Bohemond of Taranto: Crusader and Conqueror

Georgios Theotokis

Georgios Theotokis recounts Bohemond's remarkable rise to power.
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Bohemond of Taranto was a man of boundless ambition and inexhaustible energy. He was, in the words of Romuald of Salerno, ‘always seeking the impossible’. He proved to be one of the most remarkable warriors in medieval Mediterranean history, coming from a family of ‘soldiers of fortune’, the Hautevilles, who managed to establish a powerful principality in Italy and seriously threaten the Byzantine Empire’s very existence. Sadly, there is no portrait of this ‘giant’ of Medieval Mediterranean history. Yet, we are lucky to have a single lengthy and intimate portrait of his physical characteristics that is worth quoting here:

‘He was so tall in stature that he overtopped the tallest by nearly one cubit, narrow in the waist and loins, with broad shoulders and a deep chest and powerful arms. And in the whole build of the body he was neither too slender nor over weighted with flesh, but perfectly proportioned and, one might say, built in conformity with the canon of Polycleitus … His wit was manifold and crafty and able to find a way of escape [lit. ‘handle’] in every emergency. In conversation, he was well informed, and the answers he gave were irrefutable. This man who was of such a size and such a character was inferior to the Emperor alone in fortune and eloquence and in other gifts of nature’.

This detailed description of Bohemond was penned by Anna, the daughter of the Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, in her brilliant mid-12th century account of the life and achievements of her father that also bore his name, the Alexiad. She portrayed the Norman as her father’s nemesis around the end of her work in Book 13, yet it is not until Bohemond became a crusader in the summer of 1096 that he drew Anna’s virulent attacks. After that, no colours are too dark for painting him. Bohemond is deliberately framed by Anna as the anti-hero to the brilliant Alexios, with the Norman warrior even surpassing his father Robert Guiscard in greed, treachery and dishonesty, becoming the ‘fons et origo malorum’ of the western knights, and ‘a living model of his father’s character in audacity, bodily strength, bravery and untameable temper.’

Bohemond at the walls of Antioch

Bohemond was born sometime between 1050 and 1058 at his father’s castle of San Marco Argentano, Calabria, hence his baptismal name was Mark, and not Bohemond. The latter was just a sobriquet, derived according to Orderic Vitalis from the latin Buamundus, a mythical giant, and originally given to the future count by his father because he was abnormally large at birth. We have scarce information about Bohemond’s early career in Italy before his participation in his father’s campaigns in the Balkans between 1081 and 1084, yet it is easy to imagine that by the time he was dispatched on a reconnaissance mission in Illyria (modern Albania) in early May 1081, he must have already ‘earned his spurs’.

The first major challenge in Bohemond’s career as a commander of troops was during the first Norman invasion of Byzantine Illyria by Norman forces, led by his father Robert Guiscard, the Duke of Southern Italy. He led a small force of 15 ships, which carried perhaps between 2,000 and 2,500 men and horses, in an advance mission to capture the strategic ports of Corfu and Avlona in the northern Ionian Sea, in March 1081. Yet, it was the conquest of the key port-city of Dyrrachium (modern Durres), at the starting point of the Via Egnatia in the Adriatic Sea, that posed the biggest challenge for the Norman forces. The outcome of the operation was decided in a pitched battle on the plain of Dyrrachium, somewhere east of the city, on 18 October, 1081.

Being assigned the left wing of the three-division army of his father, Bohemond’s forces fought bravely against the right wing of the Byzantine army under Nikephoros Melissenos. The Battle of Dyrrachium reached its climax after the encirclement and eventual annihilation of the Varangian Guard, which was followed by a ferocious cavalry attack from the centre of the Norman army under Guiscard himself. The impact of this cavalry attack on the morale and discipline of the Byzantine army was decisive.

Robert Guiscard’s return to Italy in spring 1082 to face the invasion of the German armies under the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, marks a significant turning point for the Norman invasion of the Byzantine Empire, with his bold, adventurous and highly ambitious son taking over leading the Norman chevauchée in Greece. After capturing the key city of Ioannina in Epirus, he defeated the imperial forces led by Alexios Komnenos twice, first outside Ioannina and then outside the Epirotic city-port of Arta. Anna Komnena describes Bohemond’s strategic brilliance in that he ‘adapted himself to the changed circumstances’, meaning that the Norman became aware of the Byzantine countermeasures against his heavy cavalry attack (wagons, sharpened poles, and caltrops), and decided to split his forces and launch an assault against the flanks of the enemy in a pincer move.

