Battle of Manzikert

Battle of Manzikert

Roman Empire

“My Sultan, the enemy army is approaching.” “Then we are also approaching them!” (Alp Arslan’s reply to a scout’s report)”What would you do if I were brought before you as a prisoner?” “Perhaps I’d kill you, or exhibit you in the streets of Constantinople.” “My punishment is far heavier. I forgive you, and set you free.” (Alp Arslan’s conversation with Romanos)“

The fortunes of the Roman Empire had sunk to their lowest ebb. For the armies of the East were dispersed in all directions, because the Turks had over-spread, and gained command of, countries between the Euxine (Black) Sea and the Hellespont, and the Aegean Sea and Syrian (Mediterranean) Seas, and the various bays, especially those which wash Pamphylia, Cilicia, and empty themselves into the Egyptian (Mediterranean) Sea.” (Anna Komnene)”Byzantine defeat severely limited the power of the Byzantines by denying them control over Anatolia, the major recruiting ground for soldiers. Henceforth, the Muslims controlled the region.

The Byzantine Empire was limited to the area immediately around Constantinople, and the Byzantines were never again a serious military force.” (Paul K Davis)“Manzikert was the empire’s death blow, though centuries remained before the remnant fell. The themes in Anatolia were literally the heart of the empire, and within decades after Manzikert, they were gone.” (John Julius Norwich)When the Western Roman Empire finally limped out of existence in 476 AD following decades of ceding territories to the Germanic tribes flooding across the Rhine and Danube frontiers, the Eastern Empire continued in strength. While part of its land was bordered by the Danube, it also had the Sahara and Arabian deserts and the Euxine (Black) Sea providing much more formidable barriers, while perpetual warfare along the Euphrates and Tigris frontiers were at least with the stable power of the Persians rather than an eclectic mix of shifting tribal coalitions.

The empire was almost restored in the early Sixth Century under Justinian, though this period that saw Italy, Africa and part of Spain recaptured was followed by the devastating Justinian Plague, an invasion by the Sassanid Persians, and then the unification of the disparate collection of Arabic tribes under the banner of Islam to decimate both powers. Egypt and the Levant, both Roman lands for half a millennium, swiftly fell, with Africa and much of Asia Minor (Asian Turkey) soon after. The Umayyad Caliphate would have to be beaten back from the gates of Constantinople itself, with reprieve only offered by the various fitnas, while further problems arose in the Balkans with the settling of tribes such as the Avars, Slavs, Bulgars, Rus and Pechenegs.

Byzantine territory (purple), Byzantine attacks (red) and Seljuk attacks (green)

These tribulations saw the dominion of the Romans shrink from the vast territories of Trajan that stretched from the Atlantic to the Red Sea and from Caledonia (Scotland) into the Sahara to Greece and Asia Minor, largely the area around Constantinople itself. There were resurgences, such as Nikephoros II “the White Death of the Saracens” reclaiming much of the border lands with the Islamic emirates to the east, and Basil II “the Bulgar slayer” annexing the lands of those hostile neighbors to the west. With the Balkans reclaimed and a strong presence stretching through Anatolia into Armenia, the Byzantines were in a strong position in the Eleventh Century. Despite this, they never commanded the resources of their forefathers, and could only succeed in facing one threat at a time, always suffering when facing opponents simultaneously in the east and west, or more likely, civil war.

Despite this geographical strength, incompetent leadership had taken its toll on the Byzantines by the late Eleventh Century. The army was hugely different from the bulldozer legions of old, often employing the guerrilla tactics of Rome’s enemies rather than brazenly seeking open battle. The rise of Islam had at one point opened a seemingly inexhaustible tap of manpower from the east the Byzantines could not match, so instead would focus on maintaining a professional force that would attack opponents one the move or launch ambushes rather than risk it all in a set piece encounter.

Cavalry became king as enemy armies would become smashed with a bold charge of cataphracts (armoured horse) rather than relying on the grind of infantry. In 1053 Constantine IX disbanded the Iberian Army (Georgia) of 50,000 men, with the imperial treasury struggling to foot the bill for such a host to stay mobilised. The recent territorial acquisitions of the Byzantines, including Armenia and Bulgaria, had seen them employ a light-touch approach that saw they lands continue largely as they were as autonomous powers, merely accepting Roman serenity and paying the necessary taxes without any attempt to impose cultural or language reform and very little military or civic occupation.

Occupying a neighbouring power was of little use when it merely removed a buffer state to expose the Byzantines to the forces beyond, and in the east that meant the marauding warriors of the Steppe. Already they had struggled with such warriors in the west, only being relived of the Avars following the Franks under Charlemagne crushing them and continuing to struggle to subdue to Pechenegs. Settled societies could be fought under the usual rules of war: burning fields; capturing cities; enslaving settled populaces; defeating armies in battle. Steppe societies did not adhere to these rules: they had no set land to defend, their priority being the livestock and horses that travelled with them; they could not easily be pinned down; they felt no need to fight a set piece battle to defend any one place, and instead were often content to withdraw if the situation did not look favorable to them. Such peoples were thus often paid off with tribute to ensure they did not become a menace to the Romans.

