A Bloody Fight On Land And Sea Between An Emperor And An Adventurer
The Norman Invasion
Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118), from his seat of power in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), had the misfortune of his country being invaded by one of the Medieval Age’s greatest opportunists—Robert Guiscard. Norman warriors and mercenaries, like Guiscard, had found that there were plentiful lucrative opportunities among the warring counts and dukes of Italy. Guiscard became the Duke of Apulia (the heel of Itay) in 1059, and from there he expanded his influence into Calabria, Naples and Sicily. While he increased his own power, Guiscard was also undermining the authority of the emperors of Constantinople in southern Italy.
(Medieval illustration of Emperor Alexios Komnenos (r. 1081-1118), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
When Robert Guiscard took the region of Bari in 1071, he had expelled the imperial ambitions of Constantinople from its last foothold in Italy. As soon as Emperor Alexios Komnenos came to power in 1081, the Norman conqueror took advantage of the instability caused by the regime change to invade the Byzantine Empire. Guiscard claimed he invaded the empire to reinstate the deposed emperor, Michael VII (r. 1071-1078), whose son, Constantine, had married Robert’s daughter, Helen. Few inhabitants of the Byzantine Empire, however, actually believed that the Norman warlord would relinquish control of the empire if it fell into his hands.
(Portrait of Robert Guiscard by Merry-Joseph Blondel (1781–1853), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
In May of 1081, Guiscard used a formidable navy to ferry a large army to the modern coastland of Albania, which was a part of Alexios’ empire. By June, the Normans had laid siege to the major port fortress of Dyrrakhion (modern Dürreš), which can also be spelled Dyrrachium or Dyyrachion. The fortress was built on superb terrain—it was located on a peninsula, with the Adriatic Sea to the west and south, a marsh to the north, and a lagoon to the east. While the impressive fortifications and garrison of Dyrrakhion, led by George Palaiologos, withstood the Norman siege, Emperor Alexios set to work on gathering an army and sending requests for aid to his allies and friends, including the Republic of Venice and the Holy Roman Empire of Germany.
(Location of Dyrrakhion (modern-day Dürreš), courtesy of Google Maps)
Robert Guiscard was about to attack Dyrrakhion simultaneously from land and sea when the powerful Venetian navy arrived. When they saw the size of Robert’s military, the Venetian ships took up a defensive position and waited to see if the Norman navy would attack. Indeed, Robert sent his navy and his son, Bohemond, to drive off the Venetians.
According to Emperor Alexios’ daughter, Anna Komnene, the Venetians tethered the ships of their fleet together, constructing a floating fortress. By the time Bohemond and the Norman ships arrived, the Venetians had a solid defensive formation. Nevertheless, the Norman navy charged at the Venetian fleet. The Venetians, however, were superior in positioning and naval skill. Consequently, the Norman navy charged into a massacre.
(Image of a Venetian galley, from Konrad von Grünenberg (1442-1494), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
The Norman ships that survived the disastrous charge against the Venetian fleet fled back toward the camp of Robert’s army. The Venetian sailors cut the lines holding their ships together and pursued Bohemond and the other fleeing Normans. In the fortress of Dyrrakhion, the garrison was encouraged by the Venetian victory. They charged out of the fortress and struck at Robert’s camp. Anna Komnene claimed that some Venetians also rowed to shore and struck at Robert’s army alongside the garrison. The Normans eventually reorganized and started fighting back, but the ships of the Norman fleet were either sunk or had to be hauled from the water and beached. Robert’s camped troops had also taken a heavy beating. Even worse, enemy ships now blockaded the Norman camp, cutting them off from any supplies shipped from Italy.
Robert Guiscard’s army quickly ate through its rations, and the scarce food that could be foraged from the land could not keep the Norman troops strong and healthy. Anna Komnene would also have us believe that the locals who lived around Dyrrakhion happily harassed and sabotaged the Normans whenever Robert’s warriors went out to scavenge for food. There was nothing that Guiscard could do to keep his troops from growing hungry and weak from malnutrition. In their weakened state, disease also set in and ravaged the Norman camp. Furthermore, while the Normans were facing starvation and disease, Emperor Alexios was steadily gathering an army of imperial and mercenary troops. To put it plainly, Robert Guiscard was in a dire situation.
Despite the loss of his navy, the absence of food and the persistence of pestilence in his ranks, Robert Guiscard did not lose faith. He began building siege engines, the most intimidating of which was a siege tower—a mobile armored staircase or ladder that allowed infantry to pour onto enemy walls via a bridge or door at the top of the tower.
