This Robert was a Norman by birth, of obscure origin, with an overbearing character and a thoroughly villainous mind; he was a brave fighter, very cunning in his assaults on the wealth and power of great men; in achieving his aims absolutely inexorable, diverting criticism by incontrovertible argument. He was a man of immense stature, surpassing even the biggest men; he had a ruddy complexion, fair hair, broad shoulders, eyes that all but shot out sparks of fire . . . Homer remarked of Achilles that when he shouted his hearers had the impression of a multitude in uproar, but Robert's bellow, so they say, put tens of thousands to flight.
The Alexiad I, 11
The story of the Normans in South Italy begins around 1015, with a group of some forty young pilgrims in the cave-shrine of the Archangel Michael on Monte Gargano in northern Apulia. Seeing in this underpopulated, unruly land both an opportunity and a challenge, they were easily persuaded by certain Lombard leaders to serve as mercenaries against the Byzantines. Word soon got back to Normandy, and the initial trickle of footloose younger sons in search of wealth and adventure rapidly grew to the point where it became a steady immigration. Fighting now indiscriminately for Lombard and Greek alike, the Normans soon began to exact payment for their services not in gold but in land. In 1030 Duke Sergius of Naples, in gratitude for their support, invested their leader Rainulf with the County of Aversa; thereafter their progress was fast, and in 1053, at Civitate in Apulia, they defeated a vastly superior army, raised and led against them by Pope Leo IX in person.
By this time supremacy among the Norman chiefs had been assumed by the family of one Tancred de Hauteville, a somewhat dim knight in the service of the Duke of Normandy. Of his twelve sons, eight had settled in Italy, five were to become leaders of the front rank and one — Robert, nicknamed Guiscard ('the crafty') - possessed something very like genius. After Civitate papal policy changed: and in 1059 Robert was invested by Pope Nicholas II with the previously non-existent Dukedoms of Apulia, Calabria and Sicily. Of these territories much of the first two remained subject to Byzantium, while Sicily was still in the hands of the Saracens; but Robert, strengthened by his new legitimacy, could not be checked for long. Two years later he and his youngest brother Roger invaded Sicily, and for the next decade they were able simultaneously to keep up the pressure both there and on the mainland. Bari, as we have seen, had fallen in 1071, and with it the last remnants of Byzantine power in Italy; early the next year Palermo had followed, and the Saracen hold on Sicily was broken for ever. In 1075 it was the turn of Salerno, the last independent Lombard principality. In all Italy south of the Garigliano river the Normans under Robert Guiscard now reigned supreme.
For many centuries already this land had been known as Magna Graecia, and at the time of which we are speaking it was still in spirit far more Greek than Italian. The vast majority of its inhabitants spoke Greek as their native language - as, in one or two remote villages, a few still do today; the Greek rite prevailed in almost all the churches and in most of the monasteries. Apulia and Calabria continued to be known as themes, as they had been in Byzantine days, and many of the more important communities were still headed by officials who retained the old Byzantine titles - strategos, exarch or catapan. No wonder that the Guiscard, finding himself already successor to the Roman Emperor where his Italian dominions were concerned, should begin to harbour designs on the imperial throne - designs which were unwittingly encouraged by the Byzantines themselves. Already in 1073, he had received two letters from Michael VII suggesting, in return for a military alliance, the marriage of the Emperor's brother, born in the purple1 and 'so handsome, if one must talk of such qualities, that he might be a statue of the Empire itself, to one - the most beautiful, he was careful to specify - of Robert's daughters. When both these letters went unanswered Michael had written a third, improving his proposal: he now suggested his own newly-born son Constantine as the prospective bridegroom, and went on to offer Robert no fewer than forty-four high Byzantine honours for distribution among his family and friends, carrying with them a total annual grant of two hundred pounds of gold.
1 i.e., born to an Emperor during his reign. To be porphyrogtnitus was considered a far greater distinction than that of primogeniture.
