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The Battle of Dyrrhachium took place on October 18, 1081 between the Byzantine Empire, led by Alexius I, and the Normans under Robert Guiscard.

Background


In May of 1081 Robert Guiscard landed in Albania planning to capture the Balkans from the empire. It was no secret that Guiscard wanted to claim the empire for himself, and he had brought with him a man claiming to be the deposed emperor Michael VII, to whose son Guiscard had betrothed his daughter years before. Guiscard's quarrel was actually with Nicephorus III, who deposed Michael VII in 1078, but went ahead with his plan to attack anyway even after Nicephorus was deposed and replaced by Alexius I in 1081.

Siege of Dyrrhachium

In June Guiscard marched north to Dyrrhachium, the regional capital, and lay siege to it; its inhabitants, however, were not impressed by the false Michael. The city, which lay on a peninsula jutting out into the Adriatic Sea, was well-prepared for a siege from both land and sea. The Venetians sent a fleet to help Alexius and blockaded Guiscard's ships in the harbour; Guiscard sent his son Bohemund to deal with them, and when they refused to acknowledge the false Michael, instead insulting Bohemund, he attacked them. His ships were destroyed in a brief naval battle, while at the same time, the garrison of Dyrrhachium, led by George Palaeologus, defeated the Normans outside the city and destroyed their siege tower. Soon afterwards the Norman army was afflicted with disease, which, according to Anna Comnena, may have killed up to 10 000 men.

Nevertheless, Guiscard continued the siege and Alexius marched out from Constantinople to meet him. According to Anna, Guiscard had 30 000 men with him, and Alexius had somewhat less than that, perhaps about 20 000 - the Thracian and Macedonian tagmata, the elite excubita and vestiaritae units, a force of so-called Manichaeans (Bogomil heretics organized into military units), Thessalian cavalry, Turkish and Frankish mercenaries (the Turks commanded by the eunuch general Taticius), Balkan conscripts, Armenian infantry, some of the Varangians, and other light troops. While Alexius was marching, Palaeologus destroyed another of Guiscard's siege towers.

The battle

Alexius wanted to attack immediately when he arrived in October, against the advice of Palaeologus and other officers. Guiscard, through spies, knew Alexius was coming and moved his army away from the city to prepare for battle; he attempted to negotiate with Alexius, but it was a stalling tactic only, as he demanded impossible terms which Alexius would never agree to (Anna does not elaborate on the specifics). He divided his army into three, with himself commanding the centre, his son Bohemond on the left and Count Amicetas of Giovinazzo on the right. Alexius did the same, personally commanding his centre (where the Varangians were positioned), with Gregory Pacurianus on the left and Nicephorus Melissenus on the right.

On October 18, as Alexius marched forward, a contingent of archers was placed behind the Varangians, who occasionally moved away, allowing the archers to shoot at the Normans, and then closed back in to protect them. Guiscard tried to dislodge the Varangians with a cavalry charge, but they were repulsed by the archers. Count Ami then charged both the centre and left wings; the Varangians held their position, and Pacurianius charged forward and defeated the attack. Ami's troops fled in panic towards the sea, pursued by the Varangians, until they were gathered up and rallied by Guiscard's wife Sichelgaita, whom Anna describes as a second Athena. In the heat of battle the Varangians had forgotten one of the most important Byzantine military tactics - never to pursue fleeing troops, as the pursuers will then be cut off and vulnerable to a separate attack. This is indeed what happened. Guiscard sent his infantry against the Varangians, who, now tired after their pursuit, had heavy casualties inflicted upon them. The survivors hid in a church, which the infantry set on fire, killing everyone.

Although both sides had lost a whole flank, Guiscard still had his heavy cavalry in reserve, and now sent it against Alexius' centre. The Turkish and Bogomil mercenaries deserted, and Alexius was forced to flee and barely escaped with his life, as Amicetas himself pursued and attacked him. Although he successfully fought off Amicetas, Alexius was pursued further by Norman spearmen; according to Anna only divine intervention saved him (Anna then apologizes to her readers that she has devoted so much space to the suffering of her father). He lost about 5000 men, including Constantius, the son of former emperor Constantine X, and the Normans captured his camp and its riches. Norman casualties are unknown, although they claimed to have lost only thirty men, which is surely impossible.

Outcome

This was a serious defeat for Alexius. The former Byzantine heartland in Anatolia had recently been overrun after the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, and now the Balkans were on the verge of being lost as well. Guiscard captured Dyrrhachium and over the next few months took most of northern Greece as well. Alexius negotiated with Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV to attack Norman allies in Italy, but while Guiscard returned home to deal with this, Bohemund defeated Alexius twice more. It was not until 1083 that Alexius forced the Normans out of the Balkans.

Sources

Anna Comnena, The Alexiad, book IV.

John Haldon, The Byzantine Wars.

Warren Treadgold, History of the Byzantine State and Society.

An earlier Battle of Dyrrhachium took place in 48 BC.

Battle of Dyrrhachium
Conflict Byzantine-Norman wars
Date October 18, 1081
Place Dyrrhachium
Result Norman victory
Combatants
Byzantine Empire Normans
Commanders
Alexius I Comnenus
George Palaeologus
Gregory Pacurianus
Nicephorus Melissenus
Robert Guiscard
Bohemund of Taranto
Amicetas of Giovinazzo
Strength
20 000 30 000
Casualties
5000 Unknown (few)

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