We’re in kind of a high season for major historical battles in the Middle East, like Yarmouk, Chaldiran, and Marj Dabiq (there’s another one coming next week). You could argue that Manzikert is the biggest of the bunch, because although it took another 400 years to finally come to fruition, Manzikert set in motion the eventual collapse of the Byzantine (AKA Roman) Empire.
After Yarmouk, the Byzantines retreated to the opposite side of the Taurus Mountains, which separate Anatolia from the Syrian plains to the south, and relied on those mountains, plus the Caucasus in the east, to protect them from further caliphal incursions. And for the most part, this strategy worked; caliphal armies made several campaigns into Anatolia and even besieged Constantinople on a few occasions during the caliphate’s first couple of centuries, but keeping an army supplied for an extended stay on the other side of those mountains just proved impossible. The terrain was too challenging and Byzantine border skirmishers were too effective. So the Byzantine Empire carried on, albeit at a drastically reduced size after the losses of Syria, the Levant, Egypt, and North Africa.
By the 11th century, military power in the Islamic world (east of Egypt, anyway) had shifted from the Arabs to a few Iranian dynasties and then to the Turks, specifically the Seljuk Turks. The Seljuks claimed descent from a branch of the semi-mythical (they were a real Turkic clan, but their origins are difficult to ascertain and heavily mythologized) Oghuz family, the same Turkic family from which the Ottomans and many other Turkic groups claimed descent. The Seljuk invasion/migration is considered the first “wave” of Oghuz movement out of Central Asia and into the Middle East; the second wave happened in the 13th century, not in an organized fashion, but as Turkic tribes fled west ahead of the seemingly unstoppable Mongols.
After converting en masse to Islam sometime in the 10th century, the Seljuks swept through Iran and Iraq in the early 11th century. Along the way, they “liberated” the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad. In 945 the weakened Abbasids, who were already mostly governing at the whim of their Turkish slave soldiers, had been brought under the “protection” of the Iranian Buyid Dynasty from the southern Caspian region. In practice this “protection” meant that the caliphs retained their titles and theoretical authority, but the Buyids ran the caliphate. The Buyids were Shiʿa, and though they never tried to impose Shiʿism on the rest of the empire, the Abbasids appear to have welcomed the arrival of the Sunni Seljuk ruler Tughril Bey (d. 1063) to Baghdad in 1055. Of course, instead of running the Buyids out of town and restoring the traditional prerogatives of the caliph, the Seljuks simply replaced Buyid protection with their own. The Seljuks turned their attention toward the Shiʿa Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt, which was itself very interested in capturing Baghdad and putting its Abbasid rivals out of commission, but they also sought to extend their authority into the Caucasus.
The Byzantines, meanwhile, were in the middle of a few decades’ worth of inter-dynastic turmoil. Emperor Michael IV had died in 1041 and his successor, Michael V, was assassinated the following year. This brought Constantine IX to power, alongside the empresses Zoe (who married Constantine IX) and Theodora, who were the daughters of Constantine VIII and thus had their own (competing; they hated each other) claims on the throne. This triumvirate spent more time purging the palace of supposed enemies than it did defending the empire’s borders, and the effect was obvious and not good for the empire. During Constantine IX’s reign, the Normans largely drove the Byzantines out of Italy, the empire was being pressed from the north by Serbs and Kievan Rus’, and the Seljuks were ominously waiting on the eastern frontier, making life hard for the empire’s Armenian allies there. In 1054, the Byzantines and Seljuks fought a small battle at Manzikert that ended with a Byzantine victory and a Seljuk withdrawal. By the middle of the 1050s the three members of the triumvirate were all dead: Zoe in 1050, Constantine in 1055, and Theodora in 1056. Then came Michael VI (d. 1059), who almost immediately fell out with his military and was forced to abdicate in 1057 in favor of a general named Isaac Komnenos.
Isaac, then Isaac I, who was Byzantine Emperor from 1057 to 1059, was dead set on rebuilding his weakened army, but his methods for raising the necessary money (confiscating land from nobles and the Orthodox Church) made him unpopular, and he was forced to appoint as his heir apparent the future Constantine X Doukas. He then contracted a severe illness and had to abdicate. Constantine X was a weak ruler who allowed the palace bureaucracy to control the empire, which meant that the money Isaac had earmarked for strengthening the army was distributed back to influential nobles and the Church. Meanwhile, in 1064 the Seljuks, now ruled by Sultan Alp Arslan (d. 1072), seized the Armenian city of Ani in the Caucasus, which had been annexed by Constantine IX many years earlier. Constantine X died, and his wife Eudokia became regent for their sons. Because the situation on the eastern frontier looked so dire, she broke a deathbed promise to Constantine and remarried, to a Byzantine general named Romanos Diogenes, who then became emperor in 1068. But he was not universally well-received.
Let’s stop for a second. If all you’re getting from this narrative so far is that the internal workings of the Byzantine Empire were a freaking mess in the late 11th century, then you’re getting the point. I’m not a Byzantine expert, but I know enough of the story to give you a simplified version, and even simplified it’s almost impossible to follow all the backbiting and claimants to the throne and wives betraying husbands and unscrupulous dudes marrying their way onto the throne. This all matters because, as you’ll see, the real problem for the Byzantines after Manzikert wasn’t that they lost the battle, it’s that all this court intrigue exploded into total chaos. It’s the chaos that allowed the Turks to follow up on their victory by pouring into Anatolia and forever depriving the empire of its core.
