- Articles Index
- Monthly Features
- General History Articles
- Ancient Near East
- Classical Europe and Mediterranean
- East Asia
- Steppes & Central Asia
- South and SE Asia
- Medieval Europe
- Medieval Iran & Islamic Middle East
- African History (-1750)
- Pre-Columbian Americas
- Early Modern Era
- 19'th Century (1789-1914)
- 20'th Century
- 21'st Century
- Total Quiz Archive
- Access Account
The Byzantine Loss at Manzikert
By Constantine XI, August 2006; Revised
How were the Seljuk Turks able to defeat Byzantium and occupy Anatolia in the late 11th century, in spite of Byzantium’s longstanding reputation for military might and her vast resources?
The collision between the Byzantine Empire and the Seljuk Turks in the late 11th century can be regarded as one of the great watersheds in history. Byzantium at the open of the century was perhaps the most prestigious and awe instilling nation in her world. She truly was the heir of the Late Roman Empire. In spite of early losses to the Slavs and Arabs in the 6th-8th centuries, Byzantium had reinvented herself as an economically and militarily virile state once more. Since the early 9th century she had pragmatically and relentlessly turned the tables in her favour, launching a counter attack which once again elevated her to a position of military and economic primacy in the medieval world. Retaking the Balkans, northern Syria, Armenia and re-establishing control of the East Mediterranean, to the enemies who once threatened to conquer her she again seemed invincible. In the mid 11th century the Seljuks arrived and in less than a decade after their shock win at the Battle of Manzikert (1071) they had captured the whole of Byzantine Anatolia. In doing so they had ripped the economic and military heartland out of the Empire. The question this paper shall address is how such an obscure upstart power as the Seljuk Turks managed to defeat and severely cripple one of the most intransigently powerful and enduring of medieval civilizations, the Byzantine Empire.
In order to analyse such a question, it is first necessary to examine the internal developments of the two respective sides in this conflict in the decades leading up to the Battle of Manzikert and its aftermath. The 11th century saw enormous internal change for both blocs and it is essential to understand this to place the Seljuk capture of Anatolia in its proper context. Byzantium was seemingly invincible in the early 11th century, under the fearsome warrior Emperor Basil II (the Bulgar-slayer), she smashed enemies in Italy, Syria, Armenia and the Balkans (1). Following the death of Basil in 1025, Byzantium underwent a long period of unapparent yet insidious internal weakening. A key failing of Basil was failing to provide the Empire with capable heirs, leaving Byzantium under the typically sub standard leadership of fourteen different and sometimes accidental rulers in half a century (2). Since the Arab invasions, Anatolia had served as Byzantium’s main source of military and economic power. It was easily defensible and had been organised along military lines since the Heracliad dynasty of the 7th century (3). By such organisation Byzantium had been able to draw upon the power it needed to launched its comeback to pre-eminence. The organisation of Anatolia into small holding farmer/soldiers had proven highly successful, yet began to decay once certain families made land grabs to develop into an absentee feudal aristocracy (4). Such a move changed Anatolia from a militarily self sufficient area into one which was unable to defend itself. To add to this trend, Byzantium had developed a greater reliance on foreign mercenaries, which were naturally more expensive and less reliable than local troops (5). The reliance on one’s defence by a body of expensive foreign troops was particularly precarious in the light of extravagant expenditure, generous imperial largesse and rampant inflation which took hold in the Empire in the 11th century (6). In such a way, the Byzantine Empire had degenerated from the vigorous military power it was at the beginning of the 11th century into a state whose essential military and economic strengths had been undermined.
The Seljuk position had also radically changed in the 11th century. At its inception, the Seljuks were simply a typical central Asian nomadic tribe like so many others, roaming the steppes with their herds. Yet, by 1055 Togrul Beg had seized on the decaying Abbasid Caliphate and made the Turks masters of it. The Seljuks had suddenly risen from obscure steppe tribe to commanders of a large empire, with tens of thousands of freshly arrived steppe warriors to draw upon. Byzantine political weakness only aided the newly arrived Turks as they made their first assaults upon Byzantium.
