Today in History – April 29, 1091 – Battle of Levounion

As the last decade of the 11th century commenced, the Byzantine Empire appeared to be on its last legs.  The defeat at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 is generally tagged as the root cause of the rapid collapse.  Yet Manzikert could have been just another military defeat, but for the aftermath.  A decade of palace coups, incompetent emperors and civil war that followed saw the rapid collapse of Byzantine frontiers in Anatolia to invading Turkmen.  By 1080 Anatolia with half of the Empire’s manpower and most of its grain supply was lost.  In the west the Normans were invading the Balkans.  In the north the Pechenegs were raiding across the Danube as far as Thrace.

Alexios I Komnenos
Alexios I Komnenos

In 1081 another palace coup got the capable general Alexios Komnenos to power.  Most of the first decade was spent driving the Normans out of the Balkans.  Then just as that task was almost done (the first victory of what is referred to as the Komenian restoration, the Pechenegs invaded in force with an army of 80,000 men and headed for Constantinople in alliance with the Chaka the Turkish Emir of Smyrna.  The Byzantines simply did not have the men to repel this force, so Alexios won over another nomadic tribe the Cumans with gifts of gold.

This motley army surprised the Pechenegs at Levounion on the banks of the Maritsa river.  The unprepared Pechenegs were massacred and their remnants were taken into Byzantine military service as mercenaries.  This battle eliminated the Pechenegs as a military threat to the Empire.  Levounion was the first major military victory won by the Byzantines in half a century and turning point in the beleaguered Empire’s fortunes.  It allowed the Byzantines to finish the pacification of the Balkans and turn their attention to Anatolia.  Even though the Byzantines never took back all of Anatolia, under the Komnenii (Alexios, his son John II and his grandson Manuel I) they took back the coastal grain producing region and most of the major cities.

Unfortunately for the Byzantines another typical bout of dynastic intrigue and civil war a century later would draw the covetous glances of the Fourth Crusade and make the Komnenian restoration ultimately ephemeral.

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