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.


Historical Field Trip: The Veneto

Italy’s history dates back to the times of the Etruscans and Romans, and one of the nation’s most memorable cities is Venice. The winding canals, seafood, and magnificent churches make it a massive tourist destination. While Venice and the surrounding region, the Veneto, are big tourist stops, many breeze over their complex history and the few interesting landmarks and monuments off the beaten path.


Venice was a very complicated republic in its early history. Run by the doge, Venice controlled lands from Italy to Croatia and even parts of Greece. Both Byzantine and Classical influences spread throughout the city for its many magnificent buildings.

1. Doge’s Palace

The Doge, or Duke, of Venice controlled the Republic. You can tour the apartments of the Doge and also look at the judiciary chambers of the republic. The prison is connected to the palace as is the armoury, which contains many weapons from the 14th century as well as some artifacts from the Battle of Lepanto.

2. Revolution

Venice’s uprising took place in European rebellion’s favourite year- 1848. A monument to the battles remains in the backstreets of Venice in the San Marco area at Corte Tagliapietra. The monument is to the “heroic resistance” of Austrian rule at the time and a plaque has been put up next to a statue of the Venetian Lion. The plaque is lined with Austrian cannonballs fired at the Venetians. Daniele Manin led a revolt in order to create a new Venetian Republic, but it ended in disaster for the Italians


Austrian cannonballs used in the 1848 uprising
The Venetian Lion atop the monument










Northern Veneto:

The Northern Veneto was the sight of many battles of the First World War between Italy and Austria-Hungary. Though many overlook the Italian Front, it is one of the most intriguing topics of the war.

3. Travel to the town of Asiago in the Italian mountains to see the Asiago War Memorial. The Italian Front cost both nations massive casualties, and some 50,000 remains are housed in the memorial. The arched monument is quite large and opened in the 1930s. Also in Asiago is a selection of trenches preserved on Monte Zebio. The trenches are both Austrian and Italian, and are exceptionally well preserved.

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Trenches on Monte Zebio

4. The Strada delle 52 Gallerie is a section of 52 roads through the Italian Alps which were built by the Italian army during WWI. These allowed the transfer of supplies, food, troops, and munitions to the front with less danger of enemy rifle fire or artillery. There are some scenic hikes and you can drive through some of the tunnels.


Remembered primarily as the city of Romeo and Juliet, Verona is one of the more interesting cities of Italy that doesn’t get much attention. While they don’t have many historical sights, apart from sights of the Shakespeare play, there are still a few interesting spots.

5. On Via dietro Anfiteatro, a plaque sits on the wall of some Italian soldiers. These are members of the Pasubio Division, one of the Italian army units stationed in Verona. They fought in Africa, Russia, Yugoslavia, and in Italy from their years of service from 1866 to 1943.

Pasubio Division

6. The equestrian statue of King Vittorio Emmanuele II sits by the Roman amphitheater in Verona. The unifying king of Italy, Emmanuele is immortalized in Italian history and his image appears all over the country.