Byzantium’s policy towards its eastern frontier had sowed the seeds of her destruction as she tore away the defences which had built up her security. A key player in Byzantine defensive policy was the Kingdom of Armenia, a Christian nation on the eastern border whose armies, typically on good terms with the Byzantines, could be relied upon to defeat invading Islamic enemies. They also provided a useful recruiting ground for Byzantium’s army itself. In the 1040s the Byzantines under Constantine IX determined upon an annexation of Armenia, sending their armies to conquer the territory outright. The invasion devastated the region, alienating the populace and leaving it utterly unable to raise the military manpower with which to face the newly arrived Seljuks. As Armenian historian Vardapet Aristakes Lastivertc’i tells with anguish, “In these days Byzantine armies entered the land of Armenia four times in succession until they had rendered the whole country uninhabited through sword, fire, and captive taking.” (7)
The Byzantine armies had just long enough to devastate and alienate the Armenians before Constantine IX died and Byzantium lapsed into a state of civil war. At such a time the war was a disaster, particularly as losses on the two sides were heavy, “There was so much blood shed that people said that such carnage in one place had not occurred before in Byzantium.” (8) As Vardapet again tells, the internal destruction wrought by the civil war had predictable consequences, “[As] soon as the [Seljuks] realized that [the Byzantine nobles] were fighting and opposing one another, they boldly arose and came against us, ceaselessly raiding, destructively ravaging.” (9) Military deterioration in the east only reflected this, the Seljuks destroyed the key Byzantine border fortress of Melitene in 1055 (10). As Isaac Comnenus emerged victorious from a Byantine civil war he alone understood the gravity of the Seljuk threat, but his attempts to reform the military and economy were thwarted by massive popular and bureaucratic opposition in Constantinople (11). Even the staunchest anti-militarist scholar, Michael Psellus, admitted the deplorable state of the Byzantine military at the time (12).
With a floundering military and economy, the elevation of Constantine X to the throne in 1059 turned a bad situation into a critical one. The emperor neglected the defences of the empire, cashiered thousands of native troops to balance an increasingly unstable budget and devoted himself to issues of legal codification. With an increasingly unresponsive leadership in Constantinople, the Seljuks made substantial headway against Byzantium. In 1064 Ani, the chief city of Armenia, fell to the Seljuks. Caesarea, one of the great cities of Byzantine Asia Minor, was sacked by them three years later (13).
In such a way the internal degradation of the Byzantine state had been allowed to occur, while the Seljuk threat increased unchecked. The basis of military and economic power, smallholder farmers in Anatolia, had been largely swept away. The army was transformed into a largely foreign mercenary force, whose loyalty was always suspect and which was increasingly difficult to finance after decades of economic mismanagement. The invaluable Armenian buffer state had been reduced to a wasteland, the Seljuks held the main fortresses in the country and the most vital provinces of the Byzantine Empire were open to Seljuk depredations. Such was the state of affairs by the time Romanus IV took over the throne from Constantine X in 1067.
The Battle of Manzikert, occurring in 1071, is often cited by historians as being the decisive encounter which determined the fate of Byzantine Anatolia. Historians such a Norwich (14) leave the reader with the impression that the Byzantine army was annihilated at the battle and Byzantine Anatolia was left totally defenceless. In understanding the Seljuk invasion of Anatolia, it is therefore necessary to assess Manzikert and how important it actually was in the scope of the invasion of Anatolia.
With the ascension of Romanus IV came one of the few Byzantine Emperors who understood the gravity of the threats from abroad during the 11th century. Almost as soon as the crown touched his head, Romanus personally led one campaign against the Turks in Syria in 1068, then another against them in Armenia the following year. Although he enjoyed only limited success, Romanus was providing the Byzantine army with the leadership and experience which it had so dismally lacked through most of the 11th century. While Psellus accuses Romanus of “not knowing where he was marching nor what he was going to do” (15), Psellus’ reliability as an historian is questionable here. He was a loyal partisan of the Ducas family, a rival to Romanus, while his historical work is devoted to lauding the Ducas clan and his own connection with it. As other authors make clear (16), Romanus was not a genius but was certainly a capable, energetic and committed military leader.
