Roger II (1095-1154), king of Sicily from 1130 to 1154, was the most able ruler in 12th-century Europe. He organized a multiracial, multinational kingdom in which Arabic, Byzantine, Lombard, Jewish, and Norman cultures produced a brilliant cosmopolitan state.
Roger II was the son of the "Great Count" Roger of Sicily and Adelaide of Savona, and the nephew of Robert Guiscard, the greatest Norman ruler of Apulia and Sicily. In 1101 Roger's father, who had been 64 when Roger was born, died, leaving his widow and two small sons to rule his turbulent and rebellious county of Sicily. Countess Adelaide managed to retain power in the county, and in 1105 her elder son, Simon, died, leaving Roger as sole heir. By 1112, when Roger II was knighted, he and his mother had made Palermo their capital. Roger, a member of the first generation of the Hauteville family to be born in their southern Italian domains, was raised in the cosmopolitan Arabic, Greek, and Norman culture of Sicily, and his subsequent character reflects that upbringing.
Adelaide died in 1118, and the 23-year-old Roger, his county somewhat pacified by the participation of many Norman knights in the First Crusade and in subsequent service in the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem, began to consider the exploitation of Sicily's strategic position along the Mediterranean trade routes. On the death of his cousin Duke William of Apulia in 1127, Roger claimed the mainland inheritance of his family as his own. In 1128 he was formally invested as Duke of Apulia by Pope Honorius II at Benevento. By 1129 Roger had imposed his rule over the turbulent Norman barons of the mainland and had extracted from them a closely binding oath of personal loyalty to himself.
Norman Sicily and southern Italy had always been a subject of dispute between Normans, Byzantines, the German emperors, and the papacy. In the disputed papal election of 1130, Roger sided with the antipope Anacletus II against Innocent II. Therefore on Christmas Day, 1130, Anacletus crowned Roger king of Sicily at Palermo. The Norman adventure of the 11th century had reached its apex. At one stroke the dubiously gotten lands had been transformed into that most sacred of all Christian social structures, a kingdom. It was a kingdom, however, unlike any other European kingdom.
The first years of Roger's reign were spent in suppressing baronial revolts, countering the propaganda of Bernard of Clairvaux and Pope Innocent II, and defending his kingdom against the invading armies of the emperor Lothair. By 1139, however, Roger had succeeded in fending off all three dangers. The Emperor was dead, Roger was reconciled to Innocent II, and the last of the rebellious barons had been crushed. During the first 2 decades of his reign, Roger had begun to sponsor the architectural projects which were to make Norman Sicily one of the wonders of the world. The Cathedral at Cefalù, the Palatine Chapel at Palermo, and many other religious and secular buildings began to take on that unique combination of Greek, Arabic, and Norman artistic style which still fascinates the beholder. In 1140 Roger II promulgated the Assizes of Ariano, the most remarkable royal code of laws of the 12th century.
Not only did Roger and his officials patronize the arts and architecture, but they encouraged learning and literature. The great Arab geographer al-Idrisi dedicated his book to Roger, and Sicily, in continuous cultural contact with Byzantium, Islam, and Christian Europe, became not only a remarkable hybrid cultural meeting place but a center of Christian-Arab contacts from which much of Arabic and Greek learning would soon penetrate western Europe.
The old tensions among Sicily, Byzantium, and the German emperors were not, however, extinct. During the last years of his reign Roger had to counter a Byzantine-Western imperial alliance, and not until the death of the emperor Conrad III in 1152 was Roger able to cease his complex diplomatic efforts to neutralize this powerful threat to his independence. By 1153 Roger had once again vindicated his claims by his ability. In 1146 he had succeeded in establishing control of part of North Africa, and throughout his reign he succeeded in creating a stable political kingdom out of the most savagely opposed religious and racial factions which Christendom knew. His chancery issued documents in four languages: Arabic, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, and his island and mainland kingdom knew a degree of racial and religious toleration and cross-cultural influence such as few societies have known before or since. Roger died on Feb. 26, 1154, leaving the kingdom to his son William; and his reputation as the most remarkable layman of the 12th century, to history.
The best work on Roger II in English is the two-volume study of John Julius Norwich, The Normans in the South, 1016-1130 (1967) and The Kingdom in the Sun, 1130-1194 (1970). David C. Douglas, The Norman Achievement (1969), surveys the entire Norman movement in France, England, and Sicily. Otto Demus, The Mosaics of Norman Sicily (1950), discusses the artistic style of Roger's period.