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Chapter 11

Bohemond I


Guiscard’s death left the vexing question of who would inherit his possessions unanswered. The trouble was that although his two marriages had produced at least ten children, his most able son wasn’t a legitimate one.  

The boy had been born sometime before 1058, and was given the Christian name of ‘Marc’. A few nights before the birth, Guiscard had been regaled at a banquet with the story of a legendary giant named Buamundas Gigas, and when he saw the large size of the baby he nicknamed him ‘Bohemond,’ unwittingly inventing one of the more popular names of the Middle Ages.  

Almost nothing is known of Bohemond’s early years, although he evidently had some schooling since he could read and write Latin along with a smattering of Greek and possibly Arabic. When he was still young, perhaps only four, Guiscard abandoned his mother for political reasons. Although Bohemond was now both illegitimate and disinherited, there didn’t seem to be too many hard feelings as he was raised by his step-mother and given an important post in Guiscard’s army as soon as he was old enough. Perhaps this was because, regardless of the temporary needs of realpolitik, there was no doubting who his father was. Bohemond looked every inch a Hauteville. With the broad shoulders, thick chest, and blond hair of his Viking ancestors, he was enormously tall, with an easy air of command. Even the restless and reckless streaks of his father were there. As one of his contemporaries put it “He is always seeking the impossible”. 

Bohemond got his chance for adventure in 1081 when Guiscard decided to invade the Byzantine Empire. The twenty-seven-year-old was sent with an advance guard and instructed to lay waste to the Dalmatian33 countryside, capture the port city of Valona to use as a bridgehead, and besiege the island of Corfu. The only serious resistance he faced was at Corfu, where the defenders openly mocked his small force, but when they saw Guiscard’s main fleet on the horizon, the garrison fled in terror.  

From there, however, the campaign had unraveled. Guiscard’s plan – so we are told - was to put Bohemond on the throne of Constantinople, and carve out a larger empire of his own to the east, but he was outwitted by the Byzantine emperor Alexius. When the emperor’s gold had forced Guiscard to return, Bohemond had been ordered to secure Greece and Macedonia, and was warned not to risk a battle with the emperor. Bohemond’s failure in the subsequent campaign had not been due to any lack of courage on his part. The emperor, was simply too experienced and wily. 

Bohemond had courage, but he was faced with an opponent who was far more experienced and wily. When Bohemond entered northern Greece and began to systematically reduce some Byzantine fortresses, Alexius suddenly appeared. As the two armies prepared themselves for a battle, the emperor sent light chariots bristling with spears into the Norman line. It would have crippled the main section of the army, but Bohemond had been warned and was expecting the ruse. As the chariots approached, gaps in the line opened up and they passed harmlessly through. The Normans then charged the Byzantines and easily routed the half-trained recruits.  

Alexius regrouped in the Balkan city of Ohrid,34 and a few months later he tried again. This time he had his men scatter nails across the center of the field the night before the battle, hoping to cripple the Norman cavalry as they charged. Again Bohemond was warned, and in the morning he held his center back and ordered his wings to collapse on the Byzantine army. They broke almost immediately and this time Bohemond pursued Alexius into the Balkan Mountains, capturing Ohrid, the emperor’s previous city of refuge.  

Although Bohemond had been successful at every turn, that winter was a demoralizing one. There was little food and less money to be had, and the Norman troops hadn’t been paid for several months. Some began to question exactly what they were doing in a strange and inhospitable land. Constantinople, which had seemed so close a year ago, now seemed increasingly distant. That spring, Alexius attacked for the third time. The Normans were occupying the ancient Greek city of Larissa birthplace of Achilles when the imperial standards appeared and began to advance. Bohemond immediately charged, chasing the fleeing Byzantines for several miles. Alexius, however, wasn’t with them; he was leading the main army into the Norman camp, capturing two years’ worth of spoils.  

Thinking he had won another victory, Bohemond was relaxing by a river, eating grapes and lampooning yet another example of Byzantine cowardice when the message reached him that his camp was under attack. He raced back with his cavalry, but was too late. He managed to repulse an overeager Byzantine charge, but was forced to retreat and collect his scattered men, abandoning all the territory he had conquered that year to Alexius.  

