The defeat of the Byzantine army by the Seljuks Turks in August, 1071, is one of the decisive battles in history.


In 1068, Romanus IV Diogenes was crowned as the new Emperor of the Byzantine Empire. Supposedly he was an arrogant man with a strong sense of self-importance. Supposedly, he was also a brave soldier. Romanus understood the threat the Seljuks posed to his empire, and he hoped to extend his influence into parts of Turkish-held Armenia. In Constantinople, Romanus had to deal with the Ducas family. They loathed him and envied his rise to power and were therefore resolved to bring about his destruction. Romanus was so afraid of his enemies executing a coup that he could hardly leave the capital to go on campaigns. As a result, he spent a lot of time attempting to improve his standing army by recruiting new forces and encouraging new training methods and inventions.

The huge mistake on his part was to recruit men from foreign lands. His army was composed mainly of mercenaries: Franks, Normans, Vikings, and, most disastrously, Turks. He planned a campaign for 1071 against the Seljuks Turks. He had recently made a truce with Alp Arlslan, the leader of the Turks, and marauding bands kept breaking it along the borders of the Empire. Romulus planned to have a force of about 70,000 men to fight the Turkish army.

The Campaign Begins

Romanus set off from Constantinople with a force of about 100,000 men, of whom less than 50% were members of the Empire. So that he wouldn't have to worry about his enemies at home, he appointed Andronicus Ducas, the young and ambitious leader of his enemies, to head his rearguard. This, too, was a mistake.

The army crossed the Bosphorus in March of 1071, and then continued to march eastward. Along the way, Romanus was troubled by several bad omens, among them the burning of his tent (and when we speak of the tent of the ruler of the Byzantine Empire, we mean a movable castle made of cloth), and the death of several of his best horses and mules.

Romanus sent the greater part of the Roman army towards Lake Van, under the command of the experienced general Joseph Tarchaniotes. He and his senior commander Nicephorus Byrennius continued with the remainder of the army towards the little fortress town of Manzikert. Somewhere along hte way, Tarchaniotes and his force met with a bad misfortune of some sort, but no one knows what happened. Later Muslim historians claimed that he had been overwhelmed in a great battle, but there is no evidence for this. Another theory is that Tarchaniotes may have deliberately abandoned the emperor and was really a traitor, a tool of the Ducas family.

What probably really happened is this: Tarchaniotes, who was Turkish born and commanded the Turkish mercenaries in the army, probably realized that he was fighting his own people and quietly defected, taking his massive force with him. As a result, Romanus was left with under half of his original troops. Also, his heavy cavalry, who were Franks and Normans, would choose to not participate in the battle.

Setting and Formation

The battle took place near the fortress of Manzikert, on a steppe beneath rolling foothills. Towards the foothills were numerous ravines and gullies, which were perfect for ambush. The exact date of the battle isn't known, but the historian on the scene, Michael Attaleiates, says that the night was moonless; thus, it was probably the 26th of August.

Romanus organized his men on the battlefield in the style of the traditional army manuals: a long line of infantry several ranks deep, with the cavalry on each end. Romanus himself took the center, with the general Bryennius on his left and the general Alyattes on his right. The rearguard, as I said above, was under the command of Andronicus Ducas, and was composed of the private armies of the great landowners. Andronicus should never have been allowed to participate in the battle, let alone to lead the rearguard, as he made no secret of his contempt and loathing for Romanus.

The Battle

The Byzantine army advanced across the steppe towards the Seljuks, who withdrew into a crescent, allowing their archers to shower the Byzantine's flanks with arrows. The cavalry (those that participated, anyway) followed the Seljuk horsemen towards the foothills and fell straight into prepared ambushes. The Emperor remained on the battlefield, frustrated by the lack of enemy, not knowing that most of them were hidden in the hills behind him. Realizing that there was nothing further to gain from pursuit, especially as the sun was setting and he had left his camp practically undefended, Romanus ordered the imperial standards to be reversed, the signal to withdraw. Alp Arslan had been waiting for this signal from his observation point in the hills above and ordered his men to attack. As Arslan's men poured down onto the steppe, the Byzantine army split in confusion. Many of the mercenary units retreated, assuming that the Emperor had been killed or captured, and this allowed the Seljuks to infiltrate the front line and separate it from the rearguard. Had the rearguard acted correctly by moving forward they would have prevented the Seljuks' escape. Instead, Andronicus spread the word that the emperor had been killed and the battle lost, and subsequently fled. This act caused more confusion among the remaining troops and more and more of them fled the battlefield. Only the Emperor remained with his personal guards around him. Romanus fought valiantly until, separated from everyone, he was shot in the hand and forced to surrender.

Immediately After the Battle

Romanus was treated very respectfully by Alp Arslan. For the next week, he was almost like a guest in the Turkish camp and even ate at Alp Arslan's table. The peace terms were more than moderate and merciful. The Sultan only demanded the surrender of Manzikert, Antioch, Edessa and Hieropolis as well as one of Romanus' daughters as a wife for one of Arslan's sons. The ransom for Romanus was even reduced greatly. Romanus was then allowed to return to Constantinople, because of the very real danger of a threat to his throne. Romanus had hoped to return to Constantinople as Emperor, but these feelings were not shared by the inhabitants of Constantinople. The news of the defeat had come as the second blow in one year, as 1071 had also seen the fall of Byzantine Italy to the Normans led by Robert Guiscard.

Meanwhile, in Constantinople, Romanus' wife, Eudocia, was trying to decide what to do. News was trickling in of the terrible defeat, and her counselors suggested that she assume that Romanus was lost; as a result, she installed her son, Michael VII Ducas, on the throne. He was her son, but not Romanus', and so the very much alive Emperor heard the news and began to rush back to Constantinople to reclaim his throne. As he rushed home, he was forced to engage in two separate battles, both with his enemy Andronicus Ducas, and both of which he lost. At this point he realized that he could no longer be emperor, and he gave up his throne and promised to go to a monastery to live out the rest of his life. Andronicus, in return, promised him safe passage to the monastery, and then proceeded to put him on a mule for a 500 mile journey across barren lands back to Constantinople. Along the way, he was frequently assaulted, and one attacker poked out his eyes. He died within the next year.

The Aftermath

Following Manzikert, the territory of the Byzantine Empire was greatly reduced to the area immediately around Constantinople and a small strip along the Bosphorus. The military and land power of the Empire was greatly reduced, and the Muslim invaders continued pushing for more land. However, the Christian Byzantine Empire remained an important political force. Later in his reign, the new emperor called upon Pope Urban II, for reinforcements against the Turkish horde. The Pope, on Tuesday, November 27, 1095, announced the First Crusade, in the hopes of liberating the formerly Christian lands from the Muslims.

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