The Battle of Durazzo – 18th October 1081   Leave a comment

Robert Guiscard by Merry-Joseph Blondel

“Hic terror mundi Guiscardis”

Reads the epitaph on the tomb of Robert Guiscard, translating as “Here lies Guiscard, terror of the World”

Guiscard had gone to southern Italy as the sixth son of Tancred of Hauteville, a minor noble within the homeland of Normandy. Robert and decided to seek his fame and fortune in Italy, the country that news kept flowing back to northern France about as a land of opportunity for those who liked a fight. He followed his two eldest bothers, William Iron Arm and Drogo, allegedly arriving in Italy with a following of just five mounted knights and thirty foot soldiers. For some time his band roamed southern Italy, giving military service to several local Dukes and Lords, including his brother Drogo. In true mercenary fashion he switched sides depending who shook the heaviest purse in his direction, but almost always provided victory for those who could afford it.

His reputation elevated, he found through a series of deaths and conquests that he became the Duke of Apulia and Calabria, before he and his brother, Roger, set their sights on conquering Sicily. The full conquest of Sicily took some time, as well as costing the life of Roger, but having established himself as Duke of Sicily, and having fought and defeated the Byzantines several times on the Italian mainland, Robert set his next ambition as invading the Byzantine Empire, using the excuse of assisting a disrespected clergyman to invade.

He took with him his son, Bohemond and the Count of Ami, as his sub-commanders and invaded by sea, landing in modern day Albania with an army of around 20,000 men including a quantity of the feared Norman knights. Facing him was the Byzantine Emperor, Alexius I.

The Byzantines had suffered a major defeat ten years earlier at Manzikert against the advancing Muslim forces, but despite huge losses Alexius had as a new Emperor, managed to assemble an army of a formidable size (22-25,000) which included an elite unit of Varangian Guard. These feared warriors armed with deadly two handed axes were largely made up of exiled Anglo-Saxon veterans who had escaped England after Hastings and were more than happy to have a rematch against the Normans.

After landing his ships, Robert Guiscard, now aged in his mid 60.s but still very fighting fit, ordered the fleet torched; giving his men a simple message – victory or death.

 

Suggested initial set-up for The Battle of Durazzo 1081

NOTE – Responding to feedback from followers, most prefer for us to now suggest “base numbers” rather than individual figure numbers; so along the lines of the current most popular rules Mortem et Gloriam and L’Art de la Guerre, we list numbers of troops by suggested bases.

ORDERS OF BATTLE

BYZANTINE ARMY

Left to right as per map above

Melissenous – Sub-Commander – Veteran, experienced, respected leader

Skirmishers – 2 bases – light infantry, experienced, javelin

Turco Light Cavalry – 4 bases – open order cavalry, experienced, mercenary, bow

Kavallarioi – 2 bases – heavy close order cavalry, veteran, experienced, lance, shield,

Kontaroi Archers* – 2 bases – close order infantry, medium armour, poor morale, bow

Kontaroi Spearmen* – 3 bases – close order infantry, medium armour, poor morale, spear, shield

* these can be played as one large unit of mixed troops if your rules allow.

Alexios I – Commander-in-Chief – Veteran, experienced, excellent tactician, inspirational leader

Armenian Spearmen – 6 bases – Close order infantry, veteran, experienced, medium armour, spear, shield

Varangian Guard – 3 bases – Close order heavy infantry, veteran, experienced, elite morale, heavy armour, 2 handed axes

Vestiaritai Guard Cavalry – 1 base – Close order super heavy cavalry, veteran, experienced elite, barded horses, armoured riders, lance

Archers – 2 bases – Open order skirmish infantry, experienced, levies, no armour, bow

Manicheans – 6 bases – Medium infantry, veteran, experienced, impetuous, swordsmen, spear, shield

Pakourianos – Sub-Commander – Veteran, experienced, respected leader

Tourkopouloi Cavalry – 4 bases – Light Cavalry, veteran, experienced, bow or javelins

Latin Allied Knights – 1 base – Heavy Cavalry, veteran, experienced, mercenary, armoured rider, lance, shield

Kavallarioi – 2 bases – heavy close order cavalry, veteran, experienced, lance, shield,

Kontaroi Archers* – 2 bases – close order infantry, medium armour, poor morale, bow

Kontaroi Spearmen* – 3 bases – close order infantry, medium armour, poor morale, spear, shield

* these can be played as one large unit of mixed troops if your rules allow.

