Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Battle of Kalavrye - Eastern vs Western Empire Civil War

Byzantine Infantry

Civil War Drains The Empire
  • In 1078 AD the Byzantines squandered precious resources fighting each other instead of attacking the invading Muslim Turks.

The great weakness of the Roman Empire was always the lack of a peaceful way to change rulers and a lack of the old Roman Assemblies giving a voice to the people. Unless you were lucky enough to be the son of the Emperor your only path to power was to kill the current Emperor, his family and supporters.

The resulting civil wars often badly drained and damaged the state and its ability to defend itself from invaders.

The disastrous Roman defeat at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 was perhaps more of a result of internal political treachery than the military power of the Muslim Turks.

Unrest and war was everywhere. 
Miliaresion of Michael VII Doukas.

The Normans were attacking the Byzantine city of Bari in Italy, there was a revolt in the Balkans to restore the Bulgarian state, Balkans invasions by the Pechenegs and the Cumans and Serbian princes renouncing allegiance to the Empire.

In addition the Byzantines were defeated by the Seljuk Turks in attempts to recapture Asia Minor for the Empire.

Emperor Michael VII Doukas was worthless. He refused to honor the treaty with the Turks, increased taxes and luxury spending while not funding the army. Broke he had Imperial officials confiscate private property and the wealth of the church.

With near anarchy the state of affairs the Emperor devalues the money supply. This gave his the nickname Parapinakes or "minus a quarter."

In 1078 the ruling class could stand it no longer. Two generals, Nikephoros Bryennios and Nikephoros Botaneiates, simultaneously revolted at opposite ends of the Empire and marched on Constantinople.

From The West  -  Nikephoros Bryennios, the Doux of military theme of Dyrrhachium on the Albania coast, was proclaimed Emperor by his troops. Marching from Dyrrhachium towards Constantinople he picked up support along the way including pledges of loyalty from most of the Empire's Balkans field army.

Bryennios first tried to negotiate with Michael VII, but the Emperor rejected any demands. Bryennios then sent his brother John to lay siege to Constantinople. Unable to penetrate the walls of the city the rebel forces withdrew.

The Doux then worked on isolating Constantinople from the remaining Imperial territories of Europe. He hoped the Emperor would give up once isolated.

Princess Anna Comnena (1083 - 1153)
In her history, The Alexiad, Anna tells the story of the Empire in her father's time.

Anna Comnena:  "Nicephorus Bryennius, who was upseting the whole of the West by putting the crown on his own head, and proclaiming himself Emperor of the Romans.

Nicephorus Bryennius, on the other hand, who had been appointed Duke of Dyrrachium in the time of the Emperor Michael, had designs on the throne even before Nicephorus became Emperor, and meditated a revolt against Michael. . . . he used Dyrrachium as a jumping-off place for over-running all the Western provinces.

Bryennius was a very clever warrior, as well as of most illustrious descent, conspicuous by height of stature, and beauty of face, and preeminent among his fellows by the weightiness of his judgment, and the strength of his arms. He was, indeed, a man fit for kingship, and his persuasive powers, and his skill in conversation, were such as to draw all to him even at first sight; consequently, by unanimous consent both of soldiers and civilians, he was accorded the first place and deemed worthy to rule over both the Eastern and Western dominions. 

On his approaching any town, it would receive him with suppliant hands, and send him on to the next with acclaim. Not only Botaniates was disturbed by this news, but it also created a ferment in the home-army, and reduced the whole kingdom to despair; and, consequently, it was decided to dispatch my father, Alexius Comnenus, lately elected "Domestic of the Schools," against Bryennius with all available forces."

The rebel army of Nikephoros Bryennios was unable
to break through the walls of Constantinople.

From The East  -  From the Asian end of the Empire the Strategos of the Anatolic Theme, Nikephoros Botaneiates, marched to Nicaea where he was declared Emperor by his troops. The shame of this event comes from the Muslim Seljuk Turks providing 2,000 troops for Botaneiates and his coup.

With Roman armies on two sides of Constantinople the Emperor saw no reason to go on. Michael made arrangements and on March 31, 1078 peacefully retired to become a monk at a monastery.  Later he was elevated to metropolitan of Ephesus.

At this point Strategos Bontaneiates' "election" as Emperor was ratified by the nobility and clergy of Constantinople. Nikephoros III Botaneiates entered Constantinople in triumph and was crowned by the Patriarch.

Emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates among his senior court officials.
Nikephoros was declared Emperor by his troops in Asia Minor.

