Battle of Mantzikert, 1071

1. General framework

During the second half of the 11th century the defense of the frontier regions on the eastern border of the Byzantine Empire had already begun to collapse. The reasons that led to this unfavorable evolution was the indifference of the central authority for the fate of the eastern provinces and the continuous uprisings inside the empire that weakened even more the already decaying administrative and defense system of Byzantium. The internal tensions were caused by unsatisfied members of the military aristocracy, which were trying to react against their neglect from the civil nobility of the capital.

The unfavorable situation inside the Empire was aggravated by great catastrophes caused by the Seljuks on the eastern frontier. In an amazingly short period of time, this new enemy swept away the Arabic dominion in Persia, conquering even the city of Baghdad, capital of the caliph. In this way the Seljuks essentially undertook the political and military leadership of the Muslim world.1 Straight after that, they began assaults against the eastern provinces of Byzantium and soon, even though the empire managed (although under many hardships) to maintain the integrity of its borders, it became apparent that the problems had already corrupted the whole state machine. This weakness was the result of the misadministration during the last decades and it appeared to be irreversible. Thus, through repeated attacks the Seljuks destroyed Iberia, plundered the regions of Mesopotamia, of Chaldia, of Melitene, of Koloneia, of Vaspurakan and of Armeniakon. In 1064, Ani of Armenia was definitely seized, a fact that shocked the inhabitants of the Empire.2

After the fall of Ani, the Byzantine dominion on the eastern borders became even more unsafe. At about 1067 the Seljuks succeeded in penetrating westerly, sacking the large city of Cappadocia, and Caesarea. This new blow was a result of the failure of Melitene’s garrison to confront the raiders that had crossed the river Euphrates. The Byzantine government was not able to foresee such a large hostile expansion.

This was the situation of the state on May 1067, when emperor Constantine X Doukas died after an illness that lasted for months, leaving the control of the empire to the augusta Eudokia Makrembolitissa and her three under age children.

The fall of Caesarea was a warning of how easily the Seljuks could penetrate in the regions of the borders and pillage the territories of eastern Asia Minor, as the defense system, which had been planned earlier to confront the Arab invaiders, proved to be insufficient. It was not strange, thus, that it was a general demand a military man to be put in charge of the empire. The choice was in the hands of the empresses Eudokia, on which her dying husband had entrusted the regency in the name of their young children. The augusta soon yielded to those demands that wanted the imperial office to be associated with the name of a man capable to restore the military fate of the state.3

2. Romanos IV Diogenes and the campaigns against the Seljuks

The choice of the empresses was katepanoRomanos Diogenes, which had a relatively outstanding military carrier in the Balkans and was the son of the Cappadocian generalConstantine Diogenes, distinguished during the reigns of Basil II (976-1025) and Constantine X (1025-1028). Romanos married Eudokia, he was crowned emperor in January 1068 and soon after he found himself occupied with the overturning of his forbearers’ policy.

The new emperor tried to restore the situation in Asia Minor by the sword, but soon he realized that to achieve this goal, he had to reestablish the army and to put the state machine under a situation of a military readiness, an attempt, nevertheless, that was difficult to be accomplished, because of the reactions of the members of the Doukas dynasty and of Michael Psellos, of which the plots were undermining Romanos IV’s efforts.4 Diogenes committed a major mistake · he kept in his court Michael Psellos, the caesarJohn Doukas and their followers, which were opposed to his policy, whether secretly or in an open way, causing the emperor’s efforts not to produce what was expected from them.

Realizing that the existing Byzantine armies were not able to take the initiative against the Seljuks, as they were mainly composed of a small number of foreign mercenaries, Romanos hoped to gather new forces with the reorganization of the army of the themes (themata), which had been disorganized during the previous twenty years. But the sight he faced during the preparation for the campaign of 1068 was disheartening. The mobilized soldiers were purely armed, undisciplined and untrained, unable to undertake a serious effort for the recovery of the empire’s eastern borders.5 In addition, the Byzantine army did not have the required mobility to confront the flexible Seljuks, whereas the emperor, although with military experience, nevertheless he did not have the necessary staff knowledge for the conception of the right plan and the organization of wide-scale operations in impassable territories.

