In 982 the unlucky emperor Otto II loses a battle in Southern Italy, which triggers an uprising of the pagan Slavs east of the Elbe River giving Poland enough wiggle room to plough its own furrow.

When Otto II takes over from his father in 973 the Ottonian dynasty is at its peak. Otto I had defeated his domestic enemies, the Magyars and expanded aggressively east of the Elbe River.  He was crowned emperor in 962 and Byzantium had sent a “princess” for his son to marry.

Like many sons of successful fathers, Otto II tried to best his old man. Otto I had attempted to take Bari, the main base of Byzantine power in Italy. His son wanted to complete the task. And then go after the ultimate prize, the rich, Muslim held island of Sicily.

Otto II assembled the largest army Europe in this period had seen and marched south. He conquered the Byzantine duchy of Puglia and stayed in Taranto until June 982. As Otto expected, the Emir of Sicily brought his army across the straights of Messina to fight the northerners.

As the emir approached the Ottonian encampment near Rossano Calabro in the deep south he realised that the emperor’s army was a lot larger than he had bargained for. He turned his army around and marched at speed towards Messina to take ships home. He never made it.

As the emir’s troops ran home along the coast, they were spotted by Byzantine merchant ships coming up the coast. They told Otto and Otto’s heavy cavalry began the pursuit.  Somewhere near Capo Colonna (or Stilo) the Emir halted the flight and set up in full battle order.

Otto’s heavily armoured knights crashed into the emir’s troops and pushed all the way to the centre. The emir’s bodyguard crumbled, and the emir was killed. Job done.

No, not done at all. Whilst the German cavalry were busy slaughtering the emir, unbeknownst to them a reserve detachment of about 5,000 Muslim cavalrymen joined the fray. They encircled the fighting Germans and having restricted their room to manoeuvre, massacred them.

Many senior nobles died including the duke of Benevento, the bishop Henry of Augsburg, the Margrave of Merseburg, the abbot of Fulda and a further 19 counts. Otto II fled by hailing a Byzantine ship – oh irony of ironies.

He convinced the captain that he had enough and was just picking up the imperial treasury to retire on. The greedy captain pushed his rowing slaves go double time only to find that when they arrived back at Rossano, the emperor simply jumped into the sea and swam ashore.

The impact was felt al throughout Europe. Though the defeat was not catastrophic, the failure of Ottonian arms gave heart to the Slavs east of the Elbe who had been brutally subjugated and forcibly converted.

The ensuing Slav revolt pushed the borders of the empire back to the Elbe River. As a consequence, the empire needed the help of the dukes of Poland to contain the fallout, allowing this polity to ultimately become an independent state, unlike Bohemia/Czech Republic. 

In Southern Italy the Byzantines, Lombard dukes and Muslim Emirs kept squabbling until the Normans unified the territory. The Southern Normans were crucial support for the papacy in the Investiture Conflict which weakened the empire. More on this really almost completely forgotten battle is available on episode 10 of the History of the Germans Podcast available on all major podcasting platforms.

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