Battle of Dyrrhachium (1081)

Battle of Dyrrhachium (1081)

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Dyrrhachium

caption=Italy and the Balkans in AD 1084.
partof=the Byzantine-Norman Wars
date=18 October 1081
result=Norman victory
commander1=Alexius I Comnenus George Palaeologus
commander2=Robert Guiscard Bohemond of Taranto
strength1=20,000 menHaldon, "The Byzantine Wars", 134]
strength2=30,000 men [Haldon, "The Byzantine Wars", 134; Anna Comnena, "The Alexiad", 1.16] 150 ships
casualties1=5,000 men dead
7,000 men deserted [Norwich, "Byzantium: Decline and Fall", 20
* Warren Treadgold, "A History of Byzantine State and Society", 614
casualties2=SubstantialHaldon, "The Byzantine Wars", 137]

The Battle of Dyrrhachium (near present-day Durrës in Albania) took place on 18 October 1081, between the Byzantine 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, and ended in a Norman victory.

Following the Norman conquest of Byzantine Italy and Saracen Sicily, the Byzantine Emperor, Michael VII, betrothed his son to Robert Guiscard's daughter. When Michael was deposed, Robert took this as an excuse to invade the Byzantine Empire in 1081. His army laid siege to Dyrrhachium, but his fleet was defeated by the Venetians. On 18 October, the Normans engaged a Byzantine army under Alexius I Comnenus outside Dyrrhachium. The battle began with the Byzantine right wing routing the Norman left wing, which broke and fled. Varangian mercenaries joined in the pursuit of the fleeing Normans, but became separated from the main force and were massacred. Norman knights in the centre attacked the Byzantine centre and routed it, causing the Byzantines to run away.

After this victory, the Normans took Dyrrhachium in February 1082 and advanced inland, capturing most of Macedonia and Thessaly. Robert was then forced to leave Greece to deal with an attack on his ally, the Pope by the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV. Robert left his son Bohemond in charge of the army in Greece. Bohemond was initially successful, defeating Alexius in several battles, but was defeated by Alexius outside Larissa. Forced to retreat to Italy, Bohemond lost all the territory gained by the Normans in the campaign. The Byzantine recovery began the Komnenian restoration.


The Normans first arrived in Southern Italy in 1015 from northern France and served local Lombard lords as mercenaries against the Byzantine Empire.Brown, "The Normans", p. 85.] As they were paid with lands, soon they were powerful enough to challenge Papal authority; in 1054, they defeated the Pope at the Battle of Civitate, forcing him to acknowledge their authority.John Norwich, "Byzantium: Decline and Fall", p. 13.
* Holmes, "The World Atlas of Warfare: Military Innovations That Changed the Course of History", 33
*Brown, "The Normans", p. 93.] In 1059, the Pope made Robert Guiscard, of the Hauteville family, Duke of Apulia, Calabria, and Sicily. However, most of Apulia and Calabria were in Byzantine hands, and Sicily was in Saracen hands.Norwich, "Byzantium: Decline and Fall", p. 14.]

By 1071, Robert, together with his brother Roger, had taken over the last Byzantine stronghold in Italy, Bari. By the next year, they conquered all of Sicily, ending the Islamic Emirate of Sicily. In 1073, the Byzantine Emperor Michael VII sent an envoy to Robert offering the hand of his son Constantine to Robert's daughter Helena.John Norwich, "Byzantium: Decline and Fall", p. 14.
* Anna Comnena, "The Alexiad", 1.12] Guiscard accepted the offer and sent his daughter to Constantinople. However, in 1078, Michael was overthrown by Nicephorus Botaneiates, an event that destroyed any chances Helena had for the throne. [Anna Comnena, "The Alexiad", 1.12
* Warren Treadgold, "A History of Byzantine State and Society", p. 614.
] This gave Robert a motive to invade the empire claiming his daughter had been mistreated; however, his intervention was delayed by a revolt in Italy. [Norwich, "Byzantium: Decline and Fall", p. 15.
* Warren Treadgold, "A History of Byzantine State and Society", p. 614.