(Siege tower used in a siege of Lisbon, painted by Alfredo Roque Gameiro (1864–1935), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
When George Palaiologos, commanding the defense of Dyrrakhion, saw the siege engines being built and arrayed near the walls of his fortress, he decided to chance a preemptive strike against the sick and hungry Normans. Palaiologos gathered up his garrison and charged out of the gates. His attack, however, was just as futile as Bohemond’s charge against the Venetians.
Though diseased and starving, the Norman soldiers proved their worth and held their ground against the sudden attack. A Norman archer even shot George Palaiologos in the side his head—Palaiologos, however, was a hardy, herculean man and miraculously survived. In her Alexiad, Anna Komnene wrote that after being shot in the head, George Palaiologos could not remove the arrow from his skull, so he simply broke off the shaft and jumped back into the fight after some quick bandaging. Nevertheless, the attack did little to halt Robert Guiscard’s siege.
George Palaiologos’ next plan was to let the Normans attack the fortress. Though it may seem a horrible idea, the defenders of Dyrrakhion let the Norman siege tower approach the defensive walls. As soon as the tower was in place, however, Palaiologos enacted a brilliant, simple plan—he jammed the tower’s drawbridge or door with a sturdy wooden beam. When it was time for the Normans to charge from their siege tower to the walls of Dyrrakhion, they found they could not exit the tower, no matter how hard they pushed. The siege engine was rendered useless. With the Norman attack foiled, the defenders were able to burn down the siege tower.
Despite the shortage of food, the outbreak of disease, the blockade and the loss of his siege tower, Robert Guiscard continued to cling to faith in his siege of Dyrrakhion. He immediately ordered his troops to begin construction of another siege tower. The tower, however, was not completed, for Emperor Alexios arrived with an army to relieve the besieged fortress.
The Balance of Battle
Emperor Alexios parked his army on strong footing. Up ahead and to the left of Alexios’ army was the Adriatic Sea, the marshlands and the peninsula on which the fortress of Dyrrakhion was built. In the other direction, Mountainous terrain guarded Alexios’ right side. To top it off, the army of Constantinople was camped on a slope, and Emperor Alexios had the high ground. Historian, John Haldon, estimated that Alexios probably had gathered around 18,000-20,000 troops for the battle. No satisfyingly-accurate estimate of Robert Guiscard’s force has been found, but he is believed to have had the larger army. Anna Komnene estimated that Guiscard had 30,000 men.
Information is scant as to where exactly the Normans positioned their original camp. They had access to the sea and they were adjacent to the swamp, so Robert likely set up camp on the peninsula beside the fortress of Dyrrakhion, where the marshlands turned into a lagoon. With Emperor Alexios’ arrival, the Normans were caught between Dyrrakhion and the fresh imperial army, with only the lagoon as a divide.
Despite the Norman siege, Alexios managed to contact Dyrrakhion. He requested that George Palaiologos come to his camp to discuss strategy. Palaiologos, still recovering from being shot with an arrow to the head, succeeded (by ship or by sneaking past the Normans) in reaching Alexios’ military camp. Once the war council was convened, the military leaders of Constantinople found their ranks split over whether to plan offensively or defensively. Commanders such as George Palaiologos argued that they should remain defensive, letting hunger and disease continue to weaken and thin the ranks of the Norman army. The other half, however, argued that now was the time to inflict a decisive strike to shatter Robert Guiscard’s force once and for all. Emperor Alexios was swayed by the leaders who wanted to attack and began to plan his next move.
Emperor Alexios envisioned a three-pronged, simultaneous attack on the Norman camp. One prong was to be the garrison of Dyrrakhion, which would pour out of the fortress to attack the enemy camp, when signaled. For the second prong, Alexios split off a section of his allied and mercenary troops and sent them into the marshes to attack the Norman camp from a different angle. The last prong was Alexios’ main force, which would advance forward against Robert Guiscard when it was time for battle. If the three prongs were positioned correctly, and they attacked on time, the Norman camp would be surrounded, pinned in by troops from the garrison, the marsh and from Alexios’ position on the high ground. As night was closing in, messengers were rushing to Dyrrakhion to inform the fortress of the battle plan, and imperial allies and mercenaries were sneaking their way into the marshes for the next day’s attack.
When morning came, the garrison of Dyrrakhion, and the troops hidden in the marsh, both charged at the Norman camp. They easily broke their way into the compound and secured the area. Yet it was a hollow victory—there were no Normans among the tents and bedrolls.
No, as it happened, Robert Guiscard did not like his army being caught between the fortress of Dyrrakhion and the army of Alexios, with only a lagoon separating his camp from the newly arrived force. Therefore, he moved his men right across the lagoon during the night—Anna Komnene claimed he did it by bridge—and positioned himself to the side of Alexios’s army. In his new position, Robert’s forces had their back to the Adriatic Sea, with Alexios’ camp in front of his line, and the garrison of Dyrrakhion behind him, hampered by the lagoon his army had crossed during the night.
