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8-08-2015, 00:04

The western balkans: the norman challenge, and venetian and hungarian alliances

Peace in thewestern Balkans was equally hard-won. There the greatest menace was posed by the Normans who had come to dominate southern Italy, and wished to expand across the Adriatic into the theme of Dyrrachium. A Norman invasion, led by Robert Guiscard and his son Bohemond, accompanied Alexios I’s accession in April 1081 (see above, pp. 610–11), and the earliest indications for the new emperor were not good. First, the citizens of Dubrovnik and other unspecified ‘Dalmatians’ provided transport ships for Norman troops.72 Next, advance forces were handed the citadel at Corfu by its defenders, and proceeded to capture the ports of Vonitsa, Butrint and Avlona without difficulty.73 Evidently, the greatest concern for the emperor was retaining the loyalty of the native population. Anna Komnena records that ‘Alexios sent letters to the leaders (h¯egemones) of the coastal towns and to the islanders earnestly exhorting them not to lose heart, nor to relax their efforts in any way.’ Guiscard’s intention was to secure, through intimidation and persuasion, the support of these same h¯egemones. Moreover, the Norman had taken a crucial measure to secure their defection: he had in tow a man claiming to be the deposed emperor Michael VII. Clearly, Guiscard was aware that the population of Dyrrachium was loyal to the empire, but not necessarily to the current emperor. The Byzantine doux in Dyrrachium, George Palaiologos, kept the emperor informed of developments with regular despatches.74 From his missives ‘the emperor learnt that . . . countless hosts from all directions were rallying thick as winter snowflakes, and the more frivolous folk, believing that the false Michael was in truth the emperor, were joining Robert.’75 As he marched to the city Alexios I received news that Palaiologos had lost a pitched battle and been badly wounded. The emperor lost a second battle on 18October 1081, in military terms a worse defeat for the Byzantines than the infamous rout at Manzikert.76 Many magnates fell, and the emperor barely escaped, leaving Dyrrachium at the mercy of the Normans. A saving grace appeared to be the retention of the citadel by the Venetians, Alexios’ allies who shared the imperial antipathy towards Norman expansion across the Adriatic, and rallied to the Byzantine cause in return for exceptional trading privileges. The Venetian doge Domenico Silvio was granted the title doux of Dalmatia and Croatia, and the elevated rank of pr¯otosebastos, placing him fourth in the new imperial hierarchy devised by Alexios.77 Venetian support was instrumental in the Byzantine recovery of territory and authority in Dyrrachium after 1082. The doge maintained vigilant guard over the Adriatic sea lanes while the emperor slowly clawed back land. The turning-point came at Larissa, where the emperor took advice from locals and determined to ‘lay an ambush there and so defeat the Latins by guile’.78 Alexios won his first significant victory by avoiding pitched battle, tricking the Norman cavalry into a chase and shooting at their horses from a distance. When Guiscard returned in full force in 1084 he was confronted by the Venetians, who achieved important victories at sea. Then, having landed and advanced into the interior of the theme of Dyrrachium, the Normans were caught between a vigorous naval blockade and the mountains, where the Byzantines vigilantly guarded the passes. Guiscard withdrew to the port of Jericho where he was trapped for two months by adverse winds and the allied ships.79 Up to 10,000 Normans are said to have starved to death before a withdrawal was effected. Guiscard died the following year, 1085. Alexios had discovered how best to use the natural defences of Dyrrachium and the services of his allies. These tactics would serve him well again, in 1106–7. The city of Dyrrachium was returned to the empire, and thereafter the command was considered sensitive enough only to be granted to close relatives of the emperor, including Alexios’ brother-in-law John Doukas and his nephew John Komnenos, the son of the sebastokrat¯or Isaac.80 This second John led an unsuccessful campaign against the Dukljans, suffering many casualties through inexperience and impetuousness. However, John retained his command and in 1096 was the Byzantine commander who first encountered an entirely new menace from the west: the First Crusade. It has been demonstrated that during the course of the crusade the emperor enjoyed particularly close ties with Bohemond.81 In spite of their earlier conflict, indeed probably because of the familiarity that encounter engendered, Alexios had received favourably Bohemond’s proposals to act as his intermediary with the crusading leaders, and promised him lands and office in the east. However, the agreement was abandoned at Antioch, where a remarkable victory left Bohemond in command of the city. While in the following years the emperor accepted the crusaders’ conquests, and acknowledged their local jurisdiction in exchange for recognition of his overlordship, he would never accept the Norman domination