A Clever 12th-Century Woman May Have Thwarted The Byzantine Navy in Otranto, Italy

The Normans that rose to power in Italy, most notably Robert Guiscard and Bohemond, were a constant thorn in the side of Alexios I Komnenos, the Emperor of Constantinople from 1081-1118. Guiscard’s initial Norman invasion into the Byzantine Empire lasted from around 1081-1085 and was very destructive and threatening, but proved ultimately unsuccessful. The death of Robert Guiscard in 1085 signaled the end of the invasion, and Guiscard’s son, Bohemond, was eventually pushed back to southern Italy.

When Pope Urban II (r. 1088-1099) announced the First Crusade in 1095, Bohemond joined the ranks of the crusaders and became one of the movement’s leaders. After a long siege lasting from October 1097 to June 1098, Bohemond seized for himself the city of Antioch. The First Crusade officially ended in 1099, with the successful capture of Jerusalem by the crusaders.

Although he had brought new lands under his control, Bohemond was in a precarious situation. His actions in the 1080s had already made him an enemy of the Byzantine Empire, and the crusade had brought upon him the ire of the Muslim monarchs surrounding the Holy Lands. Bohemond made his situation worse by launching a failed invasion against one of his Islamic neighbors, resulting in his untimely capture. When Bohemond was released from captivity around 1103, he wisely fled from the Middle East and returned to Italy by 1105 to recruit more soldiers.

With Bohemond back in Italy, Emperor Alexios Komnenos wisely began to worry about his coastal land holdings. Therefore, according to Alexios’ daughter, Anna Komnene (c. 1088-1153), the emperor tasked a fleet under the command of Isaac Kontostephanos to sail to Dyrrakhion (modern Durrës, Albania) and patrol for suspicious Norman activity.

When Isaac Kontostephanos arrived at Dyrrakhion, he decided to do more than just patrol the shoreline. Instead, he took his fleet and crossed over to Italy, where he laid siege to the city of Otranto, over which Bohemond was a prince. According to Anna Komnene, none of the usual male leaders of Norman Italy were present at Otranto when the Byzantine Navy arrived. The person supposedly in charge of the town was a woman named Emma of Hauteville, daughter of Robert Guiscard and brother of Bohemond.

This female leader of Otranto impressed Anna Komnene so much that she described her as a “woman gladiator” in her history, The Alexiad (Book XII, chapter 8). If Anna’s story is correct (although, corroborating sources are scant), Emma of Hauteville dealt with the situation in a calm, brilliant manner.

As portrayed in The Alexiad, Emma of Hauteville managed to send messengers that were carrying requests for reinforcements around the blockade and siege set up by Isaac Kontostephanos. At the same time, she surrendered the city of Otranto to the Byzantine Empire—the only condition was that the city gates would not be opened until she and Kontostephanos came to a suitable peace agreement. Through the use of additional messengers the besiegers and the besieged kept up a correspondence while the siege continued. The total surrender of the city seemed nigh, but Emma of Hauteville allegedly kept finding little details that needed to be discussed further. If Anna’s tale is correct, Emma of Hauteville played her part perfectly by keeping her enemy confident enough to continue negotiations instead of violently storming the city Otranto.

In this clever way, Emma of Hauteville reportedly was able to stall long enough to allow Norman reinforcements to arrive and relieve the city. According to Anna Komnene, Isaac Kontostephanos’ men were not prepared for the newly-arrived force. She wrote that the sailors of the Byzantine Navy fled for the sea and that Kontostephanos’ hired mercenaries (probably Pechenegs) deserted from the army to loot the surrounding countryside. Bohemond was said to have brought many of these captured deserters with him to Rome when he met with Pope Paschal II (r. 1099-1118) before launching his next invasion of the Byzantine Empire in 1107.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Top picture attribution: (Byzantne Fleet led by Thomas the Slav illustrated in the Madrid Skylitzes, c. 11th-13th centuries, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

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