From around 1038 to 1041, the Byzantine Empire’s talented general, George Maniakes, carried out a military campaign that led to the momentary conquest of the island of Sicily. Harald Sigurdsson, also known as Harald Hardrada or Harald the Ruthless, was one of the foreign mercenaries that took part in the campaign. He would later become King Harald III of Norway, but for now, he was leading the Varangian Guard, the most renowned mercenary company in the empire that took orders only from the Byzantine emperor.
The Greek historians, such as Michael Pseullus and John Skylitzes, mainly focused on the actions of George Maniakes in their commentaries on the Sicilian campaign. They acknowledged that foreign mercenaries were also present on the island and some admitted that Harald Hardrada accomplished impressive feats while in 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.
Nevertheless, the future Norwegian king 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 King Harald’s Saga. In it, Sturluson claimed that Harald led his band of mercenaries in four successful sieges against Sicilian cities. Although each of these four supposed sieges were accomplished through very unique and memorable means, today we will only focus on the third city that Harald attacked.
After taking one city by setting it on fire, and another by tunneling under its walls, Harald Hardrada came across a third city that was populous and wealthy. The settlement was described as having strong walls, a moat, and enough supplies to last through a long siege. In addition, Harald thought that the local garrison in charge of the defense of the city looked competent enough to repel anyone trying to scale the walls with ladders. According to Sturluson, the defenders lined up on their walls and opened their gate, beckoning the invaders to attack. Still wary, the future king held his troops back and made camp.
Instead of storming the city, Harald marched his men over to a spot that was out of range from enemy projectiles and then had his men remove their equipment to start playing sports and games. Harald kept his troops playing these games (in shifts) for several days. With time, the besieged town took interest in the spectacle and people would crowd the walls to have a look at the ongoing competitions. As the days went on, the city grew lazy with its defense—spectators on the walls were unarmed and they would habitually leave their gate open.
On a certain day, the sporting event was being held as usual. This time, however, the competing mercenaries looked a little bulkier than usual; they had on hoods or large hats, and their clothing was looser than usual. The city defenders realized too late that the athletes were wearing helmets under their headgear and had swords stowed away under their tunics. Each soldier that happened to be playing a sport that day suddenly rushed toward the city’s open gateway. The defenders, unprepared and surprised, managed to keep this first wave of attackers from fully entering the city, but they could not close the gate. Then, as planned, Harald Hardrada charged in with his remaining band of fully equipped mercenaries and pushed his way into the city through the opening. The town fell shortly after that, but the assault was said to have been the most costly attack that Harald enacted in Sicily, primarily because the first wave of his soldier-athletes were wearing very little armor when they entered combat.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (A game from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, c. 1280, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- 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.