The Guiscard had hesitated no longer. There was always an element of uncertainty in the imperial succession; but a son of a ruling Emperor certainly stood a better chance than anyone else, and the opportunity of seeing his own daughter as Empress of Byzantium was not one that he was prepared to miss. The offer of the honours, which would effectively put all his principal lieutenants in receipt of open bribes from Michael, was probably less attractive; but it was a risk worth taking. He had accepted the proposal, and shortly afterwards had bundled off the bride-to-be to Constantinople, there to pursue her studies in the imperial gynaeceum until her infant fiance should be of marriageable age. Anna Comnena, writing some years later, rather bitchily implies1 that young Helena — she had been re-baptized with the Greek name on being received into the Orthodox Church soon after her arrival - proved, despite the Emperor's stipulation, to be a good deal less well-favoured than had been expected, and that her intended husband was as terrified at the prospect of the marriage 'as a baby is of a bogeyman'; but since Anna was herself later betrothed to young Constantine, with whom she was to fall passionately in love, she can hardly be considered an impartial judge.
The overthrow of Michael VII by Nicephorus Botaneiates in 1078 put paid to all Helena's chances of attaining the imperial throne. The ex-Emperor himself, as we have seen, was allowed to retire to a monastery - a welcome translation from his point of view, since the cloister suited his bookish temperament far better than the palace had ever done. The hapless princess, on the other hand, found herself immured in a convent of her own with which she was, we may confidently assume, rather less well pleased. Her father received the news with mixed feelings. His immediate hopes of an imperial son-in-law had been dashed; on the other hand the treatment accorded to his daughter gave him the perfect pretext for intervention. A rebellion in South Italy prevented his taking any immediate action, but by the summer of 1080 he was able to begin preparations in earnest. He had in fact lost nothing by the delay: with every day that passed, the Empire was slipping deeper and deeper into chaos. In its present condition, a well-planned Norman offensive would seem to have every chance of success.
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
1 The Alexiad, I, 12.
recruits without any consideration of age. From all over Lombardy and Apulia he gathered them, old and young, pitiable wretches who had never, even in their dreams, seen a weapon; but were now clad in breastplates and carrying shields, drawing bows (to which they were completely unaccustomed) awkwardly and clumsily and, when ordered to march, usually falling flat on their faces.
Thus Anna Comnena describes Robert's preparations for his new campaign; and all through the autumn and winter the work went on. The fleet was refitted, the army increased in size - though not as dramatically as Anna suggests - and re-equipped. In a mighty effort to stir up enthusiasm among his Greek subjects, the Guiscard had even managed to produce a disreputable and transparently bogus Orthodox monk, who appeared in Salerno at the height of the preparations and gave himself out to be none other than the Emperor Michael in person, escaped from his monastery and trusting in his gallant Norman allies to replace him on his rightful throne. Nobody believed him much; but Robert, professing to be entirely convinced by his claims, persisted in treating him with exaggerated deference throughout the months that followed.
Then, in December, he decided to send an ambassador to Constantinople, with the triple purpose of demanding satisfaction from Botaneiates for the treatment accorded to Helena, gaining the adherence of the considerable number of Normans who were at that time in the imperial service, and winning over the Domestic of the Schools, Alexius Comnenus. He chose a certain Count Radulf of Pontoise — whose mission, however, was not a success. How he fared with the Emperor and his Norman followers is not recorded; but he had immediately fallen under the spell of the Domestic, and at some point on his homeward journey he had heard the news - not, probably, unexpected - of Alexius's coup. Finding his master at Brindisi, he innocently tried to persuade him to cancel his expedition altogether. The new Emperor, he assured him, wanted nothing but friendship with the Normans. He had been a good friend of Michael VII and had in fact served as the official guardian of young Constantine - Robert's prospective son-in-law - to whom, despite the latter's youth (he was now seven), he had even offered a share in the government. As for Helena, she was as safe with him as she would have been with her own father. Moreover, continued Radulf, he had with his own eyes seen the ex-Emperor Michael in his monastery; there could consequently be no doubt that the pretender whom Robert kept at his side and by whose claims he set so much store was an arrant impostor.
He should be sent packing at once, and an embassy dispatched to Alexius with offers of peace and friendship. Then Helena might still marry Constantine, or return to the bosom of her family; much bloodshed might be averted; and the army and navy could disperse to their homes.
