The Alexiad, Book I, Chapters X and XI
The Alexiad by Anna Komnene
It seems to me that if a body is sickly, the sickliness is often aggravated by external causes, but that occasionally, too, the causes of our illnesses spring up of themselves, although we are apt to blame the inequalities of the climate, indiscretion in diet, or perhaps, too, the humours of our animal juices, as the cause of our fevers. Similarly, like these physical ailments, I fancy the weakness of the Romans at that time was partly the cause of these deadly plagues: I mean the various men before mentioned, the Ursels, the Basilacii, and all the crowd of pretenders, but partly, too, it was Fate that introduced other aspirants to the throne from abroad, and foisted them on the Empire like an irremediable sore and incurable disease. To this latter class belonged that braggart Robert, so famed for his tyrannical disposition. Normandy indeed begot him, but he was nursed and reared by consummate Wickedness. The Roman Empire really brought this formidable foe upon herself by affording a pretext for all the wars he waged against us in proposing a marriage with a foreign, barbaric race, quite unsuitable to us; or rather it was the carelessness of the reigning Emperor, Michael, who united our family with the Ducas. Let no one be angry with me if I sometimes censure one of my blood-relations (for I am allied by blood to the Ducas on my mother’s side), for I have determined to write the truth before all things, and, as far as this man is concerned, I have voiced the general censures. For this same Emperor, Michael Ducas, betrothed his own son, Constantine, to this barbarian’s daughter, and from that arose all the hostilities. Now, we shall give an account of this prince Constantine in due course; also of his nuptial contract, in other words this barbaric alliance, and also of his appearance, and beauty, and size, and physical and mental characteristics. At that point I shall also briefly deplore my own misfortunes after I have told the tale of this alliance, and the defeat of the whole barbarian force, and the death of these pretenders from Normandy, who had been reared against the Roman Empire by Michael’s want of prudence. But first I must retrace my steps a little, and speak of this man Robert, and give details of his descent and career, and relate to what a pitch of power the turn of affairs had brought him, or to put it more reverentially, bow far Providence had allowed him to rise by shewing indulgence to his mischievous desires and machinations.
This Robert was Norman by descent, of insignificant origin in temper tyrannical, in mind most cunning, brave in action, very clever in attacking the wealth and substance of magnates, most obstinate in achievement, for he did not allow any obstacle to prevent his executing his desire. His stature was so lofty that he surpassed even the tallest, his complexion was ruddy, his hair flaxen, his shoulders were broad, his eyes all but emitted sparks of fire, and in frame he was well-built where nature required breadth, and was neatly and gracefully formed where less width was necessary. So from tip to toe this man was well-proportioned, as I have repeatedly heard many say. Now, Homer says of Achilles that when he shouted, his voice gave his hearers the impression of a multitude in an uproar, but this man’s cry is is said to have put thousands to flight. Thus equipped by fortune, physique and character, he was naturally indomitable, and subordinate to nobody in the world. Powerful natures are ever like this, people say, even though they be of somewhat obscure descent.
Such then was the man, and as he would not endure any control, he departed from Normandy with only five followers on horseback, and thirty on foot all told. After leaving his native land, he roamed amid the mountain-ridges, caves, and hills of Lombardy, as the chief of a robber-band, and by attacks on travellers acquired horses, and also other possessions and weapons. Thus the prelude of this man’s life was marked by much bloodshed and many murders. While lingering in those parts of Lombardy, he came under the notice of Gulielmus Mascabeles, who was then ruler over the greater part of the territory adjacent to Lombardy, and as he drew a rich annual income from these lands, he furnished himself with a good body of troops and became a powerful prince. He informed himself of the manner of man, physical and mentally, that Robert was, and then with a wonderful lack of foresight, attached him to himself, and betrothed one of his daughters to him. The marriage was completed, and though Gulielmus admired Robert for his strength and experience in warfare, yet his affairs did not prosper as he had hoped. He had even given him a city as a kind of wedding-gift, and lavished various other marks of kindness upon him. However, Robert grew disaffected, and meditated-rebellion. At first he played the friend and gradually increased his forces until he had trebled his cavalry and doubled his infantry. And thereafter the cloak of friendliness slipped off, and little by little his evil disposition was laid bare. Daily he would give, or pick up, some pretext for a quarrel, and continuously adopted courses of a kind that are wont to