Norman mercenaries serve the Eastern Roman Empire against the Turks, but will they be Byzantium's salvation or its worst enemy?
“Then the city called Barbastro was taken, well furnished with extensive lands full of great richness. And the whole host vowed that it should be assigned to Robert Crépin to guard until this army, or another greater, should return in two years, to take others of the cities of Spain.
But the Devil, armed with his most subtle malice, out of envy of this good undertaking for the faith, took thought to spite it, and set the minds of God’s warriors to thoughts of lust. In seeking to raise themselves, they lowered themselves, and for this reason Christ was angered, since the warriors gave themselves up to the love of fame. And so on account of their sins they lost that which they had gained and were pursued by the Saracens. They lost the city; some of them were killed, others were taken prisoner and yet others were saved by flight.”
-Amatus of Montecassino, History of the Normans
“And Roussel, great-hearted man and fine warrior that he was, at that time conquered Armenia, which then paid tribute to him. And he came to Constantinople to free his wife; he laid siege to it and did such damage that he plundered and killed and burnt all that he found. And such was his anger against the Greeks that he forced the emperor, who had not wished to do so, to yield him his wife against his will.”
-Amatus of Montecassino, History of the Normans
There was a country that called itself Romania, ‘The Land of the Romans,’ long after Rome fell to Gothic invaders. Historians have been less likely to admit that this inheritor to Rome, was in fact THE Roman Empire, given that it was a Christian, Greek-speaking, eastern empire. They alternately call it The Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantium and the Byzantine Empire, for its elaborate bureaucracy.
The Byzantine Empire’s fortunes swung wildly over the centuries. Under Justinian I ‘the Great’ in the 6thcentury, the Greeks conquered Italy, much of Northern Africa and Southern Spain. Between 602-628, Byzantium and Sassanid Persia fought a cataclysmic war which utterly ravaged both of their empires. This war exhausted the two classical superpowers, right as the new religion of Islam united the Arab peoples. Persia was conquered outright. Byzantium nearly followed, losing everything in Egypt, and in much of the Levant and Anatolia to the Arabs while Bulgars and Slavs invaded from the West.
In 867, Byzantine fortunes reversed as Basil I came to the throne as the first of the Macedonian dynasty, beginning the ‘Golden Age of Byzantium.’ For nearly two centuries the Byzantines went on the offensive, retaking territory north of the Balkans, southern Italy and east through and past Anatolia.
The end of Byzantium’s revival coincided with the mass immigration of Normans to Italy. During the first three decades of the 11th century the Norman mercenaries proved amongst the finest cavalry in Europe. They were known for their ferocity and fearlessness. The Byzantines had a long history of hiring foreign mercenaries, including establishing an elite corps known as the Varangian Guard from Scandinavia. Naturally, they looked to the Normans as the answer to their prayers for the defense and expansion of their empire. But if the Normans were an answer to Byzantine prayers, then God said, “No.”
The Byzantines regularly employed Normans in Italy, famously hiring Guillaume de Hauteville, his brother Drogo and Hervé called ‘Frankopoulos,’ for their attempted reconquest of Sicily in 1038. After the humiliation of their Lombard patron, Guillaume ‘Iron Arm’ led a faction of Normans to desert the Byzantines. In contrast, Hervé led the loyalist faction who continued their campaign on the island until 1040 before they were reassigned to Italy. Hervé became famous in the Greek-speaking world and honored with titles.
In 1047 Leo Tornikios rebelled against his cousin, the Emperor Constantine IX. Tornikios raised an army at Adrianople and marched on the capital, where he was defeated and blinded. During the four-day siege many Normans fought for Constantine IX. Impressed by their skill, Constantine IX sent messengers to Italy to recruit Normans en masse for his armies. The chronicler Guillaume of Poitiers even claims that messengers went to Normandy itself, where they appealed to Duke Guillaume to send soldiers to the Empire. There was probably more to Constantine IX’s strategy than just acquiring new, elite soldiers for his armies. Guillaume of Apulia writes that the Greek-speakers tried to hire the Normans in Italy to weaken the number of enemies they had on the peninsula. He’s probably right, given how the Byzantines, like their Late Roman predecessors, regularly paid one foe to fight another. Regardless of intent, following 1047 Normans became a regular fixture in the Byzantine army, largely in the east. The Normans were best employed as heavy cavalry and were less skilled as infantry. Cavalry were wasted in the rocky Balkans, but they were ideal for the plains of eastern Anatolia. The Byzantines sent the majority of their Norman soldiers east where they served as heavy cavalry to rout Turkic raiders, who entered the empire as light cavalry.