Nevertheless, Romanos did not appear to be frightened. In March 1068, a few months after his enthronement, he started the operations against the Seljuks. The first campaign had the aim to drive away the invaders from the central Asia Minor, whereas on October the emperor moved towards Syria, where he liberated Hierapolis. From there Romanos penetrated in Cilicia and in Cappadocia, and returned to Constantinople on January 1069. The Seljuks seized the opportunity of the Byzantine army’s gathering in Syria, to raid until the region of Amorion, which they pillaged. The spring of 1069 the Byzantine army carried out a new campaign, which was delayed due to an insurrection of Frankish mercenaries. Romanos Diogenes proceeded to clean-up-operations around the cities of Keltzene, Koloneia (modern Şebin Karahisar, Turkey), Sebasteia, Tyana as far as Cilicia. As a base for its attacks the Byzantine army used Caesarea in Cappadocia. The most far-reaching plan of the emperor was to reoccupy Chliat (modern Ahlat, Turkey), a city with strategic importance, north of the lake Van.6 During the time the emperor was in northeastern Asia Minor, the Seljuks destroyed Ikonion. For one more time the Byzantine armies were not able to accomplish a sweeping victory against the Seljuks or to prevent the tribesmen from penetrating to the rear.

Tired and psychologically succumbed from the continuous and inefficient struggle against the Seljuks, Romanos decided not to undertake a campaign in 1070 under his leadership, but to entrust the defense of Asia Minor to Manuel Komnenos, a nephew of the former emperor Isaac I Komnenos. Manuel, although very young, proved to be a capable general. He reorganized his army, restored the discipline and accomplished heavy blows upon the enemy.7 Nevertheless, the success and his popularity made the emperor worry about him. He commanded his general to split the armies and to send back the largest part of it in Ierapolis, which was once more in danger.8 This act proved to be a great strategical mistake, because, whereas a part of the army marched towards Ierapolis, Manuel with the rest of the army tried to withhold the Seljuks near Sebastea, but he was defeated and he was captured alive. This defeat had as a consequence to encourage the Seljuks to raid until Chonai, even to sack the famous church of Archangel Michael.

These facts forced Romanos to decide for a new campaign against the Seljuks the following year. He was to lead the operations himself, and the goal was again the reoccupation of the city of Chliat, which was situated on the main routes of invasion passing through Armenia. The cause was the capture of the Byzantine fortress at Mantzikert (modern Malazgrit, Turkey) by the Seljuks at the end of 1070. The councilors of Romanos supported that if Chliat and the surrounding fortress (that of Mantzikert included) were reoccupied and garrisons were installed as soon as possible, the raids of the Seljuks in Asia Minor would be annihilated before even started.

3. The battle of Mantzikert

3.1. Preparations

At the end of winter-beginnings of spring 1071, the Byzantine army of the West and other unites of mercenaries were gathered in Constantinople to get ferried across Asia Minor, so as to be united with the Byzantine forces stationed there, in order to participate in the planned military operation of the emperor against the Seljuks. It is hard to calculate the size of the expeditionary corps, but it is certain that the largest part was composed by Byzantine armies, although there were numerous unites manned with foreign mercenaries or allies: Pechenegs, Cumans, Uzes, Franks, Varangians and Armenians.9 Simultaneously, Byzantine ambassadors were sent to the Seljuk sultan Alp Arslan, who by that time was besieging the city of Edessa in Mesopotamia, aiming to ask for the renewal of an old agreement with the Seljuks in relation to the restriction of the raids in the Byzantine territory of Asia Minor.