Robert Guiscard was famous for the violence of his rages; and his fury with the luckless Radulf was fearful to behold. The last thing he wanted was peace with Constantinople. His expeditionary force was lying at Brindisi and Otranto, magnificently equipped and ready to sail; the grandest prize in Europe lay within his grasp. He had lost all interest in the imperial marriage - which, if it were to take place, would no longer be all that imperial anyway. Even less did he want his daughter back at home; he had six others, and she was serving a far more useful purpose where she was. So far as he was concerned the disreputable pretender was still the Emperor Michael — though it was a pity he was not a better actor - and Michael was still the legitimate Emperor. The only important thing now was to embark before Alexius cut the ground yet further from under his feet by returning Helena to him. Fortunately he had already sent his eldest son Bohemund - a magnificent blond giant of twenty-seven - with an advance party across the Adriatic. The sooner he could join him the better.
The great fleet sailed towards the end of May 1081. It carried some thirteen hundred Norman knights, supported by a large body of Saracens, some rather dubious Greeks and several thousand heterogeneous foot-soldiers. At Avlona1 it was joined by a few Ragusan vessels - the Ragusans, like so many Balkan peoples, were always ready for a crack at the Byzantines - and then moved slowly down the coast to Corfu, where the imperial garrison surrendered at once. Having thus assured a bridgehead, and with it the free passage of reinforcements from Italy, Robert Guiscard could begin fighting in earnest. His first target was Durazzo,2 capital and chief port of Illyria, from which the eight-hundred-year-old Via Egnatia ran east across the Balkan peninsula through Macedonia and Thrace to Constantinople. Soon, however, it became clear that progress was not going to be so easy. Heading northward round the Acroceraunian cape — respectfully avoided by the ancients as the seat from which Jupiter Fulminans was wont to launch his thunderbolts — Robert's ships were overtaken by a sudden tempest. Several of them were lost, and no
1Valona, or Vlon, in what is now Albania.
2 The classical Dyrrachium, now Durres, in Albania.
sooner had the battered remainder hove to in the roadstead off Durazzo than they saw a Venetian fleet on the north-western horizon.
The moment he heard of the Guiscard's landing on imperial territory, Alexius had sent Doge Domenico Selvo an urgent appeal for assistance. It was probably unnecessary; the threat to Venice implied by Norman control of the straits of Otranto was every bit as serious as that to the Empire. In any case Selvo had not hesitated. Taking personal command of the war fleet, he had sailed at once; and as night was falling he bore down on the Norman ships. Robert's men fought tenaciously, but their inexperience of sea warfare betrayed them. The Venetians adopted the old Byzantine trick, used by Belisarius at Palermo five and a half centuries before, of hoisting manned dinghies to the yard-arms, from which the soldiers could shoot down on to the enemy below;1 it seems, too, that they had learnt the secret of Greek fire, since a Norman chronicler, Geoffrey Malaterra, writes of how 'they blew that fire, which is called Greek and is not extinguished by water, through submerged pipes, and thus cunningly burnt one of our ships under the very waves of the sea'. Against such tactics and such weapons the Normans were powerless; their line was shattered, while the Venetians were able to beat their way to safety in the harbour of Durazzo.
But it took more than this to discourage the Duke of Apulia, whose army (which he had prudently disembarked before the battle) was still unimpaired and who now settled down to besiege the city. Alexius had sent his old ally George Palaeologus to command the local troops, with orders to hold the enemy at all costs while he himself raised an army against the invaders; and the garrison, knowing that relief was on the way, fought stoutly. All summer long the siege continued, enlivened by frequent sorties on the part of the defenders - in one of which Palaeologus fought magnificently throughout a sweltering day with a Norman arrow-head embedded in his skull. Then on 15 October Alexius's army appeared, with the Emperor himself riding at its head. Three days later he attacked. By this time Robert had moved a little to the north of the city and had drawn up his line of battle. He himself had assumed command of the centre, with his son Bohemund on his left, inland, flank and on his right his wife, the Lombard princess Sichelgaita of Salerno.
