27 April 2020

Alexius vs. Bohemond: the Battle of Dyrrhachium, 1081

Real Crusades History #155. And don't forget the Real Crusades History website!

The Battle of Dyrrhachium, 1081 

With southern Italy and Sicily firmly under Norman control, Robert Guiscard invaded Byzantine Illyria in 1081. Raising an army of 15,000 Normans and mercenary auxiliaries, Robert and his son Bohemond launched a fleet toward the Byzantine coast. After capturing the island Corfu, Robert marched on Dyrrhachium. Though hard-pressed by Norman catapults, the garrison of Dyrrhachium held out. By autumn Byzantine Emperor Alexios Komnenos advanced with an army 25,000 strong from Salonica, camping near Dyrrhachium.

Robert positioned his army north of Dyrrhachium, the auxiliaries on the right protected by the sea, with Bohemond leading the left wing while Guiscard himself commanded from the center. A river protected the Norman rear, while Guiscard had burned his ships to deny his men opportunity to retreat. Opposite the Normans, the Byzantine army was arranged on the plain: an uneasy coalition, including Serbs, Turks, and Armenians, riddled with internal division after years of civil conflict following the defeat at Manzikert in 1071. Alexios had only recently come to the throne via a coup, and couldn’t fully trust many of his commanding officers. However, his elite imperial bodyguards, the Varangians – Anglo-Saxon warriors exiled from England after 1066 – were motivated by intense hatred of the Normans.

With their fearsome two-handed axes, the Varangians devastated Robert’s auxiliaries on the right. But Guiscard’s positioning paid off: the river prevented the auxiliaries from retreating. After repeated charges, the Varangians were left exposed before the main Byzantine body. Bohemond’s left wing was still fresh, and was now able to inflict its own charges on the tired Varangians.

Alexios’ less loyal allies, such as the Turks and Serbs, now deserted. Soon the whole Byzantine army dissolved, with only the Varangians holding firm. After withstanding the punishing assaults of the Norman cavalry, the surviving Varangians finally retreated to a small chapel, where they were mercilessly burned to death by the Normans.

The Norman victory was devastating for the Byzantines, with Alexios losing some five thousand men. Although the Normans would occupy most of Illyria, Robert had to return early to Italy to bring aid to the Pope in Rome, who was being besieged by the Holy Roman Emperor. Over the course of the next few years, Alexios would ultimately drive the Normans from Illyria completely.

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