Inevitable is the question why Romanos was in such a rush to conduct the campaign, to lead himself the most numerous expeditionary corps the Byzantines had summoned up for the last years, when the Seljuks were already beyond the borders of the Empire and contended themselves with surprise raids and plunder. The most plausible answer is that the emperor was hoping that an eventual military success would have had a favorable impact in the consolidation of his own personal power.10 We should not forget that Romanos had been chosen for the throne in order to accomplish the mission of confronting the attacks and, thus, his promises for a military solution were running the danger to be proved false. The opposition party against him, rallied around John Doukas, had begun to gain ground and if the emperor wanted to retain his power, he needed desperately a clear military victory.11

Thus, on 13 March 1071 (Sunday of Orthodoxy) Romanos departed from Constantinople, directed towards the Armenian provinces of the Empire. Although better prepared than the previous ones, this campaign gave the impression from the beginning that it had not started with the best omens.12 The emperor adopted once more the strategy that he had enforced in 1069, aiming to secure the control of Mantzikert near lake Van. The imperial forces were marching through Bithynia and Phrygia, crossed the river Ali and camped in the location Cryapege (Cold Spring) in Cappadocia, where Romanos suppressed a rebellion of his German mercenaries. Thereafter, he marched towards Sebastea. In contrast to the year 1069, this time he did not plan to approach the Armenian provinces from the side of Melitene, but from Theodosioupolis (modern Erzurum), as this route was shorter and provided more supplies for a numerous army.

3.3. The clash and the defeat

Romanos reached Theodosioupolis on July 1071 and proceeded to renew his army’s supplies. Ignoring the approaching of Alp Arslan (the sultan had abandoned the siege of Aleppo and the planned campaign against the Fāţimids of Egypt and he advanced, though with few forces, to the north) the emperor committed the fault to break his forces, by sending some of his unites against Chliat, with magistros Joseph in charge, a member of the family of Tarchaneiotes, as well as the Frank mercenary Roussel or Ursel de Bailleul,13 whereas himself with the rest of his army marched to the fall of Mantzikert, the real object of this campaign. Afterwards, the main body of the army camped on the plain outside the fortress. At that time, the emperor was informed that the army of the Seljuks was approaching and he notified right away Joseph Tarchaneiotes and Roussel to hasten to return to the imperial camp. Nevertheless, Tarchaneiotes, upon hearing of the arrival of the sultan in the field and being a supporter of the party of Doukas, he disobeyed the imperial order and withdraw his forces in the imperial territories through Mesopotamia.14

As August was approaching to his end, the situation of the Byzantine camp was getting worst, because of the attacks of the irregular Seljuk horsemen. In his effort to confront them, Nikephoros Basilakes, one of the most important commanders of Romanos, was ambushed near the camp and was captured alive, whereas his men were decimated. In addition, the sultan wanted to negotiate the signing of a peace treaty, but the Byzantine emperor rejected his proposals. Romanos was afraid that Alp Arslan probably wanted to delay until the arrival of reinforcements, whereas the danger that the mercenary armies of the Byzantines (especially the Uzes) would desert to the Seljuks because the former ones were of the same race with the last ones, was increasing. Thus, the collision between the two armies, after the failure of the diplomatic efforts, was inevitable.

The initiative of the attack took the Byzantine leader. On August the 26th, 107115 the Byzantines were arrayed for battle: in the front line the emperor himself governed the center, Alyates (probably the strategos of Cappadocia) the right wing and Nikephoros Bryennios, in charge of the western armies, the left wing, whereas the second, reserve line was governed by Andronikos Doukas, the eldest son of Caesar John Doukas, whom Romanos took with him essentially as a hostage. The Byzantine army advanced carefully and in battle array, whereas the Seljuks were retreating, refusing to fight. But, during the afternoon and as the Byzantine army was about to gain this victory, Romanos, wisely thinking, he judged as purposeful to discharge his armies and to take care of their safe return to the fortified camp. Obviously he did not want to pass the night out of the fortress, where the Byzantine army would have been left vulnerable to the mercy of the hostile archers.