Skirmishers – 2 bases – Open order, light infantry, veteran, experienced, no armour, javelins

NORMAN ARMY

Left to right as per map

Bohemund – Sub-Commander – Veteran, experienced, good tactician, inspirational leader

Norman Light Cavalry – 3 bases – Open order cavalry, veteran, experienced, minimum armour, javelins, shield

Milites Knights – 3 bases – Close order heavy cavalry, veteran, experienced, impetuous, armoured rider, lance, shield

Sicilian Spearmen – 6 bases – Close order infantry, veteran, experienced, levies, light armour, spear, shield

Norman Spearmen – 2 bases – Close order infantry, veteran, experienced, elite, medium armour, spear, shield, “shieldwall” capable

Robert Guiscard – Commander-in-Chief – Veteran, experienced, excellent tactician, inspirational leader, ferocious warrior

Norman Light Cavalry – 3 bases – Open order cavalry, veteran, experienced, minimum armour, javelins, shield

Milites Knights – 3 bases – Close order heavy cavalry, veteran, experienced, impetuous, armoured rider, lance, shield

Saracen Archers – 4 bases – Open order light infantry, veteran, experienced, mercenary, bow

Sicilian Spearmen – 6 bases – Close order infantry, veteran, experienced, levies, light armour, spear, shield

Sicilian Crossbowmen – 6 bases – Close order infantry, veteran, experienced, levies, light armour, crossbow

Count Ami – Sub-Commander – Veteran, experienced, respected leader

Italian Spearmen – 6 bases – Close order infantry, veteran, experienced, levies, light armour, spear, shield

Italian Knights – 2 bases – Close order heavy cavalry, veteran, experienced, armoured rider, lance, shield

Italian Spearmen – 6 bases – Close order infantry, veteran, experienced, levies, light armour, spear, shield

Italian Archers – 4 bases – Open order light infantry, veteran, experienced, no armour, bow

THE BATTLE AS IT HAPPENED

 

Varangian Guard of the period of Durazzo

The battle began with an an advance by the feared Varangian Guard. Guiscard tried to slow their approach by making several feint charges with his cavalry, but each time his men were forced back by Byzantine archers. As the Varangians got half way across the battlefield, the Count Ami launched a cavalry and infantry charge, swinging left to try and hit the Varangians in the side, but as his men struck their target the Byzantine left flank under the command of Pakourianos launched their own charge into the flank of the Italians, who were now at right angles to them. The Italians were routed, and made a hasty retreat off the battlefield towards the shoreline, presumably hoping to find some of their ships that were still seaworthy. As they fled, the Byzantine left wing chased after them in pursuit, which greatly depleted Byzantine numbers, and left the Varangian left flank completely exposed.

Seeing an opportunity, Guiscard ordered a full assault by all of his army, his knights and crossbowmen targeting the Varangians especially. On the Byzantine right wing, Bohemund,s men launched forward and a fierce battle ensued, before the Normans finally broke the Byzantine resolve and the army began to melt away. Alexios was almost killed when struck on the head by a Norman knight’s sword blow, his personal bodyguard, the Vestiartai surged around him, forcing back the Normans long enough to rescue their Emperor and escort him from the field, bleeding and virtually unconscious.

Bohemund’s Norman knights shatter the Byzantine cavalry

Down at the shoreline, the Italians were rallied by Guiscrad’s wife, Sichelgaita, wearing full armour and having been riding with her husband and his knights. A true warrior queen !

On the main battlefield it was only the Varangian Guard who now still stood their ground for the Byzantines. Their warriors were taking heavy casualties, mainly from crossbow fire which could not respond to. They decided to pull back in formation to the Church of St. Nicholas which was at the back of the Byzantine’s original position. Here they made a gallant last stand, refusing to surrender with the last few survivors seeking refuge inside the church building. Finally the Normans set fire to the church and the last of the Varangian Guard were burnt to their death,

Guiscard stopped his men from pursuing the Byzantines, instead they gratified themselves by looting the Emperor’s camp which had been simply abandoned in the haste to escape to safety. He spent the next few weeks consolidating his position immediately around Durazzo and made winter quarters there in preparation for a Spring campaign deeper into the Byzantine Balkans.

WARGAMING DURAZZO

This is a brilliant battle to re-fight. With lots of different troop types on both sides and despite the actual historical outcome, it is a battle between two fairly evenly matched armies that could produce an outcome either way.

Depending on your scale preference there are lots of figures available.

For 28mm fans, Gripping Beast make some great Byzantines and their Early Crusader range is perfect for the forces of Robert Guiscard. The new plastic range of Normans by Victrix are also ones to consider in your ranks, with beautiful animation and detail.

Victrix Normans

For 15mm we would obviously suggest our two “home brands”, Splintered Light Miniatures for the Normans and Lurkio for the Byzantines.

Splintered Light Normans

For smaller scales, then look at Pendraken 10mm. Although they don’t currently produce a Byzantine range, with careful buying from their Late Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Norman and Arab ranges, a suitable Byzantine force can certainly be put together.

You don’t even have to use figures to re-fight the battle, with the French game manufacturer, Historic.One recently launching the second edition of their game GUISCARD, which allows to you re-fight Robert’s battles across Sicily, Italy and the Balkans. You will find that in our online store too.

Finally, for those who wold just like to learn more about the period, we have several excellent books available in our Book Shop specifically about the Normans in Italy, Sicily and beyond.

Click on our Book Shop tab at the top to see our full selection, and all our books include FREE UK P&P.

Posted 13/09/2021 by The Little Corporal in Medieval

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