Emperor Alexios recovered admirably after his elaborate battle plans had been thoroughly thwarted. He maneuvered his forces to face Robert Guiscard’s new position by the sea. All fanciful and excessive tactics were discarded now that the battle was commencing. The Norman’s formed up in the standard left wing, right wing and center formation, with Robert Guiscard commanding the center and Bohemond leading the left. Alexios also lined his men in a three division formation (minus the troops attacking the empty Norman camp), with the Emperor commanding the center. Large portions of Alexios’ army were archers, but they were shielded behind Constantinople’s elite heavy infantry, the Varangian Guard.
(The invitation of the Varangians, by Viktor Vasnetsov (1848–1926), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons, edited)
Robert Guiscard started the battle by sending a force of cavalry to parade in front of the emperor’s men in an attempt to lure troops (especially the Varangians) out of position and disorganize Alexios’ lines. The move failed, and the Norman horsemen were driven away by the emperor’s archers.
Next, the Norman right wing—probably without Robert’s orders—charged where Alexios’ center and left wing met. The powerful Varangian Guard took the brunt of the charge, but held their ground. As the Normans were occupied with the Varangians, the emperor’s left wing struck the Normans from the side, causing Robert Guiscard’s right wing to panic and flee. The emperor’s left wing pursued the broken Normans all the way to the sea, where many of Robert Guiscard’s men drowned in the salty water. Driven by bloodlust, the Varangian Guard could not help themselves but to aid in chasing down the fleeing Normans, slaying any enemy who was not fleet of foot. All was looking hopeful for Emperor Alexios, for his army was intact while his opponent was down a wing.
The Varangians, however, had pushed too far forward, and Robert Guiscard immediately took advantage of their error. He detached a force of spearmen from his center and flanked the winded Varangians, shattering them completely—almost none of the Varangians that were deployed in the battle survived. The Norman infantry then went on to break Alexios’ left wing, which had scattered to chase down the Normans who had fled to the sea. With the Varangians dead, and the emperor’s left wing in disarray, the Norman right wing began to rally itself and return to battle. The battle had completely upended—the Normans had been the army without a wing, but now it was Alexios’ who was without a third of his army.
(Norman cavalry attacking infantry in the Bayeux Tapestry (commissioned in 1070s), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
With his chances steadily improving, Robert Guiscard called out his heavy cavalry from his reserves and sent them to charge at Alexios’ lines. The emperor’s archers, again, prepared to fire on the incoming horsemen, but there was no longer a solid core of elite Varangians to slow down the cavalry. Before the archers could let loose their arrows, the heavy cavalry arrived to trample and lance them to death. Other Norman horsemen were sent out to harass Alexios’ lines at their flanks. Soon, Normans had the whole Byzantine army surrounded.
(Norman Heavy Cavalry in the Bayeux Tapestry (commissioned in 1070s), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
The state of Emperor Alexios’ army deteriorated from dishevelment, to disarray, and finally to hopeless chaos. By now, soldiers on both sides of the war knew the Normans had won the battle. As a result, the forces of Constantinople scattered, fleeing for their lives. Emperor Alexios, himself, barely escaped the chaos. If there was truth to the account that Alexios gave to his daughter, Anna Komnene, which she later recorded in her Alexiad, the emperor only escaped the battle of Dyrrakhion after an elaborate horse chase. The emperor’s daughter claimed Alexios fought off several Norman horseman with his sword, in a scene reminiscent of a car-chase from an action film.
The battle near Dyrrakhion was massive, and consequently had an equally-scaled casualty count. The Princeton University historian of the Byzantine Empire, John Haldon, estimates that around 25% (approximately 5,000 men) of Alexios’s army did not escape the Norman encirclement. There are very few statistics on Norman casualties from the battle of Dyrrakhion, but they were likely substantial, at least from the right wing that was pushed back into the sea.
After the battle, Dyrrakhion surrendered to the Normans. Alexios retreated to Akhris, where he immediately began gathering funds (from his family’s treasures), regathering his scattered forces, and reaching out to his allies for aid. The Germans of the Holy Roman Empire answered Alexios’ prayers and invaded Italy, causing Robert Guiscard to head home to defend his Italian holdings. The Norman conquest of the Byzantine Empire then fell to Robert’s son, Bohemond. He, however, proved much less capable than his father in fighting Emperor Alexios, and the Normans quickly lost their momentum after Robert Guiscard returned to Italy.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The Alexiad by Anna Komnene, translated by E. R. A. Sewter and edited by Peter Frankopan. New York: Penguin Books, 2009.
- The Byzantine Wars by John Haldon. Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2008.