THE NORMAN EMPIRE
A Third Rome centered in Sicily, ruled by the Siculo-Norman adventurers who battled Pope, Emperor, and Sultan alike
During the 11th century, a large migration of Normans arrived in Italy as pilgrims and as mercenaries serving the Lombards against the Byzantines. The Normans soon took advantage of the vacuum, using their horse-bound knights to found duchies and build castles of their own, with the Hauteville Dynasty in the lead.
Of note among these Normans was Duke Robert Guiscard
(1015-1085), who distinguished himself in battle against the Pope, conquered Sicily from Islam, and forced the German Emperor to retreat from Rome. Robert’s direct successors were incompetent and the Norman lands significantly decentralized, though notably the Hauteville Italo-Normans would come to rule Antioch after the First Crusade.
The next prominent Hauteville leader was Roger II (
1095-1154), whose power was centered in Sicily. Attacked by two emperors and the Pope, Roger II repelled them all, captured the Pope, and centralized the territories of Southern Italy under a new Kingdom of Sicily, with himself as the head. Roger II would also go on to conquer Tunisia, forging the Kingdom of Africa.
Whereas in OTL, the Hauteville Dynasty crumbled, heirless, and was consumed by the HRE, in this TL Roger IV
(ATL 1152-1225) survived his revolt against his father, inherits the throne, and succeeds where his living family members didn’t. As many Crusaders passed through Sicily to head to the Holy Land, Roger IV successfully leveraged this influence to launch an invasion of Byzantine Empire, lead by the fanatic anti-Catholic Andronikos I Komnenos. The Normans and the Crusaders sacked their way through Greece, sieged Constantinople, and claimed it in the name of a pro-Norman Byzantine pretender, who promptly died in a tragic accident. Roger IV was then triumphantly proclaimed Roman Emperor in 1183.
The next century of Mediterranean history is one of war, peace, profit, and destruction. Roger IV is challenged by the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, but thanks to the Norman Emperor's political expertise and luck (the Holy Roman Emperor, notably, drowned on his way to a battle against Roger), the Normans won their wars against rivalrous powers and stabilized their station as a great power. The Normans even secured several loyal popes who recognized their claim to Constantinople and imperial titles. Roger IV's successors would go on to lead Crusaders against ascendant Muslim powers in the Holy Land, battle against Turks and Bulgars, avenge betrayal by the Kings of Spain and conquer that land as well.
By 1340, Emperor Bohemond V of the House Hauteville straddles the thrumming heart of the world. The Mediterranean is a Norman lake, with the Hauteville standard on the sails of the fearsome imperial navy. Nearly every city within eyesight of the sea is occupied by men who've pledged loyalty to the Emperor in Palermo, whether locals, Normans, or mercenaries from far-off-lands. The Pope is on good terms with the Emperor, though has repeatedly refused Bohemond V's requests to excommunicate the Holy Roman Emperor, who is gaining power in the north. The Italian merchant-states are late to pay their tribute again. In Constantinople, the viceroy watches helplessly as violence once again breaks out between Greeks and Latins. In the Crusader states, Muslim peasants once again rally for a revolt against the Prince of Jerusalem.
While the Emperor Bohemond V in Palermo is dominant, he is not absolutely supreme; the Norman Empire is very politically an culturally decentralized. Politically, the Emperor is reluctant to extend his influence beyond Palermo, preferring to let the dukes, princes, and thematic governors call the shots beyond. Local leaders are free to pursue development projects and produce wealth. Order is maintained through a feudal tributary system. While this is beneficial in preventing civil war, Palermo frequently must default on loans due to low taxes. Bohemond V has read the history of the old Roman Emperors, though, and knows better than to let the soldiers of the Empire have empty pockets and bellies.
Culturally, the Norman Empire is a soup. Normans only represent a significant proportion of the population in the rich cities of Sicily and the imperial colonies of Malta and Cyprus, while Italians, Sicilians, Arabs, Turks, Spaniards, and Greeks of various faiths make up the majority of the population. Norman culture has been blended and intermixed with local traditions, Norman courts often feature local art and architecture, local languages and religions survive, and Norman elites increasingly dress and act like locals. Even Emperor Bohemond V wears an intermix of clothes reminiscent of Frankish, Roman, and Greek traditions. Latin--the language and Christian sect--is dominant, though is mixed and filtered into local interpretations.
The Emperor officially promotes Catholicism as the one true faith, though has a mixed record of enforcing this. In the Crusades, Muslims and Jews were massacred, though in other cases the imperial court was infused with religious and cultural diversity. Religious violence is frequent in some places, and infrequent in others.
The Norman Empire is a diverse and glorious metropolitan amalgamation. These diverse cultures interact, intermarry (even across faith lines), and trade. This has resulted in an upswell of artistic expression, philosophical thought, and interfaith discussion, all centered at the capital Palermo.
Trade represents a significant part of the imperial economy. Lombards dominate, hailing from Venice, Genoa, and Naples, as they’ve been gifted trade rights in major cities across the Mediterranean.
The imperial navy does its best to protect traders loyal to Palermo from pirates, while promoting piracy against rivalrous Muslims, Greeks, and Slavs, and often turning a blind eye to Italian pirates who enslave Catholics. Slavery is a major staple of Mediterranean life, with vast slave markets across the isles.
As the year of 1340 came to a close, Emperor Bohemond V expected his greatest threat to come from the encroaching Turks threatening his lands in Anatolia. He should have feared what the Turks were escaping from. By January, the Emperor will have received reports of a terrible new sicknesses seeping from Norman-ruled Crimea. The Mediterranean’s interconnectedness--the source of its great wealth and prosperity—was soon to be turned against it.
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