Sichelgaita needs some explanation. She was cast in a Wagnerian mould: in her we come face to face with the closest approximation in history to a Valkyrie. A woman of immense build and herculean physical
1 See Byzantium: The Early Centuries, p. 215.
strength, she hardly ever left her husband's side - least of all in battle, one of her favourite occupations. At such moments, charging magnificently into the fray, her long blond hair streaming out from beneath her helmet, deafening friend and foe alike with huge shouts of encouragement or imprecation, she must have looked - even if she did not altogether sound — worthy to take her place among the daughters of Wotan: beside Waltraute, or Grimgerda, or even Brunnhilde herself.
As was the invariable rule when the Emperor took the field in person, his Varangian Guard was present in strength. At this time it consisted largely of Englishmen, Anglo-Saxons who had left their country in disgust after Hastings and had taken service with Byzantium. Many of them had been waiting fifteen years to avenge themselves on the detested Normans, and they attacked with all the vigour of which they were capable. Swinging their huge two-handed battle-axes round their heads and then slamming them into horses and riders alike, they struck terror in the hearts of the Apulian knights, few of whom had ever come across a line of foot-soldiers that did not immediately break in the face of a charge of cavalry. The horses too began to panic, and before long the Norman right had turned in confusion, many galloping straight into the sea to escape certain massacre.
But now, if contemporary reports are to be believed, the day was saved by Sichelgaita. The story is best told by Anna Comnena:
Directly Gaita, Robert's wife (who was riding at his side and was a second Pallas, if not an Athene) saw these soldiers running away, she looked fiercely after them and in a very powerful voice called out to them in her own language an equivalent to Homer's words: 'How far will ye flee? Stand, and acquit yourselves like men!' And when she saw that they continued to run, she grasped a long spear and at full gallop rushed after the fugitives; and on seeing this they recovered themselves and returned to the fight.
Now, too, Bohemund's left flank had wheeled to the rescue, with a detachment of crossbowmen against whom the Varangians, unable to approach within axe-range, in their turn found themselves defenceless. Having advanced too far beyond the main body of the Greek army, their retreat was cut off; they could only fight where they stood. At last the few exhausted Englishmen remaining alive turned and sought refuge in a nearby chapel of the Archangel Michael; but the Normans immediately set it on fire - they were a long way now from Monte Gargano — and most of the Varangians perished in the flames.
Meanwhile, in the centre, the Emperor was still fighting bravely; but the cream of the Byzantine army had been destroyed at Manzikert, and the motley collection of barbarian mercenaries on whom he now had to rely possessed neither the discipline nor the devotion to prevail against the Normans of Apulia. A sortie from Durazzo under George Palaeologus had failed to save the situation, and to make matters worse Alexius suddenly saw that he had been betrayed by his vassal, King Constantine Bodin of Zeta, and by a whole regiment of seven thousand Turkish auxiliaries, lent to him by the Seljuk Sultan Suleyman, of whom he had had high hopes. His last chance of victory was gone. Cut off from his men, saddened by the loss on the battlefield of George's father Nicephorus Palaeologus and Michael VII's brother Constantius, weak from exhaustion and loss of blood and in considerable pain from a wound in his forehead, he rode slowly and without escort back over the mountains to Ochrid, there to recover and regroup what he could of his shattered forces.
Somehow, Durazzo was to hold out for another four months; not till February 1082 were the Normans able to burst open the gates, and even then only through the treachery of a Venetian resident (who, according to Malaterra, demanded as his reward the hand of one of Robert's nieces in marriage). From Durazzo on, however, the pace of conquest quickened; the local populations, aware of their Emperor's defeat, offered no resistance to the advancing invaders; and within a few weeks the whole of Illyria was in the Guiscard's hands. He then marched east to Kastoria, which also surrendered instantly - despite the fact that its garrison was found to consist of three hundred more of the Varangian Guard. This discovery had a further tonic effect on the Normans' already high morale. If not even the crack troops of the Empire were any longer prepared to oppose their advance, then surely Constantinople was as good as won.