The final campaign against the Turks was launched in 1071, headed by the Emperor. The army’s size was regarded with awe by contemporary historians, up to the ridiculous figure of 1 million (17) according to Matthew of Edessa. In reality the army probably comprised 40,000 men (18), very sizable for a medieval army. Romanus followed the traditional Byzantine strategy of deception (19) in proposing peace with the Seljuk leader Alp Arslan while marching east to retake the Armenian border fortresses which had fallen into Turkish hands. When Alp Arslan did realise the danger, he hastened to Armenia to confront Romanus. Half the Byzantine army under Joseph Tarchaniotes withdrew back to Constantinople without joining battle, leaving Romanus and the other half of the army to face the Turkish force which was reckoned at being roughly equal in size (20). In the battle itself the internecine weaknesses of the Byzantine state played themselves out. The mercenary Normans refused outright to fight at the moment of battle, while the mercenary Turkish Uz horsemen defected from the Byzantine army the night before the battle to join the Seljuks (21), thereby causing great unrest in Romanus’ army. At the critical moment of battle, when the Turks charged around to flank and surround Romanus, the Byzantine rearguard need only to have charged forward and crushed the Turks in a vice. But commanding the rearguard was Romanus’ bitter political rival, Andronicus Ducas. Almost definitely in order to help his family seize the Byzantine throne after a major defeat, Andronicus suddenly reversed the imperial standards on the battlefield to signal a retreat (22). The result was an utter rout of the Byzantine forces and the loss of the battle. Not through any poor performance of soldiers or commanders had Manzikert been lost, but through the hollow strength of Byzantium’s military and her politically suicidal feuding for control of the throne in Constantinople.
Yet the battle was not as catastrophic as Norwich (23) or Friendly (24) have described. Contemporary sources note that half the Byzantine army did not even take part in the battle (25) and that other large fragments managed to extricate themselves and retreat west under cover of night. Some estimate have concluded that the Byzantine military lost perhaps only 20% of her manpower at Manzikert (26), still leaving the Empire with sizable forces to defend Anatolia. Contemporary historians interestingly do not regard the battle of Manzikert as being of crucial importance either. Anna Comnena (27) regarded the battle as important, but not an overwhelming disaster as some modern historians have mythologised the event into. Even Psellus (28) relegates the event to a simple inevitability which in no way destroyed the empire. Manzikert therefore appears to be an important battle, yet not the total cause of the Seljuk advance into Anatolia. Byzantium still possessed the military manpower and reputation to defend herself, so much so that Alp Arslan signed a treaty with Romanus which set the Emperor free and demanded no territory be ceded (29). Such an outcome was hardly to be expected from an invincible conqueror over a powerless foe, the reasons for the subsequent Anatolian invasion must be sought in the political suicide waged in Byzantium in the aftermath of the battle.
Following Manzikert the Byzantines deposed Romanus to set the Ducas clan in power (30). Such a move rendered the lenient treaty with Alp Arslan null and void. To further disable a united defence against the Seljuks, local Byzantine Anatolian magnates seceded from the central government which was failing to come to their aid against the Turks. Even erstwhile mercenary units under their autonomous commanders seized on the confusion to carve out realms of their own from the defenceless Byzantine heartland, such a Roussel de Balliol with only 500 knights (31). As isolated Byzantine aristocrats battled in vain against the onslaught of the Seljuks, the empire disembowelled itself in yet another civil war as Nicephorus Botaneiates marched against Emperor Michael VII to seize the throne (32). With the bulk of Byzantium’s military concentrated under one pretender against another, with the treaty between Romanus IV and Alp Arslan voided by Romanus’ deposition, the Seljuks closed in on the poorly defended Anatolian territories almost with impunity. As the Byzantines battled one another for the throne, transfer of land to the Seljuks in return for their military support was paid by the pretenders. Nicephorus Botaneiates even ceded west Anatolian cities such as Cyzicus, Nicomedia, Chalcedon and Chrysopolis to Sultan Suleyman to garrison and administer as his vassal (33). Thanks to the political weakness of the Byzantine state, the Seljuks had conquered virtually all of Anatolia within 10 years of Manzikert.