The emperor sensed that the tide was turning in his favor, and he opened up secret negotiations with Bohemond’s officers. He cleverly suggested that they demand their full pay, knowing that with the recent loss of supplies, Bohemond had no way of paying it. He further offered lucrative posts in the imperial army (which he backed up with substantial gifts), or safe passage home if their honor prevented them from accepting.  

Some of Bohemond’s officers undoubtedly stayed loyal, but enough of them demanded their pay that he was forced to return to Italy to raise the money. The moment he was gone, whatever morale remained collapsed and with one exception, his officers defected to Alexius. Bohemond received word of their treachery as he was boarding his ship in the Dalmatian seaport. The war was lost. Not by any glorious defeat, but by a thousand cuts. Perhaps not wanting to face his father until tempers had a time to cool, Bohemond wintered on the Dalmatian coast, waiting until the spring to return to Italy.  

Fortunately for Bohemond, Guiscard was not particularly upset. He had had his own hands full putting down the Italian revolt, but he had settled it in such a ruthless fashion that it would take more gold than Alexius had to stir up trouble again. Now the emperor would have his undivided attention. That October of 1084 Guiscard and his four adult sons sailed again. They were intercepted by the Venetian navy, which scattered them, but when the fastest ships left prematurely to inform Venice of the great victory, the Normans rallied and managed to defeat them.  

It was too late in the season for much more campaigning, so the Normans wintered on Corfu. While they were confined, Bohemond came down with a fever and obtained permission from his father to return to Italy to convalesce. In his absence Guiscard caught the fever as well, and after lingering a few months he died.  

Bohemond was the natural choice to succeed him. Not only was he battle-seasoned, commanding, and ambitious, but the only serious rival, his half-brother Roger Borsa35 was just thirteen years old, and was already displaying the nervous incompetence that would be the hallmark of his later years. But fatefully, Roger Borsa or more correctly his mother was present at Guiscard’s deathbed while Bohemond was away in Italy. She convinced the assembled Normans that her son a legitimate heir was the only choice to inherit Guiscard’s lands and titles. Surprisingly, she found a powerful ally for this argument in Bohemond’s uncle, Roger of Sicily. Whoever was chosen would technically be his senior colleague, and he naturally wanted someone he could manipulate. Bohemond, still recovering in Italy was dispossessed of his inheritance for a second time.  

Roger Borsa and his mother had pulled off a clever coup, but if they thought the matter was settled, they didn’t know Bohemond very well. He was furious, and as soon as his uncle was safely back in Sicily, he started a rebellion. Roger Borsa tried to buy off his half-brother with the best part of southern Apulia, but that only encouraged Bohemond to try for more land. Bohemond crossed the border into Calabria and convinced the most powerful of his brother’s vassals there to switch loyalty. The revolt gradually spread throughout Calabria until Roger Borsa desperately called for his uncle’s help. The elder Roger responded to maintain the status quo, and forced Bohemond to agree to a truce, essentially allowing him to keep what he had conquered. This uneasy peace lasted for three years until Roger Borsa fell seriously ill with a fever. Assuming that his half-brother was dead, Bohemond moved quickly to seize his property, claiming to be acting to ‘protect the interests of his nephews’.  

Once again, their uncle Roger had to cross over from Sicily and restrain Bohemond from capturing any more of his half-brother’s lands. This basic pattern continued for the next several years, with Bohemond attempting to chip away at Borsa’s territory without being serious enough to draw in his uncle too frequently.  

The slow-burning civil war that resulted mostly benefited Roger of Sicily. Each time he intervened, he obtained more concessions from his weak nephew. Family relations all around were understandably strained.  

In the summer of 1096, the city of Amalfi rebelled against Borsa and a frustrated Bohemond was summoned by their uncle Roger to join them as a sign of family solidarity against the rebels. After nine years of a fruitless civil war, it was clear to a depressed Bohemond that his uncle would never allow him to have any significant power. Just as he was resigning himself to this fate, however, a new opportunity presented itself. The year before, Pope Urban II had put out a great call for a ‘crusade’ to free the Holy Land, and eager knights had begun to trickle into southern Italy in search of a sea passage. At first they had been mostly Italian, and Bohemond had ignored them as a fad, but as he sat before the walls of Amalfi larger groups of French knights began to appear, and he realized the international scope of the movement.  

