Battle of Dyrrhachium: Normans Defeat Byzantines, Varangian Guard Slaughtered

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Battle of Dyrrhachium: Normans Defeat Byzantines, Varangian Guard Slaughtered

Byzantine center advances against Normans (note Varangians, the "axe-wielding barbarians")
[Photograph courtesy of]
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: October 18, 1081

Today's history presentation takes us to the late 11th century and the Balkan Peninsula, where an epic battle between the century's two most famous armies is highlighted.


Map of Southeastern Europe and Asia Minor, 1081
Map of Southeastern Europe and Asia Minor, 1081

Following a period of relative success and expansion between about AD 867 to 1054, Byzantium experienced several decades of stagnation and decline, which culminated in a vast deterioration in the military, territorial, economic and political situation of the Byzantine Empire.

The problems the empire faced were partially caused by the growing influence and power of the aristocracy, which weakened the empire's military structure by undermining the theme system that trained and administered its armies. Beginning with the death of the successful soldier-emperor Basil II in 1025, a long series of weak rulers had disbanded the large armies which had been defending the eastern provinces from attack; instead, gold was stockpiled in the capital city of Constantinople, ostensibly in order to hire mercenaries should troubles arise. In fact, most of the money was given away in the form of gifts to favorites of the emperor, extravagant court banquets, and expensive luxuries for the imperial family.

Meanwhile, the remnants of the once-formidable armed forces were allowed to decay, to the point where they were no longer capable of functioning as an army. Elderly men with ill-maintained equipment mixed with new recruits who had never participated in a training exercise.

Beginning in 1040, a new enemy emerged in Byzantine-ruled southern Italy: the Normans. Originally landless mercenaries from northern parts of Europe in search of plunder, the Normans began attacking Byzantine strongholds in southern Italy. At first the Byzantines opposed the "Franks" (as they called all western Europeans) vigorously. However, new Roman Emperor Romanus Diogenes led a major expedition against the Seljuk Turks in eastern Asia Minor in 1071, and was defeated at the battle of Manzikert. [For more information about his battle, please see my Burn Pit post from August of this year at battle_of_manzikert.] As a result of this Byzantine defeat – and the subsequent civil war and death of Romanus – the Normans were able to conquer all of southern Italy and the island of Sicily.

Robert Guiscard
Robert Guiscard "the Cunning," Duke of Apulia & Calabria
[Image courtesy of]

The Norman lord was Robert Guiscard, who acquired the nom de guerre of "Viscardus" which is variously translated as "the Wily," "the Fox," "the Resourceful," or "the Cunning." He had entered southern Italy as a mere adventurer in 1047, and 11 years later he was the duke of Apulia and Calabria. The Byzantine historian Anna Comnena described Guiscard in this way:

This Robert was Norman by birth, of obscure origins, 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. In a well-built man one looks for breadth here and slimness there; in him all was admirably well-proportioned and elegant… 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.

With the East Roman Empire in turmoil, Guiscard decided to take advantage of the situation. In May of 1081, a large Norman fleet of 300 ships carrying between 25,000 and 30,000 men – including between 1300 and 1800 knights – crossed the Adriatic Sea and landed on the southern coast of what is today Albania. The fleet split in half, with one wing sailing south to capture the strategic island of Corfu. The northern wing – which included approximately 60 horse transports – quickly captured the towns of Valona, Kanina, Orikum, and Butrint. The next target of the invaders was the port city of Dyrrhachium (also known as Durazzo), which was also the capital of the East Roman province of Illyria.

Prelude to the Battle

The Norman fleet landed Guiscard's army, which then initiated a siege of the Byzantine port. Soon afterwards, a fleet of Venetian ships appeared, and vigorously attacked the Norman ships. [Emperor Alexius had contacted the Doge of Venice, who was a foe of the Italo-Normans, and asked for assistance against the invaders.] A combination of superior Venetian tactics and the naval inexperience by the Normans brought victory to the Venetians. Guiscard's fleet scattered, and the Venetian flotilla entered Dyrrhachium's harbor. Despite this setback, "the Fox" decided to continue the siege.

Byzantine ship using
Byzantine ship using "Greek fire" against an enemy vessel
Image from the Skylitzes illuminated manuscript, currently in the National Library of Madrid, Spain

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 depleted Norman fleet. The Byzantines used their super-weapon known as "Greek fire," an inflammable mixture which set wooden ships and human flesh afire equally well. The Norman fleet was again routed, withdrew to a safer distance, and beached the remaining ships. The garrison at Dyrrhachium managed to hold out all summer, despite the onslaught of 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.
At one point, the Norman camp was struck by disease, probably enhanced by a hotter-than-normal summer, which also caused a famine among the local farmers. According to Anna Comnena, up to 10,000 Normans died, including 500 knights. Even so, the situation of the Dyrrhachium garrison grew desperate because of 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.