To understand the conflict between Byzantium and the Turks in the late 11th century, with the subsequent loss of Anatolia to the Turks, the decline of the Byzantine state after Basil II’s death, the battle of Manzikert and the political weakness of the Empire after the battle are all factors which must be considered as causes of the loss of Anatolia. It can be argued that had Byzantium maintained the economic and military foundations upon which she had risen to a position of primacy, that a Seljuk conquest of Anatolia would not have occurred. Yet, Byzantium had allowed the small holding farmer/soldier, the main source of her economic and military manpower, to be superseded by land hungry aristocratic magnates in Anatolia. The result was a dependence on unreliable and costly foreign mercenaries, a dubious military force whose employment was not economically sustainable. The destruction of Armenia as a buffer state, a key part of Byzantine defence policy, left the Empire open to pressure on her eastern frontier she could ill afford in her weakened condition. Had these fundamentals of Byzantine policy not been eroded, the Seljuks would have neither the will nor the ability to strike into Anatolia
Manzikert, while an important battle, was not the decisive cause of the Seljuk conquest of Anatolia. Byzantium still possessed sufficient military manpower to defend herself and still secured a lenient treaty in the aftermath of Manzikert. Likewise the military prowess of the Turks, while notable, does not appear to have been the decisive factor in securing the loss of Anatolia. Even the Georgians, a militarily unremarkable and unambitious state, managed to defeat both Byzantines and Seljuks to take land in Anatolia following Manzikert (34) to annex land for themselves. The subsequent loss of Anatolia occurred through the immense weakness of the Byzantine political structure, more intent on fighting her own civil wars then the invasion of a common enemy. The insidious weakening of the Byzantine state over the course of the 11th century, combined with the political factiousness of Byzantine politics following Manzikert, allowed the Seljuks to conquer a poorly defended Anatolia in the late 11th century.
1. Anna Comnena. Alexiad. 11th century. Translated by E R A Sewter, 1960. Published as The Alexiad of Anna Comnena by Penguin Books, Harmondsworth.
2. Anonymous. The Georgian Chronicle. 13th century. Translated by Robert Bedrosian. Published by Medieval Source Book @ http://rbedrosian.com/gc6.htm viewed Sunday 23rd April 2006
3. Maurice Tiberius. Strategikon. 6th century. Translated by George T Dennis, 1984. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.
4. Michael Psellus. Chronographia. 11th century. Translated by E R A Sewter, 1966. Published as Fourteen Byzantine Rulers by Penguin Books, Harmondsworth.
5. Vardapet Aristakes Lastivertc’i. 11th century. Regarding the Sufferings Occasioned by Foreign Peoples Living Around Us. Translated by Robert Bedrosian. Published by Medieval Source Book @ http://rbedrosian.com/a1.htm viewed Sunday 23rd April 2006
1. Diehl, Charles; Byzantium: Greatness and Decline, New Jersey, 1957
2. Friendly, Alfred; The Dreadful Day: The Battle of Manzikert, 1071. 1982. Hutchison Radius
3. Haldon, John; The Byzantine Wars. 2000. Tempus Books, Stroud.
4. Markham, Paul; The Battle of Manzikert: military disaster or political failure? August 1995 http://www.deremilitari.org/resources/articles/markham.htm#_ftnref43 accessed Sunday 23rd April 2006
5. Norwich, John Julius; Byzantium. The Apogee. 1991. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth.
6. Ostrogorsky, George; History of the Byzantine State. 1952 (translated from the German by Joan Hussey). 1969 revised edition. Rutgers University Press, New Jersey.