He would never be more than an upstart in Italy, forever held down by his uncle, but now his father’s old dream beckoned to the east. If he couldn’t claim a title here in the west he could carve out a kingdom for himself in the Levant, and the crusade would provide the perfect cover. All that was left was for him to announce his intentions, which he did with considerable panache. In the middle of the siege he called a great assembly where he dramatically swore to liberate Jerusalem and called all good Christians to join him. He then took off his rich, scarlet cloak and ripped it up to make crosses for his vassals and those who were quickest to kneel. The bulk of those present eagerly joined in, providing him with an army suitable to his rank, while depriving the two Rogers of theirs at the same time. His annoyed kinsman had no choice but to abandon the siege.  

The Crusades are usually thought of as single armies, or single waves of armies, launching themselves in a certain year. However, they were more like continuous movements; not armies so much as armed men moving in ebbs and flows to the East. There was no single route they chose to travel, and no single recognized leader, just a vague agreement of the leading princes to gather at Constantinople. 

The lack of an overall commander meant almost certain bickering and disorganization, but Bohemond correctly saw it also as a golden opportunity. Of all the princes, he was by far the most experienced and ambitious. If a general commander was needed, and it almost certainly would be, he was the natural candidate. Always with an eye to the future, he was careful to act the part of dignified statesman. 

While the forces led by other princes behaved with reckless abandon, pillaging their way across Byzantine territory and frequently skirmishing with their imperial escorts, Bohemond was an example of order and decorum. Everything had been carefully prepared beforehand. Together with his nephew Tancred36 and a small but very well-trained army, Bohemond set sail from the Italian town of Bari and landed his men at various points on the Dalmatian coast in order not to overwhelm local food supplies. He had taken the precaution of forbidding looting on pain of death so as to prevent the ill-will that usually accompanied a march through foreign territory.  

The route he chose was a difficult one twelve hundred meters above sea level through mountain passes in the early winter but his planning was such that he made it without incident into western Macedonia by Christmas. From there he traveled along the Via Egnatia, the same road on which a decade before he had marched with his father in their failed bid to conquer Constantinople. This time, of course, he was on his best behavior, scrupulously maintaining cordial relations with the imperial guard which was sent to keep tabs on his progress.  

At Epirus he sent a messenger to Constantinople, asking for an audience with emperor Alexius. He wasn’t the first crusader to reach the imperial city, and he was anxious to see what the other western leaders had agreed to. Most of all, he wanted to make sure that none of his rivals had received special treatment from the emperor.  

Westerner knights tended to assume that the Byzantines were soft and weak, but Bohemond knew better than any how powerful the empire still was. It was by far the most significant Christian state in the Near East, and without its support, no permanent success could be achieved. Friendship would also have other benefits. A special recognition from Alexius would put him in control of all crusader dealings with the empire; he would be the pivotal figure of the grand Christian alliance, and the de facto leader of the crusade.  

The treatment he received when he reached Constantinople was encouraging. After a stay of only a single night37 in the monastery of Saints Cosmas and Damian he was given a special escort to the imperial palace, an honor accorded to no other westerner. There he was showered with gifts and impressive-sounding (although empty) titles, and admitted into the emperor’s presence.  

Once there, standing before the immense imperial throne, complete with golden lions that would stand up and roar at the touch of a lever, he was asked to take an oath of fealty to Alexius and to promise to return any land he conquered to the empire. He gave it without a moment’s hesitation, and in return asked to be named Grand Domestic of the East the commander-in-chief of all imperial forces in Asia.  

Bohemond had played his part to perfection, but the emperor Alexius was too perceptive to be taken in by him. Outwardly he gave every sign of embracing Bohemond, but he didn’t trust him an inch, and he had no intention of increasing his already dangerous power. He had hoped to pawn off Bohemond with expensive gifts, and was now slightly embarrassed that he had asked so boldly for a title. So he stalled for time, saying that the time wasn’t right to name him Grand Domestic, while vaguely hinting that he could earn it with a show of energy and loyalty.  

