Battle of Levounion

It’s late April of the year 1091. Somewhere in southern Thrace, Emperor Alexios Komnenos rides in the vanguard of his recently assembled army, marching to challenge his enemy. 

A small group of riders loom in the distance, racing towards them. Alexios, squinting his eyes, recognises his own scouting party, sent to examine the area. 

The enemy was but a few kilometres away. Nodding to his officers, Alexios gives the order to quicken the pace. The battle was about to begin. It’s summer of the year 1086. After decades of weak rule of the Doukid dynasty and disastrous military defeats the once mighty Eastern Roman Empire is teetering at its foundations. 

The Imperial throne in Constantinople is held by Alexios, an emperor of the Komnenos noble family who managed to overthrow the incompetent Doukas dynasty in a bloodless coup, five years earlier. Though Alexios was considered a moderately skilled monarch, the extent of the rot within the Roman state that he had to face after his accession was enormous. 

The Roman economy suffered from stagnation, severe inflation and excessive spending. 

Moreover, the crippling defeat at Manzikert at the hands of Seljuk Turks fifteen years prior deprived the Byzantine Empire of control within the vast lands of the Anatolian Plateau, and brought to question their position as a leading power of the medieval world. But these were not the only problems facing Emperor Alexios, as he had to address the ever increasing fragmentation of his state and quell frequent rebellions threatening his reign.

 It seemed abundantly clear, that Alexios’s was ruling “in interesting times” on many different levels" Despite these problems, he somehow managed to survive the first couple of years and slowly carry the Empire through this tumultuous time.

 Since 1087, the Eastern Roman Empire had to face increased pressure from beyond the Danube, as the nomadic tribes of the Cumans and Pechenegs, being hard pressed from the north by the rulers of Kievan Rus, frequently dared to cross the river and raid the countryside of the weakened Empire. Both tribes were of Turkic origin and in the preceding decades were often employed as mercenaries fighting against the Eastern Romans.

 Over the next four years, Alexios achieved little success in curbing the nomadic threat which, as the number of Cumans and Pechenegs steadily rose, became a heavy burden on the Byzantine economy. Yet the Emperor was unable to defeat the constantly rising number of raiders in a pitched battle, as it was too risky to hope that roughly twenty thousand Eastern Roman troops would be able to repel an army several times bigger, even if that number was inflated by women and children. 

By 1091 the Pecheneg and Cuman raiders were already roaming the countryside of Thrace, dangerously close to the capital. But luckily for Alexios in the spring of the same year he at last was presented with some good news.

 Fresh intelligence reports that he had received indicated that a significant wedge had recently emerged in the relationship between the Cumans and Pechenegs. Supposedly their alliance was severely strained over disagreements regarding the spoils of war and how they were divided, creating a substantial opportunity for the Byzantine Emperor.

 Alexios had waited a long time for such a chance. Using his diplomatic acumen and enticing promises of generous amounts of gold, he managed to turn the Cuman leaders to his side, adding roughly 40 thousand to his numbers. 

Of course, just like the Pechenegs, the Cumans travelled with entire families, which made the actual number of soldiers somewhat lower, but still Alexios managed to considerably increase the odds against the Pecheneg invaders. With the promise of military assistance from Cumans, Byzantines could finally plan an offensive action against the invaders. In mid April of 1091 the main body of the Pecheneg horde was seen camping in southern Thrace, not far away from the city of Ainos. 

Alexios had his army assembled, and upon the arrival of Cuman reinforcements he departed Constantinople to finally face the threat his people had suffered under for the past four year. In the early morning of the 29th of April, the Eastern Roman army arrived in the vicinity of the Pecheneg camp. 

Lack of any significant upheaval coming from the tents promised that the enemy leaders were unaware of the Byzantine troops approaching. With no hesitation, Alexios gave the command to attack, and sound of thousands of hoofbeats filled the surroundings as his men rushed to battle. Upon hearing the men yelling and horses galloping, the Pecheneg camp bustled with motion. 

The tribesmen grabbed their weapons and donned rudimentary sets of armour, but it was too late to form a battle line or even barely organized groups of warriors. 

The Byzantine army struck the camp with all its might butchering everyone who was unable to flee Roman sword or Cuman arrow. 

In a matter of minutes, the camp was overran and soon the last of the Pecheneg warriors who chose not to flee were added to the death toll. The Turkic tribesmen were totally unprepared for such a surprise blow at the hands of the Eastern Romans after four years of relatively easy plunder within the fertile Byzantine lands. Their force was virtually wiped out, and all of the survivors were captured and placed into imperial service. The battle, or rather the massacre, was the first meaningful victory for the Emperor Alexios Komnenos, and likely one of the precious few Byzantine victories in the last fifty years. 

Alexios’ ultimately successful struggle against the nomadic tribes from the other side of the Danube served as a turning point in the history of the Eastern Roman Empire. 

Not only had Alexios dispelled the Pecheneg threat inside the Empire, but also profoundly contributed to the later demise of the Pechenegs as an independent tribe. 

The Battle of Levounion was a turning point for the Byzantine Empire. Alexios proved to be able to rise to the challenge in the hour of need, and gained a much needed boost to his popularity in the wake of the battle, which certainly helped ease his later reign. 

The time of Alexios Komnenos on the imperial throne, although still marred with difficulties, ended the destructive streak of inept emperors and sparked a new, bright era for the Eastern Roman Empire.