But the tactic of retreat is a hard maneuvering, even under the most favorable circumstances, and Romanos’ men were mainly inexperienced. As they were retreating, they had to bear the hostile arrows, without being able to react. In addition, among the lines of the army a rumor was spread that the emperor had been defeated. The rumor became a certainty when the distant parts of the array, ignoring the order for withdrawal, saw the imperial flag turning back. Most of them believed the intentional rumor by Andronikos Doukas that this was an irregular retreat, especially when they saw him leading the reserve line away from the battlefield.

Alp Arslan took advantage without any delay of the panic that prevailed, as well as of the retreat of the second line, which under normal conditions could have restrained his circular movements. Immediately the sultan threw his forces against the right wing of the Byzantines and he repelled it, whereas the effort of the left wing to haste for help was futile. The result was that the Seljuks surrounded the center of the Byzantine array and crushed it. Romanos fought bravely, even when he was on foot and wounded on his arm, until the enemy captured him alive late in the evening.16

4. Estimates and results

The defeat in Mantzikert and the capture of Romanos IV were the result of the lack of experience, of military discipline and abilities, of good information, of coordination between the different military commanders. Only because of the above-mentioned military inefficiency, the treachery of Andronikos Doukas could have had the specific effect.17

The battle of Mantzikert was not a military disaster at the end, as the contemporaneous Byzantine historians presented it. Certainly it was a military defeat of the imperial army, and most of all for the capture of the emperor himself, but not for the total catastrophe. The balance of powers in the East was not radically transformed and the civil struggle that followed the release of Romanos Diogenes (beginnings of September 1071) caused much more damage in the area of Asia Minor than the defeat at Mantzikert itself. Furthermore, after this defeat the Byzantine army did not seem to suffer substantial loses, as its commanders managed to escape with the main body of the expeditionary corps.

What was more important was the meaning of the battle of Mantzikert in the political realm: on the one hand it inaugurated a decade of civil war in the empire, on the other hand the treaty that Diogenes and the sultan Alp Arslan agreed in common, left almost the whole of Asia Minor intact. An explicit mention was made for the maintaining of the existing territorial status quo, for the free communication between the two states and for the abstaining of the Seljuks from the pillaging of Byzantine territories. In addition, it was made provision for the exchange of prisoners of war, and finally the contracting of intermarriage between the children of the two leaders. Thus, the Byzantines lost few or no territories.

On the other side, equally important was the defeat of Mantzikert in the economic level, because the campaign itself was expensive enough, and the ransom fallen to the hands of the enemy, when they sacked the camp of Romanos, was exceptionally rich. Furthermore, the financial hardship that appeared during the reign of Michael VII Doukas (1071-1078) was a consequence of the unfavorable outcome of the battle as well. Finally, we must take into consideration the psychological factor of the defeat, as for the first time the Byzantine emperor was captured alive by the enemy.18

Nevertheless, beside all theses above-mentioned consequences of the defeat at Mantzikert, a satisfactory explanation cannot be given for the amazingly swift conquest of Anatolia (eastern Asia Minor) by the Seljuks. Possibly they profited from the political weaknesses that this particular defeat brought about, in relation to the fact that the attention of the Byzantines had been already turned towards the West, where a new and dangerous enemy, the Normans, made their menacing appearance.19

1. Ostrogorsky, G., Ιστορία του βυζαντινού κράτους 2 (Athens 1979), p. 233.

2. Canard, M., "La campagne arménienne du sultan Saljuqide Alp Arslan et la prise d’Ani en 1064", Revue des Etudes Armeniennes 2 (1965), pp. 239-259.

