Roger II, the Assizes of Ariano and the Kingdom of Sicily

Before the Unification of Italy in 1861 following the Risorgimento, the Italian peninsula was divided into several nation-states, the largest and most important of which was the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was formed when the Kingdom of Sicily merged with the Kingdom of Naples in 1816.

Roger II of Sicily

Founded by Roger II of Sicily in 1130, the Kingdom of Sicily was a successor state of the County of Sicily, which was founded in 1071 during the Norman conquests. Roger II began his rule as Count of Sicily in 1105, became Duke of Apulia and Calabria in 1127, then King of Sicily in 1130 and King of Africa in 1148. By the time of his death in 1154 at the age of 58, Roger had succeeded in uniting all the Norman conquests in Italy into one kingdom with a strong centralized government.

One way Roger II worked to create his strong centralized government was through the Assizes of Ariano, which were a series of laws for the Kingdom of Sicily promulgated in the summer of 1140 at what is now known as Ariano Irpino. Roger II felt that a centralized government would help maintain the peace he had sought to attain on the southern half of the Italian peninsula which, up to that point, was constantly in revolt.

The Assizes of Ariano established a large Sicilian bureaucracy and sought to maintain the feudal system under strict royal control. They contained 40 clauses that touched on all possible topics of contemporary legal concern: private property, public property, the church, civil law, royal finances, and the military. The work was advanced for its day, deriving its precepts not only from Norman and French, but also Muslim and Byzantine (especially Justinian) legal theories.

Today, Ariano Irpino is Irpinia’s second-largest city after Avellino. It was declared a city on October 26, 1952 by presidential decree. The city houses several museums, as well as boasts a Norman castle dating back to 574. Within the castle is the Museum of Norman Civilization and the city is also home to the European Center of Norman Studies.

Medieval historians Louis Mendola and Jacqueline Alio have dedicated their careers to the study of the Kingdom of Sicily, as well as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. We recently sat down with them to discuss the Assizes of Ariano and why they were an important step in the codification of laws.

Could you explain what the Assizes of Ariano are?

Essentially, they are a legal code loosely based on the Code of Justinian of the sixth century. The Assizes unified the disparate codes used until that time: feudal Frankish (Norman) and Lombard (Longobardic), Byzantine Greek, Latin (Catholic canon law), Maliki (Muslim), Jewish. In the Assizes, Roger II refers to “the diversity of the peoples” of his multicultural kingdom.

Why did Roger II choose Ariano as the place to set forth these laws?

He was traveling in the region, having ensured that his sons’ commanding troops there were maintaining order. Roger had spent several years reining in rebellious barons in Campania and Basilicata, as well as the Byzantines in Apulia. Incidentally, Ariano is where he established the ducat, so-named for his Duchy of Apulia, which is the origin of the word. The ducat came to be used in other parts of Italy, first as an actual coin and later as a unit of currency measurement.

Between 1016 and 1022, Ariano became the first fortified town in Italy to fall to sovereign control by the Normans, and remained so. It was symbolic in that respect. By comparison, the populations of Salerno and Benevento were still largely Lombard in 1140, while Bari was predominantly Byzantine Greek.

What was so revolutionary about the Assizes? Was Roger II ahead of his time as a ruler?

In particular, the fact that King Roger II’s assizes actually mentioned rape and dealt with it in part is very important to note. The law against rape, though intended only for nuns and maidens, was unusual but not unheard of. Trial by combat was regulated, also usury (the illegal action or practice of lending money at unreasonably high rates of interest). The very existence of the Assizes was remarkable because it brought order out of chaos. Among other things, the code served to unite the kingdom a decade after its foundation in 1130 by definitively asserting royal authority; until that time, Apulia (Puglia and Basilicata) had been ruled by one of Roger’s cousins. Roger was exceptional not only for the Assizes, but mostly for embracing various cultures.

Religious liberty also comes up in the Assizes. This was remarkable during a time when many kings were going off on Crusades. These and a few other laws in Fredrick’s constitution (on divorce and prostitution; on protecting the environment) are points that should be stressed when describing the Kingdom of Sicily.

What are some of the key tenets of the Assizes?

Besides things like rape and usury, they establish the rights of the clergy, the protection of orphans, and such principles as the idea that only men born into the knightly class (as the sons of knights) can be knighted unless special royal assent is granted. There are statutes regarding forgery, coin clipping, marriage, adultery, homicide, theft, arson and the rights of Jews. The two codices differ slightly in their statutes and emphasis but these laws are common to both. Certain principles are typical of their time: husbands might kill wives actually caught in adultery, and knights can participate in duels and be judged through trial by combat.

How long were the Assizes in place for? What came after them?

The Constitutions of Melfi legislated by Frederick II in 1231 kept most statutes while adding a few. After that, the next major legal codes were implemented after the War of the Vespers divided the kingdom in 1282. Thenceforth, we speak of “Neapolitan” and “Sicilian” codes.

What was the impact of the Assizes? Are they more of a historic footnote today or still something that should be taught and remembered?

Though historians knew “of” them, usually through generic references to “Roger’s Laws,” the two known codices, at Monte Cassino and the Vatican, were rediscovered in the middle of the 19th century. For that reason, the Constitutions of Melfi got bigger play traditionally because they had actually been published and studied. The Assizes were important for 90 years, until the end of Southern Italy’s Norman period and indeed into the Swabian period, and are a useful gauge and comparison to the laws of Norman England during the same era. They should be taught, if only as the precursor of the Constitutions of Melfi. Incidentally, leading up to Melfi in 1231, Frederick II issued the Assizes of Capua in 1220 and Messina in 1221. It is possible that his pacific Sixth Crusade to Jerusalem in 1229 influenced the Constitutions to some small degree.

The Unification of Italy in 1861 found certain legal principles, even those of pre-unitary states like Sardinia, Tuscany and the Two Sicilies, ignored. Rape was outlawed in 1933 but only as a “crime against public decency” akin to pornography. It finally become a felony, classified as a form of assault, in 1996, yet the Assizes made it a serious crime eight centuries earlier. For this reason, they are worth at least noting, certainly when discussing the rights of women in Italy in the context of a wider history.

Do you have anything else to add?

Though traditionally dated to 1140, we don’t actually know the precise date of the Assizes, which were likely formulated between 1140 and 1143. The two surviving manuscripts were copied decades later. Scholars debate whether the Assizes were issued at Ariano because while the chronicler Falco of Benevento mentions the ducat, he says nothing about the Assizes.

The Assizes made it possible for justiciars, most of whom were traveling judges (from whence our term “circuit judge” though American circuit judges work in specific districts), to refer to a standard legal code in rendering decisions. The fact that a cadre of these justiciars was in service by about 1143 is often cited for the dating of the Assizes.

To learn more about the Kingdom of Sicily and to discover Louis and Jacqueline’s books, visit www.mendola.com and www.jacquelinealio.com. To obtain a copy of the Assizes of Ariano in Latin, click here.

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