The Byzantine Empire in 1081 three years after the Battle of Kalavrye.
In 1078 Nikephoros was declared Emperor in Nicaea. This map
shows that even during this short period the city and additional lands
were lost to the invading Muslim Turks.

Coming from the east that was conquered by the Turks, the newly crowned Emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates lacked the troops to fight Bryennios who had most of the Roman army from the Balkans on his side.

Princess Anna Comnena:  "In these regions (Asia Minor) the fortunes of the Roman Empire had sunk to their lowest ebb. For the armies of the East were dispersed in all directions, because the Turks had over-spread, and gained command of, nearly all the countries between the Euxine Sea [#Black Sea] and the Hellespont, and the Aegean and Syrian Seas, and the various bays, especially those which wash Pamphylia, Cilicia, and empty themselves into the Egyptian Sea. 

Such was the position of the Eastern armies, whilst in the West, so many legions had flocked to Bryennius' standard that the Roman Empire was left with quite a small and inadequate army. There still remained to her a few "Immortals" who had only recently grasped spear and sword, and a few soldiers from Coma, and a Celtic regiment, that had shrunk to a small number of men. These were given to Alexius, my father, and at the same time allied troops were called for from the Turks, and the Emperor's Council ordered Alexius to start and engage in battle with Bryennius, for he relied not so much on the army accompanying him as on the man's ingenuity and cleverness in military matters."

The Emperor played for time. The Emperor (76 years old) offered Bryennius the rank of Caesar and his support for the throne when he died. Negotiations took place, but the Emperor finally rejected the conditions of Bryennius and ordered Alexios Komnenos (Anna's father) to go on the attack.

Forces Involved
Byzantine Kentekarkhes

The battle was to be fought just outside of Constantinople on the plain of Kedoktos.

Army of the West  -  Doux Bryennius brought about 12,000 seasoned soldiers to the field from the Balkans. Marching with the Doux were Tagmata regiments from Thessaly, Macedonia and Thrace. In addition there were Frankish mercenaries and the Imperial Guard Hetaireia regiment.

Army of the East  -  Estimates for the size of Alexios Komnenos' force range from a low of 5,500 to 10,000.  I would guess that splitting the difference at about 7,500 might be close to reality.

It is doubtful that an army at the low end of the estimate would have ever left the safety of the walls of Constantinople. Also, with manpower shortages in the east the high end estimate is just too high.

As it is the army Alexios had was a patchwork of units. He had 2,000 Turkish horse-archers, another 2,000 Roman Chomatenoi troops from central Asia Minor and a few hundred Frankish knights from Italy. 

Joining the army was a newly raise Tagmata regiment of Immortals. The unit was formed from remnants of eastern Tagmata units defeated by the Turks. The regiment was created to help form the nucleus of a new eastern army. The Immortals may have been cavalry like many Tagmata units.

The Battle of Kalavrye

Bryennios arranged his army in three divisions, each in two lines, as prescribed by Byzantine military manuals.

Princess Anna Comnena:  "Bryennius, on being informed that Alexius Comnenus had cut off his approaches and was encamped near Calaura, drew up his troops in the following order and marched against him. He posted the main army on the right and left wings, and gave the command of the right to his brother John; the men in this wing numbered 5,000, and were Italians, and those belonging to the detachment of the famous Maniaces, as well as some horse-soldiers from Thessaly, and a detachment, of no mean birth, of the "Hetaireia." The other, the left wing, was led by Catacalon Tarchaniotes, and was composed of fully-armed Macedonians and Thracians, numbering in all about 3,000. Bryennius himself held the centre of the phalanx, consisting of Macedonians and Thracians, and the picked men of the whole nobility. All the Thessalians were on horseback."

In addition on his left Bryennios had a detachment of Pecheneg Turkic cavalry.

The outnumbered Alexios Komnenos divided his force under two commands. Alexios took charge of the Immortals and Franks on the left while General Constantine Katakalon commanded the Chomatenoi and the Turks on the right. The Turks were given the task of guarding the right flank and keeping an eye on the Pecheneg cavalry.

While the allied Turks watched the right flank, Alexios formed a flanking detachment from the Immortals. Most likely they were cavalry. Alexios hid them out of sight in a hollow on the left. Being outnumbered Alexios hoped this hidden unit would join with the Immortals at just the right time to create confusion and allow hime to break through Bryennios' lines.

The initial dispositions and opening phase of the battle,
showing Alexios's failed ambush

As the right-wing of the rebel army under John advanced, Alexios' flanking force came out of hiding and attacked. There was some initial success and confusion, but that did not last. John brought up a second line of troops to attack the ambush force. Alexios' flanking unit dissolved in panic and fled directly into the Immortals.