3. Angold, M., H βυζαντινή αυτοκρατορία από το 1025 έως το 1204. Μια πολιτική ιστορία (Athens 1997), p. 84.

4. Scylitzes Continuatus, Τσολάκης, Ε. (επιμ.), Η Συνέχεια της Χρονογραφίας του Ιωάννου Σκυλίτζη (Ioannes Scylitzes Continuatus) (Ίδρυμα Μελετών Χερσονήσου του Αίμου 105, Thessaloniki 1968), p. 124

5. Angold, M., H βυζαντινή αυτοκρατορία από το 1025 έως το 1204. Μια πολιτική ιστορία (Athens 1997), p. 85. Cf. Bekker, I. (ed.), Michaelis Attaliotae Historia (Bonn 1853), p. 103.

6. Angold, M., H βυζαντινή αυτοκρατορία από το 1025 έως το 1204. Μια πολιτική ιστορία (Athens 1997), pp. 85-86.

7. Bekker, I. (ed.), Michaelis Attaliotae Historia (CSHB, Bonn 1853), p. 139· Καραγιαννόπουλος, Ι.Ε., Ιστορία του Βυζαντινού Κράτους 2 (Thessaloniki 1993), p. 574· Angold, M., H βυζαντινή αυτοκρατορία από το 1025 έως το 1204. Μια πολιτική ιστορία (Athens 1997), p. 86.

8. Scylitzes Continuatus, Τσολάκης, Ε. (επιμ.), Η Συνέχεια της Χρονογραφίας του Ιωάννου Σκυλίτζη (Ioannes Scylitzes Continuatus) (Ίδρυμα Μελετών Χερσονήσου του Αίμου 105, Thessaloniki 1968), p. 139; Bekker I. (ed.), Michaelis Attaliotae Historia (CSHB, Bonn 1853), p. 139.

9. Cheynet,  J.-C., "Mantzikert: Un désastre militaire?", Byzantion 50 (1980), pp. 416, 418, 423-424.

10. Χριστοφιλοπούλου, Α., Βυζαντινή Ιστορία 2.2 (Thessaloniki2 1997), pp. 242-243.

11. Angold, M., H βυζαντινή αυτοκρατορία από το 1025 έως το 1204. Μια πολιτική ιστορία (Athens 1997), p. 87.

12. Among the bad omens recorded by the historians of that era was the denial of empress Eudokia to accompany Romanos until the shores of Asia Minor, as was the habit whenever an emperor started a campaign to the East. See Bekker, I. (ed.), Michaelis Attaliotae Historia (CSHB, Bonn 1853), p. 143.

13. Bekker, I. (ed.), Michaelis Attaliotae Historia (CSHB, Bonn 1853), p. 147; Scylitzes Continuatus, Τσολάκης, Ε. (ed.), Η Συνέχεια της Χρονογραφίας του Ιωάννου Σκυλίτζη (Ioannes Scylitzes Continuatus) (Ίδρυμα Μελετών Χερσονήσου του Αίμου 105, Thessaloniki 1968), p. 144.

14. Gautier, P. (ed.), Nicéphore Bryennios, Histoire (Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 9, Bruxelles 1975), p. 114.

15. Older scholars used to consider August 19th as the date of the battle.

16. Bekker, I. (ed.), Michaelis Attaliotae Historia (CSHB, Bonn 1853), p. 165; Scylitzes Continuatus, Τσολάκης, Ε. (ed.), Η Συνέχεια της Χρονογραφίας του Ιωάννου Σκυλίτζη (Ioannes Scylitzes Continuatus) (Ίδρυμα Μελετών Χερσονήσου του Αίμου 105, Thessaloniki 1968), pp. 205-206, 212-215; Gautier, P. (ed.), Nicéphore Bryennios, Histoire (Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 9, Bruxelles 1975), p. 118.

17. Angold, M., H βυζαντινή αυτοκρατορία από το 1025 έως το 1204. Μια πολιτική ιστορία (Athens 1997), p. 89.

18. Cheynet, J.-C., "Mantzikert: Un désastre militaire?", Byzantion 50 (1980), pp. 432-434.

19. Angold, M., H βυζαντινή αυτοκρατορία από το 1025 έως το 1204. Μια πολιτική ιστορία (Athens 1997), p. 90.