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The Significance of the Battle of Manzikert

The battle of Manzikert was the beginning of the fall of the Byzantine Empire.

5. Background

The Byzantine Empire lasted about a thousand years, making it the longest lasting in recorded history. Heir to the Roman Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire was the largest and most powerful empire through the Middle Ages. However, under a series of militarily incompetent emperors, Byzantine influence began to decline towards the end of the first millennium. This coincided with the emergence of a tribe of Tartars from Central Asia. They were the Seljuk Turks and by the end of the 11th century, Alp Arslan, Sultan of the Turkic Empire, had annexed key Byzantine provinces in Anatolia.

After ascending the throne in 1068, Romanos Diogenes initiated a series of military reforms and deputed his nephew Manuel Comnensus to recapture lost territories. Comnensus was initially successful; he captured Hierapolis in Syria and defeated a Turkish army invading Iconium. He was eventually captured by the Turkish army in 1069 but the Sultan, whose priority was subjugation of Fatimid Egypt, made peace with the Byzantines. Two years later, when Alp Arslan was marching on Fatimid Aleppo, Romanos sought to take advantage of his absence and decided to take the strategic fortress of Manzikert, present day Malazgirt in Turkey, and Akhlat.

4. Makeup of the Forces

Romanos’ army consisted of some 5000 regular troops from the western provinces and about the same number from the eastern territories. The majority of his army consisted of Frankish, Bulgarian, Norman, Turkish and Pecheneg mercenaries. There was also a part of the elite Varangian Guard along with troops from Armenia. The infantry marched under the Duke of Antioch. Sources vary as to the exact number of Byzantine troops, but according to the historian Gibbons, it was the largest army fielded by the Roman Empire, western or eastern.

Romanus sent about half of his army under his general John Tarchaneiotes to Akhlat while he marched on to Manzikert with the remaining troops. When news of Romanos’ expedition reached Alp Arslan, he was in Armenia and his response was swift. He had about 30,000 cavalry from Aleppo, Mosul apart from his allies. Though he easily captured the fortress of Manzikert, Romanos marched to Akhlat to join the rest of his army upon hearing of Alp Arslan’s impending arrival. He never caught up with Tarchaneiotes and the rest of his army, who are thought to have fled upon sighting the Turks.

3. Description of the Engagement

When Romanos’ spies discovered the Seljuk forces, the Byzantines retreated to Manzikert. Not knowing the full force of the Turkic army, Romanov dispatched some cavalry under the Armenian general Basilaces to engage with the enemy. When Basilaces was captured, the emperor sent a contingent under Bryennius who was immediately surrounded by the advancing Turks and forced to retreat. Romanos was unable to send reinforcements as they the Turks took shelter in the nearby hills. Romanos was further handicapped by the desertion of his Turkish mercenaries to the other side.

On the next day, the Byzantine army decided to give battle and marched in formation. The Turks organized themselves into a crescent formation at a distance and showered arrows on the Byzantine troops as they marched. The centre of the crescent kept moving backwards and wings surrounded the Byzantine army. Romanos was successful in capturing Alp Arslan’s camp but the Turks refused to engage in pitched battle. By night, the emperor decided to withdraw but the general Ducas ignored the order and failed to cover Romanos’ retreat. Now Alp Arslan gave the order to attack and the Byzantine wings, already weakened by the repeated onslaught of arrows, disintegrated. Romanos was injured and taken prisoner.

2. Outcome

Alp Arslan, whose name translates to "Lion-Hearted" in Turkic, treated Romanos with extraordinary kindness and offered peace in exchange of substantial territory. The Sultan also gave generous presents to the emperor, who was respectfully escorted under military guard to his own army. Romanos was treated far more harshly by his own subject; the general Ducas returned to Constantinople and led a coup against the emperor in which Romanos was not only dethroned but blinded and killed.

Despite the defeat, Byzantine casualties were relatively low. Since it was night, the Seljuks did not pursue the fleeing the Byzantine army. Manzikert was not an immediate disaster; most units were fighting to defend other territories in Asia Minor and the Balkans within a short time span. But the defeat showed that the great Roman Empire, (yes, everyone still called Byzantine Empire by that name) was not invincible. The coup by Ducas further destabilized the empire, which could not withstand further aggression by succeeding Turks.

1. Historical Significance and Legacy

Decades later, the defeat at Manzikert came to be seen as a turning point of the Byzantine Empire. Byzantine historians would call it the ‘disaster’ of 1071 and point to it as the time of the beginning of the end of the Empire. The Seljuks overran almost all of Asia Minor within the span of a few decades till the empire was confined only to Constantinople. For almost a millennium, Anatolia had been the heartland of the Byzantine Empire and in his great trilogy on Byzantium, Norwich laments that Manzikert was the “death blow, though centuries remained before the remnant fell.”

The rout at Manzikert made western sit up and take notice of the vulnerability of the Byzantine Empire against the Turks. The Seljuks went on to capture Jerusalem, which made it obvious that the empire is no longer capable of protecting Eastern Christianity or pilgrims visiting their sacred city. The combined effect is considered to be the root cause of the Crusades that followed.

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