Bohemond’s threat to Larissa in central Greece, and most importantly to the second biggest city of the empire, Thessaloniki, in early spring 1082, once again forced the emperor to take immediate action. Anna’s narrative of the events illustrates a radical change of Alexios’ strategy on how to defeat Bohemond’s army. Ultimately, the emperor came to appreciate that; ‘[generals] who wanted to assault these people [Franks]. . .did not line their own troops up for a pitched battle against them. Instead, they proceeded against them with well-planned ambushes and sneak attacks, or else they delayed combat and kept putting it off’. The Byzantine emperor decided to make use of feigned retreat tactics, which led to trapping Bohemond’s forces in a marshy area on the outskirts of Larissa. Bohemond eventually decided to retreat, after the defeat at Larissa and the loss of his camp and supplies, abandoning his expedition in Greece.

Guiscard’s sudden death in 1085 while he was on campaign in Greece not only brought an abrupt halt to what had been a personal expedition, but also inevitably introduced an element of chaos into Norman politics in southern Italy. For the following decade, the new Duke, Roger Borsa, allowed Bohemond to gain a foothold in Bari, where he awaited another chance to move against Alexios.

The chance came when Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade in November 1095, offering rewards in both this world and the next for those who wrested the Holy Sepulchre from the Saracens. The preaching of the First Crusade presented Bohemond with a unique opportunity to escape the relentless pressure put on him by his half-brother Roger Borsa, who was acting in his own interests as the legitimate heir of Robert Guiscard, and had the protection of his uncle Roger of Sicily. Therefore, when word reached Bohemond, he set off for the East. Whether Bohemond was actually planning to follow the crusade before the summer of 1096, or simply grabbed his chance when the crusaders were passing by from Apulia, we cannot be sure.

Modern historians find it very difficult to assess the exact number of Bohemond’s followers for the First Crusade; estimates vary from Lupus Protospatharius’ 500 knights, to Albert of Aachen’s 10,000 cavalry. What is more important, however, is the fact that the Norman army was the most experienced and the most suited for what lay ahead. A significant number of their knights had faced Muslim armies in Sicily, and Bohemond had fought against Turkopoles during his first campaign in Dyrrachium 15 years earlier. Moreover, Bohemond’s nephew, Tancred, and a large number of his followers could speak Arabic, something very rare for the armies of the First Crusade, while Bohemond himself most likely spoke Greek.

Bohemond entered Constantinople on 17 April, 1097, taking the oath of homage that the emperor had demanded from him and all other Latin leaders. Yet despite Anna’s vitriolic comments about the Norman, it is likely that Alexios would have found Bohemond someone he could work with. There is no doubt that the emperor offered Bohemond land, money, and probably a high office in the armies that marched through Anatolia as his ‘adopted son’. Nevertheless, the arrangement faltered once the crusaders marched into Anatolia, and provisioning the army from Constantinople became all the more difficult.

The capture of Antioch

The crusaders’ first target was Nicaea, a city that effectively controlled all the roads leading to the Anatolian plateau and was situated only 40 kilometres from Constantinople. The siege of Nicaea began on 14 May, and lasted for about five weeks. Here we can see the significant role Bohemond played in the campaign for the first time, as he managed to negotiate for sufficient supplies to be sent to Nicomedia, just 20 kilometres northeast of Nicaea. Furthermore, it was Bohemond’s Italo-Normans and the Lotharingians that delivered the crushing blow that forced the Turks to retreat back to the mountains following the first pitched battle with Kilij Arslan’s army outside Nicaea, just a couple of days after the start of the siege by the crusaders.