Instead of Bryennios' army being ambushed and in panic it was the Immortals that now broke, abandoned their posts in panic and fled well to the rear of Alexios' army with the troops of Bryennios inflicting some casualties.

Alexios and his retinue were fighting with the Franks and did not realize that his entire left flank had just vanished.

Princess Anna Comnena:  Then, my father, hurling himself into the midst of the foe, . . . . kept on fighting desperately. But when he saw that his phalanx was utterly broken, and fleeing in all directions he collected the more courageous souls (who were six in all) . . . Alexius turned in the opposite direction, and decided to retire to a short distance from Bryennius' army; then he collected the men personally known to him from the dispersed soldiery, re-organized them, and returned to the work.

Alexios saw Bryennios' Imperial parade horse and grabbed it. As he reached a hill to the rear Alexios rallied what troops he could saying Bryennios was dead and showing the horse as proof.

The second phase of the battle: Alexios's right flank collapses and he himself barely manages to escape encirclement. Bryennios's Pechenegs break off pursuit and attack their own camp, throwing Bryennios's rear into confusion.

Talk about confusion of the battlefield. Alexios' left wing had collapsed. On the right wing the Chomatenoi troops who were fighting Tarchaneiotes' were now being flanked and attacked in the rear by the Pechenegs cavalry.

Somehow the Pechenegs managed to get by Alexios' allied Turkish cavalry without a fight. Had the two opposing allied units cut a deal? or was it just incompetence?

In any case, the Franks in the Roman center were now in danger of a double envelopment. They dismounted and offered to surrender. Units on both sides were mixed and disorganized and even started to relax thinking the battle was over.

Two Major Events - The allied Pechenegs broke off their attacks on Alexios and attacked and looted the camp of Bryennios. Now the allied Turks helping Alexios arrived on the battlefield. The battle was not over yet.

Princess Anna Comnena:  They spoil their victory by looting. For all the slaves and camp followers who formed the rear of Bryennius' army had pressed forward into the ranks from fear of being killed by the Scythians; and as this crowd was continually augmented by others who had escaped from the hands of the Scythians, no small confusion arose in the ranks, and the standards became commingled.

The final phase of the battle: Alexios regroups his army, attacks Bryennios's forces, and lures them into a new ambush. The rebel army collapses, and Bryennios himself is captured.

I will let the princess tell the story.

Princess Anna Comnena:  Then fortune, too, contributed the following incident to Alexius' success. A detachment of the Turkish allies happened upon Alexius, the Great Domestic, and on hearing that he had restored the battle, and asking where the enemy was, they accompanied him, my father, to a little hill, and when my father pointed out the army, they looked down upon it from an observation tower, as it were. And this was the appearance of Bryennius' army; the men were all mixed up anyhow, the lines had not yet been re-formed, and, as if they had already carried off the victory, they were acting carelessly and thought themselves out of danger. 

And they had slackened off chiefly because after the initial rout of our men, my father's contingent of Franks had gone over to Bryennius. For when the Franks dismounted from their horses and offered their right hands to Bryennius, according to their ancestral custom in giving pledges, men came running up towards them from all sides to see what was happening. For like a trumpet-blast the rumour had resounded throughout the army that the Franks had joined them and deserted their Commander-in-Chief, Alexius. 

The officers with my father, and the newly-arrived Turks, duly noted this state of confusion, and as a result they divided their forces into three parties and ordered two to remain in ambush somewhere on the spot, and the third they commanded to advance against the foe. The whole of this plan was due to Alexius.

The Turks did not attack all together, drawn up regularly into phalanx, but separately and in small groups, standing some distance apart from each other; then he ordered each squadron to attack, charging the enemy with their horses, and to let loose heavy showers of darts. Following upon the Turks came my father Alexius, the author of this strategy, with as many of his scattered men as the occasion warranted. 

Next, one of the "Immortals" with Alexius, a hot-headed, venturesome fellow, spurred on his horse, and out-riding the others, dashed at full gallop straight at Bryennius, and thrust his spear with great violence against the latter's breast. Bryennius for his part whipped out his sword quickly from its sheath, and before the spear could be driven home, he cut it in two, and struck his adversary on the collar bone, and bringing down the blow with the whole power of his arm, cut away the man's whole arm, breastplate included.