engender disputes, and then fighting and wars. Since the aforesaid Gulielmus Mascabeles far surpassed him in wealth and influence, Robert renounced all idea of meeting him openly in battle, and concocted a wicked plot instead. For, while professing friendship and feigning repentance, he was secretly preparing a terrible scheme, which was hard to detect, in order to capture all Mascabeles’ towns, and make himself master of all his possessions. As a start he opened negotiations for peace, and sent an embassy to ask Gulielmus to come in person to a conference. Gulielmus welcomed peace with Robert, because he was extremely fond of his daughter, and fixed a meeting for the morrow; and Robert indicated the place where they would meet for discussion, and arranging a truce with each other. In this place were two peaked hills rising from the plain to equal height, and standing diametrically opposite each other; the intervening ground was swampy, and over-grown with all manner of trees and bushes. On this ground that crafty Robert planted an ambuscade of four very brave armed men, and adjured them to keep careful watch all round, and as soon as they saw him at grips with Gulielmus, to run up against the latter without an instant’s delay. After these preliminary preparations, Robert, the arch-schemer, forsook the hill which he had designated beforehand for the conference with Mascabeles, and appropriated, so to say, the second hill, and taking fifteen horsemen and about fifty-six foot-soldiers up with him, posted them there, and then disclosed his whole plot to the more important among them. He also commanded one to hold his armour ready for him to put on quickly, namely, his helmet, shield, and short sword; to the four men in ambush he had given injunctions to rush very quickly to his aid directly they saw Mascabeles at grips with him. On the appointed day Gulielmus was coming to the hill to the spot which Robert had indicated to him beforehand, with the intention of completing a treaty; when Robert saw him drawing near, he met him on horseback, and embraced and welcomed him right heartily. So they both halted on the slope, a little distance from the summit of the hill, talking of what they meant to do. The crafty Robert wasted the time by talking of one subject after another, and then said to Gulielmus: “Why in the world should we tire ourselves by sitting on horseback? Why not dismount, and sit on the ground, and talk freely of the necessary matters?” Mascabeles foolishly obeyed, all unaware of the guile, and the danger into which he was being led, and when he saw Robert get on his horse, he dismounted too, and resting his elbow on the ground, started the discussion afresh. Robert now professed fealty to Mascabeles for the future, and called him his faithful benefactor and lord. Hereupon, Mascabeles’ men, seeing that the leaders had dismounted, and apparently started an argument afresh, dismounted too; or rather some did, and tied their reins to the branches, and lay down and rested in the shade cast by the horses and the trees, while the others rode home. For they were all tired from the warmth and want of food and drink (for it was the summer season when the sun casts its rays vertically, and the heat had become unbearable). So much then for these; but Robert, the sly fox, had arranged all this beforehand, and now suddenly throws himself on Mascabeles, drops his kindly expression for a furious one, and attacks him with murderous intent. And gripping, he was gripped in return, and dragged, and was dragged, and together they went rolling down the hill. When the four men waiting in ambush saw this, they jumped out of the marsh, ran at Gulielmus, bound him, and then ran back as if to join Robert’s horsemen stationed on the other hill, but they were already galloping down the slope towards them, and behind came Gulielmus’ men in hot pursuit. Robert for his part jumped on his horse, quickly donned his helmet, seized his spear, and brandished it fiercely and sheltering himself behind his shield, turned round, and struck one of Gulielmus’ men such a blow with his spear that he yielded up his life on the spot. In the meantime, he held back the rush of his father-in-law’s cavalry, and checked the relief they were bringing (because when they saw Robert’s horsemen coming down upon them from above with the position all in their favour, they immediately turned their backs). After Robert had in this wise stopped the onrush of Gulielmus’ horsemen, Mascabeles was taken bound and a prisoner of war to the very fortress which he had given as wedding-gift to Robert at the time he betrothed his daughter to him. And so it came about that the city had its own master as ” prisoner ” within it, and hence probably it got its name of ” prison-house.” And it will not be amiss if I enlarge on Robert’s cruelty. For when he had once got Mascabeles in his power, he first had all his teeth pulled out, and demanded for each of them a stupendous weight of money, and enquired where this money was stored. He did not leave off drawing them until he had taken all, for both teeth and money gave out simultaneously, and then Robert cast his eyes upon Gulielmus’ eyes, and grudging him his sight, deprived him of his eyes.