Norman Army

Robert Guiscard's force was not your typical army. According to Anna Comnena, "Not being satisfied with the men who had served in his army from the beginning and had experience in battle, he [Guiscard] 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 armor in their dreams, but then clad in breastplates and carrying shields, awkwardly drawing bows to which they were completely unused…"

If we are to believe Anna, most of Robert's army consisted of Italian conscripts, which were drilled relentlessly before embarking on the Norman invasion. They included spearmen, archers, crossbowmen, and light or medium cavalrymen. One historical source even claims that there were Sicilian Muslim archers present. The Norman army numbered between 18,000 and 20,000 men. They were competent, but by no means truly ready for the rigors of campaign or battle. It is also very likely that Guiscard hired some mercenaries – both cavalry and infantry – to provide some backbone to his army.

Norman heavy cavalry, using the couched lance, late 11th century [Photograph courtesy of]
Norman heavy cavalry, using the couched lance, late 11th century
[Photograph courtesy of]

The backbone of the Norman army was the 1300 or so heavy knights. They were highly trained, very experienced, and heavily armed and armored. Many of them had participated in the campaigns of Robert Guiscard to conquer southern Italy from the Byzantines and Sicily from the Muslims. This is one of the first battles of the Middle Ages in which a new tactic was specifically mentioned: use of the couched lance by the Norman horsemen. Earlier in this century, cavalrymen either threw their lances or stabbed overhand. By holding the lance under the arm, the impetus of the charge imparted tremendous power to the lance upon impact.

Byzantine Army

Byzantine infantry, backed up by foot archers [Photograph courtesy of]
Byzantine infantry, backed up by foot archers
[Photograph courtesy of]

The Byzantine Empire had recently emerged from a long period of civil war, and a modicum of stability was established with the coronation of Alexius Comnenus as Alexius I. The invasion of Illyria by the Normans represented the first serious test of his reign, coming within months of his investiture. As result, Alexius moved quickly to form an army. It eventually consisted of:

  • 5000 Thessalian, Thracian and Macedonian provincial infantry and cavalry;
  • 2000 men of the elite excubitors and vestiaritai units and the Varangian Guard (composed mainly of Anglo-Saxons by this time), imperial guard units quartered in the capital of Constantinople;
  • 4000 Armenian infantry, 3000 Balkan conscripts and other light troops; and,
  • A small contingent of Serbian troops, commanded by their monarch Constantine Bodin, and a unit of Pecheneg horsemen.

In addition, the Byzantines were joined by 2000 Turkish horse archers, 1000 Frankish horsemen (both units probably hired mercenaries), and 7000 Turkish auxiliaries sent by the Seljuk Sultanate of Rûm. The East Roman army totaled about 25,000 men. [In order to strengthen his army, Emperor Alexius had stripped the provincial troops from the remaining Byzantine provinces in Asia Minor. By doing so, he effectively left these areas to be overrun by the Turks.]

Battle of Dyrrhachium

Emperor Alexius arrived in the vicinity of the besieged city in mid-October. Once the Byzantine army established its camp, Alexius held a council of war. The emperor wanted to attack immediately when he arrived, against the advice of Palaeologus and other officers. Alexius had communicated with the commander of the Dyrrhachium garrison, and arranged for the garrison to make a sortie against the Norman camp, while a force of Byzantine light troops made their way through nearby salt marshes. Guiscard, through spies, knew Alexius was coming and moved his army away from their camp and siege lines to prepare for battle. With the element of surprise spoiled, Alexius made preparations for battle.

Battle of Dyrrhachium, October 18, 1081, Initial Set-up [Map is author's work, based on map from]
Battle of Dyrrhachium, October 18, 1081, Initial Set-up
[Map is author's work, based on map from]

Both commanders divided his army into three divisions. On the Norman side, Duke Robert commanded the center, his 23 year-old son Bohemond was in charge of the left, and Count Amicetas of Giovinazzo – one of Guiscard's most trusted subordinates – directed the right. Each division consisted of rectangular blocks of spearmen, with bow- and javelin-armed skirmishers in front of them (though Anna Comnena claims that the Norman center also included crossbowmen). To the rear of the infantry were the Italo-Norman cavalry. On the right and in the center, these horsemen were a mixture of Norman light skirmisher cavalry and heavy milites (the Latin term which translates loosely as "knight"), while the horsemen on the right were likely all Italian heavy cavalry. [It seems equally likely that the entire right wing was made up of the recently-conscripted Italian soldiers, which explains why Count Amicetas was this in command of this division.]

Alexius did the same, personally commanding his center, with Gregory Pakourianos on the left and Nicephorus Melissenous on the right. The Byzantine tactical set-up differed from the Normans, with cavalry placed in front and on the flanks of the infantry blocks. Pakourianos probably commanded the Turkish archers and the Frankish heavy cavalry. The Pecheneg archers were on the right. Each division had a core of infantry spearmen at least two or three ranks deep, with bow- or javelin-armed skirmishers to their front. The East Roman center probably contained the best troops in the army: the Armenian spearmen, the excubitors and vestiaritai horsemen, and the Varangians, along with the Balkan light skirmishers, and some other light bowmen. The Varangians, accompanied by a contingent of archers placed behind them, were stationed slightly forward of the Byzantine center.

