Saturday, 16 January 2010

The Deeds of Robert Guiscard: Book IV, lines 325-449

[325] In addition he ordered Basil Mesopotamites to lead the advance guard of two thousand picked cavalrymen to reconnoitre Duke Robert’s camp. Mesopotamites was a battle-hardened veteran, and carried out the orders he had been given. He was close to the city of Butrinto[1] when it was rumoured that the duke’s cavalry were riding nearby, [330] bearing with them a lot of baggage. Although a large number had already been wounded by arrows from the Turks whom Basil commanded, all resolved rather to die in battle than to retreat in cowardly fashion from the Greeks. [335] Drawing up their ranks as best they could, they turned towards their enemies. The Turks were terrified by the sight of their enemies turning on them, resisting fiercely and striking hard. They fled, and Basil was unable to prevent this. He himself was captured as he fled. The Norman forces hastened to bring their prisoner to the duke. [340] Robert questioned him thoroughly, about what Alexius planned against him and wanted to accomplish, and how many troops he was bringing up for battle.[2] Learning that the enemy’s arrival was imminent and that Alexius would attack him with very substantial forces, [345] the duke summoned all his leading men, told them everything he had learned and discussed with them what should be done. The most warlike of them wanted to launch an audacious sortie from the camp and make a resolute assault on the advancing enemy, to terrify them by this attack. [350] The duke replied that it would be better not to go too far from the camp until the imperial forces were seen to be close, and declared that it was vain to seek to triumph through a stratagem when there could be no victory except through [the favour of] heaven. [355] Although he knew the bravery of his soldiers, he wanted no rash undertakings. Not only had he been told of the vast numbers of the enemy but he knew nothing of the sort of men they were. [360] So he sensibly counselled his people to be cautious, and prepared for every possible eventually. He did not want to wait for the enemy troops very far from Durazzo.[3]

The latter suddenly arrived, covering the hills and plains like locusts. The sun was already sinking down to the sea, and so neither side wanted to start the battle then. [365] They abandoned themselves to sleep. Alexius ordered the people of Durazzo to attack the enemy in the rear, that they might be safe neither in the front nor behind. [370] At daybreak the the duke prudently burned his camp, to prevent anybody attacking it once he had marched out. He was the first to lead his troops out to battle. Alexius moved out a great many units and attacked him. The Calabrians and Lombards were terrified [375] and almost all the sailors the duke commanded took flight. Even the duke’s knights were scared by the first attack of the enemy crashing down upon them. After crossing the river they came heedlessly into an area where space was very restricted. (The duke had had the bridge demolished to prevent anyone from the town making a sortie against him or anybody entering the town). [380] The narrowness of this area hindered his men’s advance, and a furious cloud of missiles covered them from every side - it was said that nobody had ever seen a greater storm of arrows. Since there was no place of safety, for they could neither fight nor retreat, they tried to deploy, and threw themselves into the sea [385] because the press was such that the Normans were getting in the way of their own men and hindering them just as much as the enemy was. So perilous a position seemed to panic the Normans.[4] Thinking them to be vanquished and retiring, and with the Venetian fleet cruising nearby and hoping to capture the defeated, [390] the imperial army, eager for booty, started looting. They captured the horses and other baggage which the duke’s army had abandoned when they had rushed out to fight.

[395] Meanwhile a crowd [of Normans] managed to wade out of the sea and rejoined the duke who had, being in the lead, been among the first to escape from this very dangerous spot, albeit with considerable difficulty. The original deployment which he had laid down for his troops had disintegrated, for the appalling constriction of the field had changed everything. [400] But the duke rejoiced that his men were present and he promptly gave them a few words of encouragement, telling them that they would find safety only in their weapons, and threatening them that if they turned their backs on the Greeks they would all be slaughtered like sheep. [405] He told them that a prisoner’s life was just the same as death. With these exhortations he fired his men’s courage. Even though he saw the vast numbers of Alexius’s army coming [towards him], he trusted in the banner[5] given him by the pope in honour of Peter, the prince of shepherds, and in the merits of St. Matthew, [410] for whom he had built a church. He charged boldly on the enemy and engaged in a ferocious battle not far from the besieged city. Alexius was defeated and his men turned tail, for more than five thousand of the Greeks were killed in this engagement. [415] A huge number of Turks perished with the Greeks. All sorts of splendid arms, horses and standards were captured from the Greeks. Barely thirty knights from the duke’s army were reckoned to have been killed. [420] Alexius wept to have been defeated by an enemy inferior both in numbers and in wealth. He himself was wounded and retired. The man who had vainly hoped to celebrate a spectacular triumph was forced instead to make a tearful and inglorious return.

[425] During this battle Robert’s wife had been wounded by a chance arrow. Terrified by her wound, and with no hope of assistance, she had very nearly fallen to the enemy and, afraid that she was in imminent danger of death, had wanted to embark on one of the ships. [430] But God, who did not want to embarrass so noble and worthy a lady, had rescued her. Constantine[6], who had previously been stripped of his royal rank, died in this battle. He was buried with the proper ceremony. The Greeks lost many of the leading men of Durazzo, [435] whose bodies lay unburied and rotted on the battlefield.

The duke was careful not to remain very long in Alexius’s camp because of the stench of corpses there. The faithful Venetians garrisoned Durazzo on the emperor’s orders. [440] The duke moved away from the city and came to a river, called the Di(e)valis. There he built a castle and established the men with him in a number of different places where they could remain in shelter during the winter frosts. The Venetians inflicted all sorts of punishments on those who had crossed with the duke but then deserted [445] rather than following him into battle. These they condemned to servitude; some they sent back home where they were cast into prison, others they handed over to the Greeks.


[1] Butrinto was the first place taken by Bohemond and Guiscard’s major base.

[2] This incident is only told by William of Apulia.

[3] 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 Comnena does not elaborate on the details. He divided his army into three, with himself commanding the centre, his son Bohemond on the left and Count Amicus 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 18th 1081, 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 Amicus, Alexius was pursued further by Norman spearmen; according to Anna Comnena only divine intervention saved him (Anna then apologises to her readers that she has devoted so much space to the suffering of her father). He lost about 5,000 men, including Constantine, the son of the 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. 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 Durazzo 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.

[4] It is Sichelgaita who rallied the retreating Normans.

[5] This refers to the ‘vexillum Sancti Petri’ that Guiscard had received from Gregory VII ar Ceprano signifying his investiture.

[6] Constantine Ducas, brother of Michael VII.

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