Hervé Frankopoulos became the greatest of the Normans within Byzantium, having served since the 1030s and made a lord in the early 1040s. Around 1050 he campaigned in the northern Balkans against the Pechenegs, a semi-nomadic group of Turkic raiders. As a longtime, loyal servant of the empire, Hervé expected to be amply rewarded with bureaucratic titles, which carried with them a hefty government salary. In 1057 he appealed to the emperor to name him magistros at an Easter ceremony, but while Mikhail VI promoted many other men, Hervé was glanced over. The aging cavalry officer was incensed and departed for his estate in northeastern Anatolia to brood. The tranquil Black Sea weather did not improve his mood. Hervé raised a small army numbering around 300 Normans, led them to the expansive Lake Van on the eastern border of the empire and claimed authority over the region. Hervé was not looking to overturn the empire or oust its central leadership. Likely, he wanted to hold one region hostage as a bargaining chip to secure a higher title and government pension. While he was in rebellion, Hervé administered the territory and even fought off Turkic raiders.
Perhaps his biggest offense against his superiors was the rerouting of tax money to himself and his administration rather than the central state. If there is one thing that governments cannot stand, something which is far less forgivable than treason, it’s tax evasion. I’m actually not kidding. The Eastern Roman Empire relied on a large-scale bureaucracy that affected every part of daily life; hence why historians call it the ‘Byzantine’ Empire. The central administration used tax revenues to finance the empire itself, but it also used that money to pay off enemies and raise mercenaries from abroad. If you know anything about Roman history, you know what happens when soldiers don’t get paid, especially mercenaries who have no fixed loyalty to the foreign country they serve in. Byzantine leadership saw Hervé’s actions as a greater threat to their rule than even the Seljuk Turks, who at this time were merely raiders, not conquerors. The Seljuk Turks were a drain on Byzantine resources as they annually rode into Anatolia taking grain and gold, but as winter approached the Turks always left. These eastern peoples were more than happy to leave the Byzantine Empire standing, for the moment, because it was an accessible source of food and cash. Hervé’s mutiny was a threat to Byzantine authority itself. Under that logic, the Byzantines conspired with a Turkish emir to capture Hervé. The emir ransomed the rebellious Norman to the Greeks, who received him at Constantinople in chains. Hervé begged for forgiveness which the Emperor actually granted. The Norman cavalry officer resumed his service and acquired the coveted rank of magistros and even Proedros. Hervé’s rebellion was a minor annoyance compared to subsequent Norman insubordination.
The next Norman to cause problems for Byzantium was Robert Crépin. Crépin left Normandy in the late 1040s or early 1050s. Unlike many of his Italy-bound fellows, Crépin headed directly south to join the Christians in northern Spain in their fight against the Muslim-led polities. By 1031 the Caliphate of Córdoba collapsed due to civil war and once-mighty Muslim Spain devolved into small states. Many Spanish Christians and Norman mercenaries believed that this was their chance to secure wealth, glory and political power. Pope Alexander II gave papal license to the Spanish Reconquista when he called upon Christians to retake the country for God and his church in 1063. The following year an army from Aquitaine, contingents of Burgundians, Flemish, Italians and Normans joined the Aragonese army to lay siege to Barbastro. Guillaume of Montreuil led the Normans, though Crépin may have been a lieutenant or held some other position of rank due to his noble blood.
The Christian army besieged Barbastro for forty days, after which the defenders recognized the hopelessness of their situation, The Muslims negotiated a surrender with the Christians and opened their gates, upon which the Christians slaughtered them. Then they raped the women, taking them and children to sell as slaves, while burning the mosques. Ten months later and the city was back in Muslim hands.