of Antioch. Thus, Bohemond returned to the west in autumn 1104 to recruit new troops, and proposed a crusade directed against his foe in Constantinople. His resolve and status were strengthened when he married the elder daughter of Philip I of France (see above, p. 624). Alexios I responded swiftly to the Norman’s mission: he wrote to potentates throughout Europe denying charges levelled by Bohemond and urging against a second armed pilgrimage. He was peculiarly keen to prevent any alliance that would expose the empire’s western flank to attack, and Anna emphasises his concern over approaches to the Italian maritime cities of Venice, Pisa and Genoa.82 Alexios had a further concern: the possibility of an aggressive Norman–Hungarian alliance. In 1097 Bohemond’s cousin, Roger of Sicily, had forged a marriage alliance with theHungarians. Alexios could not afford to let Bohemond reach a similar understanding, which would expose the empire to a massive invasion through the northern marches. A simultaneous assault on the coast at Dyrrachium would have led to the loss of the whole of the western Balkans. Thus the emperor orchestrated an extraordinary diplomatic initiative. In 1104 an embassy was sent to the court of the Hungarian king, and it was arranged that Piroska, the daughter of the late King Ladislas I (1077–95), should be betrothed to John, heir to the Byzantine throne. Bohemond was left to launch his assault on the southern Adriatic littoral, and the emperor had sufficient time to make suitable preparations. The emperor had learned from earlier campaigns to use the terrain of Dyrrachium to his advantage, and took great pains to seal the mountain passes to the east of Dyrrachium. Even after Alexios was betrayed by certain Arbanoi, who showed Bohemond the mountain tracks, the Normans could neither advance nor easily retreat.83 An effective naval blockade, mounted with Venetian assistance, prevented further supplies and troops fromreaching the invasion force.84Norman foraging partieswere frequently ambushed and returned empty-handed, if they returned at all. In this way Bohemond’s spirit was broken, and he sued for peace, agreeing the treaty of Devol which is recorded in full by Anna Komnena.85 Bohemond was to receive the elevated imperial rank of sebastos and command of the cities of Antioch and Edessa, both of which would revert to imperial control upon his death. However, Bohemond never returned to Antioch, and the carefully constructed clauses of the treaty of Devol were not implemented. Consequently, Alexios and his successor John II (1118–43) were committed to an arduous military and diplomatic struggle to regain Antioch, devoting little attention to the empire’s Balkan lands. Into this vacuum stepped two expansionary powers, the Venetians and Hungarians. The need to secure first Venetian and thenHungarian assistance for wars against the Normans saw the Byzantines delegate authority in Dalmatia and Croatia. As early as 1081–2 the Venetian doge was granted the title ‘doux of Dalmatia and Croatia’, ostensibly acting for the emperor, but in reality advancing his own interests. The Hungarians did likewise, and in 1102 Coloman completed the annexation of Croatia to his kingdom and had himself crowned King of Croatia in Biograd.86 The betrothal in 1104 of Piroska and John Komnenos gave this act Byzantine recognition, and also appears to have offered tacit imperial support to a Hungarian invasion of Dalmatia, which took place against Venetian interests in 1105. The inhabitants of the maritime cities surrendered to the Hungarian king in return for certain privileges, the details of which have been preserved in extant charters.87 Venetian retaliation was delayed until 1115–16, when the doge recovered the major cities. Despite Hungarian efforts, the Venetians retained control of most of Dalmatia into the 1140s. During this time John II showed little interest in the northern Balkans. In 1122 he achieved a significant victory over an invading force of ‘Scythians’, possibly Pechenegs, but probably Cumans. His only subsequent military venture into the region was brief and opportunistic. Niketas Choniates notes that in 1127 the Hungarians sacked Braniˇcevo and Sofia, and in response John sailed ‘along theDanube from the Black Sea, falling upon the foe by both land and water . . . captured Frangochorion [between the Sava andDanube] . . . and Semlin, and attackedHaram, from which he wrested great spoils. After further struggles, he offered peace.’88 For the remainder of John’s reign the treaty signed with the Hungarian king was honoured. Furthermore, stability was guaranteed by the good relations John enjoyed with the German rulers Lothar III (1125–37) and Conrad III (1138–52). In 1136 Byzantine troops took part in Lothar’s campaign which pressed into Norman-occupied southern Italy. Relations with Conrad were even better, and from 1140 were destined to be cemented by the marriage of John’s fourth son,Manuel, to Conrad’s sister-in-law,Bertha of Sulzbach (see above, pp. 636–7). Thus John was free to concentrate on his eastern campaigns, and it was in Cilicia in 1143 that he was killed in a hunting accident. The younger of his two surviving sons, Manuel, succeeded.