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

Friday, November 23, 2012

Battle of Dyrrhachium (1081)

The Varangian Guard
The Varangian Guard was an elite unit of the Byzantine Army in 10th to the 14th centuries, whose members served as personal bodyguards of the Byzantine Emperors.
The guard was first formed under Emperor Basil II in 988, following the Christianization of Kievan Rus' by Vladimir I of Kiev. Vladimir, who had recently usurped power in Kiev with an army of Varangian warriors, sent 6,000 men to Basil as part of a military assistance agreement.
This man is of Scandinavian origin, migrated in Kievan Rus kingdom.  The shield depicts the crow-symbol of god Odin and he holds Danish Axe.  Greaves, hand protection, chest leather strips and pteryges, are obviously Byzantine, borrowed from the Imperial arsenal.

Normans vs Byzantines  -  The Battle of Dyrrhachium
  • In 1071 the Romans experienced their greatest defeat ever at the Battle of Manzikert.  The eastern provinces of the Empire were being overrun by Muslim Turks.  It was at this moment that the Normans chose to invade the Roman Western provinces to carve out an even greater empire for themselves at the expense of fellow Christians.

The Battle of Dyrrhachium (near present-day Durrës in Albania) took place on October 18, 1081 between the Roman Empire, led by the Emperor Alexius I Comnenus, and the Normans of southern Italy under Robert Guiscard, Duke of Apulia and Calabria. The battle was fought outside the city of Dyrrhachium (also known as Durazzo), the Byzantine capital of Illyria.

Following the Norman conquest of Byzantine Italy and Saracen Sicily, the Byzantine emperor, Michael VII Doukas, betrothed his son to Robert Guiscard's daughter and sent her to Constantinople.

Guiscard’s ambitions drew him east, for the new Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus was deeply involved in recovering Asia Minor after a disastrous defeat by the Turks at Manzikert in 1071. 


Guiscard conscripted all men of a fighting age into the army, which he refitted.  He sent his son Bohemond with an advance force towards what is modern Albania. Bohemond landed at Aulon, with Guiscard following shortly.

The Norman fleet of 150 ships including 60 horse transports set off towards the Byzantine Empire at the end of May 1081. The army numbered 30,000 men, backed up by 1,300 Norman knights. The fleet sailed to Avalona in Byzantine territory; they were joined by several ships from Ragusa, a republic in the Balkans who were enemies of the Byzantines.

Robert Guiscard
Duke of Apulia and Calabria

Robert soon left Avalona and sailed to the island of Corfu, which surrendered because of a small garrison. Having won a bridgehead and a clear path for reinforcements from Italy, he advanced on the city of Dyrrhachium, the capital and chief port of Illyria.

The city was well defended on a long, narrow peninsula running parallel to the coast, but separated by marshlands. Guiscard brought his army onto the peninsula and pitched camp outside the city walls. However, as Robert's fleet sailed to Dyrrhachium, it was hit by a storm and lost several ships

Meanwhile, when Alexius heard that the Normans were preparing to invade Byzantine territory, he sent an ambassador to the Doge of Venice, Domenico Selvo, requesting aid and offering trading rights in return.

The Doge, alarmed by Norman control of the Strait of Otranto, took command of the Venetian fleet and sailed at once, surprising the Norman fleet under the command of Bohemond as night was falling. The Normans counter-attacked tenaciously, but their inexperience in naval combat betrayed them. The experienced Venetian navy attacked in a close formation known as "sea harbour" and together with their use of Greek fire "bombs", the Norman line scattered, and the Venetian fleet sailed into Dyrrhachium's harbour.

Durrës Castle, Albania.
Durrës (Dyrrhachium) was the center of a battle between invading Normans and the Roman Empire.  The castle was built by Emperor of the Byzantine Empire Anastasius I originating from Durres, which transformed it into one of the most fortified cities on the Adriatic.
 The Roman emperor Caesar Augustus made the city a colony for veterans of his legions following the Battle of Actium, proclaiming it a civitas libera (free town).  In the 4th century, Dyrrachium was made the capital of the Roman province of Epirus nova.

