From 1038 to around 1041, the Byzantine Empire’s skilled general, George Maniakes, conquered the island of Sicily. Present with Maniakes in Sicily, was one of the more unique figures from medieval history—Harald Sigurdsson, also known as Harald Hardrada or Harald the Ruthless. He would later become King Harald III of Norway, but for now, he was biding his time as a mercenary in the Byzantine Empire’s Varangian Guard, all the while amassing wealth and prestige from his military exploits.
The Greek historians, such as Michael Pseullus and John Skylitzes, who later wrote about the time period, largely erased Harald from their accounts of the Sicilian campaign. At most, they would acknowledge that foreign mercenaries were present on the island and that Harald, or “Araltes” as they would sometimes call him, accomplished some impressive feats while on Sicily. They, however, reserved their highest praise for George Maniakes, who, by 1039, had conquered most of the island, and was said to have personally captured thirteen Sicilian cities.
Harald Hardrada received more recognition from his Scandinavian peers. The great Icelandic historian and saga writer, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), wrote a dramatic account of Harald’s war-torn life in his text, King Harald’s Saga. In the saga, Sturluson claimed that Harald led his band of Scandinavian mercenaries in four successful sieges against Sicilian cities. Although each of these four supposed sieges were accomplished through very unique and memorable means, this article focuses only on the first city that Harald attacked.
The first unnamed settlement that Harald was said to have besieged was described as being very large and populous, surrounded by walls that were too well-built to be knocked down with siege engines. Harald could not afford to wait until the population starved, for he had reports alleging that the city was well provisioned in food and water.
As he stared at those impenetrable walls, Harald Hardrada soon realized that the city hosted an abundance of wildlife—birds were constantly flying to and fro between the city and the nearby woods. With a plan in mind, Harald pulled together a team of his best birdcatchers. When his trappers were assembled, Harald told them to go catch as many birds as they could find that had flown from the city to the forest. When the mercenaries had assembled their battalion of birds, Harald was said to have had the poor creatures covered with flammable materials, which had earlier been smeared with wax and sulfur. Sadly for the birds, when the creatures had been given their combustible coverings (presumably set up like a fuse), Harald set them on fire and shooed the poor animals back toward the city.
Acting like mobile candles, the birds were able to fly back into the Sicilian city, where they returned to their nests on the rafters, underneath the flammable medieval roofs. Soon, at least according to the saga, the whole city was ablaze, and the distraught inhabitants evacuated the town and surrendered to the triumphant Harald Hardrada.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Birds in a dark and cloudy sky, [Public Domain] via pxhere.com).
- John Skylitzes. A Synopsis of Byzantine History: 811-1057, translated by John Wortley. Original text c. 11th or early 12th century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
- King Harald’s Saga, by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Magnus Mangusson and Hermann Pálsson. New York: Penguin Books, 1966, 2005.