Spain did not offer the wealth and glory Crépin had hoped for, and in 1068 he traveled to Constantinople. There he was put in command of a Norman cavalry company charged with, what else, fighting the Turks. Very quickly after arriving he led his men into revolt for higher pay, so you know the Normans were truly French at this point. Crépin figured that the Byzantines would pay him one way or another and began harassing local tax collectors. Having committed the cardinal sin of interfering with state revenue services, Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes sent a small force to deal with the Normans. But Crépin was a seasoned commander and his Normans were elite soldiers, who quickly routed the Emperor’s forces.
Next, Romanos IV sent 5 tagmata to put down the revolt. Tagmata were the elite soldiers guarding Constantinople and its environs, and each tagmata represented two to four hundred men. This meant that Romanos IV was so threatened by the Normans that he sent a force of over a thousand of his best soldiers to deal with him. While the tagmata where brilliant in open combat they were not very stealthy. According to one story the soldiers approached the camp of their Norman counterparts while they were resting on a Sunday. Some of the Byzantines stumbled over tents, alerting the Normans who got on their horses and then defeated them.
Romanos IV had enough. He raised a full-scale army and marched east to meet the rebel. Crépin knew he could not fight the emperor himself and so submitted to Romanos IV in exchange for pardon. Romanos IV agreed and forgave him for his revolt. He did, however, imprison him for other crimes. When the Normans heard about Crépin’s imprisonment they pillaged the land around them in retribution, leading to his reinstatement.
In early 1071 Romanos IV led a Byzantine army across Anatolia with the goal of retaking lost territory from the Turks. This was a full-scale imperial army, numbering in the tens of thousands. In addition to the Byzantine soldiers, there were mercenaries from virtually every nearby country and many from far away, including 500 Franks and Normans. The leader of the Franco-Norman host was the Norman Roussel de Bailleul. Crépin was present though given his recent rebellion, it is understandable why the emperor chose not to trust him.
On the 26 August 1071 the Byzantines and Turks met at Manzikert. The battle was a bloodbath and the imperial army broke. Romanos IV himself was captured, the first time a Roman Emperor had been captured since Valerian in the 3rd century. Bailleul was lucky not to have been in the battle proper. Crépin was at the battle, though he managed to avoid death or imprisonment. Following Romanos IV’s capture, Crépin joined a conspiracy by Mikhail Ducas’ family to make Mikhail the emperor and prevent Romanos IV from returning to power. The conspiracy succeeded and Romanos IV was blinded and died in 1072 after his wounds became infected. Crépin did not have long to enjoy the fruits of his treachery, as he was poisoned the following year.
Manzikert was a devastating loss for the Byzantine Empire. First, it meant the immediate loss of a large-scale army. The Byzantines lost significant territory, first in the east, but also in Italy. Without the resources to fight a two-front war, the Byzantines could only watch as Robert Guiscard ate up their last possessions in Apulia. In the east, the ascendant Turks gained access to Anatolia and could raid far more easily, making tax collection more difficult, if not impossible in some places. The capture of an emperor was a political catastrophe. Factionalism increased as cliques determined to blame their rivals for the defeat. But the worst outcome of the entire battle for the Byzantines was their loss of prestige. Between losing the east and Italy in the same year, everyone bordering the empire realized that it was weak. All those pretensions to classical Roman glory were gone to the wind.
Aside from those bordering the empire, the subject peoples within the empire recognized that the central Greek rule was in decline. One of the first and largest of these was the Bulgar Revolt of 1072, during which the local nobility attempted to recreate the Bulgar Empire. The Byzantines successfully crushed the revolt, with the help of their mercenaries, among them the Normans led by Roussel de Bailleul. After Crépin’s sudden and mysterious death in 1073, Bailleul became the undisputed leader of the Normans in the Eastern Roman Empire.
With the Balkans as quiet as ever the Balkans can be, it was time for the soldiers to campaign in the east. Mikhail VII sent an imperial force led by Isaac Komnenos into Anatolia as part of his desperate attempt to stem the Turkish tide. While Greek-speakers made up the majority there was a sizeable Norman heavy cavalry contingent of 400 knights with Roussel at the head. The army passed by a town, where one of the Normans reportedly abused a local citizen. Komnenos desired order among his men and he wanted to show that he was just, and so he charged the Norman for his crime. Roussel expressed outrage at the court-martial of one of his own. In retrospect though, this may not have been the catalyst for his later rebellion, but an excuse for it. When Komnenos refused to back down, Roussel split from the main army, though they continued their eastward journey. Roussel was not yet ready to rebel and he maintained his mission for the empire, though he refused to fight alongside Komnenos.