Near the port of Durrës is the ancient Byzantine city wall.

Siege of Dyrrhachium

Robert was not discouraged by this naval defeat, and began his siege of Dyrrhachium. In command of the garrison at Dyrrhachium was the experienced general George Palaeologus, sent by Alexius with orders to hold out at all costs while Alexius himself mustered an army to relieve the city.

Meanwhile, a Byzantine fleet arrived and – after joining with the Venetian fleet – attacked the Norman fleet, which was again routed. The garrison at Dyrrhachium managed to hold out all summer, despite Robert's catapults, ballistae and siege tower. The garrison made continuous sallies from the city; on one occasion, Palaeologus fought all day with an arrowhead in his skull. Another sally succeeded in destroying Robert's siege tower.

Robert's camp was struck by disease; according to contemporary historian Anna Comnena up to 10,000 men died, including 500 knights.

Norman infantry reenactors.
"Not being satisfied with the men who had served in his army from the beginning and had experience in battle, he formed a new army, made up of recruits without any consideration of age. From all quarters of Lombardy and Apulia he gathered them, over age and under age, pitiable objects who had never seen armour in their dreams, but then clad in breastplates and carrying shields, awkwardly drawing bows to which they were completely unused and following flat on the ground when they were allowed to march."
Princess Anna Comnena
describing Robert Guiscard's conscription.

Norman Cavalry Charge

Norman Cavalry Attacking 

Norman Cavalry.
"Alexius was undoubtedly a good tactician, but he was badly let down by the indisciplined rush to pursue the beaten enemy wings, a cardinal sin in the Byzantine tactical manuals. He failed to take adequate account of the effectiveness of the Norman heavy cavalry charge, which punched through his lines with little resistance."
Historian John Haldon's assessment of the battle
The situation of the Dyrrhachium garrison grew desperate because of the effects of Norman siege weapons. Alexius learned of this while he was in Salonica with his army so he advanced in full force against the Normans.

According to Comnena, Alexius had about 20,000 men. It consisted of Thracian and Macedonian tagmata, which numbered about 5,000 men; the elite excubitors and vestiaritai units, which numbered around 1,000 men; a force of Manichaeans which comprised 2,800 men, Thessalian cavalry, Balkan conscripts, Armenian infantry and other light troops.

As well as the native troops, the Byzantines were joined by 2,000 Turkish and 1,000 Frankish mercenaries, about 1,000 Varangians and 7,000 Turkish auxiliaries sent by the Seljuk Sultanate of Rûm. Alexius also withdrew the tagmas from Heraclea Pontica and the remaining Byzantine holdings in Asia Minor and by doing so, he effectively left them to be overrun by the Turks.


Alexius advanced from Salonica and pitched camp on the river Charzanes near Dyrrhachium on October 15. He held a war council there and sought advice from his senior officers; among them was George Palaeologus, who had managed to sneak out of the city. A majority of the senior officers, including Palaeologus, urged caution, noting that time was with the Emperor. Alexius, however, favoured an immediate assault, hoping to catch Guiscard's army from the rear, while they were still besieging the city. Alexius moved his army to the hills opposite the city, planning to attack the Normans the next day.

Guiscard, however, had been informed of Alexius' arrival by his scouts and on the night of October 17, he moved his army from the peninsula to the mainland. Upon learning of Guiscard's move, Alexius revised his battle plan. He split his army into three divisions, with the left wing under the command of Gregory Pakourianos, the right wing under the command of Nikephoros Melissenos, and himself in command of the centre. Guiscard formed his battle line opposite Alexius's, with the right wing under the command of the Count of Giovinazzo, the left under Bohemond and Guiscard facing Alexius in the centre.

Bad Day at Dyrrhachium- A Varangian Perspective

The Varangians had been ordered to march just in front of the main line with a strong division of archers a little behind them. The archers had been commanded to move in front of the Varangians and fire a volley before retreating behind them. The archers continued this tactic until the army neared contact.