7. Runciman, Sir Steven; A History of the Crusades. Volume 1. The First Crusade. 1951. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth
8. Vasiliev, A.A.; History of the Byzantine Empire (Vol. 1), Wisconsin, 1964, University of Wisconsin Press
9. Penna, Vasso; Byzantine Coinage. Medium of transaction and manifestation of imperial propaganda. 2002. Bank of Cyprus Cultural Foundation, Nicosia, 1998
10. Treadgold, Warren; A History of the Byzantine State and Society. 1997. Stanford University Press, Stanford.
2. Vasiliev, History of the Byzantine Empire (Vol. 1), Wisconsin, 1964, p. 351.
3. Charles Diehl, Byzantium: Greatness and Decline, New Jersey, 1957, p. 10.
4. Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State. 1952, pp. 324-324.
5. Warren Treadgold. A History of the Byzantine State and Society. 1997. Stanford University Press, Stanford. Pp. 548-49.
6. Vasso Penna. Byzantine Coinage. Medium of transaction and manifestation of imperial propaganda. 2002. Bank of Cyprus Cultural Foundation, Nicosia. Pgs 96 & 116.
7. Vardapet Aristakes Lastivertc’i. 11th century. Regarding the Sufferings Occasioned by Foreign Peoples Living Around Us. Translated by Robert Bedrosian. Published by Medieval Source Book @ http://rbedrosian.com/a1.htm pg 3
8. Vardapet Aristakes Lastivertc’i. 11th century. Regarding the Sufferings Occasioned by Foreign Peoples Living Around Us. Translated by Robert Bedrosian. Published by Medieval Source Book @ http://rbedrosian.com/a1.htm pg 3
9. Vardapet Aristakes Lastivertc’i. 11th century. Regarding the Sufferings Occasioned by Foreign Peoples Living Around Us. Translated by Robert Bedrosian. Published by Medieval Source Book @ http://rbedrosian.com/a1.htm pg 3
10. Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State. 1952, p. 378
11. Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State. 1952 pp. 340-341
12. Michael Psellus. Chronographia. 11th century. Translated by E R A Sewter, 1966. Published as Fourteen Byzantine Rulers by Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, p. 146
13. Vasiliev, History of the Byzantine Empire (Vol. 1), Wisconsin, 1964, p. 355
14. John Julius Norwich. Byzantium. The Apogee. 1991, p.228
15. Michael Psellus. Chronographia. 11th century. Translated by E R A Sewter, 1966. Published as Fourteen Byzantine Rulers by Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, p. 325
16. Vasiliev, History of the Byzantine Empire (Vol. 1), Wisconsin, 1964 p. 356
17. John Julius Norwich. Byzantium. The Apogee. 1991. pg 346
18. John Haldon. The Byzantine Wars. 2000, p. 115
19. Maurice Tiberius. Strategikon. 6th century. Translated by George T Dennis, 1984, p. 65
20. Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State. 1952, p. 344
21. Vasiliev, History of the Byzantine Empire (Vol. 1), Wisconsin, 1964, p. 356
22. Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State. 1952, p. 344
23. John Julius Norwich. Byzantium. The Apogee. 1991, p.22
24. Alfred Friendly. The Dreadful Day: The Battle of Manzikert, 1071. 1982, p. 142
25. Alfred Friendly. The Dreadful Day: The Battle of Manzikert, 1071. 1982, p. 119
26. Paul Markham, The Battle of Manzikert: military disaster or political failure? August 1995
27. Anna Comnena. Alexiad. 11th century. Translated by E R A Sewter, 1960. Published as The Alexiad of Anna Comnena by Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 504-505.
28. Michael Psellus. Chronographia. 11th century. Translated by E R A Sewter, 1966. Published as Fourteen Byzantine Rulers by Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, p. 355
29. Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State. 1952, p. 344
30. Michael Psellus. Chronographia. 11th century. Translated by E R A Sewter, 1966. Published as Fourteen Byzantine Rulers by Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, pp. 362-366
31. Anna Comnena. Alexiad. 11th century. Translated by E R A Sewter, 1960. Published as The Alexiad of Anna Comnena by Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, pp. 31-37
32. Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State. 1952, p. 348
33. Sir Steven Runciman. A History of the Crusades. Volume 1. The First Crusade. 1951, p. 68
34. Anonymous. The Georgian Chronicle. 13th century. Translated by Robert Bedrosian. Published by Medieval Source Book @ http://rbedrosian.com/gc6.htm