Romanos IV, as he was now known, tried, like Isaac I before him, to rebuild the empire’s military strength. Between his own standing army, his personal guard, and lots of mercenaries, Romanos managed to put together an army that Muslim chroniclers numbered between 200,000 and 400,000 soldiers (LOL), but that was probably more like 40,000 to 70,000, and headed east to fend off the Seljuk threat. It was during this march east that Alp Arslan first seized Manzikert (now the Turkish town of Malazgirt), which then became one of Romanos’s targets. At some point, for reasons unknown, he decided to split his army in two, leading one part himself toward Manzikert and sending the other under his trusted general Joseph Tarchaniotes to Khilat (modern Ahlat) to the south. It’s possible that Romanos didn’t know where the Seljuks were and wanted to fortify Khilat before they got there, or he might have been hoping to catch them from two sides or something, but the danger of splitting your army is that if you don’t do it right, you’ve just helpfully done the first half of “divide and conquer” on your enemy’s behalf.
Anyway, something happened to this second part of the army, because it’s essentially never heard from again, but it’s not clear what that “something” was. Muslim sources record that Alp Arslan met it in battle and wiped it out, but there are no surviving Greek sources that mention this. It’s possible that the army just fled, or broke up and wandered off, but that doesn’t seem fair to those fighters or to Tarchaniotes, who was a capable general. Tarchaniotes may have been aligned with a faction at court that opposed Romanos in the name of Constantine X’s son, Michael VII, who was the rightful heir and was Romanos’s junior co-emperor, so he and his army might have deserted Romanos for that reason. We know that Tarchaniotes survived until 1074, so whatever happened it wasn’t a total massacre.
Romanos’s column arrived and took control of Manzikert, at which point Alp Arslan seems to have offered to negotiate a truce (remember, the Fatimids were his real target; he wasn’t looking for a major fight with the Byzantines right at this point). Romanos saw this as his best chance to rid the empire of a major threat, though, and he thought a victory would shore up his precarious position at court, so he attacked. The Seljuks employed a feigned retreat, which is a standard tactic but historically particularly effective when employed by Central Asian mounted archers. The Seljuk army continually gave way in the center and sucked the Byzantine army in, as mounted archers on the ends of the Seljuk line repeatedly struck the Byzantine flanks in hit-and-run attacks. As the day wore on and the Byzantine center was unable to force the Seljuks to engage, Romanos gave an order to return to camp, but as soon as they wheeled around, the Seljuks also turned, and launched their full attack.
The idea at this point would have been for the Byzantine rearguard to punch through the attempted Seljuk envelopment and lead the rest of the army back to camp. But commanding the rearguard was a young nobleman named Andronikus Doukas, a nephew of Constantine X and one of the leaders of that faction that was actually opposed to Romanos being made emperor at all. He spread the word that Romanos was dead, and his disheartened soldiers broke and ran. In fact, Romanos was very much not dead, but in the chaos he was captured, and Alp Arslan, after securing a ransom and the surrender of Manzikert, Antioch, and a couple of other important Byzantine cities, sent Romanos back to Constantinople with an escort. Whether this was intentionally done to sow discord among the Byzantines or not is hard to say, but it really couldn’t have worked out any better for the Seljuks if they’d planned it all out.
Here’s where the court intrigue comes into play. Even while Romanos was returning to the capital, the Doukas faction was working to have him removed as emperor. Andronikus Doukas’s father, John, who was a very high-ranking Byzantine noble and had the support of the Varangian Guard (the royal bodyguard), forced Eudokia out and became regent for the newly crowned Michael VII. Romanos cobbled together an army of Manzikert veterans and tried to regain his throne, but he was defeated and blinded in 1072, then died in exile of an infection brought on by his blinding. Michael VII repudiated the treaty that Romanos had concluded with Alp Arslan after Manzikert, which might have preserved the heartland of Anatolia for the Byzantines, and he did it at a time when the Byzantines didn’t have the military muscle to look for a rematch with the Seljuks or to close off the border to thousands of newly migrating Turks. So much attention was spent on the chaotic mess in the imperial capital that the core of the empire was lost. By 1080, most of Anatolia belonged to one Turkic principality or another, and the Seljuk holdings there were vast enough that they became their own sultanate, the Sultanate of Rum (Rome). Constantinople was reduced to its European holdings and a strip of territory along the Anatolian coastline.
There are some historical turning points that seem to come totally out of left field, where you can see how much different history might have been if things hadn’t broken just the way they did on just the day they did. Manzikert doesn’t strike me as one of those kinds of turning points. The Byzantine Empire was clearly weakening, owing to corruption in the palace and the pressure of powerful enemies coming at them in all directions. It probably would have eventually collapsed whether Manzikert (and its aftermath) happened the way it did or not. At any rate the empire did hang on for almost four centuries after Manzikert, so it’s not like this battle immediately led to its demise. Still, Manzikert helped to ensure that when the empire finally did fall, it would probably be to Turks of one clan or another, and it opened the door for the Ottomans to eventually settle in that far northwestern part of the region and set off on their journey toward superpower status. More to the point, the battle opened Anatolia to Turkic conquest and settlement, which is still a fact of life almost a full millennium later–this, I would argue, was its biggest impact.
Manzikert is also noteworthy in that it precipitated our favorite black comedy, the Crusades; the Seljuk victory and the perception that the Byzantines were in critical danger led Constantinople to appeal for help to Rome, which then inspired Pope Urban II to call for nobles and their knights to take up the Cross and head east to save their fellow Christians from the Turks and, while they were in the neighborhood, to “liberate” Jerusalem for Christ.
I get most of my Byzantine material from John Julius Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium, which is a little dated but still good I think. The Seljuks aren’t nearly as well-studied as Byzantium, but I think John Freely’s Storm on Horseback is a pretty decent effort.
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