That was the best Bohemond could get, so with a few parting pleasantries and a promise by the emperor to send troops and food with him, Bohemond withdrew and rejoined his army. They were ferried across the Bosphorus and marched to Nicaea where the main Crusader army was already besieging the city. Thanks to his timely arrival and the much-needed supplies, Bohemond saw an immediate surge in his popularity. This was increased when he defeated a Turkish relieving army, triumphantly binding the Muslim captives with the very ropes they had brought to tie up the Crusaders.  

Bohemond’s run of good luck continued with the fall of Nicaea. Relations with Byzantium plummeted when the Turks decided to surrender to the Byzantine contingent who slipped into the city at night and refused to let the Crusaders enter to engage in the traditional three days of pillaging. Under the circumstances, his failure to get Alexius’ endorsement, was now if anything a badge of honor.  

When the army decided to move on in the direction of Antioch, Bohemond suggested that they split in half to make it easier to find supplies. He accompanied the advance group while his main competitor, Raymond of Toulouse, the only other crusader of comparable standing, took control of the second wing traveling a day behind. Near the town of Dorylaeum, Bohemond was ambushed, but thanks to his quick thinking, disaster was averted. A message was sent to Raymond to hurry, while the Turks, who mistakenly believed that they had trapped the entire army, repeatedly attacked. When Raymond appeared with a fresh group of knights the Turks fled, leaving the treasury and household goods of their emir behind.  

The victory was credited to both commanders, and the entire army spent a welcome respite among the orchards and streams of the nearby old Byzantine city of Iconium. The Turks made one more attempt to stop them from crossing the Taurus Mountains, but this time Bohemond nearly defeated them by himself, charging straight at the emir and engaging him in single combat. Unnerved, the Turks fled, abandoning any further attempt to block the Crusaders’ path. That night a comet flared in the sky, seeming to symbolize both the victory and Bohemond’s stratospheric prestige.   

The Norman, as always, sensing an opportunity, detached himself from the main army and went off to liberate several neighboring cities. These he discreetly turned over to the emperor as proof of his good faith, and a subtle reminder that he was still available for appointment as Grand Domestic of the East. In his absence, a rumor reached the Crusader camp that Antioch was unguarded, and Raymond of Toulouse, still smarting from Bohemond’s string of victories, quickly dispatched five hundred men to occupy it in his name.  

Unfortunately for Raymond, the rumor turned out to be false, as Muslim reinforcements were pouring into Antioch. His men arrived to find it impregnable, an opinion which the rest of the army shared when they showed up several weeks later.  

Antioch was one of the great cities of the East, and had only been captured from the Byzantines by Muslim forces twelve years before by treachery. The city spread three and a half square miles across the valley floor at the foot of Mount Silpius, and was surrounded by walls built by emperor Justinian more than five hundred years earlier, complete with six major gates and studded with four hundred towers. Inside the circuit of those walls rose a spur of the mountain, at whose thousand-foot summit was a massive citadel. The mountainous terrain made approach from the south, east, or west difficult, while at the same time the sheer length of the walls made a siege virtually impossible. Bohemond had been looking for a suitable eastern capital for himself, and the moment he saw Antioch’s magnificent defenses he realized that he had found it. The stated goal of the crusade was to liberate Jerusalem, but if he could install himself here there would be no need to go a step further.  

The Crusaders constructed three siege towers, and attempted to starve the city into submission, but they simply lacked the numbers to cut it off completely. The Orontes river supplied it with fresh water, and foraging parties easily evaded crusader patrols. Even worse, the Crusaders soon exhausted the surrounding food supply, and were often ambushed by roving bands of defenders. With the winter came earthquakes and freezing snowstorms, while in the night sky the aurora borealis flashed, adding fear to the general gloom. Several desperate attempts to take the city failed miserably and news arrived that an enormous Muslim relief army under the command of the terrible Kerbogha of Mosul was on its way. By the spring, one in seven crusaders was dying of hunger, and mass defections began.  

Bohemond had long since come to the conclusion that Antioch was impossible to take by assault, and if force wasn’t an option, then duplicity was clearly the key. Somehow, he contacted a traitor inside the city who agreed to surrender one of the defensive towers to him. All that was left was for Bohemond to choose his moment.  