As the opposing armies closed in, Guiscard sent a detachment of cavalry positioned in the centre to feint an attack on the Byzantine positions. Guiscard hoped the feint would draw up the Varangians; however, this plan failed when the cavalry was forced back by the archers.

The Norman right wing suddenly charged forward to the point where the Byzantine left and centre met, directing its attack against the Varangian left flank. The Varangians stood their ground while the Byzantine left, including some of Alexius' elite troops, attacked the Normans. The Norman formation disintegrated and the routed Normans fled towards the beach. There, according to Comnena, they were rallied by Guiscard's wife, Sikelgaita, described as "like another Pallas, if not a second Athena".

Emperor Alexios I Komnenos

Byzantine collapse

In the meantime, the Byzantine right and centre had been engaging in skirmishes with the Normans opposite them. However, with the collapse of the Norman right, the knights were in danger of being outflanked.

At this point, the Varangians (mainly Anglo-Saxons who had left England after the Norman Conquest) joined in the pursuit of the Norman right. With their massive battle axes, the Varangians attacked the Norman knights, who were driven away after their horses panicked. The Varangians soon became separated from the main force and exhausted so they were in no position to resist an assault.

Guiscard sent a strong force of spearmen and crossbowmen against the Varangian flank and inflicted heavy casualties on them. The few remaining Varangians fled into the church of the Archangel Michael. The Normans immediately set the church on fire, and all Varangians perished in the blaze.

Meanwhile, George Palaeologus sortied out of Dyrrhachium, but failed to save the situation. Worse, Alexius's vassal, King Constantine Bodin of Duklja, betrayed him. The Turks who had been lent to him by the Seljuk Sultan Suleyman I followed Constantine's example and deserted.

Deprived of his left wing (still in pursuit of the Norman right), Alexius was exposed in the centre. Guiscard sent his heavy cavalry against the Byzantine centre. They first routed the Byzantine skirmishers before breaking into small detachments and smashing into various points of the Byzantine line. This charge broke the Byzantine lines and caused them to rout. The imperial camp, which had been left unguarded, fell to the Normans.

Byzantine Tagmata
The Roman Army at Dyrrhachium included
Thracian and Macedonian Tagmata, which
numbered about 5,000 men.
Alexius and his guards resisted as long as they could before retreating. As they retreated, Alexius was separated from his guard and was attacked by Norman soldiers. While escaping, he was wounded in his forehead and lost a lot of blood, but eventually made it back to Ohrid, where he regrouped his army.


The battle was a heavy defeat for Alexius. Historian Jonathan Harris states that the defeat was "every bit as severe as that at Manzikert." He lost about 5,000 of his men, including most of the Varangians. Norman losses are unknown, but John Haldon claims they are substantial as both wings broke and fled. Historian Robert Holmes states: "The new knightly tactic of charging with the lance couched – tucked firmly under the arm to unite the impact of man and horse – proved a battle-winner."

George Palaeologus had not been able to re-enter the city after the battle and left with the main force. The defense of the citadel was left to the Venetians, while the city itself was left to an Albanian, Komiskortes.

In February 1082, Dyrrhachium fell after a Venetian or Amalfian citizen opened the gates to the Normans. The Norman army proceeded to take most of northern Greece without facing much resistance. While Guiscard was in Kastoria, messengers arrived from Italy, bearing news that Apulia, Calabria, and Campania were in revolt.

He also learned that the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, was at the gates of Rome and besieging Pope Gregory VII, a Norman ally. Alexius had negotiated with Henry and given him 360,000 gold pieces in return for an alliance. Henry responded by invading Italy and attacking the Pope. Guiscard rushed to Italy, leaving Bohemond in command of the army in Greece.

Varangian Guards.(in ceremonial costumes)
Nea Moni-Chios Monastery-1040's.