Robert conscripted all men of a fighting age into the army, which he refitted. [Norwich, "Byzantium: Decline and Fall", p. 16.] Meanwhile, he sent an ambassador to the Byzantine court with orders to demand proper treatment for Helena and to win over the Domestic of the Schools, Alexius. [Anna Comnena, "The Alexiad", 1.15] The results of these attempts remain unknown, but the ambassador fell under Alexius' charm and as he was returning to Italy, he heard of Alexius' successful coup against Botaneiates, [Norwich, "Byzantium: Decline and Fall", p. 16.] by which he became Alexius I Comnenus.

When the ambassador returned, he urged Robert to make peace, claiming that Alexius wanted nothing but friendship with the Normans. Robert had no intention of peace; he sent his son Bohemond with an advance force towards Greece and Bohemond landed at Aulon, with Robert following shortly after.John Norwich, "Byzantium: Decline and Fall", p. 17.
* Anna Comnena, "The Alexiad", 1.15
* Gravett and Nicolle, "The Normans: Warrior Knights and their Castles", p. 108.
* Warren Treadgold, "A History of Byzantine State and Society", p. 614.]


Quote box2
width= 30em |border= 1px |margin= 2px |align= right |halign= left
quote= "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."
source= Anna Comnena describing Robert Guiscard's conscription.quoted from Anna Comnena, "The Alexiad", 1.13]
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.John Norwich, "Byzantium: Decline and Fall", p. 17.
* Anna Comnena, "The Alexiad", 1.17
* Nicholas Hooper and Matthew Bennett, "Cambridge Illustrated Atlas of Warfare: The Middle Ages 768-1487", p. 83.] The fleet sailed to Avalona in Byzantine territory; they were joined by several ships from Ragusa, a republic in the Balkans who hated the Byzantines.

Robert soon left Avalona and sailed to the island of Corfu, which surrendered due to 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.Gravett and Nicolle, "The Normans: Warrior Knights and their Castles", p. 108.] 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.Haldon, "Byzantine Wars", p. 133.] 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.Norwich, "Byzantium: Decline and Fall", p. 17.] 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.John Norwich, "Byzantium: Decline and Fall", p. 18.
* Nicholas Hooper and Matthew Bennett, "Cambridge Illustrated Atlas of Warfare: The Middle Ages 768-1487", p. 83.]

iege 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.Norwich, "Byzantium: Decline and Fall", p. 18.]

Robert's camp was struck by disease; according to contemporary historian Anna Comnena up to 10,000 men died, including 500 knights.Anna Comnena, "The Alexiad", 4.3] Even so, the situation of the Dyrrhachium garrison grew desperate due to 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; historian John Haldon puts the army's size between 18,000 to 20,000 men. It consisted of Thracian and Macedonian tagmata, which numbered about 5,000 men; the elite excubitors and vestiaritae units, which numbered around 1,000 men; a force of so-called Manichaeans (Bogomil heretics organized into military units), 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.John Norwich, "Byzantium: Decline and Fall", p. 18.
* Anna Comnena, "The Alexiad", 4.4
* Warren Treadgold, "A History of Byzantine State and Society", p. 614.]


Initial moves

Alexius advanced from Salonica and pitched camp on the river Charzanes near Dyrrhachium on 15 October. [Norwich, "Byzantium: Decline and Fall", p. 18.
Anna Comnena, "The Alexiad", 4.5
] 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.John Haldon, "Byzantine Wars", 134
* Anna Comnena, "The Alexiad", 4.5]

Guiscard, however, had been informed of Alexius' arrival by his scouts and on the night of the 17 October, 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 Gregorios Pakourianios, the right wing under the command of Nikephoros Melissenos, and himself in command of the centre. Guiscard formed his battle line opposite Alexius', with the right wing under the command of the Count of Giovinazzo, the left under Bohemond and Guiscard facing Alexius in the centre.John Haldon, "Byzantine Wars", p. 134.
* Anna Comnena, "The Alexiad", 4.5]

The Varangians had been ordered to march just in front of the main line with a strong division of archers a little behind them.Haldon, "The Byzantine Wars", p. 134.] 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.John Haldon, "Byzantine Wars", p. 134.
* Anna Comnena, "The Alexiad", 4.6]

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".John Haldon, "Byzantine Wars", p. 134.
* Anna Comnena, "The Alexiad", 4.6
* Norwich, "Byzantium: Decline and Fall", p. 19.]

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.John Haldon, "Byzantine Wars", 135
* Anna Comnena, "The Alexiad", 4.6
* Norwich, "Byzantium: Decline and Fall", p. 19.
* Holmes, "The World Atlas of Warfare: Military Innovations That Changed the Course of History", p. 33.]