First he had to get rid of any rival claims to the city. There was still a small Byzantine contingent with the army that was hoping to take control of Antioch once it was captured. Bohemond summoned its leader into his tent and hinted that there was a plan to murder him, which he of course had regrettably been unable to stamp out. Although false, this rumor was easy enough to believe, and the next day the man abruptly left with his retinue. Bohemond turned around and announced that the Byzantines had left out of cowardice, abandoning them all to their fate. The Crusaders had given an oath that they would return Antioch to the empire, but now that could safely be ignored.

Bohemond next announced that he was contemplating leaving because of pressing needs in Italy. His words had the appropriate effect. He had played a leading role in every military encounter and the thought of losing him now as Kerbogha was closing in terrified the army. The Crusading princes, of course, saw it for the bluster that it was, but they were powerless in the face of public opinion. When Bohemond then floated the idea that Antioch would be an acceptable compensation to any losses sustained at home, even Raymond of Toulouse had to bow to the inevitable.  

After they had agreed to give him the city, he confided that he had a contact on the inside and told them his plan. The army would break camp and march out as if to confront the approaching Kerbogha. Under cover of darkness they would return and slip into the city through an unguarded postern gate that the traitor would leave unlocked.   

Two hours before dawn, Bohemond led sixty soldiers up a ladder, and quickly took over two nearby towers and the walls between. With the help of the native Christians of the city, a city gate was flung open and the army poured inside. By nightfall there wasn’t a Turk alive. More than seven months after they had first arrived, Antioch was finally in Crusader hands.  

The ordeal wasn’t quite over, however. Although the city had fallen, the citadel was still controlled by the Turks. Bohemond had been wounded in his lone attempt to take it, and (far more seriously) Kerbogha was on his way with an army seventy-five-thousand strong. The first problem was easy enough to deal with. Bohemond built a wall around the citadel to prevent an attack from it, and turned his mind to the defense of his new city. Two days later Kerbogha arrived.  

The Crusaders were in a desperate situation. The seven month siege had depleted the city’s food supplies and there had been no time to restock them. The situation was so dire that some knights resorted to slaughtering their own horses for food. To make matters worse, deserters had informed Kerbogha of the situation. He attempted a ferocious assault against the section of walls that Bohemond was defending, and was only beaten back with the greatest difficulty. Well aware that the Crusaders were on the verge of collapse, he settled back into a siege.  

Only a miracle could save the trapped Christians now, but fortunately for them, a miracle arrived. A French hermit named Peter Bartholomew claimed that a saint had appeared and revealed to him the site of the Holy Lance the spear that the centurion had used to pierce Christ’s side. Assisted by the hosts of heaven and led by this powerful relic they could put Kerbogha to flight.  

It’s not likely that Bohemond was convinced by this tale, after all he had probably seen the original lance in Constantinople, but he knew the effect it would have on morale, and when Peter dramatically dug beneath the floor of the city’s cathedral and found a rusted piece of metal, he was among the first to declare that it was real. He ordered five days of fasting, and leaving only two hundred men in the city, he marched out behind the lance for an all-out attack.  

The sight of the Crusader army, with many of its starving knights stumbling along on foot, was probably more pathetic than terrifying, but despite that, Bohemond’s charge was well timed. Kerbogha’s own alliance was crumbling. Most of his emirs mistrusted him, and feared that success at Antioch would make him too powerful. So when the Crusaders emerged from the city, they chose to desert. Kerbogha’s remaining forces still outnumbered the Crusaders, but they were unnerved by the size of the Crusader force and set fire to the grass between the armies to delay them. The wind blew the smoke in the Turkish faces, and what had started as a tactical withdrawal turned into a rout. Armenian and Syrian herdsmen, meanwhile, seeing the chance for revenge for a decade of oppression, came down from the hills to join the slaughter.  

The victory was complete. The Turkish defenders of the citadel had watched the debacle unfold in front of them and knew that all hope was now lost. Much to Bohemond’s gratification they announced that they would only surrender to him personally, sending one last snub to his old rival Raymond of Toulouse who was ill and had been forced to observe the entire thing from the sidelines.  