Alas for Robert: it was nothing of the kind. The following April, while he was still at Kastoria, messengers arrived from Italy. Apulia and Calabria, they reported, were up in arms, and much of Campania as well. They also brought a letter from Pope Gregory VII. His arch-enemy Henry IV, King of the Romans,1 was at the gates of Rome, demanding to be crowned Emperor of the West. The Duke's presence was urgently required at home. Leaving the command of the expedition to Bohemund, and swearing by the soul of his father Tancred to remain unshaven until
1 A purely honorary title, normally adopted by the elected Emperor of the West until he could be properly crowned by the Pope in Rome.
he could return to Greece, Robert hurried back to the coast and took ship across the Adriatic.
The Venetians were not the only people whom Alexius had approached for help against Robert Guiscard. Already at the time of his accession he had been fully aware of the preparations being made against him, and he had lost no time in seeking out potential allies. The nearest at hand was one of Robert's own nephews: Abelard, son of his elder brother Humphrey, who had been dispossessed by his uncle and had later sought refuge in Constantinople, where he needed little persuading to return secretly to Italy and, with the aid of his brother Herman and a quantity of Byzantine gold, to raise the revolt. Meanwhile the Emperor had sent an embassy to Henry IV, pointing out the dangers of allowing the Duke of Apulia to continue unchecked; subsequent exchanges had ended in an agreement by which, in return for an oath of alliance, Alexius sent Henry no less than 360,000 gold pieces, the salaries of twenty high court offices, a gold pectoral cross set with pearls, a crystal goblet, a sardonyx cup, and 'a reliquary inlaid with gold containing fragments of various saints, identified in each case by a small label'. It was, by any standards, an expensive contract; but when in the spring of 1082 the Emperor received reports of Robert's sudden departure, he must have felt that his recent diplomatic activities had been well worth while.
He himself had spent the winter in Thessalonica, trying to raise troops for the following summer's campaign. Bohemund and his army were steadily extending their power through the Empire's western provinces, and his father would probably be back in person before long, ready to march on the capital. A strong and adequately-trained defence force was essential if the Normans were to be resisted; but mercenaries by definition cost money, the imperial treasury was bare, and to have asked any more from the hard-pressed Byzantine taxpayer would have been a virtual invitation to rebellion. Alexius appealed to his mother, his brother and his wife, all of whom provided what they could, paring their living expenses to the bone; but the proceeds were nowhere near enough for his purposes. Finally his brother Isaac the sebastocrator summoned a synod at St Sophia and, invoking ancient canons which allowed ecclesiastical gold and silver to be melted down and sold for the redemption of Byzantine prisoners of war, announced the confiscation of all church treasures. Byzantine history recorded only one near precedent: when, at the time of the invasion of the Persian King Chosroes in 618, the Patriarch Sergius had voluntarily put the entire wealth of every church and monastery at the disposal of the State and the Emperor Heraclius had gratefully accepted his offer.1 On this occasion the initiative came from the other side. The hierarchy showed itself distinctly less public-spirited and made little attempt to conceal its displeasure. It had no choice, however, but to submit, and in doing so enabled Alexius to raise his army.
Yet even that army, in the first year of its existence, proved powerless to halt Bohemund's advance. After two more major victories, at Yanina and Arta, he had slowly pressed the Byzantines back until all Macedonia and much of Thessaly lay under his control. Not until the spring of 1083, at Larissa, did Alexius succeed in turning the tide. His plan was simple enough. When he saw that battle was imminent, he handed over the main body of the army, together with all the imperial standards, to his brother-in-law George Melissenus and another distinguished general, Basil Curticius, with orders first to advance against the enemy but then, when the two lines were face to face, suddenly to turn and run as if in headlong flight. He meanwhile, with a body of carefully picked troops, crept round under cover of darkness to a place behind the Norman camp and lay there in hiding. At daybreak Bohemund saw the army and the standards and immediately launched his attack. Melissenus and Curticius did as they had been instructed, and before long the Byzantine army was galloping away in the opposite direction, with the Normans in pell-mell pursuit. Meanwhile Alexius and his men overran the enemy camp, killing all its occupants and taking substantial plunder. On his return Bohemund was obliged to raise the siege of Larissa and to withdraw to Kastoria. From that moment on he was lost. Dispirited, homesick, its pay long overdue and now still further demoralized by the huge rewards which Alexius was offering to all deserters, the Norman army fell away. Bohemund took ship for Italy to raise more money, and his principal lieutenants surrendered as soon as his back was turned; next, a Venetian fleet recaptured Durazzo and Corfu; and by the end of 1083 Norman-held territory in the Balkans was once again confined to one or two offshore islands and a short strip of the coast.