Shortly thereafter the Byzantine army met a Turkish host and fought a pitched battle, which they lost and Komnenos was captured. Meanwhile, the Normans also encountered Turkish forces but they were victorious. When news reached Roussel of the Byzantine defeat he decided he was done taking imperial orders. He and his men marched to Sebestea and offered the locals protection in exchange for payment. The people in the east had grown tired of the regular raids which the Greeks seemed incapable of deterring, and decided they were going to divert their tax revenue from Constantinople to the Normans.
As in the case of Crépin, the Normans were not necessarily declaring the region separate from the Byzantine Empire. For centuries after the decline and even fall of the Western Rome Empire, many Gothic and Germanic monarchs pledged loyalty to the Roman Emperor in Rome or Constantinople, and claimed to rule in their stead as part of the Roman Empire. The reality was that the Lombards, Visigoths, Franks, etc. were ruling independent kingdoms. Likewise, Roussel probably still claimed to be serving the Byzantine Empire, protecting its people and administering its laws, while refusing to shirk his duties just because corrupt officials above him ordered him to do otherwise. In reality, local peoples and the Normans were making their own state within the empire.
Not that the locals cared one bit about the legalese. All they cared about was whether or not there were armed men capable of defending their lives and property from raiders. The Byzantines had failed, while the Normans were incredibly successful, and so many eastern cities and towns accepted the Normans as their overlords.
As with Crépin, officials in Constantinople believed that they could not leave Roussel alone. The Greeks still did not believe the Turks were capable of administering a complex state; they were in the Byzantine mind, barbarians, who preferred raiding to ruling. They saw Roussel’s usurpation as an alternative to their own power, one which they had to squash.
In Spring 1074 the emperor’s uncle Ioannes Ducas led an army numbering in the low thousands into the east. As always, the core Greek army was supplemented by mercenaries, chief among them a large Norman contingent. Ioannes led his men past the city of Dorylaeum until they reached a crossing of the Sangarios River, where he found Roussel’s cavalry on the other side. Ioannes sent out messengers to Roussel demanding he surrender. Roussel proved an effective soldier and likely could have been pardoned and sent back to the east. But there was always a chance he could have been poisoned. Either Roussel remained confident in his men or he feared what would happen if he backed down and he rejected the offer. The following day, the 11thMay, the two sides fought.
Ioannes was a politician, not a military commander. Perhaps he thought that a victory in the field would provide him with glory and power. Either way, he was not a leader of soldiers and his notable blunders make this evident. He led his army across a bridge, effectively putting their backs to the river, and cutting off any easy escape route. The Byzantines formed two lines, with their Franks on the right and the front. This meant that Roussel could easily address them and implore them not to shed the blood of their brothers. The veteran campaigner successfully led many of the Normans to desert the Greeks before battle even started. The Normans then crashed into the Byzantine center which was comprised of the Varangian guard. In the confusion, and sensing that the battle was going poorly, the rearguard cut a hasty retreat. The Byzantine army was no more, having deserted, died, or fled, while Ioannes and a small band were captured.
Emboldened by his victory, Roussel and an army of roughly 2,000-3,000 veteran soldiers marched westward until they reached Chrysopolis, the extension of Constantinople on the eastern side of the Bosporus strait. He looted and burned the city, then further demanded he be made governor of Anatolia. The Byzantines were horrified that this upstart had a free hand in the east. They immediately released his wife and child as a goodwill gesture while ambassadors negotiated with the Norman. The Byzantines offered Roussel gifts and the title corupalates making him ‘in charge of the palace.’ They were not willing to cede the entire east to Roussel, so he decided to just take it. He named Ioannes Emperor, which the Greek accepted, first because, what choice did he have?, and second because his ungrateful nephew had not freed him through force or ransom money. Roussel likely hoped that internal divisions within the Byzantine court would result in a coup against the ineffective Mikhail VII, upon which Ioannes would be the new ruler. This did not happen. Incapable of taking the capital, Roussel turned around to secure his territories.