The Turks, too, one group following up another, overshadowed the army with their showers of darts. Bryennius' men were naturally taken aback by the sudden attack, yet they collected themselves, formed themselves into line, and sustained the shock of the battle, mutually exhorting each other to play the man. 

The Turks, however, and my father, held their ground for a short time against the enemy, and then planned to retire in regular order to a little distance, in order to lure on the enemy, and draw them by guile to the ambuscade. When they had reached the first ambush, they wheeled round, and met the enemy face to face. 

The Horse Archer
The allied Muslim Turks brought their deadly horse-archers to the battlefield.
The Turks moved at high speed while raining arrows into enemy formations.

Forthwith, at a given signal, those in ambush rode through them like swarms of wasps, from various directions, and with their loud war-cries, and shouts, and incessant shooting, not only filled the ears of Bryennius' men with a terrible din, but also utterly obscured their sight by showering arrows upon them from all sides. Hereupon, as the army of Bryennius could no longer put up any resistance (for by now all, both men and horses, were sorely wounded), they turned their standard to retreat, and offered their backs as a target to their foes. 

But Bryennius himself, although very weary from fighting, shewed his courage and mettle. For at one minute, he would turn to right or left to strike a pursuer, and at the next, carefully and cleverly arrange the details of the retreat. He was assisted by his brother on the one side, and his son on the other, and by their heroic defence on that occasion they seemed to the enemy miraculous.

(The Turks captured Bryennius and) led him away to Alexius Comnenus, who happened to be standing not, far from the spot where Bryennius was captured, and was busy drawing up his own men, and the Turks, into line, and inciting them to battle. News of Bryennius' capture had already been brought by heralds, and then the man himself was placed before the General, and a terrifying object he certainly was, both when fighting, and when captured. 

And now, having secured Bryennius in this manner, Alexius Comnenus sent him away as the prize of his spear .to the. Emperor Botaniates, without doing any injury whatsoever to his eyes. For it was not the nature of Alexius to proceed to extremities against his opponents after their capture as he considered that being captured was in itself sufficient punishment, but after their capture he treated them with clemency, friendliness and generosity. This clemency he now displayed towards Bryennius, for after his capture he accompanied him a fair distance, and when they reached the place called ... he said to him (for he was anxious to relieve the man's despondency and restore hope in him); "Let us get off our horses and sit down and rest awhile." 

But Bryennius, in fear of his life resembled a maniac, and was by no means in need of rest, for how should a man be who has lost all hope of life? And yet he immediately complied with the General's wish, for a slave readily submits to every command, more especially if he is a prisoner of war. When the two leaders had dismounted, Alexius at once lay down on some green grass, as if on a couch, while Bryennius sat further off, and rested his head on the roots of a tall oak. My father slept, but "gentle sleep," as it is called in sweet poetry, did not visit the other.

If later on undesirable things happened to Bryennius, the blame must be laid on certain of the Emperor's courtiers; my father was blameless. Such then was the end of Bryennius' rebellion.


The Emperor blinded Nikephoros Bryennios for his failure to capture the throne. Perhaps out of pity (which I doubt) or to restore unity, the Emperor restored Bryennios' titles and fortune. After Alexios became Emperor in 1081 even more honors were given to him, and even though blinded Bryennios helped defend Adrianople from a rebel attack in 1095.

Bryennios son or grandson Nikephoros Bryennios the Younger married Alexios' daughter Anna Comnena, became an important general and rose to the rank of Caesar.

The remaining troops of the defeated army of the west were gathered up by General Nikephoros Basilakes who then declared himself Emperor and continued the revolt. In 1079 Alexios put down the revolt and Basilakes fled to Thessalonica where he attempted to defend the city.

Seeing the writing on the wall, his own troops turned over Basilakes to the Emperor who ordered that he be blinded.

Princess Anna Comnena
Anna Comnena, was a Byzantine princess, scholar, physician, hospital
administrator, and historian. She was the daughter of the Byzantine
Emperor Alexios I and his wife Irene Doukaina.

East Roman Reenactors  -  (Twitter)
Emperor Alexios I Komnenos &
wife Empress Irene Doukaina
I have no idea where this image came from. A movie perhaps. The picture gives us a good feel for the period where then General Alexios took the eastern Roman Army to victory against the Roman Army of the Balkans in this article. 
Only three years after the battle Alexios became Emperor as the 79 year old Nikephoros III Botaneiates retired to a monastery.
Also See Alexios in Battle:
Battle of Dyrrhachium

(Anna Comnena)      (Michael VII Doukas)      (Nikephoros III Botaneiates)

(Byzantine Infantry)      (Kalavrye)