Jack Ludlow: Warriors

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Jack Ludlow Warriors
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Jack Ludlow



Apulia was in turmoil and the Eastern Empire had only itself to blame: all the way up the Adriatic coast, with a few exceptions, the Byzantine possessions in Southern Italy were in open rebellion, the strife extending from the great trading ports to the rich agricultural lands that ran west to the high mountain barrier of the Apennines. Seeking to take advantage of a division between the Saracen emirs of the island of Sicily, Constantinople had decided to invade and reconquer that valuable possession, but in doing so, in order to find the soldiers necessary for the task, harsh methods of recruitment had been employed in their nearby Italian fiefs and the results of that had come home to roost.

Like the Roman Empire of antiquity, the Byzantine Empire was rarely free from trouble in its distant possessions; it could be no other way with borders that ran for a thousand leagues from the toe of Italy, through the mountainous Balkans, over the narrow neck of the Bosphorus and on into the wilds of Anatolia where it faced the newly emergent Turks. Apulia, as a province, was more febrile than most, containing within it a sizeable population of Greek rulers at permanent loggerheads with the indigenous Italians.

But there was a third, numerous and more seditious group to contend with: the Lombards, heirs of a northern tribe who had invaded five hundred years previously to conquer the whole of Italy. Rapacious as rulers, fractious by nature and unwilling to assimilate, they had never been popular and had, in their turn, succumbed to the combined might of the Emperor Charlemagne and overwhelming Byzantine force, hanging on as subject overlords only to the dukedoms and principalities of Campania and Benevento.

As a race they had never forgotten they once also ruled in fertile Apulia and were thus ever ready to fan the flames of an insurgency. Added to that they had, on both the western and northern borders, powerful Lombard magnates to whom they could appeal for aid, given they all shared a dream of one day creating an independent kingdom which would embrace all of Italy south of the Papal States.

The Eastern Empire had several assets to counterbalance that dream: a kingdom required a sovereign lord and no Lombard ever fully trusted or was willing to serve under another. In the past they had quarrelled amongst themselves and engaged in betrayal with more purpose than they ever brought to a common enemy, and Constantinople had long been expert, using streams of gold as well as brute force, at the tactic of divide and rule, both within and without its external borders.

Constantinople also enjoyed a steady supply of enterprising generals — men who knew how to pacify revolt — and young Michael Doukeianos, newly appointed as the Catapan of Apulia, was no exception. The one port still utterly unaffected — being the largest, and ruthlessly governed by Greeks — was Bari, and from there, with few trained men and even less in the way of resources, Doukeianos set out to pacify the region known to his imperial masters as the Catapanate.

Speed of movement, paid-for betrayal, allied to that lack of cohesion amongst those he sought to overcome, were his most potent assets, giving him the ability to arrive outside a rebellious town or city before those inside were aware he was even approaching. Ill prepared to withstand his sudden assaults, with defences more often than not in an unready state, poorly led and bereft of external support, they fell one by one and the rebellion began to falter and die out.

Retaking imperial possessions was one thing; continuing to hold them with limited forces another. Every town and city in the Catapanate was partly or wholly fortified, most badly, a few formidably so: ports like Bari and Brindisi had stout walls and fortified harbours so strong that in the past they had withstood attempts to capture them lasting over a year. If inland towns had walls in different states of repair, they also had populations in a state of discontent, while to the north and west protection was needed from the Principality of Benevento and, on the eastern side of the Apennines, from the powerful Lombard fiefs of Campania: Salerno, Capua and Naples.

High in the mountains to guard against this lay a pair of immense forts, Troia and Melfi, strong enough to repel even the mighty forces of the heirs of Charlemagne. The danger for Doukeianos was simple: help from beyond those borders might still come and that would encourage those who had just rebelled in his bailiwick to rise up again. He did not have the troops to hold the vital Adriatic coastline, pacify the inland littoral and simultaneously man the mountain passes through which danger would come.

Norman mercenaries held the northern fortress of Troia, facing a papal fief, the Principality of Benevento, men who had been in the pay of Constantinople for nearly two decades. But further south stood the now ungarrisoned bastion of Melfi, which controlled the route into Campania. Here an ally had to be found or bribed and he could only come from the indigenous population, including Lombards, not all of whom were adverse to Byzantine hegemony; that race contained amongst its number men who had often served the empire faithfully as paid retainers.

Arduin of Fassano was one such, and his record in that regard was exemplary. He had just returned from the faltering reconquest of Sicily, where he had led a contingent of Apulian pikemen in the Byzantine service, until he fell out with the irascible general in command, an arrogant giant called George Maniakes. Called upon by his fellow Lombards, on his return, to join in the revolt, he had declined to take part and cast his lot with the catapan. As an envoy he had gone some way to brokering reconciliation with many rebel strongholds on behalf of Doukeianos, thus avoiding bloodshed.

If he was seen as helpful to Byzantium he possessed one other quality, equally important: the assurance he could engage reliable men to man the border, suggesting the Normans of Campania, warriors he had fought alongside in the Sicilian campaign. The fiercest, most disciplined fighting troops in Christendom, and mercenaries, Normans could be relied on to oppose the enemies of whoever paid them. Scattered throughout the southern fiefs of Italy, these men from the Atlantic seaboard had, in the last twenty years, become numerous, so much so that in many places they provided an essential tool for anyone wishing to gain or hold on to power.

Arduin’s argument for employing them was also telling: having returned from Sicily — they too had fallen foul of the same arrogant Byzantine general — they were at present unemployed; if Doukeianos did not pay them someone else might, possibly causing him more trouble than the revolt he had just crushed.

‘The Normans are bred for war, Catapan, and they live off it. They will not sit idle and just polish their weapons. Better they are in your service than they be employed by another, or left free to raid and plunder.’

‘The men you encountered in Sicily are loyal to Guaimar of Salerno.’

‘They are loyal to his purse, Catapan, and I think, now they have returned, the Prince of Salerno, who has been troubled by their presence before, would welcome the notion they be engaged elsewhere.’

The Lombard held his breath: how much did this young and inexperienced catapan know of the Normans of Campania and the bubbling stew of Lombard politics? He would know the Norman leader was Rainulf Drengot, of advancing years now, but a man who had, as a young knight, taken part in a previous Lombard revolt in Apulia, one eventually crushed by another great Byzantine soldier called Basil Boioannes.

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