Raymond didn’t take the news well. He dug in his heels, refusing to acknowledge Bohemond as master of Antioch. His obstinacy brought the entire crusade to a screeching halt, but there were more than just petty reasons for his stance. Like Bohemond, he wanted to be recognized as the supreme commander of the crusade, and he was shrewd enough to realize that despite any personal distaste for the Byzantines, they were needed if the crusade had any hope of long-term success. Turning over Antioch, one of the empire’s main cities, to Bohemond would permanently sever relations with Constantinople.  

The Crusader leaders were evenly split between Bohemond and Raymond, and they dithered for several months, while a typhoid epidemic hit and morale euphoric after the victory once again sank. The rank and file didn’t really care which of their leaders got control of Antioch, in fact they hardly cared about Antioch at all. They had signed on to liberate Jerusalem, and the longer they stayed squabbling in Asia Minor, the angrier they became.  

Finally, with the army reaching the point of mutiny, Raymond and Bohemond came to a compromise. Bohemond would get Antioch and in return he would recognize Raymond as the leader of the crusade. After fifteen months in Antioch, the Crusading army finally marched off, leaving a well-pleased Bohemond behind.  

It was his greatest moment of triumph. His aim in joining the crusade had never been to see Jerusalem, it had been to found his own state, and now he had one of the major cities of the Near East under his control. He was in a position to dominate both the lucrative pilgrim trade to Jerusalem, and the nearby Crusader kingdoms that were being established. When he visited the newly-captured Jerusalem a few months later as Prince of Antioch, he was received as the most important regional power, easily securing the election of his own candidate as patriarch.  

Unfortunately for Bohemond, his triumph was short lived. The very boldness which had won him his wealth and power, proved his undoing. In the summer of 1100 he left his nephew Tancred as regent of Antioch and marched north with only three hundred men to campaign on the upper Euphrates. Blundering into an ambush he was captured and thrown into a Turkish prison. The emperor Alexius offered to pay his ransom if he was delivered to Constantinople, but Bohemond declined, and was forced to spend three years as a captive until Tancred could raise the funds to free him.  

In his absence, Tancred had greatly increased the size of the principality, and as soon as he was free, Bohemond marched south to extend it further, only to be severely defeated again. Antioch was now caught between the twin rocks of Saracen and Byzantine power, and its army was too depleted to hold, much less expand in either direction. Only a massive infusion from Europe could salvage the situation, so in 1105, Bohemond left to drum up support for a new crusade.  

The effort was a dramatic success. In Italy, crowds arrived to greet him wherever he stayed and in France, King Philip offered his daughter in marriage. He was widely seen as the hero of the First Crusade, and his popularity was such that the English king, Henry I, refused to let him land in England for fear that he would enlist too many nobles to his cause. Dazzled by his celebrity status, and finding an easy scapegoat for every misfortune in the Byzantines,38 Bohemond unwisely decided to revive his old dream of taking Constantinople’s throne.  

With a thirty-five-thousand-strong army he invaded the Dalmatian coast and attacked Durrës, the westernmost city of the empire. Unlike his previous two attempts, however, this time the Byzantines were in a position of strength. While Alexius leisurely marched to confront the Normans, he persuaded the Venetian navy to attack Bohemond’s fleet, which it easily destroyed. He then studiously avoided a direct confrontation while plague and the depredations of a siege depleted Bohemond’s strength. With his escape route cut off and a series of disastrous skirmishes sapping morale, Bohemond was forced to conclude a humiliating truce.  

It amounted to an unconditional surrender. Although he was allowed to keep Antioch, it was only as Alexius’ vassal; all captured Byzantine territory had to be returned, and a Greek patriarch of Alexius’ choosing had to be installed in the city’s cathedral.   

After a lifetime of struggle that had seen such recent dizzying triumphs, this last setback was too much. Bohemond refused to even return to Antioch, setting sail for Sicily instead, where he died a broken man three years later. His body was taken to the Italian city of Canosa and interred in a simple mausoleum, where it can still be seen today with the single word BOAMUNDUS marking the spot.  

It was a pitiful end to a remarkable life. Thanks mostly to his nephew Tancred, the principality of Antioch endured, but it would never be the dominant power that Bohemond had envisioned. The energy and daring of the Normans, as well as their great legacy, was further west. Even as Bohemond expired, it was blooming in the sun-drenched island of Sicily.  

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