Alexius, desperate for money, ordered the confiscation of all the church's treasure. With this money, Alexius mustered an army near Thessalonica and went to fight Bohemond. However, Bohemond defeated Alexius in two battles: one near Arta and the other near Ioannina.

This left Bohemond in control of Macedonia and nearly all of Thessaly. Bohemond advanced with his army against the city of Larissa. Meanwhile, Alexius had mustered a new army and with 7,000 Seljuk Turks sent by the Sultan, he advanced on the Normans at Larissa and defeated them. The demoralised and unpaid Norman army returned to the coast and sailed back to Italy.

Meanwhile, Alexius granted the Venetians a commercial colony in Constantinople, as well as exemption from trading duties in return for their renewed aid. They responded by recapturing Dyrrhachium and Corfu and returning them to the Byzantine Empire. These victories returned the Empire to its previous status quo and marked the beginning of the Komnenian restoration

The Battle of Dyrrhachium (1081 A.D.)

Byzantine infantry reenactor

(Durres Castle)

Charles Oman - The art of war in the Middle Ages, A.D. 378-1515 (1885)

Normans in the Mediterranean (1050-1150)          Battle of Dyrrhachium

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Byzantine "Castle of the Angels"

The Castle of the Angels.
View of Angelokastro approaching from the nearby village of Krini. Archangel Michael's church at the Acropolis can be seen at the top left of the castle. The Ionian sea can be seen in the background. Remnants of the battlements can be seen on the right (northeast) side of the castle. The circular protective tower can be seen in front of the main gate.

Angelokastro  -  Powerful Fortress on the Western Border of the Empire
Angelokastro or "Castle of the Angels" is one of the most important Byzantine castles of Greece.
It is located on the island of Corfu at the top of the highest peak of the island's shoreline in the northwest coast near Palaiokastritsa and built on particularly precipitous and rocky terrain. It stands 1,000 ft (305 m) on a steep cliff above the sea and surveys the City of Corfu and the mountains of mainland Greece to the southeast and a wide area of Corfu toward the northeast and northwest.
The origin of its name is not completely clear, with some historians mentioning that in 1214 Michael I Komnenos Doukas, Despot of Epirus, sometimes called Michael Angelos, annexed Corfu to Epirus and following his death, Michael II Komnenos Doukas, often called Michael Angelos in narrative sources, further fortified the area and named it after himself and his father: Angelokastro. The Despots were related to the Komnenoi dynasty of Byzantine emperors.

Angelokastro is one of the most important fortified complexes of Byzantine Corfu. It forms an Acropolis, translated as city on the edge, that surveyed the region all the way to the southern Adriatic and therefore presented a formidable strategic vantage point to the occupant of the castle. The engineering of its construction at such a remote and forbidding location is remarkable by any standards, not only medieval.

It played a pivotal role during the Great Siege of Corfu in 1571 when the Turkish attack on the northwestern flank of Corfu was successfully repulsed by the defenders of the castle.

Angelokastro and surrounding area - Corfu 

Origins and strategic significance

Situated at an impregnable and strategic position, Angelokastro became important to the island's fortunes for many centuries. In peace time it was also a centre of commerce and development. During excavations in 1997 by the Society of Byzantine Antiquities of Corfu, two Early Christian slabs were unearthed at the top of the acropolis, indicating that the site was occupied by the early Byzantine period (between 5th-7th century AD).

The Byzantines built the castle in order to defend the island from the attacks of the Genoan pirates. Before the Venetians conquered Corfu there were three castles which defended the island from attacks: The Cassiopi Castle in the northwest of the island, Angelokastro, defending the west side of Corfu and Gardiki in the south of the island. It is considered one of the five most imposing architectural remains in Corfu along with Gardiki Castle, the Kassiopi Castle built by the Angevins and the two Venetian Fortresses of Corfu City, the Citadel and the New Fort.

It can be reasonably assumed that since Byzantium lost its dominion over southern Italy in 1071 AD, the Komnenoi must have paid a lot of attention to the castle since Corfu by default became the frontier to the west of the Byzantine Empire between the 11th and 12th centuries, serving to separate and defend Byzantium from its dangerous foes to the west.

