The battle near Kalavrye had begun poorly for the Byzantines, but it appeared as though that was about to change. Their adversaries, the rebels commanded by imperial pretender Nikephoros Bryennios the Elder, were in chaos after their own Pecheneg allies had left the field to pillage their camp, causing the camp followers to flee to the rebel ranks. The routing Byzantines were thus granted a reprieve as Bryennios struggled to restore order to his army, while the Byzantine commander, Alexios Komnenos, noticed a particularly promising opportunity to turn the tide of battle.
In front of Alexios and his nearest comrades, a team of rebel grooms wrestled a horse through the churning mass of Bryennios’ army. Similar situations were doubtlessly occurring elsewhere on the battlefield, but this one was special: it was Bryennios’ own imperial horse, draped with a royal purple saddle and golden discs. The rebel leader hoped to claim the Byzantine throne, and the horse was part of his regalia and a representation of his power and aspirations.
Alexios planned to use that against him. As the main Byzantine force continued its rout, their young commander gathered a handful of his remaining cavalry and explained his idea. If they could capture Bryennios’ horse, he argued, they could use it to restore the Byzantines’ morale. Once the plan was clear, he and his soldiers wasted no time in executing it: “[Alexios] covered his face, drawing down the visor fastened to the rim of his helmet, and with . . . six men . . . rushed violently against [the grooms]. He knocked down the groom, caught the emperor’s [that is, Bryennios’] horse and took it away” (The Alexiad I.500).
Their prize in hand, Alexios and his nearest soldiers retreated to safety, the rebels still too disorganized to pursue. Capturing the imperial horse was a minor victory, but it wasn’t enough by itself. With the Byzantines still fleeing across the field, Alexios again sought victory by cunning, sending Bryennios’ horse riding through the routing troops. For the Byzantines, it must have been an attention-grabbing sight, yet Alexios hadn’t finished. Following behind the horse was a herald proclaiming to the soldiers that Bryennios had been killed in battle and that his riderless horse was proof. The plan worked; the Byzantines, likely unable to see Bryennios in the mess of enemy soldiers and camp followers, rallied back to Alexios and re-formed their ranks.
Then fortune intervened for a third time in the Byzantines’ favor. Arriving on the field were the extra Turkish auxiliaries the Seljuks had promised Emperor Botaneiates. Alexios joined his army with theirs, riding among the troops until he found the Turkish commander. Together, the generals surveyed the terrain and watched as Bryennios worked to reorder his army. They saw that the hills near their position offered convenient places to hide detachments of troops, and they agreed that another ambush was their best chance to salvage the battle.
With the strategy decided, Alexios led his Byzantines and a small group of Turks in a disciplined advance toward Bryennios’ army, while the majority of the Turks concealed themselves behind the hills. Alexios’ force advanced within a bowshot of Bryennios’ troops, and “the Turks [who were with Alexios] riding up one after the other covered the [rebels] with showers of arrows” (The Alexiad I.600). In the face of the new assault, Bryennios finally reorganized his ranks and counterattacked.
It was exactly what Alexios must have hoped for. Following their plan, the Byzantines briefly defended themselves before making an orderly withdrawal between the hills that hid the Turks. Bryennios and his army charged after them, seeking to finish off what appeared to be the last remnants of Alexios’ army. However, once the Byzantines “reached the first place where their men were hidden, they wheeled about and faced [the rebels]” (The Alexiad I.600). The signal to spring the ambush was given, and the Turks galloped over the hills, shouting and showering Bryennios’ troops with volley after volley of arrows.
The rebel army withered under the assault and began to retreat, the Byzantines assailing them all the while. Bryennios was attempting to coordinate the withdrawal when two Turks attempted to drag him from his horse. Exhausted and unable to defend himself, he surrendered and was taken to Alexios. The Battle of Kalavrye, costly for both sides, was over.
After a brief rest, Alexios triumphantly sent Bryennios to Constantinople to be judged. There, the rebel leader was blinded and stripped of his honors and possessions. Emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates, however, soon had mercy on him, pardoned him, and restored his lands. Later, the Bryennios and Komnenos clans were reconciled in the marriage of Alexios’ daughter, Anna, to Bryennios’ descendant, Nikephoros Bryennios the Younger.
Alexios served Emperor Botaneiates for three years after Kalavrye, halting other rebellions, but in 1081 A.D./C.E., it was his turn to rebel. Botaneiates had accused him of disloyalty and attempted to move against his family, so Alexios, still the supreme commander-in-chief and beloved by the troops, gathered his army and deposed the emperor. Soon, he was crowned emperor,* ruling until his death in 1118, a reign longer than those of the previous eight emperors combined. As emperor, he was a capable leader, yet it was undoubtedly his diplomatic, strategic, and martial abilities developed during his early victories over Balliol and Bryennios that helped him to be so.
*Alexios had a legitimate claim through his father, Emperor Isaac I Komnenos (r.1057-1059).
- 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.)