Dyrrachium: Normans down South

When one mentions the Normans, people think of William the Conqueror, Hastings, and the Domesday Book. However, the Normans attacked Italy, Sicily, the Balkans, Scotland, the Middle East, and even the Canary Islands. The ex-Scandinavians are remembered for their victory at Hastings, but the Battle of Dyrrachium in 1081 is an influential engagement too. Fought in present-day Durres, Albania, Dyrrachium was the culmination of the Norman’s first conquest into the Balkans, later ending in 1085.

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Alexios I, Emperor of Byzantium

So why were the Normans in the Adriatic? In 999, Norman pilgrims to the Holy Land settled in Salerno. When Saracens attacked the city, Normans fought back viciously an eventually decided to stay in what is known as the “Salerno Tradition.” There are more modern hypothesis but this particular one was a contemporary Italian account., whether it is true or not. What we do know for sure is that Normans aided Lombardy in their war against the Byzantines and many became mercenaries. Normans soon gained control of Southern Italy, and repelled attacks on Sicily by Arabs. They then set their sights on the Byzantine-controlled Balkans.

Robert Guiscard was born to Normans parents who had fought with the Lombards against Byzantium. He became Count of Apulia and turned his Norman troops towards Byzantium and prepared for war. He had experience in Sicily against the Arabs and quickly invaded with his son, Bohemund. In May, a fleet arrived on the shores of the Balkans with 30,000 soldiers. A small force attacked and captured the island of Corfu and then Guiscard’s forces marched on the capital of Illyria- Dyracchium. Alexios I of Byzantium rushed a messenger to Venice to ask the Doge for support. He sent the Venetian fleet who crushed the Normans in the Strait of Otranto with Greek Fire.

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Guiscard continued his siege and prepared to face Alexios I’s army of 20,000 men. On October 16th, Alexios snuck his army to the high ground behind the Norman lines at night in order to swiftly attack next morning. Norman scouts alerted Guiscard who shifted his forces to meet the Byzantine assault. The Norman cavalry feint failed and a counterattack by the Byzantine left routed the Normans. Allegedly, Guiscard’s wife rallied them back into action. The legendary Varangian Guard, made up of Vikings and Saxons, sliced their way through Norman lines but Alexios’ center collapsed. Guiscard exploited this with his heavy cavalry and stranded the Varangians who were picked off by crossbowmen. The Byzantines routed in small pockets which were attacked. Even Alexios himself was attacked and wounded, but managed to escape.

The Byzantines lost 5,000 men and the Normans are estimated to have lost about the same. This was an important study, as it shows how important cavalry really were to the Normans. They did not play a huge role at Hastings, but at Dyracchium, the Normans would have been butchered without them. Venetian troops lost the city a few months later and much of Greece was captured. However, revolts and a Holy Roman Imperial threat forces Guiscard back to Italy where he died in 1085, bringing an end to the first Norman invasion of the Balkans.


The Battle of Kulikovo Field

Russia was in turmoil during the 14th century. The Mongolian Hordes had controlled Western Russia for years in what was called the “Mongol Yoke,” but its decline was tearing the nation apart into small kingdoms and duchies. The Kievan Rus had been dead for years, causing many problems in Russia, for they lost their major territories. By 1380, the newly formed Grand Duchy of Moscow was ready to strike. The Grand Prince of Moscow, Dmitry Ivanovich Donskoy, decided that the weaker Tataro-Mongols would be vulnerable enough to attack in order to drive them from their country. Mamai, the current khan of the Mongols, had sought to reaffirm his position in Russia and remove the Muscovite threat. The stage was set for Russia’s most important medieval battle.

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Dmitri and his staff after the battle

Dmitri allied with a coalition of smaller Russian principalities to form a large amy to cast out the Tataro-Mongols. Marching under the flag of the Russian Orthodoxy, the coalition of 60,000 marched to the Don River near modern-day Tula. Mamai’s horde numbered 150,000 men including Genoese crossbowmen. The Genoese were the most formidable mercenaries in the middle ages along with the Swiss. On paper, the skilled horsemen and deadly crossbowmen held every position of power on an open plain.

On September 8th, the Russian forces positioned themselves in the Don watershed. Dmitri’s forces lined up in three lines. The largest regiment positioned themselves in the middle with two regiments on either side. A vanguard was placed ahead of them as was a front regiment. Behind the Russian main line was Dmitri and other generals. Russian troops were also placed in the forests nearby to ambush enemy forces. Mamai’s Tataro-Mongols lined up around their Genoese mercenaries in two main lines. The Mongols attacked at 11 in the morning and pushed back the forward Russian troops. The Russians formed a defensive line and received the onslaught of Mongol horsemen. Dmitri’s troops were outflanked and surrounded by the Mongols. In extreme danger, Dmitri called in his troops from the woods to ambush the horsemen. The Muscovites quickly rallied to crush the enemy who routed from the battlefield.

