Just a few years after Alexios Komnenos’ triumph over Roussel Balliol’s rebellion, the Byzantine Empire was again in chaos. In the province of Dyrrakhion, along the Adriatic Sea, a new threat had emerged: Nikephoros Bryennios the Elder, the province’s disgruntled doux (military governor), was massing troops in rebellion. In Anatolia, a separate rebellion under Nikephoros Botaneiates, the aged provincial governor, had already begun marching toward Constantinople. Emperor Michael VII Doukas, weary and scrambling to keep the empire together, was surrounded.
This time, Michael chose diplomacy instead of battle. With a hostile force on both sides of the Bosporus, the required all-out attack on either would have left the capital open to the other, and Michael knew it. He chose instead to send some of the empire’s best diplomats to negotiate with Bryennios, perhaps hoping that a speedy, peaceful resolution would allow him to focus his military efforts on Botaneiates.
Unfortunately for him, it didn’t work. After a few proposals and counterproposals, the negotiations with Bryennios fell through. Michael’s tenure as emperor ended soon thereafter. The people of Constantinople were furious at his repeated failures; rioting broke out in the streets, and the citizens proclaimed Botaneiates emperor. When Botaneiates and his army arrived outside the capital in April 1078 A.D./C.E., the city gates were opened to allow the rebel-turned-emperor’s triumphant entry.
Still, he couldn’t sit comfortably on his new throne. While Botaneiates had seized Constantinople, Bryennios had been traveling across Dyrrakhion, Thessalonike, Makedonia, and Thrace, drumming up support for his rebellion and growing his army. The empire’s most veteran soldiers had defected to him in massive numbers, swelling his ranks to nearly 12,000 men, while citizens across the region had gone over to his side: “Whenever towns received him, they did so with hands raised in supplication . . . [and] sent him on his way . . . with applause” (The Alexiad I.400). His supporters had even proclaimed him emperor and furnished him with his own imperial regalia.
The stability of Botaneiates’ new regime required Bryennios’ speedy defeat. To make that happen, he turned to the young commander who had already proven himself a trustworthy and capable leader: stratopedarkhes Alexios Komnenos. Botaneiates promoted Alexios to domestikos tōn scholōn (supreme commander-in-chief) and ordered him to form an army to fight Bryennios. By all accounts, Alexios gathered all available units, many of which lacked significant experience; however, Bryennios’ army still outnumbered his by thousands. After some negotiations, the Byzantines also convinced the Seljuk Turks to help and were immediately granted 2,000 auxiliaries with a promise of more.
Having prepared as much as time would allow, Alexios’ army took to the field and marched westward to block Bryennios’ advance on Constantinople. Alexios, perhaps waiting on more Turkish reinforcements, pitched camp near the River Halmyros (Kalivri Dere in modern Turkey) and sent spies to gather intelligence on the rebel army. It soon became clear, however, that battle was imminent and the time to wait had passed. Bryennios’s force approached the Byzantine camp, and the two generals formed their armies for battle.
Both Alexios and Bryennios used the three-wing formation (left, center, right) that was standard among ancient and medieval armies, but both brought their own variation. Alexios, knowing his outnumbered army faced slim odds in a head-to-head battle, hid a few hundred men in a small ravine and ordered them to attack the flank of the rebel army when he signaled them. If the ambush succeeded, Bryennios’ entire right flank would panic and collapse, freeing up Alexios’ left to assist elsewhere on the field. Bryennios had a similar plan. Far off his left flank was a detachment of Pecheneg cavalry with orders to strike Alexios’ right flank from behind.
From across the field, Alexios and his army watched a superior enemy make the final preparations for battle. The true test of the young general’s strategic ability was about to come.
Because Bryennios’ army had begun to advance.
- Anna Komnene. The Alexiad. Revised Edition. Translated by E. R. A. Sewter. Edited by Peter Frankopan. London: Penguin, 2009.
— A different translation can be read for free online, courtesy of Fordham University.
- Nikephoros Bryennios the Younger. Materials for History.
- Norman Tobias. “The Tactics and Strategy of Alexius Comnenus at Calavrytae, 1078.” Byzantine Studies 6, (1979): 193-211.
(Both The Alexiad and Materials for History certainly are politicized accounts—written, no less, by relatives of Alexios—but they date from the twelfth century and give a glimpse of how high-ranking Byzantine courtiers viewed the events.)