Tides of War: Byzantium’s Vacillating Imperial Fortunes – Part 8

The Seljuks and Manzikert

“…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, nearly all the countries between the Euxine Sea and the Hellespont, and the Aegean and Syrian Seas, and the various bays, especially those which wash Pamphylia, Cilicia, and empty themselves into the Egyptian Sea.”

 – The Alexiad, Book 1, Anna Komnene (1148)

Manzikert must have been a word synonymous with “disaster” to the Byzantines of the Middle Ages. Conversely, to the Turks it might have meant “victory”.

In truth, Manzikert is just a place (now called Malazgirt) in eastern Anatolia. But it was here that the army of Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes met that of Sultan Alp Arslan, and history turned soundly against the Romani (the name the residents of the Byzantine Empire would have used for themselves, literally “Romans”).

The architects of their demise were the Seljuks, a collection of Central Asian nomadic tribes that converted to Islam in the 10th century and embarked on a series of conquests, eventually forming an empire that encompassed all of the former lands of Persia (absorbing elements of the Arabic Abassid empire) and threatening the eastern territories of the Byzantines.

Manzikert 1

Early victories by the Seljuks afforded them control over the strategically important territory of Armenia. Seemingly outmatched, the emperors in Constantinople sought peace, and the Seljuks agreed, preferring to direct their efforts against the Fatimids in Egypt (for the time being).

For Romanos Diogenes though, a conveniently timed treaty allowed him the opportunity to launch a sneak attack and attempt to wrest back the lands his predecessors had lost. Unfortunately he was beset by political problems at home that forced him to entrust a significant part of his forces to Andronikos Doukas, his co-regent and direct rival.

The army they marched across Anatolia was composed of the bulk of the professional Byzantine forces: the western and eastern tagmata; Frankish, Norman, Bulgarian and Pecheneg mercenaries; and most of the Varangian Guard. It numbered somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000 men (medieval sources were notoriously inaccurate about such things) and was the largest concentration of the Empire’s military seen in some time.

It was an army designed to strike a decisive blow: to end the threat of the Seljuks and restore Constantinople’s authority in the east, once and for all.

It would fail.

Manzikert 2

On the 23rd of August, 1071AD, after (foolishly) splitting his forces in two, Romanos managed to capture the town of Manzikert, but was immediately repulsed by the advancing army of Alp Arslan, who had abandoned his attack on the Fatamids after learning of the Byzantine double-cross and force-marched 20,000 to 30,000 of his own men to meet them.

After three days of maneuvering, trying to bring the elusive Seljuks (who were fighting in typical nomadic-steppe style) to battle and being constantly harassed by their archers, the Byzantines were exhausted. With night fast approaching and no likelihood of the decisive engagement he was seeking, Romanos ordered a general withdrawal, no doubt hoping to retire to a fortified camp and resume hostilities in the morning.

Unfortunately, in the confusion of battle things quickly began to go awry. Doukas, either accidently or deliberately, abandoned the Emperor (who was commanding the Byzantine centre) with the entire rearguard. Meanwhile, the right wing misunderstood Romanos’ orders and became disordered.

Manzikert 3

It was an opportunity Alp Arslan would immediately take advantage of. Seeing the confusion in his enemy’s ranks, he ordered an attack that overwhelmed the Byzantine right, then the left; and finally surrounded the centre where Romanos Diogenes made his stand with the Varangian Guard.

Despite their valour, the Emperor was wounded and captured, and the forces that stayed close to him were cut down. Somewhere between 2,000 and 8,000 were killed, while another 4,000 were captured. At least 20,000 managed to flee, scattered to the wind for all intents and purposes.

And that was that.

Romanos would later conclude a new treaty with Arslan that redrew the map with Armenia on the Seljuk side of the border, and agreed to pay a regular tribute to secure his own release. He was then promptly deposed at Constantinople in a coup that led to his eventual mutilation and death.

More internal dissension, coupled with the loss of so many of the Byzantines’ armed forces, would lead to the continued erosion of the territories in Asia-Minor until the Seljuks controlled almost all of it but for the Aegean coast.

Manzikert 4

It was a perilous situation to be in: without the vital Anatolian heartland, the Byzantines could no longer furnish themselves with the men or the resources to maintain the viability of their empire.

But it would take a miracle to reverse the tide now. A miracle, or a few words from the Bishop of Rome…

Next part: Alexius Komnenos and the Crusaders

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About ethanreilly

Ethan Reilly is an author and blogger who lives in Brisbane, Australia. Did he mention he blogs?
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