"This man who was of such a size and such a character was inferior to the Emperor alone in fortune and eloquence and in other gifts of nature." - The Crusader Prince Bohemond of Taranto
7 March 1111, Bohemond of Taranto of House Hauteville, Norman adventurer, one of the leaders of the First Crusade and later Prince of Antioch, died at the age of 58 in Sicily.
“Now [Bohemond] was such as, to put it briefly, had never before been seen in the land of the Romans [that is, Greeks], be he either of the barbarians or of the Greeks (for he was a marvel for the eyes to behold, and his reputation was terrifying). Let me describe the barbarian's appearance more particularly -- he was so tall in stature that he overtopped the tallest by nearly one cubit, narrow in the waist and loins, with broad shoulders and a deep chest and powerful arms. And in the whole build of the body he was neither too slender nor overweighted with flesh, but perfectly proportioned and, one might say, built in conformity with the canon of Polycleitus... His skin all over his body was very white, and in his face the white was tempered with red. His hair was yellowish, but did not hang down to his waist like that of the other barbarians; for the man was not inordinately vain of his hair, but had it cut short to the ears. Whether his beard was reddish, or any other colour I cannot say, for the razor had passed over it very closely and left a surface smoother than chalk... His blue eyes indicated both a high spirit and dignity; and his nose and nostrils breathed in the air freely; his chest corresponded to his nostrils and by his nostrils...the breadth of his chest. For by his nostrils nature had given free passage for the high spirit which bubbled up from his heart. A certain charm hung about this man but was partly marred by a general air of the horrible... He was so made in mind and body that both courage and passion reared their crests within him and both inclined to war. His wit was manifold and crafty and able to find a way of escape in every emergency. In conversation he was well informed, and the answers he gave were quite irrefutable. This man who was of such a size and such a character was inferior to the Emperor alone in fortune and eloquence and in other gifts of nature.“ (Anna Comnena, “Alexiad”)
|An image of a southern Norman knight from the days of the First Crusade by an unknown artist|
The Norman condottiero Robert of Hauteville, nicknamed “The Guiscard”, meaning either “resourceful”, “the Fox” or “The Weasel”, obviously had a rather peculiar sense of humour on top of utter ruthlessness, ambition and loads of political and military skill. When he heard the tale of Buamundus the clumsy giant he promptly rechristened his oversized firstborn Marc Bohemond. Grown up, Bohemond kept his giant frame, inherited his father’s good looks, cunning, prowess, the family feud with Emperor Alexios Komnenos and maybe the dream of capturing Constantinople one fine day. Robert Guiscard had repudiated Bohemond’s mother, though, and married the ambitious Lombard princess Sikelgaita who tried to poison her stepson to secure the Hauteville throne of Sicily and southern Italy for her own offspring Roger Borsa. However, at the Guiscard’s death in 1085, Bohemond and the formidable Sikelgaita came to an agreement, he inherited Taranto, harassed Alexios for a few years and then came a real godsend for an ambitious man approaching middle age: Pope Urban II called for the First Crusade, ironically enough as an answer to Emperor Alexios plea for help to the west when he was up to his eastern imperial neck in marauding Seljuks. And Normans. Bohemond of Taranto joined the enterprise with some of the finest troops in Europe, his southern Norman knights.
|Bohemond's finest hour - climbing the walls of Antioch alone,|
as imagined by Gustave Doré
Famously, Emperor Alexios got far more than he had bargained for when the Crusader armies arrived at the gates of Constantinople in November 1096. His price for provisioning and shipping a foreign invaders’ host across the Bosporus into his own hinterland was a western feudal of oath allegiance from the Crusader princes and the promise of returning reconquered Byzantine territories in Asia Minor to the rule of the empire. While making Alexios’ teenage daughter and historiographer Anna swoon with his manly presence, Bohemond took the oath like the rest, Godfrey of Bouillon, Baldwin of Boulogne, Raymond of Toulouse and all the others. And after the conquest of the eastern metropolis Antioch in 1098 with Bohemond leading and showing all of his silver-tongued duplicity along with his fighting skills, he gave Alexios the finger and Bohemond of Taranto became Bohemond, Prince of Antioch. Half a year after the capture of Jerusalem and the end of the Crusade, Bohemond pilgrimed at last to the Holy City, to fulfil his crusader vow and intriguing to curb the Lotharingian influence in the new Kingdom of Heaven. All was set for Bohemond to expand his new powerbase to the east into Muslim and westward into Byzantine territories when his fortune failed.
|Bohemond's mausoleum in Canaso di Puglia|
In Muslim captivity while the new King of Jerusalem was proclaimed and having the doubtful honour to be part of one of the first major defeats of an army of the Crusader Kingdoms against the Seljuks at Harran northwest of Aleppo in 1104, Bohemond returned to Italy to gather fresh troops. Emperor Alexios took the chance to make a grab for Antioch while Bohemond married the daughter of Philip I of France, gathered an army of more than 30,000 men in something of a private Crusade and directed them in a strategically sound move into Greece to relieve the Byzantine pressure from his Principality of Antioch. Ill-omened ground for him, though. Alexios had defeated him there before when he led troops during the wars of his illustrious father. And while Robert Guiscard won the Battle of Dyrrhachium, Durrës in present-day Albania, back in 1081 against Alexios, Bohemond’s men besieging the place in 1108 were ravaged by a plague, Venice’s fleet, then allied with Byzantium, cut him off from the sea and Bohemond was forced to surrender to Alexios. The Treaty of Devol, concluded between the emperor and the condottiero, made Bohemond an imperial vassal receiving imperial pay and placed the Principality of Antioch under Byzantine overlordship. Bohemond went to Sicily into his half-brother’s domains, quite heartbroken. He died, a fortnight after Roger Borsa, and was buried in Apulian Canosa in a mausoleum of the Cathedral of San Sabino.
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