Across the Adriatic, on the other hand, Robert Guiscard was doing splendidly. The insurrection in Apulia had admittedly taken him longer to deal with than he had expected, largely owing to the generous subsidies that the rebels had been receiving from Constantinople; but by mid-summer the last pockets of resistance had been satisfactorily
1 See Byzantium: The Early Centuries, p. 288.
eliminated. He had then set about raising a new army with which to rescue Pope Gregory - who had barricaded himself into the Castel Sant' Angelo - and to send Henry packing. Early the following summer he marched; and on 24 May 1084, roughly on the site of the present Porta Capena, he pitched his camp beneath the walls of Rome. The Emperor, however - who had deposed Gregory and had had himself crowned by a puppet anti-Pope on Palm Sunday - had not waited for him. Three days before the Duke of Apulia appeared at the gates of the city he had retired, with the greater part of his army, to Lombardy.
Had the Romans not been foolish enough to surrender to Henry the previous March, the Normans would have entered the city as deliverers; instead, they came as a conquering enemy. On the night of 27 May, Robert silently moved his men round to the north of the city; then at dawn he attacked, and within minutes the first of his shock-troops had burst through the Flaminian Gate. They met with a stiff resistance: the whole area of the Campus Martius - that quarter which lies immediately across the Tiber from the Castel Sant' Angelo — became a blazing inferno. But it was not long before the Normans had beaten the defenders back across the bridge, released the Pope from his fortress and borne him back in triumph through the smoking ruins to the Lateran.
Then, and only then, came the real tragedy. Despite all the depredations it had suffered, Rome still offered the Guiscard's men possibilities of plunder on a scale such as few of them had ever before experienced; and the entire city now fell victim to an orgy of rapine and pillage. For three days this continued unabated - until the inhabitants, able to bear it no longer, rose against their oppressors. Robert, for once taken by surprise, found himself surrounded. He was saved in the nick of time by his son Roger Borsa, who in an uncharacteristic burst of activity smashed his way through the furious crowds with a thousand men-at-arms to his father's rescue - but not before the Normans, now fighting for their lives, had set fire to the city. The Capitol and the Palatine were gutted; churches, palaces and ancient temples left empty shells. In the whole area between the Colosseum and the Lateran hardly a single building escaped the flames. When at last the smoke cleared away and such Roman leaders as remained alive had prostrated themselves before the Duke of Apulia with naked swords roped round their necks in token of surrender, their city lay empty, a picture of desolation and despair.
A few weeks later, Robert Guiscard returned to Greece. As Anna Comnena has occasion to point out, he was nothing if not tenacious. Though now sixty-eight, he seems to have been in no way discouraged at the prospect of starting his campaign all over again; and in the autumn of 1084 he was back, with Bohemund, his two other sons Roger and Guy, and a new fleet of 150 ships. At the outset, things could hardly have gone worse: bad weather delayed the vessels for two months at Butrinto, and when at last they were able to cross the straits to Corfu, they were set upon by a Venetian fleet and soundly beaten in pitched battle twice in three days. So severe were their losses that the Venetians sent back their pinnaces to the lagoon with news of the victory; but they had underestimated the Guiscard. Few of his ships were in fit condition to venture a third battle; but seeing the pinnaces disappear over the horizon and recognizing the opportunity of taking the enemy by surprise, he quickly summoned all those vessels that were somehow still afloat and flung them forward in a last onslaught.
He had calculated it perfectly. Not only were the Venetians unprepared; their heavier galleys, already emptied of ballast, stood so high in the water that when, in the heat of the battle, their entire complements of soldiers and crew dashed to the same side of the deck, many of them capsized. (So, at least, writes Anna Comnena; though her story is hard indeed to reconcile with what we know of Venetian seamanship.) Anna reports 13,000 Venetian dead, together with 2,500 prisoners - on whose subsequent mutilations at the hands of their captors she dwells with that morbid pleasure that is one of her least attractive characteristics.1 Corfu fell; and it was a generally happier and more hopeful army that settled down into its winter quarters on the mainland.