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Battle of Kulikovo Field

The battle did not officially expel the Mongols from Russia, but the battle was extremely important in Russia’s history. Mamai was later assassinated in Crimea. The battle of Kulikovo Field allowed the expansion of Moscow to occur in order for the Mongol Yoke to be thrown off. 100 years of Russian attacks would later throw out the Tarto-Mongols at the Battle of the Ugra River in 1480. Russia was open for expansion and soon would be one of the most important world nations.

10 Amazing Facts about the Ottoman Janissaries

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  1. Janissaries did not wear as flamboyant clothes as many people illustrate them. They more commonly wore brown robes.
  2. They carried a special sword called a yataghan which was curved, had no guard, and was double-edged.
  3. Janissaries were originally recruited at a young age from Christian families and converted to Islam. This would later change.
  4. There were some 60,000 Janissaries in the Battle of Vienna in 1683.
  5. Janissaries were famed for their close-quarter combat and were some of the best in the world.
  6. They were the one of the first armies to use matchlocks on a large basis. Most janissaries used them.
  7. Janissaries did not have to carry weapons everywhere. It was common for them to be piled on a wagon during a campaign to remove strain during long marches.
  8. Janissaries were expertly trained archers as well.
  1. Janissaries were disbanded in 1826 due to the ongoing Tanzimat Reforms by Mahmud II.
  2. Yanisar is used in Ukraine today as a word meaning “traitor.”


The Mamluk Sultanate: The Islamic Medieval Superpower

The Mamluks were at the height of Islamic civilization during the Middle Ages, but one may not think so because of their origins. Mamluks, meaning “property”, were originally enslaved soldiers of the various Islamic Empires. The Mamluk Sultanate sprung out of the ashes of the Fatimid Caliphate, who controlled Egypt and Syria, around 1250. Al-Salih Ayyub’s Mamluk armies came to power after his death in 1249, and overthrew his empire a year later.

The Mamluks instilled a caliphate in Cairo and began expanding their lands into modern-day Syria, Saudi Arabia, and later Cyprus. Most notably, the Mamluks ruled over the Islamic Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. One of the keys to Mamluk success was their exceptional cavalry. Mamluks wore a much lighter armour than Europeans, and were much more flexible in combat. The Mamluks wore the traditional Islamic turban helmet, chain mail, or in some cases, lamellar armour. They relied heavily on curved swords, spears, lances, and small shields. However, the number of professional Mamluk soldiers were limited, and the majority of their forces were volunteers. These soldiers wore simple robes and turbans, which were a much cheaper form of uniforms. Some Mamluk horses received armour of their own, predominately made of laminated cloth and leather.

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Mamluk Warriors


Mamluk forces were commanded by amirs, or officers, who commanded a group of men. Most amirs commanded an army of around 300 to 800 soldiers. Amirs were paid well, and many could afford elaborately decorated homes. Many Mamluk amirs were trained well in military schools, and many were punished as part of a strict disciplinary regime.

The Mamluks were split between two dynasties: the Bahri (1250-1382) and the Burji (1382-1517). Bahri Mamluks invaded Nubia from Egypt in 1265 and showed their fine warriorship in battle. The Mamluks fought numerous engagements against the Crusaders and Knights Hospitaller, most notably in the 1291 Siege of Acre. The Bahri, who were predominantly of Turkish origin, were overthrown by the Burji in 1382. The Burji were mostly Circassians from the Northern Caucasus. The first Burji sultan, Sayf ad-Din Barquq, came to power and not only faced wars from the Bahri, but the Mongols as well. The unstable Bahri were destroyed, but the Mongols still threatened the borders of the Mamluk Sultanate.

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The 1291 Siege of Acre

Tamerlane, leader of the Mongols; raided Persia, the Caucasus, and Anatolia. Tamerlane’s “Golden Horde” slaughtered the occupants of Damascus and Aleppo in Mamluk territory, and war broke out between the two powers, but the worries of the ongoing Crusades pressured both. The Mongol invasions greatly degraded the quality of the Mamluk Sultanate, even with the capture of Cyprus in 1426. The Mamluks were not a naval power at all, and later failed to retain Cyprus after the fall of Egypt and Syria.

The fledgeling Ottoman Empire, led by Sultan Selim the Grim, butchered the Mamluks in Syria and later Egypt, and by 1517, the Mamluk Sultanate came to an end. Ottoman technological superiority with artillery and firearms proved too much for the Mamluk cavalry and foot soldiers, and the Mamluk Sultanate came to a close.The Ottoman Empire would dominate the area into the Early 20th Century.