Perhaps the most famous account of Bohemond’s leadership during the First Crusade comes from his actions leading up to and during the Battle of Doryleum. Bohemond appears at the head of the first group of armies, the vanguard, that left Nicaea heading towards central Anatolia and found themselves in broken and barren country with no easily defensible positions. On top of that, it proved that Kilij Arslan’s plan was to ambush the advancing crusaders during the next phase of their march near the strategic road junction at Doryleum, which commanded the obvious point of entry to the Anatolian plateau via a broad valley. The battle took place at a point where two river valleys met, one from the north and one from the west, both converging in a south-easterly direction towards Doryleum.

No sooner had Bohemond’s group of armies approached from the west at the point where the two river valleys met, late in the evening of 30 June, than they became aware of the presence of a substantial Turkish force on the southern ‘exit’ of the river valley. Early in the morning of 1 July, and before the crusaders had a chance to fully deploy in their battle formations, the Seljuks marched en masse against the westerners. The Turks applied their usual steppe tactics, releasing constant showers of arrows from a distance, and falling back when their enemies charged forward to neutralise them. Then, pretending to retreat, they would make a sudden turn and come back to harass them. As Bohemond’s battle group received the brunt of the Seljuk attack and was in danger of being completely overrun, the arrival of the second group of Crusaders saved the day. They did not waste any time forming a front, but immediately charged upon the surprised and frustrated Seljuks, mainly focusing on their left flank and centre, forcing them to flee.

This first battle experience against a relatively unknown enemy taught the Latins some very valuable lessons about steppe warfare that they used to great effect later on during the campaign to take Jerusalem. With the arrival of the Christian army before Antioch on 21 October, 1097, it quickly became blindingly obvious that the exhausted crusaders were too few to mount a full-scale blockade of the city. Logistics were crucial, and the task of bringing supplies to the Latin army by land was taken over by Bohemond. He subsequently organised foraging expeditions during the winter of 1097/98, while attempting to neutralise smaller garrisons that were harassing the Christian armies and their supply lines to the port of Saint Symeon (modern Lattakiah) on the Syrian coast.

In November 1097, one of these skirmishes developed into a small-scale battle with a Turkish force from the castle of Harem, an important stronghold some 30 kilometres east of Antioch. This is the first time that Latin sources attest to an ambush laid against a Turkish army by using the topography of the region to their advantage, when the vanguard of the Norman contingent led by Bohemond fell back upon the main body immediately after encountering a Turkish force from Harem. Bohemond’s leadership skills during this clash give a clear indication of his growing experience and adaptability to the tactical environment of the Middle East.

Following the capitulation of the lower city of Antioch (3 June, 1098), Bohemond was one of the protagonists of the siege of the city’s citadel. Bohemond’s role as a Latin leader was to be highlighted once more in the second major battle against the Seljuks, this time when a large relief force under the emir of Mosul Kerbogha arrived outside Antioch to find the Westerners locked inside their newly acquired trophy. Bohemond was the undisputed leader who proposed the battle plan. On 28 June, the Latins sallied out of the city in battle order and over the Orontes River in four major divisions, keeping one in reserve, thus having both flanks covered from any encircling movement by the enemy. Furthermore, it was at Antioch that we see, for the first time in the history of the Latin armies in the Middle East, units of infantry being put in front of the cavalry as a sort of ‘protective shield’ for the knights from the Turkish mounted archers. Bohemond’s strategic thinking demonstrates his adaptability to the Middle Eastern way of fighting.

In March 1099, Bohemond was officially proclaimed prince of Antioch. His dominions extended from the vicinity of Antioch, to northern Syria and southern Cilicia, including the strategic passes of the Taurus and the Armenian principalities of the region. In July or early August 1100, the Norman was involved in the internal politics of the Seljuk dynasty of the Danishmends that controlled a large area of central and eastern Asia Minor. The Turks ambushed him and his 500 knights, just before the Norman contingent arrived to help the besieged Armenian ruler of Melitene, with Bohemond taken prisoner. It remains a mystery why such an experienced military leader like Bohemond fell for the feigned retreat tactics of the Seljuks.

