In 1087, a horde of Pecheneg warriors (followed by their families) poured down from the steppes above the Black Sea and into territory controlled by the Byzantine Empire. The empire was ruled at that time by Emperor Alexios Komnenos, who had led the empire since 1081. These tens of thousands of hostile warriors threw the empire into such a panic that memories of the old ‘barbarian’ enemies of the Roman Empire were revived to describe the new Pecheneg threat. Anna Komnene, daughter of Emperor Alexios, likened the invaders to the ancient Scythians, Sarmatians and Dacians in her history, The Alexiad. She estimated that the Pechenegs had crossed into imperial territory with as many as 80,000 warriors.
The Pechenegs made great early progress, capturing Khariopolis and Skotinos, before they met any major resistance from the Byzantine army. That was about to change, however, because a defensive force led by Nicholas Maurokatakalon set up camp in the nearby region of Koule to keep watch on the invaders. When the Pechenegs discovered there was a Byzantine army so near to their location, they were overcome with bloodlust and marched against their enemy in Koule.
Very little information remains about the size of the force led by Maurokatakalon in Koule, but it must have been significantly smaller than the Pecheneg force he came up against. Despite this, Anna Komnene wrote that the Byzantine army was the first to strike. Maurokatakalon’s men at Koule were able to repel the Pechenegs and send them fleeing back toward the Danube River. The invaders were dealt a heavy blow, but the Pecheneg Wars were far from over.
Meanwhile, Emperor Alexios had built up his forces and was ready to go on the offensive against the invading horde. He marched up toward the Danube River in pursuit of the invaders, eventually putting up camp near the city of Dristra (modern day Silistra, Bulgaria), which was controlled at the time by the Pechenegs. Alexios’ enemies, however, were aware of his presence, and launched an attack on the Byzantine camp. The emperor lost some men, but overall, the camp remained secure and was well defended.
Emperor Alexios rallied his men and besieged the city of Dristra. He managed to break into the city, but the Pecheneg forces still had control of the city’s two citadels. After considering his options, Emperor Alexios decided to withdraw from the city and return to his nearby camp. The emperor’s men were still settling back into their camp when they realized the Pecheneg army had followed them from Dristra. According to Anna Komnena, for most of the battle, the Byzantine and Pecheneg forces were evenly matched. Yet, when more reinforcements arrived to aid the Pechenegs, the Byzantine army broke and scattered.
The emperor fled back to friendly territory, and reached out to the Pechenegs to buy back many of his captured men through ransom payment. Yet, one of Alexios’ most renowned generals, named George Palaiologos, had a much more elaborate and adventurous time escaping from the battle near Dristra.
In The Alexiad, Anna Komnene wrote down Palaiologos’ impressive, old war story. Apparently, after the battle near Dristra, George Palaiologos was separated from the Byzantine army and was knocked off of two separate horses as he was being chased by the Pechenegs. Now on foot, Palaiologos trekked through the mountainside for eleven days before a sympathetic widow found him and brought the lost general to her home. The widow’s sons then helped Palaiologos return to friendly territory.
Around this time, a new group of warriors entered the lands of the Byzantine Empire—the Cumans. Thankfully for Emperor Alexios, the Pechenegs and the Cumans were not on friendly terms, and the two invaders started to fight. The Cumans quickly gained momentum, pushing the Pechenegs back to a lake Anna Komnene called Lake Ozolimne. The Cumans had the Pechenegs battered and besieged at the lake, but they ran out of supplies and withdrew to restock. The arrival of this third group of warriors had caused such a shift in the balance of power that when the Cumans returned to finish off the their prey at Lake Ozolimne, they found that the Pechenegs and the Byzantine Empire had called a truce to deal with the Cumans.
The truce, made in late 1087, did indeed deter the Cumans, who withdrew, but kept a close eye on events in the Byzantine Empire. Once the Cuman threat was out of sight and out of mind, the Pechenegs quickly ripped up their truce with Emperor Alexios and began expanding further into imperial territory. The emperor, who was still recovering from his earlier losses, decided to harass the Pechenegs with guerrilla skirmishes rather than a major battle. Nevertheless, for multiple years he watched as the Pecheneg forces moved from their new base at Markella to capture Philippopolis and then move against Kypsella. When the Pechenegs reached Kypsella, however, they found that Emperor Alexios was nearby with an army of his own. Instead of battling over the region, the Pechenegs and Emperor Alexios agreed to another truce.
Another Contender Enters
Peace only lasted about three years, for around 1090, the Pechenegs broke the truce and captured Taurokomos. Once again, Emperor Alexios resorted to guerrilla-style warfare to slow down the Pechenegs while his forces recovered and prepared. Nevertheless, the Pechenegs continued to push further into imperial lands. The emperor was unable to stop the invaders from taking Kharioupolis and Apros.
To make matters worse, around this time a fourth addition to the chaotic factions fighting within the Byzantine Empire made its appearance. The Pechenegs and Emperor Alexios were still battling, the Cumans were still observing the war from the shadows, and now an ambitious Turk from Smyrna decided to scavenge vulnerable coastal lands from the Byzantine Empire.
