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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#Onthisday, August 23rd, 1268 Konradin, last of the imperial Hohenstaufen dynasty, lost the battle of Tagliacozzo. Konradin had made a desperate attempt to regain his inheritance as king of Sicily. Sicily was at the time one of the richest and best organised kingdoms in Europe, comprising not just the island of Sicily but all of Southern Italy up to Rome.

The popes had tried to get rid of the Hohenstaufens for years, offering the kingdom of Sicily to whoever was willing and able to oust them. King Henry III of England had initially shown interest but was rebuffed by parliament, adding to his woes that would lead to the Second Barons War.

After Henry III, the popes offered Sicily to Charles of Anjou, younger son of King Louis VIII of France. Once terms were agreed, Pope Urban IV called a crusade against Konradin’s uncle Manfred who had ruled Sicily (nominally) on his behalf. Charles defeated Manfred in the battle of Benevento in 1266 and took control of the kingdom.

Konradin appeared in Southern Italy in 1268 with an army raised by Ghibelline (=pro-imperial) Italian cities, a contingent of Austrian soldiers and many Sicilian nobles who struggled under the harsh Angevin rule. The battle was brief but bloody. Almost the entire army perishes, and Charles of Anjou has the survivors executed.

On October 29th, 1268, Konradin, just 16 years old, is beheaded on the main square in Naples together with his friend Frederick of Baden. This marks the end not just of the family of Frederick Barbarossa, it is also the end of imperial meddling in Italian affairs. Nominally Northern Italy remains part of what now will be called the Holy Roman Empire, but few emperors go to Italy, and if they do, it is in a private capacity.

Charles was also not able to enjoy his new kingdom for long. In 1282 the inhabitants of Sicily rose up and murdered thousands of their French oppressors in an event known as the Sicilian Vespers. The king of Aragon came to the rebels aid (or may have even instigated the event himself). Charles lost control of the island and died a few years later a broken man.

Konradin has been romanticised in German history as “the last Staufer”, young and “beautiful as Absalom” whose tragic demise closes the heroic medieval history of the Empire. Modern historians like Peter H. Wilson have been questioning whether there was as much of a structural break between the Staufer and their successors.

We will see what we make of the death of Konradin when we get to it in the History of the Germans Podcast – available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify etc. and on my website historyofthgermans