Frankish kingship. Hayes rejects Houben's assertion that an image drawn from Byzantine iconography was only meant to be understood by a small, Greek-speaking audience. She instead sees the piece as daring the Byzantine authority while simultaneously connecting to the ascendant power of the French monarch, particularly concerning the succession practices. This chapter returns to the political milieu of the late 1140s, the events surrounding the Second Crusade, and the dynastic crisis created by the death of Roger's children and his subsequent remarriage. For Hayes, the mosaic expresses both the anxieties over Roger's attempt to establish dynastic succession and an embodiment of the attempt to forge a Franco-Sicilian alliance.
The final chapter ruminates on the crown and loros, a ceremonial scarf, which adorns Roger in the mosaic of the Church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio. Both the crown and loros were part of the regalia of Byzantine emperors, but are in an outdated style, one which Byzantine emperors had not worn in almost fifty years. Ernst Kitzinger's canonical analysis of these images posited that the artists who constructed the image modeled it after older images of Byzantine rule. Hayes rejects that view, arguing the architectural style of the church reflects trends and techniques present in contemporary Byzantine architecture, and if the builders of the church had access to such churches, then the artists who created the mosaic would have been aware of recent shifts to imperial iconography. Instead, Hayes argues that the archaic style of these elements of regalia must be viewed through the lens of the alliance with the Kingdom of France discussed in the previous chapter. When seen next to the fleur-de-lis, they were meant to be read in conjunction with literary references to the Trojan heritage of the Francs. Hayes argues that the image was meant to "remind the viewer of a distant time when the ancestors of the Byzantines had usurped the territory of the progenitors of the French" (185). If this was the intent, such a message would have only been apparent to a narrow audience, far smaller than the one Houben originally envisioned for this mosaic. The claims of the Trojan origin of the Franks circulated in various accounts of the First Crusade, and though members of the Sicilian court may have been familiar with those texts, we have no evidence they replicated them in any other texts or artistic works from the Sicilian kingdom, nor would an outdated version of imperial iconography necessarily draw the mind to the ancient past of Troy.
Though Roger II of Sicily complicates the specific arguments Houben presented in his biography, it occasionally struggles to escape from the dualistic trap of an unchanging "west" and "east." Claims that the marriages of Alphonso VI of León and Castile "established ties to Western Europe" (39) or that "Alphonso was a Francophile who was more fully integrating Spain with Western Europe" (47) jar the reader, establishing a fixed, unchanging notion of "Europe" that excludes these dynamic Mediterranean kingdoms. The phrase "Western Europe" seems to serve as a proxy for an alignment with both Cluniac monasticism and the papacy on one hand, and Frankish kingship on the other. It assumes constant and unrelenting hostility on the part of "Western Europe" towards "pragmatic tolerance." However, contemporary "Western European" discourse about Roger II and his kingdom contained no critique about the Greek and Muslim members of his court or even the Muslim soldiers that he deployed to project his authority across his domain.
Roger II of Sicily also offers no substantive analysis of the role of Muslims within Roger's court and kingdom, the internal dynamics within the kingdom that led to the Latinization of its administration in the mid-twelfth century, the use of Islamic iconography in its visual artistic program, or how an Arabic language audience fluent in those symbols would have understood the "oblique power" of the Sicilian King. Roger's conquest of Ifrīqya and his establishment of the short-lived Norman Kingdom of Africa receive brief mention, and even then, only in the context of the Second Crusade and Roger's aspirations to launch a subsequent anti-Byzantine crusade. Scholars of the medieval kingdom of Sicily have no obligation to take up those specific subjects, but Hayes' larger argument, that in the final five years of his reign Roger pushed aside the elements of "pragmatic tolerance," in an effort to heighten his credentials as a faithful Latin Christian ruler capable of leading a crusade, cannot be sustained through the narrow windows into oblique power which Hayes presents. In all, Roger of Sicily insightfully compliments existing biographies of Roger II by tightly focusing the marriage alliances and artistic program of the Sicilian king. The volume makes particularly valuable contributions to the study of the affiliations and political alliances Roger sought to form at the last several years of his reign and the ways in which those the artistic program of the kingdom communicated those affiliations.
1. For example, see Thomas Burman's review in The International History Review 25, no. 2 (Jun. 2003): 392.
2. Brian Catlos, Muslims of Medieval Latin Christendom, c. 1050-1614 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 515-535.