August 26, 1071. The Sultan of the Turks smiles over the field at Manzikert, as the Byzantine army retreats in total disarray. Before him, treated with utmost courtesy, is the Emperor Romanus IV: his prisoner. After a millennium of domination over the Near East, the state calling itself the Roman Empire is finally losing its grip. The Battle of Manzikert is the breaking of Byzantium.
Ever since the fall of the West Roman Empire in 476 A.D., the Eastern Empire – what we call the “Byzantine” Empire – had hung on through good and bad from its brilliant capital of Constantinople. After near disasters at the hands of the Persians in the 610s AD, and then the Arab invasions of the 630s, the Empire had come back from the brink of destruction. Under the Macedonian Dynasty, the “Empire of the Romans”, as its Muslim and Bulgarian foes knew it, reestablished its military borders and expanded them. Under the Emperor Basil II “Bulgar-Slayer”, who reigned 50 years from 976 to 1025 AD, the Empire was at its military peak. Basil earned his nickname by crushing the Bulgarian Empire. In addition, he annexed the kingdoms of Georgia and Armenia, shoring up his eastern frontier as well. Byzantium had not been so strong for centuries.
The bedrock of this strength was Anatolia (or Asia Minor), the great landmass known today as Turkey – and today, we will learn why it is called Turkey. For centuries, Anatolia had been the Byzantine Empire’s granary and recruiting ground, providing both the food for its glorious capital and the manpower for its armies. The sturdy Anatolian peasant formed the Byzantine rank and file, supplemented more and more by foreign mercenaries – especially the famous Varangian Guard, an Imperial unit of heavy infantry mostly recruited from Viking adventurers.
After the death of Basil II, though, things started to go south. Basil had been the quintessential Byzantine warrior-emperor, a brilliant military leader and expert administrator – but had failed to provide the future. The throne first went to his elderly brother, then a succession of generals. The result was an unfortunate series of weak and short-term emperors that frittered away the Empire’s wealth while ignoring its borders and defenses.
Even if the Byzantine Army was the best of its age, the irregular leadership and political instability caused it to decline markedly. As the Game of Thrones-level intrigue, murder, plotting and instability consumed Constantinople, only the lack of an organized rival spared it from disaster. But that was not a permanent condition.
After the conquest of the Middle East by the Muslim insurgents, spearheaded by their great general Khalid ibn al-Walid, Byzantium had faced a constant threat from the Caliphate. First based in Damascus, then in Baghdad, this large Muslim polity had posed a direct and mortal challenge to the inheritance of Rome. By the 900s, though, the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad had sunk into terminal decline, losing control of its border regions and eventually becoming a symbolic figurehead as local warlords vied for power. It was this loss of central authority that enabled the Byzantine Empire to reemerge as the central power of the region, and it was this Muslim weakness that contributed to the lack of pressure on Byzantium’s borders.
Enter the Turks. The Turks were yet another in the seemingly inexhaustible series of nomadic tribes that descended from central Asia. They were preceded by Scythians, Medians, Persians, Parthians, Kipchaks and Cumans; they would eventually be followed by the most fearsome tribe of all, the Mongols. From a near-mythical ancestor known as Seljuk, the Turks were marked from their fellow invaders by a firm adherence to Sunni Islam and a tendency to actually establish governments in their conquered territories. There was no one able to resist the invasion of the Seljuk Turks in the broken and divided Muslim territories, and by 1040 they had occupied Baghdad and made the Abbasid Caliph their virtual puppet.
The Great Seljuk Empire soon dominated most of the Middle East, an expansive and vibrant power that set its sights west on the fractured and squabbling Byzantines.
Ground Zero for this invasion would be Armenia, the great kingdom of the Caucasus that had recently become a border province. Armenia was the chief target of the new Seljuk sultan, Alp Arslan, who was the double whammy: a good general and a good organizer. Alp Arslan strengthened the Seljuk hold in Iraq and Iran, and began to venture into the Byzantine eastern borderlands. He campaigned into Georgia and captured the great Armenian city of Ani, laying the city waste in 1064 – just as he planned to do with the rest of Anatolia. By destroying the farms and urban centers of Byzantium’s most treasured province, he could turn Anatolia into the grazing grassland so desperately needed by his people’s horses. Alp Arslan thus made himself Enemy Number One for the Byzantine Empire in one of its weakest moments.