The name Anna Komnene gave this Turk was Tzakhas (or Tzachas), but he is also known as Çaka Bey. After having built a great fleet in his city of Smyrna, Çaka pummeled the Byzantine Empire with an impressive series of conquests. One after the other, he conquered Klyzomenai, Phokia and Mitylene, and posed a severe threat to Khios.
It was around Khios that the Byzantine military began putting up a decent fight against the marine forces of Çaka. The emperor first sent a fleet led by Niketas Kastamonites, but Çaka was the better admiral and ended up capturing many of the imperial ships. After that unfortunate setback, Alexios had another fleet pulled together under Constantine Dalassenos, and sent him off to combat Çaka. Dalassenos proved to be more of a match for Çaka, and the two fought to a standstill around Khios. Even though Dalassenos could not break through his gridlock against the Turk adventurer, he managed to keep Çaka tied down until Emperor Alexios’ talented confidant, John Doukas, was able arrive on the scene.
Sensing that the momentum of war was shifting, Çaka withdrew back to Smyrna in order to gather more men and ships. John Doukas and Constantine Dalassenos quickly took advantage of the absence of the brilliant Turk and secured Khios.
Battles of Four Armies
While Çaka Bey was regaining his strength in Smyrna, Emperor Alexios gathered an army and challenged the Pecheneg forces near the city of Rousion. There, they battled for multiple days. On the first major day of conflict at Rousion, the Pechenegs shattered Alexios’ forces, but the emperor managed to rally his men, and even drew in new recruits from the nearby city. In the second major exchange at Rousion, Anna Komnene claimed her father, Alexios, won the day by showering the Pechenegs with heavy arrow fire, followed by a powerful charge of Byzantine cavalry and infantry.
After his victory at Rousion, Emperor Alexios rerouted his troops toward the settlement of Tzouroulos and set up his camp between the village and a nearby river. The Pechenegs, however, had regrouped and pursued the imperial army. Emperor Alexios soon found his camp at Tzouroulos surrounded and besieged.
To break through the Pecheneg siege at Tzouroulos, Alexios used a simple, but effective trick. The emperor’s camp was located on a steep incline and he still had access to the population of Tzouroulos. Therefore, Alexios commandeered as many heavy circular or cylindrical objects as he could find from the locals, tied them to the walls above the steep incline, and prayed that his plan would work. The next day, Alexios sent out his archers to harass the Pecheneg warriors. Seeing a vulnerable target, the Pechenegs charged up the incline toward the imperial archers. With the besieging forces riding up the hill toward them, the archers in front of Alexios’ camp scattered, leaving only empty ground between the camp’s walls and the approaching Pechenegs. It was at this time that all the wheels and axels and pieces of lumber that Alexios had managed to scrounge up were released from the walls to plummet down onto the Pecheneg forces. After the heavy objects had rolled over, crushed and lacerated the Pecheneg soldiers on the hill, Alexios’s men poured out to attack the enemy.
Emperor Alexios soon broke the siege and both armies withdrew to regroup and reassess. The situation in Alexios’ empire began to grow dire again in 1091 when, Çaka Bey returned to the empire’s coastline with a bigger fleet and more men. Even the Cumans were becoming more active, and were stalking the skirmishes between Emperor Alexios and the Pechenegs like vultures.
Events came to a head at Lebounion (also spelled Levounion), where Emperor Alexios, the Pechenegs and the Cumans all set up camp in 1091. Once again, however, there was still bad blood between the Cuman and Pecheneg people. Emperor Alexios found that the Cumans were willing to partner with the Byzantine Empire to destroy the Pechenegs—and that is exactly what happened.
Destruction and Death
On April 29, 1091, Emperor Alexios’ army, along with the Cumans, lined up against the huge camp of Pechenegs. In The Alexiad, Anna Komnene wrote that Alexios and his allies lined their men up in a formation similar to a bastion, or a crescent, and shattered the Pecheneg forces with one ruthless charge. By the end of the battle, the Pecheneg people were nearly extinct—their army was massacred, and many of the women and children in the camp were slaughtered. The Pechenegs would never fully recover from the Battle of Lebounion. After the battle, the Cumans were heavily rewarded and given safe passage out of the empire by Emperor Alexios.
As for Çaka Bey, Emperor Alexios again tasked John Doukas and Constantine Dalassenos with the job of expelling the pesky Turk from imperial lands in 1092. Doukas intercepted Çaka at Mitylene, causing the man to flee by ship to Smyrna, with Dalassenos giving chase with a Byzantine fleet the whole way back.
In 1093, Çaka was still living up to his reputation. He had raised another fleet and was besieging vulnerable coastal cities. This time, however, the Byzantine Empire wasn’t the only entity that arrived to thwart his plans—the ambition and arrogance of the unruly Turk from Smyrna had drawn the ire of the new Seljuk sultan, Kilij Arslan I. This time, the Byzantine Empire did not have to take action against Çaka, for he was assassinated by order of the sultan before the year’s end.
So ended this particular six years of chaos. Somehow, Emperor Alexios managed to skillfully juggle the three threats to his empire—he won the Cumans over with diplomacy, defended his coast from Çaka and obliterated the Pechenegs in a prolonged, bloody war.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The Alexiad by Anna Komnene, translated by E. R. A. Sewter. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.