But in the course of the winter a new enemy appeared - one more deadly to the Guiscard's men than the Venetians and the Byzantines together. It was a raging epidemic - probably typhoid - and it struck without mercy. By spring five hundred Norman knights were dead, and a large proportion of the army effectively incapacitated. Yet even now Robert remained cheerful and confident. Of his immediate family only Bohemund had succumbed, and had been sent back to Bari to recuperate; and in the early summer, determined to get his men once again on the move, he dispatched Roger Borsa with an advance force to occupy Cephalonia. A few weeks later, he himself set off to join his son; but now, as he sailed southward, he felt the dreaded sickness upon him. By
1 Anna goes on to describe a fourth battle, in which she claims that the Venetians had their revenge; but there is no trace of such an engagement in the Venetian records, and since we know that Doge Selvo was deposed as a result of the Corfu catastrophe, it looks as though she is guilty of a particularly unscrupulous piece of wishful thinking.
the time his ship reached Cape Ather, the northernmost tip of the island, he was desperately ill. The vessel put in at the first safe anchorage, a little sheltered bay still called, in his memory, by the name of Phiscardo. Here, on 17 July 1085, he died, his faithful Sichelgaita beside him.
The past four years had seen the two greatest potentates of Europe -the Eastern and Western Emperors - fleeing at his approach, and one of the most redoubtable of medieval Popes rescued and restored by his hand. Had he lived another few months, he might well have achieved his ambitions; and Alexius Comnenus might have proved one of the more transitory - possibly even the last - of the Greek Emperors of Byzantium. With the Guiscard's death, the Empire was delivered from immediate danger. Immediately and inevitably, his sons and nephews plunged into quarrels over the inheritance and soon lost sight of the grand design that had dominated his last years. But they did not altogether ignore the new horizons that he had opened up to them. Henceforth we find the Normans of the South looking with increasingly envious eyes towards the East; and in only twelve years' time we shall find Robert's son Bohemund carving out for himself, at the Emperor's expense, the first Crusader principality of Outremer.
'The Empire was delivered from immediate danger': for anyone attempting to write its history, these are brave words. Byzantium was never safe for long. Her western neighbours were at the best of times unreliable, betraying her as they did time and time again; those to the east were almost invariably hostile — and were destined, one day, to deliver her death blow. More continually troublesome than either, however, over the centuries, were those who came from the north: the barbarian hordes - Goths and Huns, Avars and Slavs, Gepids and Bulgars, Magyars and Uzz - who descended in wave after wave from the steppes of Central Asia and who, if they never succeeded in capturing Constantinople, continued by their very existence to threaten it and seldom left the Emperors and their subjects altogether free from anxiety.
Now, with the temporary disappearance of the Normans from the scene, it was the turn of the Pechenegs. They were by no means new arrivals. For more than two hundred years they had been a force to be reckoned with; over that time they had proved themselves the most grasping (as well as the cruellest) of the tribes, and readers of the previous volume may remember how, in the middle of the ninth century, Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus had warned his son Romanus to keep them happy at all costs with pacts, alliances, treaties of friendship and an endless stream of expensive gifts.1 Recent Emperors, however, had ignored this advice, and the Pecheneg menace, aided and abetted by Bogomil2 heretics in the eastern Balkans, had steadily increased. In the spring of 1087 a huge barbarian army, estimated by Anna at eighty thousand, invaded the Empire; three years later, after several desperate battles in which victories were scored on both sides, it stood within reach of Constantinople.
Nor were the Pechenegs and the Bogomils the only enemies with whom Alexius had to contend. The Turkish Emir of Smyrna, Chaka by name, had over the previous decade extended his power along the entire Aegean coast. He had lived for a year or more in Constantinople, where Nicephorus Botaneiates had finally granted him the tide of protonobilissimus; but his ambitions, like those of Robert Guiscard before him, were directed at nothing less than the Byzantine throne. The Pecheneg invasion gave him just the opportunity he had been awaiting. For some time he had been preparing a fleet, and in the late autumn of 1090 he had little difficulty in capturing the key Byzantine islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos and Rhodes. Fortunately for Byzantium, Alexius too had been building up his navy; and early the following year an imperial squadron under the command of his kinsman Constantine Dalassenus drove back the Emir from the entrance to the Marmara. But Chaka was by no means beaten, and there is little doubt that he would have renewed his attempt had he not been murdered by his Sultan, Kilij Arslan, at a banquet in 1092.