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. [Norwich, "Byzantium: Decline and Fall", p. 20.
* Warren Treadgold, "A History of Byzantine State and Society", p. 614.

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.John Haldon, "Byzantine Wars", p. 135.
* Anna Comnena, "The Alexiad", 4.7]

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.John Haldon, "Byzantine Wars", p. 135.
* Anna Comnena, "The Alexiad", 4.7
* Norwich, "Byzantium: Decline and Fall", p. 20.]


Quote box2 |width= 30em |border= 1px |margin= 2px |align= right |halign= left
quote= "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."
source= John Haldon's assessment of the battle. [Quoted from Haldon, "The Byzantine Wars", 136–7]
The battle was a serious defeat for Alexius. Historian Jonathan Harris states that the defeat was "every bit as severe as that at Manzikert."Harris, "Byzantium and the Crusades", p. 34.] 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.Haldon, "The Byzantine Wars", p. 137.] 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."Holmes, "The World Atlas of Warfare: Military Innovations That Changed the Course of History", p. 34.]

George Palaeologus had not been able to re-enter the city after the battle and left with the main force. The defence of the citadel was left to the Venetians, while the city itself was left to an Albanian, Komiskortes.Anna Comnena, "The Alexiad", 4.8]

In February 1082, Dyrrhachium fell after a Venetian or Amalfian citizen opened the gates to the Normans.Anna Comnena, "The Alexiad", 5.1] 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.Norwich, "Byzantium: Decline and Fall", 20* Warren Treadgold, "A History of Byzantine State and Society", p. 615.] 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.John Norwich, "Byzantium: Decline and Fall", p. 21.
* Anna Comnena, "The Alexiad", 5.3
* Gravett and Nicolle, "The Normans: Warrior Knights and their Castles", p. 108.
* Warren Treadgold, "A History of Byzantine State and Society", p. 615.]

Alexius, desperate for money, ordered the confiscation of all the church's treasure.Norwich, "Byzantium: Decline and Fall", p. 21.
* Warren Treadgold, "A History of Byzantine State and Society", p. 615.] 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.Anna Comnena, "The Alexiad", 5.4
* Warren Treadgold, "A History of Byzantine State and Society", p. 615.] 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.Anna Comnena, "The Alexiad", 5.5–6
* Gravett and Nicolle, "The Normans: Warrior Knights and their Castles", p. 108.
* Warren Treadgold, "A History of Byzantine State and Society", p. 615.] The demoralised and unpaid Norman army returned to the coast and sailed back to Italy.Anna Comnena, "The Alexiad", 5.7
* Gravett and Nicolle, "The Normans: Warrior Knights and their Castles", p. 108.] 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 empire. These victories returned the Empire to its previous status quo and marked the beginning of the Komnenian restoration.Norwich, "Byzantium: Decline and Fall", p. 22.
* Warren Treadgold, "A History of Byzantine State and Society", p. 615.]



* Anna Komnene, translated by E.R.A Sewter (1969). "The Alexiad". London: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-044215-4.

* Matthew Bennett & Nicholas Hooper, (1996). "Cambridge Illustrated Atlas of Warfare: The Middle Ages 768-1487". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-4409-1
* R. Allen Brown, (1984). "The Normans". Woodridge: Boydell Press. ISBN 0-85115-199-X
* Robin Cross, (1991). "The Guinness Encyclopedia of Warfare". Enfield: Guinness Publishing. ISBN 0-85112-985-4
* Christopher Gravett and David Nicolle, (2006). "The Normans: Warrior Knights and their Castles". Oxford: Osprey. ISBN 1-84603-088-9.
* John Haldon, (2000). "The Byzantine Wars". The Mill: Tempest. ISBN 0-7524-1795-9.
* Jonathan Harris, (2003). "Byzantium and the Crusades". London: Hambledon & London.
* Richard Holmes, (1988). "The World Atlas of Warfare: Military Innovations That Changed the Course of History". Middlesex: Penguin. ISBN 0-670-81967-0.
* John Julius Norwich, (1995). "Byzantium: The Decline and Fall". London: Viking. ISBN 0-670-82377-5.
* Warren Treadgold, (1997). "A History of Byzantine State and Society". Stanford: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-2421-0

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