The Empire was ruled by Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes, who had come to the throne in 1068. Though Romanus was a mildly successful general, the mercenaries within the army were not well pleased with him. The Varangian Guard in particular resented the favoritism he showed towards native troops. In the year he took power, Romanus led a campaign against the Turks, resulting in a major battlefield victory; in 1069 he repeated the trick, though his campaign soon reached a stalemate. Romanus and Alp Arslan fought several more battles throughout 1069 and 1070, but without a major result. It would take until 1071 for a final confrontation to ensue.
Romanus put together an army in early 1071 to go out and put an end to Alp Arslan once and for all. The exact number will never be known, but it was probably close to 60,000 – a huge force by medieval standards – and larger than the Turkish army, at least at first. By the time battle was joined, they were probably about the same size. The trouble with Romanus’ army was not its size but its discipline and loyalty. The last 50 years of Byzantine scheming and plotting had eroded the loyalty of many generals and soldiers. The most dangerous upshot of this was that Romanus’ own wife, the Empress Eudokia, and her son Michael were conspiring against the Emperor. Key officers in the army were in league with them and would prove to be his ultimate undoing.
Romanus marched his army into the stretches of western Armenia, and as he ventured forth he formulated a campaign plan. He would retake the key towns of Manzikert and Khilat, north of Lake Van, in a district populated by a mixed group of Armenians and Kurds. (There are no longer Armenians there; the Ottomans expelled or killed them in the Genocides of 1915.) Romanus assumed that Alp Arslan was far off in Persia. If he had been, the plan would have worked nicely, since the garrisons were small and isolated. Unfortunately for Romanus, Alp Arslan was in Syria planning a campaign against Egypt. When he learned of Romanus’s attack, Arslan quickly scooped up an army and raced north to confront his foe.
Romanus quickly captured Manzikert, but soon his scattered forces were retreating from the unexpected approach of Alp Arslan’s Turks. One general, the French mercenary Russell Balliol, purposely retreated away from the main army and then just kept going, taking his troops away from Romanus’ command. He was almost certainly involved in the plot with Empress Eudokia, especially since he failed to inform Romanus of his move. His general’s treason kept Romanus in the dark, even as Alp Arslan’s army approached.
When Romanus’ force DID run into the Turks, he sent for Balliol to rejoin him – which Balliol, of course, did not do. In spite of this apparent betrayal, Romanus was confident. His heavily armed and armored troops were the Byzantine Empire’s mainstay, a mailed fist that had routinely smashed larger armies in the past. The tactics developed over centuries relied on the Byzantine heavy cataphracts, heavy cavalry in mail which could smash lighter horsemen in the charge. The Byzantine army was professional, experienced, and well-outfitted, and Romanus had defeated Arslan before. When Alp Arslan offered a peace deal, Romanus rejected it and ordered an advance. It was August 26, 1071, and the Battle of Manzikert had begun.
The Turkish forces, like most steppe armies, were composed of light cavalry and horse archers, nimble forces that were basically dog meat if a regiment of spearmen or a squadron of heavy cavalry caught them. The typical Byzantine tactic when fighting such an army was to maintain a steady advance until the light cavalry were pinned against a terrain feature, nullifying their quicker movements and skirmishing tactics, and then smash them against it. Alp Arslan, though, had learned how the Romans fought the hard way. He was determined to avoid a repeat.
The Turks maintained their distance, retreating into open ground and loosing volleys of arrows from their horse archers. This had the desired effect of harassing and hurting the slower Byzantine forces, and the long-range swarms of projectiles scared off some of the Byzantine mercenaries. Romanus ordered his heavy troops to advance, trying to force an engagement with the Turks. The disciplined maneuver did what it was designed to do – the Turks retreated past their camp. And kept retreating. And kept retreating, the whole time showering the steadily advancing Christians with arrows.
Now is a good time to talk about the experience of the medieval soldier. You might think that their heavy arms and armor might be an overwhelming burden. As a matter of fact, the average infantryman in the U.S. Army carries far more equipment into battle than a medieval soldier. The mail coat of an infantryman or even a cavalryman weighed less than the modern IOTV, helmet, and battle rattle. This makes sense on one level: the armor of a medieval soldier was designed to stop a glancing blow from a blade or an arrow, not a 7.62mm round. This calculus changes when one learns that the average individual of the Middle Ages was smaller and less well-nourished than a modern soldier. He was shorter, skinnier, and lived on less. Evolution, malnutrition, disease and constant hardship were hallmarks of life in 1071 in a way they are not today. The medieval soldier was probably tougher mentally and inured to hardship, but he was more fragile physically.
