by Giorguis Theotios
Barnsley, Eng. / Philadelphia: Pen & Sword / Casemate, 2020. Pp. xii, 196+.
Illus., maps, plates, notes, biblio., index. $32.95. ISBN: 1526744287
“Now the man [Bohemond] was such. as to put it briefly, had never before been seen in the land of the Romans, be he either of the barbarians or the Greeks, for he was a marvel for the eyes to behold and his reputation was terrifying….”
Byzantine princess Anna Komnena, a gifted writer, and the daughter of emperor Alexios I, left a memorable pen portrait of the Norman leader Bohemond of Taranto, who visited the Imperial court in Constantinople in 1097 during the First Crusade. She was just 14 years old, he would have been about 42. For three decades the lives of Bohemond and Alexios would be closely entangled, mostly as adversaries, sometimes as mutually suspicious allies.
Bohemond’s father was Robert de Hauteville, better know by his nickname Guiscard (meaning “cunning”) a Norman adventurer who carved out a dukedom in southern Italy. In 1058 the marriage of Bohemond’s mother to Robert, her distant cousin, was annulled by the Church. Bohemond lost his shot at inheriting his father’s lands and title. Nevertheless, he was such a capable warrior that Robert kept him on as second in command of his army.
While the sights of the other leading Crusaders were firmly fixed on the ultimate prize of Jerusalem, Bohemond grabbed the prosperous and historic walled city of Antioch and its surrounding territory in northern Syria.
This book, by historian Giorgios Theotokis, is the first biography of Bohemond in English since R. B. Yewdale’s Bohemond I, Prince of Antioch (1917). In the intervening century, three generations of historians and archaeologists have vastly improved our understanding of medieval warfare. Theotokis examines Bohemond’s record from three different view points: as a strategist, as a tactician, and as a “trans-cultural warrior.”
The Byzantines and the Muslims, both of whom practiced sophisticated political-military doctrines, regarded the Crusaders as big, dumb jocks whose only concept of operations was all-out frontal assault on horseback. This sometimes worked, thanks to their individual fighting prowess and the superb quality of their weapons and armor. Bohemond, however, had extensive experience fighting the Byzantine army in Italy and the Balkans. The Byzantines employed a large number of Turkic mercenary horse archers, whose fighting style was unfamiliar to most Westerners. It involved feigned retreats to lure the enemy into reckless pursuit, ambush and encirclement:
“Bohemond’s remarkable adaptability to any battle situation, and his pursuit of a battle-seeking strategy to make optimum use of limited forces, explains why he was viewed by his allies and his enemies alike as the true military leader of the First Crusade”. (page 108)
In 1100 Bohemond was captured in battle by the Turks and held prisoner for three years until an immense ransom of 130,000 dinars was paid (equivalent to nearly 18,000 troy ounces of gold, which would be worth over $33 million today.) Returning to Europe to recruit reinforcements, Bohemond arranged a brilliant political marriage with a daughter of the French king. With a fresh army, he renewed his attack on the Byzantines, but Alexios defeated him in Albania, forcing him to sign the humiliating Treaty of Devol in 1108, which reduced the Principality of Antioch to a vassal state of the Empire.
Broken in spirit, Bohemond never returned to the East and died in Italy in 1111, but his descendants ruled Antioch until Bohemond VI was driven out by the Egyptian Mamluks in 1268.
Bohemond of Taranto will be enjoyed by readers with an interest in the military history of the Crusades. The maps, reproduced in muddy gray tones, are not always easy to read, but this is not the author’s fault.