One group moving west from the Steppe was the Seljuk Turks, who Constantine agreed a truce with from 1053 to 1064. At its expiry their leader Alp Arslan led an army to capture the town of Ani, and when Romanos IV Diogenes rose to the purple in 1068 he entrusted Manuel Komnenos to lead an expedition to expel them. Romanos had become basileus (emperor) through marriage to Eudokia Makrembolitissa, who was keen to find a man so she could retain her recency. This meant he needed to earn the legitimacy to rule though, a sure way of doing that was the military success that evidenced God’s favor and thus ensured the support of the court and mob of Constantinople. Manuel captured Hierapolis Bambyce in Syria, then thwarted a Turkish attack against Iconium with a counterattack, but was then defeated and captured. Alp Arslan still sought peace with the Byzantines and agreed this in 1069, seeing the Egyptian Fatimids as his main foe and not wanting to be distracted by war with the Romans.

In February 1071 Romanos looked to renew this treaty, and Arslan agreed, abandoning his siege of Edessa to attack the Fatimids at Aleppo. The treaty was a ruse though, and Romanos used the Seljuk’s departure to march his troops into Armenia. His adjutant was Andronikas Doukas, son of his rival John, leading a host comprised of around 10,000 professional Byzantine soldiers; 500 Norman mercenaries; Pecheneg and Frank mercenaries; Turkic and Bulgar mercenaries; Georgian and Armenian allies; the fabled Viking Varnagian Guard; all totaling around 40,000 men. This was a huge army for Byzantium, with a dwindling population pool far less than the halcyon days of the Roman Republic over a millennium ago that could raise 90,000 soldiers for a campaign against Hannibal from central Italy alone.

The march over Asia Minor was long and arduous, with the troops feeling embittered by Romanos’ long baggage train. The great generals of old like Marius and Caesar had endeared themselves by marching with their soldiers, eating their paltry food, and generally sharing their hardships. Romanos continued his life of luxury on the march with courtiers, courtesans and slaves ensuring his carnal desires and petty pleasures were catered for even when hundreds of miles away from the palace. Some mercenaries were dismissed after plundering the local populations, and his expedition reached Theodosiopolis on the River Halys in June 1071.

He decided to continue the march rather than fortify their position, marching to Lake Van expecting to quickly capture Manzikert. Alp Arslan was already in the area though with 30,000 cavalries from Aleppo and Mosul, keeping a close eye on the Romans’ movements while their incompetent commander failed to adequately scout ahead. Romanos had his general Joseph Tarchaniotes take some troops and the Varangians and mercenaries ahead, splitting the army into two halves of 20,000. It is unclear what happened to the segment that splintered off, with Islamic sources claiming it was either annihilated or fled at the sight of the Seljuk host.

Romanos was unaware that Tarchaniotes would not be joining him and had continued to Manzikert, which he captured on 23 August. As the armies approached their foraging parties began to skirmish, and the Romans fell back on Manzikert.

Byzantine territory (purple), Byzantine campaigns (red) and Seljuk campaigns (green)

Romanos believed this was merely a vanguard and sent his Armenian general Basilakes with cavalry to confront them, though they were routed, and the general captured. Romanos prepared his troops for battle, though his left wing was almost surrounded by the approaching Turks and forced to retreat. The Turks hid in surrounding hills that night to nullify any Roman counterattack. The following day as skirmishes increased many of the Turkic mercenaries in the Byzantine army began to defect. Romanos still rejected peace overtures as he needed to settle the matter of who was master of Anatolia and needed the legitimacy a win would bring him, while knowing raising and marching a new army through Anatolia would be difficult and ruinously expensive. On 26 August the Romans again arrayed for battle and marched towards the Turks’ position. Alp Arslan appeared to his troops in a white funeral shroud, suggesting he was willing to die in battle. Doukas led the Roman reserve, with the Seljuks organized into a crescent some three miles away.

As the Byzantines approached the Turks continued to withhold their center, using their horse archers to sting at the Roman host like wasps and irritate them while driving them into the trap with which their wings could surround them.

Despite these attacks, the Byzantine force pressed on with the Seljuks seemingly reluctant to engage them directly. They took Alp Arslan’s camp by the end of the afternoon, though the crescent shape was beginning to take its toll on the wings. Marching through the August heat of Anatolia with dust drying throats, cracking lips and burning skin, the Byzantines became increasingly irritated by these archers’ raids. Units began peeling away from the main block to challenge the Seljuks, though at this the Turks would retreat. On the Romans pressed against their seemingly cowardly foe, only for the horsemen to deploy the classic Parthian stratagem of turning about once that group was distant from the main body and annihilating them. As they did, so the Roman army began to disintegrate piecemeal. As dust swirled round the battlefield and arrows flew, most soldiers had little idea that their army was falling apart, only beginning to notice that the flanks were reducing, and those arrows were getting closer. It was down to the leadership to organize the situation, and Romanos realized he needed to order a withdrawal to avert disaster.