At the same time, the acritic and windswept fortifications helped safeguard Corfu from the great menace of that era, i.e. the Normans of Sicily whose constant incursions had turned the island into a theatre of military conflict.

Ruled by Rome and Constantinople.
During the Roman Empire, the Ionian Islands were variously part of the provinces of Achaea and Epirus vetus. These would form, with the exception of Cythera, the Byzantine theme of Cephallenia in the late 8th century. From the late 11th century, the Ionian Islands became a battleground in the Byzantine–Norman Wars.
The island of Corfu was held by the Normans in 1081–1085 and 1147–1149, while the Venetians unsuccessfully besieged it in 1122–1123. The island of Cephalonia was also unsuccessfully besieged in 1085, but was plundered in 1099 by the Pisans and in 1126 by the Venetians.
Finally, Corfu and the rest of the theme, except for Lefkada, were captured by the Normans under William II of Sicily in 1185. Although Corfu was recovered by the Byzantines by 1191, the other islands henceforth remained lost to Byzantium.


After the Crusaders took Constantinople in 1204, Corfu fell into the hands of a variety of invaders until 1267 when it was occupied by the Angevins of Naples. Shortly thereafter the Angevins took over Angelokastro. The takeover is documented in a rare manuscript of the time confirming the change of ownership of the castle. The manuscript is the oldest written reference to the castle.


In 1386, the castle came under the ownership of the Most Serene Republic of Venice (Venetian: Serenìsima Repùblica Vèneta). Throughout the period of the Venetian rule the castle enjoyed great prominence because it offered protection to the locals from foes such as the Genoan pirates to the west as well as the Turks to the east. The Turks were never able to penetrate its defences.

The Venetians, being the prominent maritime power of the era, used it to monitor the shipping lanes in the southern Adriatic and the Ionian sea. The Castellan (Venetian: Castellano) i.e. the Governor of the castle was appointed by the city of Corfu and was a nobleman whose family name was included in the Venetian originated Libro d'oro or Golden book, a list of the aristocratic families of Corfu.

Under the dominion of Venice Corfu was defended throughout the period of her occupation. However invasions and associated destruction still occurred during this time, especially at the undefended areas of the island

Genoan piracy

In 1403, a Genoese pirate fleet made an attempt to occupy Angelokastro. The Genoan pirates burned and pillaged the surrounding area. Then they attempted to occupy the castle. After furious battles with the Corfiot garrison, they were ultimately repulsed.

Turkish sieges

In August 1571, the Turks made another of many attempts at conquering Corfu. Having seized Parga and Mourtos from the Greek mainland side they attacked the Paxi islands, killing, looting and eventually burning the island. Subsequently they landed on Corfu's southeast shore and established a large beachhead all the way from the southern tip of the island at Lefkimi to Ipsos in Corfu's midsection of the eastern part of the island. These areas were thoroughly pillaged and burnt as in past encounters.

Although the Corfu city castle stood firm the rest of Corfu was destroyed and the general population outside the castles was defenceless and suffered heavy casualties while homes, churches and public buildings were burned in the city suburbs.

The Turks also attacked Angelokastro at that time trying to establish a beachhead at the northwestern part of the island but the Corfiot garrison at Angelokastro stood firm. These Turkish defeats both at the city castle in the east and Angelokastro in the west proved decisive and the Turks abandoned their attempt at conquering Corfu.

Angelokastro protected the population of the region again during the second Great Siege of Corfu by the Turks in 1716

The Siege of Corfu (1537) was the first great siege by the Ottomans. It began on 29 August 1537, with 25,000 soldiers from the Turkish fleet landing and pillaging the island and taking 20,000 hostages as slaves. Despite the destruction wrought on the countryside, the city castle held out in spite of repeated attempts over twelve days to take it, and the Turks left the island unsuccessfully because of poor logistics and an epidemic that decimated their ranks.