Nevertheless, instead of suffering extended territorial losses to the neighbouring Turks (to the east) and Byzantines (to the north), the principality of Antioch seems to have enjoyed a period of expansion thanks to the brilliant strategic thinking, martial skills and determination of Tancred, who acted as Bohemond’s regent. Bohemond was released from captivity in 1103, but only a year later he was involved in another disastrous campaign. The Battle of Harran (1104) was the outcome of a campaign carried out by the combined forces of Bohemond of Antioch and Baldwin of Edessa, tackling the threat to Baldwin’s principality from the Seljuk stronghold of Harran, some 40 kilometres east of Edessa. Although the army of Seljuks under Sokman of Mardin and Jikirmish of Mosul inflicted heavy casualties on the crusader army’s left wing, taking Baldwin prisoner, Bohemond did not take the bait this time and refused to follow the Seljuk feigned retreat into the sandy and hilly terrain east of Harran, and withdrew in good order back to Edessa.

By the end of 1104, it must have seemed obvious to Bohemond that he could defend his principality against the fragmented nature of Turkish politics in Syria, and that he could not possibly match the Byzantine Empire in resources and manpower. Therefore, the Norman conceived a strategy that could radically change the geopolitical map of the eastern Mediterranean: an attempt to replace the Byzantine emperor with someone more sympathetic to him, a plan reminiscent of the Fourth Crusade some 100 years later.

In 1105, Bohemond was in Bari to enlist reinforcements for his upcoming struggle with the Byzantines. In September 1105, he went to Rome to interview the pope and then journeyed, early in 1106, through France. There, babies were named after him, crowds heard him denounce the perfidious Alexios Komnenos, and shrines received sacred relics from his hands. In the spring of 1106, Bohemond married Constance, the daughter of Philip I of France. Bohemond, who 30 years before had been a landless young man, now stood at the pinnacle of his career.

The Norman invasion forces set sail from Brindisi on 9 October, and landed on the opposite coast of Avlona, in modern Albania, a few days later, marching once again to Dyrrachium. By late October 1107, Bohemond began laying down his plans and preparing different types of siege machines to breach the city’s defences. The emperor, having been alerted a few weeks before, set out from the capital towards Thessaloniki on 6 November 1107. He eventually arrived in the city in early spring of 1108, while sometime in early December a naval squadron of unknown size arrived from Venice under the Doge, Ordelafo Falier. Having learnt a valuable lesson at Dyrrachium 26 years earlier, Alexios’ plan this time was to not risk a pitched battle. He had already instructed his local troops to control the passes that led beyond the vicinity of Dyrrachium, denying the Normans the chance to conduct any foraging further inland.

In the months that followed, Dyrrachium held firm against the Normans, while conditions in Bohemond’s camp were gradually becoming intolerable after attempts to strengthen the land blockade. In this impasse and anxious end to the war, Bohemond opened negotiations with the emperor. Under the famous Treaty of Devol/Diabolis (1108), Bohemond agreed to become a vassal of the emperor and to defend the Empire whenever needed. He also accepted the appointment of a Greek Patriarch, for which in return he was given the titles of sebastos and doux (duke) of Antioch. The years following this uneasy peace are poorly recorded. Constance bore Bohemond two sons, one of whom later became prince of Antioch. Bohemond probably sought to raise another army, but these efforts ended with his death in 1111.

Bohemond was, beyond any doubt to my mind, a great soldier with vast experience in fighting overseas. His aggressive strategy in every operational theatre speaks volumes about his daring character and the dynamism that he wished to portray throughout his life. Whether he was in charge of armies in Italy, in the Balkans, in Asia Minor or in the Middle East, his attempt to bring his enemies to battle makes modern historians view his strategy as, clearly, ‘non-Vegetian’. Bohemond also fought with and against Greek, Anglo-Saxon, Patzinak and Turkish troops and had learned to adapt to the geopolitical realities of each operational theatre. Both he and his father made effective use of the main tactical weapon of the Norman armies in the period, the heavy cavalry charge, with remarkable results in every operational theatre. Finally, Bohemond showed noteworthy leadership skills, especially during the First Crusade’s passing through Asia Minor, which was coupled with his growing experience in warfare in the Middle East against the nomadic tactics of the Turks. He was, indeed, an extraordinary medieval warrior.

Georgios Theotokis is an academic at Ibn Haldun University, Turkey, and historian of Europe and the Mediterranean in the Middle Ages. He is the author of Bohemond of Taranto: Crusader and Conqueror and Warfare in the Norman Mediterranean.

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