With the order to advance, rebel general and imperial pretender Nikephoros Bryennios led his army in a charge toward his opponents. Meanwhile, the smaller Byzantine army of Alexios Komnenos, the empire’s supreme commander-in-chief, braced itself for the impact. Alexios himself carefully surveyed the rebel army’s position, waiting to signal the small ambush force hiding beyond his left flank. He didn’t have to wait long; the rebels’ front ranks collided with his. The Battle of Kalavrye had begun.
As the mass of rebel soldiers pushed against the thinner Byzantine lines, Alexios signaled his detachment to execute the ambush. The troops sprang into action and slammed into the rebels’ flank, immediately spreading chaos and panic throughout Bryennios’ right wing. At first, the maneuver met with excellent results. The rebels wavered, their morale plummeted, and some fled the battle. For Alexios, it must have seemed as though his army finally had a chance.
Unfortunately for him, the rebels rallied. Bryennios’ brother, John, commanded the right wing, and he too was a capable general. While his soldiers were stunned by the initial ambush, John is said to have “turned his horse’s bridle and with one blow struck down the [Byzantine solider] who came at him” (The Alexiad I.500). The report is likely exaggerated, but John did, in fact, restore his troops’ morale and repulse the ambush before returning his focus to the main Byzantine force. His counterattack shattered the Byzantines on Alexios’ left wing, and Alexios watched in horror as his soldiers fled the field and his ranks crumbled around him.
Across the field, the Byzantines’ situation was equally poor. The right wing under Alexios’ lieutenant, Constantine Katakalon, had become entangled in a brutal melee with the rebel left under Tarkhaneiotes Katakalon’s command, while the rebels’ allied Pecheneg cavalry lurked on the edge of the battlefield. Once Constantine’s wing was sufficiently occupied with defending itself against Tarkhaneiotes’ assault, the Pechenegs seized the opportunity, galloping behind the Byzantine right and charging into its back ranks. Outnumbered and outflanked, Constantine’s troops panicked and fled.
Alexios could see that his defeat was imminent. His army was scattered. His center, composed of Frankish knights, had already begun dismounting and surrendering to Bryennios. He had used the entirety of his impressive tactical knowledge, even attempting to defeat the superior foe through a cunning ambush, but it hadn’t been enough. Desperate, “he gathered together the more courageous men (of whom there were six altogether) and told them to draw sword and when they got near Bryennios to make a violent assault on him” (The Alexiad I.500); however, he was quickly persuaded to retreat instead.
The Byzantines organized their withdrawal, but fortune intervened before they could act. The Pechenegs decided not to pursue the Byzantine troops who had fled the battle, perhaps believing total victory was already achieved. Instead, they sought loot and treasure as payment for their participation, so they turned their mounts toward the northwest, rode into Bryennios’ camp, and began to ransack the tents of their so-called “ally.” In the face of the raid, the rebels’ camp followers (cooks, retainers, etc.) fled to the place they felt safest: the back ranks of Bryennios’ army. The rebels, on the verge of victory just moments earlier, were thrown into complete disarray.
As Alexios prepared to use this opportunity to secure his army’s retreat, fortune presented him with yet another opening. Among the camp followers scrambling through the rebel army, he “saw . . . grooms dragging away a horse . . . decked out with the purple-dyed saddlecloth and . . . discs plated with [the] gold” (The Alexiad I.500) of Bryennios’ imperial regalia.
Alexios contemplated for a moment, then gathered some of his nearby soldiers. He had a plan, and if it worked, he still had a chance to salvage the battle.
- 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.)