The Battle of Manzikert 1071

News of al-Hakim’s ruthless persecution of Christians wasn’t the sole event that triggered hatred in the west. The Byzantine Empire in the eleventh century was on the brink of destruction. In the 1040s, Turkish warriors migrated from the steppes of central Asia and conquered Persia, then invaded Armenia and Iraq, and conquered Baghdad in the year of 1055.

The Turkish invasions jeopardized the safety of pilgrims and threatened to sever Europe’s ties with Jerusalem. To make matters worse, Byzantium was severely weakened by the Bubonic Plague. Many people had died, leaving the emperor unable to protect the pilgrims and his people from Muslim raids.

The Battle of Manzikert

In the summer of 1071 Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes decisively chose to fight back with two goals in mind: recapture all territory lost to the Turks and crush Sultan Alp-Arslan and his armies for good. His army numbered approximately 40,000 troops, greater in size than Alp-Arslan’s army, so he should have been able to defeat the Turks. However, Emperor Romanus made a series of mistakes that would jeopardize his empire.

His first mistake: He chose his old enemy Andronicus Ducas over his best general, Nicephorus Botaniates to accompany him on the road to Manzikert. His second mistake: Either through arrogance or naivety, Romanus could not read his enemy.

Romanus and his army reached Theodosopolis in June 1071. A few of his generals suggested they march into Seldjuk held territory and take Arslan by surprise. Others, including Nicephorus Bryennius, advised the emperor to remain where they were for time being and fortify their position.

Had Romanus adhered to Nicephorus’s advice, it is quite possible the Byzantines could have severely weakened Alp Arslan’s army through a series of surprise ambushes. Instead, Romanus chose to press on, thinking that Arslan was much further away. He completely failed to realize that Alp-Arslan commandeered a vast network of spies throughout Asia Minor and Amenia. For that reason, Alp-Arslan knew where the Emperor Romanus was.

While on the road to Manzikert, Romanus made yet another mistake: He divided his army in half. He ordered a general, John Tarchaneiotes, to take the contingent of Pechenegs, French, along with some Byzantines and Varangians to Khliat. This left him with only about 20,000 men. Unbeknownst to the Emperor Romanus, Tarchaneiotes and his half of the army never re-joined forces at Manzikert. One source claimed that they fled when they caught site of the Seldjuk army, though exactly what happened to them is unknown.

Romanus captured Manzikert on 23 August 1071, but once again, he underestimated Alp Arslan. Either he refused to believe that Alp-Arslan’s entire army was encamped in the hills near Manzikert, or he genuinely wasn’t aware of the enemy’s whereabouts. Three times, Romanus sent out foraging parties into the surrounding area and all three times, his cavalry was overtaken and forced to retreat back to Manzikert. On one occasion, the Turkish soldiers who had been in listed by the Emperor Romanus, abandoned him and joined forces with their Seldjuk brethren.

Finally, on August 26th, Romanus ordered the attack. He mobilized his army into a proper battle formation and advanced on the Turks. “The right wing was commanded by Theodore Alyates, the left wing under Bryennius, and the center commanded by the emperor. Andronicus Ducas led the forces in the rearguard” (The Latin Library).

Meanwhile, about four kilometers away, Alp Arslan organized his army into a crescent formation.

As the Byzantines advanced, the Seldjuks retreated and as the Seldjuks retreated, they widened their crescent formation until their wings surrounded the Byzantines’ left and right wing forces. Cut off from the rest of the army, the Byzantines attempted to force the Seldjuks into a pitched battle. However, the Seldjuk cavalry fled. On the surface, this seemed like a cowardice move, but the Turks’ strategy was actually quite brilliant.

With night fast approaching and unable to engage the Seldjuk army in battle, Romanus ordered his army to retreat. Somehow, the troops who made up the right wing, misunderstood the order and Ducas blatantly defied the emperor and marched back to the camp outside of Manzikert.

Upon seeing the Byzantine army so confused and broken up, Alp Arslan seized the opportunity and attacked. The Byzantine army was sent fleeing and the Emperor Romanus was captured and taken prisoner.

As it turned out, Alp Arslan treated the Emperor Romanus with considerable kindness and showered him with many gifts. Romanus was not held captive for long, but shortly after he returned to his people, he was “deposed, and then blinded and finally killed after great torture and torment.”

The Aftermath

The ill-fated battle of Manzikert proved to the Seldjuk Turks that the Byzantines were not formidable. It was owing the divisions within the Byzantine ruling elite that emboldened Alp Arslan and his armies.

By the time Alexius I Comnenus took the imperial throne in 1081, only a few coastal towns in the north remained in Byzantine control. Not only were his coffers empty, Alexius was bombarded with perpetual threats from the Turks. At the same time, ferocious Pecheneg and Cuman nomads from the Russian steppes raided the Danube frontier. It was at this crucial moment that Emperor Alexius decided he needed help.

In 1093, Alexius wrote a letter to Robert, Count of Flanders, requesting military aid against the Seljuk Turks. In his letter, Alexius wrote of all the horrible deeds the Seljuk Turks had committed. Emperor Alexius feared — no, he knew — that all of Byzantium would fall to the Turks and Christianity in the East would be stamped out. These fears weren’t imagined; they were very real, and they were certainly spelled out to Count Robert. 

Alexius also took the extra measure to provide Count Robert with other reasons why Robert should send military aid to Constantinople:

“Remember that you will find all those treasures and also the most beautiful women of the Orient. The incomparable beauty of the Greek women would seem to be a sufficient reason to attract the armies of the Franks,” Alexius wrote.

Beautiful women! That would have provided any man with enough incentive to travel a long distance and fight in a foreign land. However, Emperor Alexius needed only a small army of barons and their strongest knights to fight the Turks. That’s what he wanted. He had not anticipated the enormous armed force that would arrive at the shores of Constantinople three years later.

Sources Used

Asbridge, Thomas. The Crusades: The Authoritative History of The War For The Holy Land. New York; Ecco, 2011.

Runciman, Steven. A History of the Crusades: The First Crusade. Vol.1. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1951.

The Battle of Manzikert (1071 A.D.):

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