Battle of Dyrrhachium, First Phase [Map is author's work, based on map from]
Battle of Dyrrhachium, First Phase
[Map is author's work, based on map from]

The Normans opened the battle, as Duke Robert sent a group of his cavalry forward to lure the Varangians to attack. This feint was turned back by the archers accompanying the Guardsmen, who moved away, allowing the archers to shoot at the Normans, and then closed back in to protect them. In addition, the missile-armed troops on both flanks of the two armies harassed their opposites, causing few casualties.

At this point, the Norman right then charged forward to the point where the Byzantine center and left wings met; the Varangians held their position, and Pakourianos ordered his wing to counter-charge. After a sharp but short fight, Amicetas's troops fled in panic towards the sea, pursued by the impetuous and battle-maddened Varangians. Although the Byzantine left was thrown into disorder, they began a slow, deliberate pursuit of the fleeing Italians. At this point, the Italo-Normans were rallied by Guiscard's wife Sichelgaita, who was clad in armor and exhorting the men to reform. [Anna Comnena describes the Norman duchess as a second Athena.]

Battle of Dyrrhachium, Second Phase [Map is author's work, based on map from]
Battle of Dyrrhachium, Second Phase
[Map is author's work, based on map from]

In the heat of battle the Varangians had forgotten the most important Byzantine military dictum – never pursue fleeing troops, as the pursuers could then be cut off and vulnerable to a separate attack. This is exactly what happened. Guiscard sent a large portion of his center – spearmen and crossbowmen – against the Varangians. who, now tired after their pursuit, had heavy casualties inflicted upon them. The survivors barricaded themselves in the nearby Church of the Archangel Michael, which the Normans set ablaze, killing everyone inside.

Although both sides had lost a whole flank, Guiscard still had his "ace in the hole:" his experienced heavy cavalrymen held in reserve. He chose that moment to send them against Alexius's center. The Norman knights tore through the screen of skirmishers and struck the Byzantine center like a thunderbolt. Breaking up into smaller groups, the veterans Norman horsemen began assaulting the Byzantine household guard units, and scattered the Armenian spearmen with the shock of their assault. At that moment, seeing the heavy attack on the Byzantine center, the Turkish mercenaries deserted; in addition, the Serbian troops (I have not determined their exact location, but suspect they were in the center) chose this moment to simply leave the field. Seeing his army falling apart around him, Alexius was forced to flee.

Battle of Dyrrhachium, Final Phase [Map is author's work, based on map from]

Battle of Dyrrhachium, Final Phase
[Map is author's work, based on map from]

At this point in the battle, the garrison of Dyrrhachium made a sortie to try and distract the Normans. Needless to say, it accomplished nothing. Alexius pulled his troops back and tried to rally his army. As this was taking place, the Norman right under Duke Amicetas – now reorganized – pursued and attacked the Byzantine center. One chronicle states Amicetas himself engaged Alexius and struck him squarely with his lance. Only the superior quality of the emperor's lamellar armor saved his life. [According to Anna only divine intervention saved him.] Seeing his army disintegrating, Alexius and his guardsmen fled the field. The Norman pursuit was half-hearted, especially after the Byzantine camp – which contained supplies and a portion of the royal treasury – was captured and pillaged. The battle of Dyrrhachium had ended.

Steel lamellar armor, similar to that worn by Alexius at Dyrrhachium [Image courtesy of]
Steel lamellar armor, similar to that worn by Alexius at Dyrrhachium
[Image courtesy of]


Byzantine losses were about 5000 men killed, in addition to at least 7000 who deserted as the situation worsened. Norman casualties are unknown, although they claimed to have lost only thirty men. It would be reasonable to say that at least 5000 to 8000 Normans were casualties.

Footnote #1: Four months later, a citizen of Dyrrhachium opened the city gates to the Normans. One chronicler said a three-day street fight ensued before the Normans took control of the city.

Footnote #2: Duke Robert Guiscard continued his war of conquest against the Byzantines, still seeking to take Constantinople and place his son Bohemond on the throne. However, some of his southern Italian provinces had revolted in his absence. Furthermore, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV had invaded Italy and was besieging Rome. Robert left a portion of his army in Illyria, under the command of his son Bohemond, and returned to Italy.

Footnote #3: Fourteen years later, Alexius would send a message to western Europe, asking for assistance in turning back the Muslim tide. This message would be the impetus for the calling of the First Crusade.

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Do you know at what capacity did Nikephoros Palaiologos serve in the Battle of Dyrrhachium? I'm trying to find out more of his death in this battle, maybe you can help?

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