As the Byzantine troops advanced, then, in their mail and carrying their heavy weapons under the hot August sun of southern Turkey, they were worn out by the relentless chase. The Turks never came any closer, skirmishing from a distance on their tough steppe ponies and in their light leather armor. Most medieval battles lasted a matter of hours – a sprint, in other words – while this was a marathon, and in the marathon the heavier troops suffered as the hours wore on.
By twilight, the Emperor Romanus faced a dilemma. Pushing forward would be useless; the Turks would keep retreating until night ended the battle. On the other hand, he was far from his camp and isolated in the open terrain of lower Armenia. With no other choice, he ordered his troops to fall back, and Alp Arslan’s Turks were quick to turn around and begin harassing the Byzantine retreat. As the enemy came closer and closer, Romanus ordered his exhausted troops to turn around and face the enemy.
Some of them responded. Most of them didn’t. The rearmost units continued to retreat – their general, Andronikos Doukas, was ALSO part of the Empress’s plot against her husband. Doukas made it to the Byzantine camp, leaving Romanus with only part of his tired and collapsing army, high and dry as the Turks finally surrounded him. The remnant of the Byzantine Army had no chance, and even though they fought to the end and to collapse, it was over. By the time darkness fell, so had the Byzantine army of Manzikert.
Emperor Romanus was one of the few survivors and was taken captive to Alp Arslan, where he was treated with impeccable courtesy and sympathy. Alp Arslan asked his captive over dinner, "What would you have done if I was brought before you as a prisoner?" The Emperor replied, "Perhaps I'd kill you or exhibit you in the streets of Constantinople.” Arslan chuckled, and famously replied, "My punishment is far heavier. I forgive you, and set you free."
It was a worse punishment, in the end. In Romanus’ absence, the Byzantine establishment collapsed, with his plotting Empress shunted off into a nunnery as various generals and nobles schemed over the throne. The treacherous general Andronikos Doukas put his father, John Doukas, on the throne. When Alp Arslan fulfilled his cruel mercy and released his captive (with Romanus promising a ransom) Romanus tried to retake his throne. Defeated and captured, the ex-Emperor was blinded so traumatically that he soon died of his wounds, but not before he had honorably dispatched the first payment of his ransom.
The destruction of the Byzantines’ eastern army, and the petty feuding of its upper class, was catastrophic for the Empire. The nobles and generals of Byzantium were so greedy for power that they undermined their own defense, and in so doing sacrificed all of Anatolia to invasion. Alp Arslan’s Turks spilled over the former Byzantine heartland, and from Manzikert onwards, the lands that had once been the cornerstone of the empire would have a new name gained from their new inhabitants – Turkey.
Alp Arslan was assassinated by his son in 1072 (this is really NOT the age of familial loyalty) but Malik Shah continued his father’s work, destroying every Anatolian city and turning the broad plains of Asia Minor into a great grassland for Turkish horses. Hundreds of thousands of Byzantine citizens were killed or sold into slavery, and Anatolia was for generations after a wasteland. No tax receipts, grain shipments, or sturdy peasant recruits would ever flow to Byzantium from Anatolia again. The region was never the same.
Politically, the Byzantine Empire was never the same. It had yet another golden age ahead of it: by the 1080s, the Emperor Alexios I Komnenos had somehow revived the Empire and stopped the bleeding, founding the great Komnenian dynasty in the process. Nevertheless, it was their last hurrah. The Byzantine army became nearly dependent on foreign troops to maintain their primacy, and the loss of Anatolia was a mortal wound, though it would not kill its victim for another 400 years. By then the Ottoman Empire – heirs to the Seljuk Sultans, descendants of the original Turks that had come roaring west with Alp Arslan – would finish in 1453 what had begun at Manzikert in 1071.
In the short term, though, the weakened Byzantine Empire needed help. The catastrophe at Manzikert and the collapse of the eastern borders was still an emergency years later, when Alexios I penned a note to the Popes of Rome calling for help from Western Europe to stop the Muslim invaders. What he got was not what he asked for. What Alexios got was the First Crusade.