Meanwhile the Pechenegs kept up the pressure on Constantinople. Alexius fought hard: he could hold them at bay, but with his chronic shortage of manpower it was impossible to drive them back to the lands from which they had come. And so, in desperation, he resorted to one of the oldest of Byzantine diplomatic tricks: to enlist the help of one tribe against another. It was a dangerous ploy, since there was always a risk that the two would join forces, and that the Empire would consequently find itself with two barbarian enemies instead of one; but his principal source of manpower had been lost at Manzikert and he had little choice. And so, just as Leo the Wise had called in the Magyars against Symeon of Bulgaria almost exactly two centuries before,3 Alexius Comnenus now appealed to the Cumans.
1 See Byzantium: The Apogee, p. 16411.
1 The Bogomils were a neo-Manichacan, puritan sect who believed the material world to be the creation and dominion of the Devil. Originating in tenth-century Bulgaria, they had spread rapidly through the Balkans and parts of Asia Minor and were later to give rise to the Albigensians (Cathars) of south-west France.
3 Sec Byzantium: The Apogee, p. 108.
The Cumans have already appeared in these pages under the name of Scythians, by which in former times they were more usually known.1 A race of nomad warriors and cattle-breeders of Turkic origin, they had appeared from the East in the eleventh century and had settled in what is today the Ukraine. They had no fundamental quarrel with the Pechenegs — the two tribes had plundered Thrace together in 1087 and seem to have enjoyed it thoroughly - but Alexius made them an offer they could not refuse and they willingly answered his call. They arrived in the late spring; and on Monday, 28 April 1091 the two armies faced each other under a hill known as Levunium, near the mouth of the Maritsa river.
That evening the Emperor called his soldiers to prayer. 'At the moment', writes Anna,
when the sun set below the horizon, one could see the heavens lit up, not with the light of one sun, but with the gleam of many other stars, for everyone lit torches (or wax tapers, according to their means) and fixed them on the points of their spears. The prayers offered up by the army no doubt reached the very vault of heaven, or shall I say that they were borne aloft to the Lord God Himself?
They certainly seem to have been; for in the battle that was fought the next day the Pechenegs - whose women and children, as was the barbarian custom, had followed them to war - suffered a defeat so crushing that they were almost wiped out as a race. Anna goes further and states that they were totally annihilated; she exaggerates, but only a little. Some of the prisoners survived and were taken into imperial service; the vast majority - they are still said to have outnumbered their captors by thirty to one - perished in a general massacre.
Neither the imperial army nor Alexius Comnenus as its commander2 emerges with much credit from the bloodbath of Levunium; the fact remains, however, that it was by far the most decisive victory to have been won by the Byzantine army in the field since the days of Basil II. Not only did it deliver the Empire for the next thirty years from the Pecheneg menace; it provided a healthy example for other tribes, together with a vitally necessary tonic for Byzantine morale. More important still,
1A still more familiar appellation to many people might be that of Polovtsi, who captured and danced for - Prince Igor of Kiev in the old Russian folk talc and Borodin's opera.
2Anna exonerates her father from any involvement in the massacre; but then she would, wouldn't she?
it secured the Emperor's own position. He had, it must be remembered, seized the throne by force. Many an ambitious young commander from any one of a dozen noble Byzantine families could have boasted as good a claim to it, and Alexius's obvious ability had in the past offered him small protection against the intrigues of jealous rivals. Now at last he had proved himself capable of restoring to Byzantium at least part of her former greatness. The basileus who, a few days after the battle, rode proudly through the Golden Gate of Constantinople and down the decorated streets to the Great Church of St Sophia - his subjects meanwhile cheering him to the echo — could look to the future, as never before in the ten years since his accession, with confidence and hope.