By the end of 1084 or early 1085, Robert Guiscard, a Norman lord who managed to build himself an impressive empire in Italy and Sicily, had been at war with the Byzantine Empire for several long years. In 1081, he led an invasion to challenge the new Byzantine emperor of Constantinople, Alexios Komnenos (r. 1081-1118), and was initially successful in his endeavor. The Normans won several victories in the early years of the war. They took the coastal fortress and city of Dyrrakhion, and defeated an army led by Emperor Alexios, in the process. Led by Guiscard’s son, Bohemond, the Normans raided the empire, pressing into central Greece, even reaching Ionia and the eastern reaches of the Byzantine Empire, in modern Turkey. Yet, as the years went on, Emperor Alexios began to turn the tide of the war—the man just never gave up. He kept evading unwise battles and kept rebuilding his forces, waiting for an opportune moment to strike. Alexios’ patience paid off; he soon began to win victories against the Normans, and was able to push the bulk of the invasion back all the way to Albania.
That brings us back to the Battle of Corfu in late 1084 or early 1085. Even though Bohemnond’s campaign against the Byzantine Empire had taken a definite turn for the worse, Robert Guiscard was not ready to give up on his ambitions in Greece. Instead, he mobilized another army and navy for a second invasion of the Byzantine Empire.
After dropping troops off in Greece at Butrint, Guiscard sailed toward the rebellious island of Corfu, situated between the heel of Italy and Greece. According to Anna Komnene (daughter of Emperor Alexios), the Byzantine emperor discovered that Corfu was Guiscard’s destination. Emperor Alexios then sent this valuable information to his allies, the Venetians, and they coordinated together in hunting down the Norman fleet. When Guiscard received word that the Byzantine and Venetian navies were closing in on him, he set up a defensive position at Kassiopi, on the northeastern end of the Island of Corfu. There, Robert Guiscard suffered two successive defeats, but he emerged from the battles with his fleet still intact.
According to Anna Komnene, the Byzantine and Venetian navies parted and went their separate ways after their moderate victory over Guiscard at Kassiopi. The Venetians headed to the port in the main city of Corfu, while the other allied ships sailed back to mainland Greece. Robert Guiscard, however, was battered, but not defeated—he left Kassiopi and pursued the Venetians to the port of Corfu.
Guiscard’s sudden attack caught the Venetian fleet totally by surprise. According to Anna Komnene, the Normans charged the Venetians, who made an interesting fortification out of their ships—they apparently chained their fleet together in a circle, with large ships on the outside and small vessels within. The Norman siege of this floating fortress went on for a long time. If Anna Komene’s sources were correct, the battle raged on for such a length of time that the Venetian fleet ran out of their stockpile of supplies, making their ships much lighter in weight than usual. Ultimately, the Normans triumphed over the Venetians in the Battle of Corfu. Anna Komnene recorded an interesting theory about the battle’s final moments; she wrote that the Venetian ships had become so light by the end of the battle, that when the soldiers rushed to defend the assaulted sides of their ships, the vessels tilted and began to take on water. Komnene estimated that around 13,000 Venetian sailors drowned as a result of the battle. The ships and crew that survived the battle were captured by the Norman fleet.
Although Robert Guiscard won an impressive victory in the Battle of Corfu, the Venetians would have their revenge. Another Venetian fleet hunted down the Norman camp at Butrint and won a redemptive victory. Nevertheless, the biggest blow to Norman ambitions in the Byzantine Empire was the death of Robert Guiscard, who died in 1085, after falling ill mere months after the Battle of Corfu. Yet, even though Robert Guiscard was gone, his son, Bohemond, would continue to be a very real threat to the Byzantine Empire for decades to come.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (A 19th century engraving of a Venetian galley fighting at the battle of Curzola in 1298, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Alexiad by Anna Komnene, translated by E. R. A. Sewter. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.