A miniature depicting Alp Arslan, located in Topkapı Palace Museum (TSMK).

That he looked to do at night, though any night operation is fraught with difficulty. Lacking modern communications and hampered by the chaos of battle, the order was either misunderstood or willfully ignored. Doukas ignored the order to form a rearguard, and promptly marched back to the camp at Manzikert. Confusion spread amongst the Byzantines at this retreat, and with it panic began to set in. Romanos needed to maintain order and confidence in his men, but once the sparks of panic take light that is almost impossible.

As that panic spread men stopped caring about their campaign, their emperor and their unit, and instead cared only for themselves. This kind of confused chaos was where the Turks thrived, and men threw down spears and shields as they sought to flee the field to the safety of the camp as quickly as they could, their only concern to not be the last to run and so end up like so many other arrows-filled corpses being left as carrion for the crows. The Seljuks seized the opportunity to charge into and shatter the Byzantines, routing the right flank. The army was now comprised of largely mercenary and allied troops rather than Romans, and they thus held little stake in the outcome, thus eagerly abandoning their equipment to flee a fight that was not theirs. The left wing routed soon after and the center was surrounded, with Romanos wounded and taken prisoner.

The Turks pursued their retreating foe throughout the night, and by morning the professional corps of Byzantine troops had been destroyed, while Doukas had fled.

Alp Arslan refused to believe at first that the battered and bloodied figure before him was the emperor of the Romans. He had Romanos kiss the ground with his boot on his neck, though after that humiliation treated him reasonably well. He offered the pre-battle peace terms, and let him eat at his table while keeping him captive for a week. Antioch, Edessa, Hierapolis and Manzikert were surrendered, though the core of Anatolia remained Roman. Some 1.5 million gold pieces would be paid as indemnity, with a further 360,000 annually. Alp Arslan’s son would marry Romanos’ daughter. Two emirs and 100 Mamluks would escort Romanos back to Constantinople. Unlike settled societies, the Seljuks often wanted plunder and dominance rather than the annexation of much territory.

Alp Arslan humiliating Emperor Romanos IV. From a 15th-century illustrated French translation of Boccaccio‘s De Casibus Virorum Illustrium.

While Manzikert was not the death knell of the Romans, it began another destructive chain of events that would be. Far from winning the legitimacy he needed, Romanos’ reign was now fatally weakened. Doukas would defeat him in battle three times in another destructive civil war, deposing and blinding him – as was the custom, along with nose slitting and emasculating – before sending him in exile to the island of Proti. Where he would die soon after from the blinding, with Michael VII replacing him as basileus.

Byzantine casualties from the battle were relatively low, with around 2,000 killed and 4,000 captured, though their system of alliances and mercenaries was shattered. It saw them forfeit the Anatolian heartlands though in the civil strife to follow, and the Turks pressed further and further into Asia Minor as emperors struggled to retain a grip on Constantinople itself, let alone further afield. They would never again be seen as a major military force, now lacking the farmland needed to support a large population and, crucially, the recruiting ground for soldiers to campaign. The loss of Anatolia would lead to the call for aid from the collection of emerging European nations that formed Christendom as the emperor sought to set aside the growing rift between Roman Catholicism and Byzantium Orthodoxy.

What was followed was Pope Urban II’s call to crusade, though as the ragtag army made its way through the Balkans with little hope of success, the Byzantines could only be motivated to ferry them across the Bosporus in order to stop them pillaging their lands. This force would surprise all by storming through Anatolia to drive the Seljuks out of Antioch and Edessa, then march south to smash the Fatimids and capture Jerusalem.

What followed was decades of war as crusaders poured east until Saladin united the Muslim worlds to retake Jerusalem. These taken lands and cities would be established as quasi-autonomous crusader kingdoms though rather than being handed back into the Roman Empire. A further crusade followed, though by the time of the fourth relations were so sour betwixt Constantinople and Europe that the crusaders sacked the city after being invited by the emperor to support his usurpation in return for a payment that would cover the cost of their fleet to the Venetians. Thus, the city fell in 1204, and though it was gradually regained, it never got back to strength. Mehmet II “the Conqueror” would capture the city in 1453 to rename it Istanbul, ending the Roman Empire and establishing it as the capital of the Turks’ Ottoman Empire, the last caliphate which would persevere until the First World War.

Today the largest mosque in Turkey, the Çamlıca Mosque of Istanbul, has four minarets that span 107.1m, a measurement that refers to Manzikert taking place in 1071). Turkey intends to hold major celebrations in 2023 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the republic, 2053 for the 600th anniversary of the fall of Constantinople, 2071 as the 1,000th anniversary Manzikert.

Written by Jack Tappin

Battle of Manzikert

Roman Empire