View from the battlements

Angelokastro excavations

(Corfu History)      (Angelokastro Corfu)

Friday, November 2, 2012

Byzantine Military Theme of Longobardia

Castello Normanno-Svevo
Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (or of Souabe) reigned over the Puglia in the early 13th Century and raised the region to the height of its splendour. In 1233, he had this castle built on the former Byzantine and Norman buildings. The castle was reworked and reinforced in the 16th Century.

Theme of Longobardia

The themes or themata were the main administrative divisions of the middle Byzantine Empire. They were established in the mid-7th century in the aftermath of the Muslim conquests of Byzantine territory and replaced the earlier provincial system established by emperors Diocletian and Constantine the Great.

In their origin, the first themes were created from the areas of encampment of the field armies of the East Roman Army, and their names corresponded to the military units they had resulted from. The theme system reached its apogee in the 9th and 10th centuries, as older themes were split up and the conquest of territory resulted in the creation of new ones. The original theme system underwent significant changes in the 11th and 12th centuries, but the term remained in use as a provincial and financial circumscription, until the very end of the Empire.


Longobardia was a Byzantine term for the territories controlled by the Lombards in Italy. In the 9th-10th centuries, it was also the name of a Byzantine military-civilian province known as the Theme of Longobardia located in southeastern Italy.

The term was traditionally used for the Lombard possessions, with the chronicler Theophanes the Confessor distinguishing between "Great Longobardia", namely the Lombard kingdom in northern Italy, and "Lesser Longobardia", which comprised southern Italy, with the Lombard duchies of Spoleto, Salerno and Capua, the Byzantine possessions, and the city-states (Naples, Gaeta and Amalfi) under Byzantine suzerainty.

In its strictest and most technical sense, the name referred to the Byzantine thema which encompassed the modern Italian region of Apulia and parts of Basilicata, with Bari as its capital. Its exact origin and evolution are not entirely clear. Its establishment, perhaps first as a subordinate division (tourma) of the thema of Cephallenia, dates to c. 876, when Bari was recovered by the Byzantines, who used it as a base to re-establish their control over southern Italy, lost in previous centuries to the Lombards and Arabs.

Eastern Roman Infantry

Each Byzantine tourma was usually headed by a tourmarchēs.  The tourmarchēs was usually based in a fortress town. Aside from his military responsibilities, he exercised fiscal and judicial duties in the area under his control.

In function and rank, the tourmarchēs corresponded with the topotērētēs of the professional imperial tagmata regiments.  The tourmarchai were paid according to the importance of their thema: those of the more prestigious Anatolian themes received 216 gold nomismata annually, while those of the European themes received 144 nomismata, the same amount paid to the droungarioi and the other senior officers of the thema.

In the mid-10th century, the average size of most units fell. In the case of the tourma, it dropped from 2,000–3,000 men to 1,000 men and less, in essence to the level of the earlier droungos, although larger tourmai are still recorded. It is probably no coincidence that the term "droungos" disappears from use at around that time.

Consequently, the tourma was divided directly into five to seven banda, each of 50–100 cavalry or 200–400 infantry. The term tourma itself fell gradually into disuse in the 11th century, but survived at least until the end of the 12th century as an administrative term. Tourmarchai are still attested in the first half of the 11th century, but the title seems to have fallen out of use thereafter

In the late 9th century, it appears that Longobardia was administered jointly with other European themata of the Byzantine Empire.  In 891 the first known strategos of Longobardia, Symbatikios, was also governor of Macedonia, Thrace and Cephallenia, while his successor George administered Longobardia jointly with its parent thema, Cephallenia.

A dedicated strategos is only attested from 911 on. In 938 and 956, it also appears united with the thema of Calabria, although the duration of this arrangement is unclear. At any rate, after c. 965, the two themata were permanently united into the new Catepanate of Italy, with the catepan's seat again at Bari.
(Wikipedia - Longobardia)

Theme of Longobardia
Theme of the Byzantine Empire
873–ca. 965
Capital  Bari