Mikhail VII was desperate. Since Byzantines failed to defeat the Normans he appealed to the Turkish Emir Tutush I to do his work for him. Tutush I sent out a host which ambushed the Normans, capturing Roussel and Ioannes. When word spread of what occurred, Roussel’s wife raised the funds to pay off the ransom, and Roussel returned to power. Despite this one defeat, Roussel was a capable and beloved figure in Anatolia, far more than the central Byzantine authority. Mikhail VII paid Ioannes’ ransom but only after his uncle promised to renounce all imperial titles and live as a monk.
In 1075 Mikhail VII turned to his brother-in-law, George II of Georgia. George II lent 6,000 of his own men to a general named Nikephorus. As they approached Norman lands Nikephorus ran out of funds to pay the soldiers, and most simply deserted. Roussel met the remainder of the army and crushed it.
The Norman situation had become a comedy of errors, and the exasperated Mikhail VII put Alexios Komnenos in charge of capturing Roussel. Alexios decided that the Turks were his best option and he yet again put a bounty on the rebellious Norman. Roussel attended a feast hosted by Tutush I, where the emir betrayed and seized him. Alexios led a small host east to collect Roussel, but when he arrived he discovered that he did not have enough cash to exchange for the prisoner. The Byzantine leader turned to local lords for the ransom money. Ironically, these locals probably thought that Alexios was trying to restore Roussel, and so they readily paid to have their protector back.
When the Turks handed over Roussel the Byzantines treated him as a captive. Word spread across Anatolia that the Byzantines were not restoring Roussel and the people grew infuriated. On their way back to Constantinople Alexios and his small host entered a city only to find it teeming on the verge of open revolt over Roussel. The Greek was in a bind; if he killed Roussel the people might attack and kill his retinue. Yet, he could not let Roussel go. Instead, he concocted an imaginative scheme. Alexios told Roussel that he would order his soldiers to pretend to blind him. If the populace thought the Norman was blind then they would realize he could not lead and was not worth fighting for. Yet, by sparing his life, perhaps they would not break out into rebellion.
In the Alexiad, Anna Comnenos writes, “[Alexios] pretended to blind Roussel. The man was stretched out on the ground, the executioner brought the branding-iron near to his face, and Roussel howled and groaned; he was like a roaring lion. To all appearances he was being blinded. But in fact the apparent victim had been ordered to shout and bawl; the executioner who seemed to be gouging out his eyes was told to glare horribly at the prostate Roussel and act like a raving madman – in other words, to simulate the punishment. So he was blinded, but not in reality, and the people clapped their hands and noisily spread the news all over the city that Roussel had lost his eyes. This bit of play-acting persuaded the whole mob, citizens and foreigners alike to give money to the fund. They were busy as bees. The whole point of my father’s stratagem was that those who were disinclined to contribute and were plotting to steal Roussel away from him might give up in despair when they were foiled; they might abandon their original plan for his and quickly become his allies. Thus the emperor’s displeasure would be averted. With this in view he seized Roussel and kept him like a lion in a cage, still wearing bandages over his eyes as evidence of the supposed blinding.”
This ruse worked; assuming it actually happened and wasn’t some creative myth developed post-facto. Alexios took Roussel to Constantinople where he was imprisoned. Yet, within two years, Roussel was freed and even led a force against the rebel Nicephorus Botaniates. True to his nature, Roussel joined the revolt he was supposed to put down. While Nicephorus became emperor, Roussel was not so lucky. The Byzantines called upon the Turks to capture him, which they did for a third time. This time, when the Turks handed him over the Byzantines executed him. It was probably long overdue.
The Byzantine Empire faced incredible challenges throughout its history. Its expansive borders were difficult to defend. Open plains provided easy access for invaders. Rough terrain was more difficult for enemies to pass through, but it posed similar impediments to Byzantine fortification and reinforcement. During their long history the Eastern Roman Empire used the Late Roman tactic of hiring mercenaries to supplement their insufficient native forces. At first, the Normans seemed a godsend against the incoming waves of Turks. The Northmen were remarkable, fearless fighters. For a time, Normans served the Byzantines in retaking Sicily and securing the east. But the Normans grew too powerful while the Byzantines failed to adequately meet the many challenges they faced. In Italy and in Anatolia the Normans realized that the Byzantines needed them more than they needed the Byzantines. This led to three major revolts, the last of which threatened to bring down imperial authority itself.