MYRIOCEPHALON, 1176: BYZANTINE RESURGENCE COMES TO A DISASTROUS END

In 1176 the Byzantine Empire seemed poised to reclaim its place as a superpower bestriding Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Then the Emperor Manuel I Komnenus launched an ambitious attack to drive the Seljuk Turks out of Anatolia forever. In a narrow pass through the hills at a place called Myriocephalon the fate of two empires was decided. 

Following the destruction of their army at Manzikert in 1071 the Byzantine Empire had its Anatolian heartland, the bread-basket of the empire and its best recruiting grounds, stripped away. Clans of Seljuk Turks moved into the area, taking advantage both of their victory and the subsequent Byzantine civil war that followed it. But under the very capable Komnenoi Dynasty that took power in the last decades of the century the fortunes of the empire slowly revived.

Under first Alexios I and then his son John II the finances, army, and territory of the empire grew and prospered. Much of  Anatolia lost to the Seljuk Turks after Manzikert was recaptured and the regional Muslim rulers put on the defensive. This Byzantine revival coincided with and was aided by both the break-up of the Great Seljuk Empire following the death of Malikshāh I in 1092; and by the coming of the Frankish army of the First Crusade. Passing through Anatolia on the way to the “Holy Land”, the Frankish Crusaders handed the Turks three defeats: first at Nicaea, then at  Dorylaeum, and finally before Antioch. Taking advantage of this weakening of their Turkish enemies, the Komnenoi emperors were able to advance Byzantine power throughout Anatolia and even make gains in northern Syria.

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In 1176 Manuel I, third of the Komnenoi emperors, set out from Constantinople at the head of the “grand armee” of the Byzantine Empire, the largest fielded by Roman arms since Manzikert: perhaps as many as 35,000 men. His ambitious goal was the capture of  Iconium, capital of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum, successor state of the Great Seljuk Empire, in order to deal the Turks a crippling blow that would drive them out of Anatolia.

A flamboyant but erratic ruler, Manuel impressed his contemporaries and was considered  as among the greatest political figures of his age. During his reign he conducted alliances with the Pope, the Holy Roman Empire, and other world leaders (including Saladin).  Manuel carried on a cordial and regular diplomatic correspondence with Henry II Plantagenet, the most powerful ruler in western Europe; and many Englishman served in the famed Varangian Guard. During his reign the turbulent Balkans were subjugated, with both Serbia and Hungary becoming Byzantine vassal states. In 1151 Manuel reduced the Crusader Principality of Antioch to vassal status, forcing Prince Reynald to kneel for hours, abasing himself, before the Emperor would grant him forgiveness for his many transgressions.[1] 

With intent to to regain the lost Catepanate of Bari in southern Italy, Manuel  repaid Robert Guiscard’s invasion of Greece in 1081 with his own invasion of Apulia in 1155. Though initially wildly successful, his expedition ultimately failed.  In 1169 Byzantine forces participated in a joint naval expedition against Egypt with king Amalric I of Jerusalem; and in 1171 the Kingdom of Jerusalem became (for a time) a protectorate of the Byzantine Empire. This latter was a goal of both his father and grandfather before him, realized at last by Manuel Komnenus.

The Komnenoi star shone brightly in the firmament, indeed.

In 1176 the Empire seemed poised to regain all that had been lost after Manzikert. To this end, Manuel set out with the largest force gathered in a century to conquer the Seljuk Turkish capital of Iconium.

COMBATANTS

THE BYZANTINES

The Byzantine army had undergone many changes since the great days of Justinian and Heraclius. No longer was it comprised of professional horsemen and infantry steeped in the traditions of Roman military tradition. The provincial armies of the old themes and the elite tagmata regiments stationed in-or-around the capital had mostly perished at Manzikert or faded away in its aftermath. The army reconstructed by the Komnenian emperors was a very different force, comprised largely of mercenaries supported by a small force of imperial guards and native regiments.

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No accurate number exists as to the overall size of the Byzantine army of the Komnenian emperors. A reasonable estimate is some 50,000 men, half of which were static “garrison troops” of indifferent quality, holding the various towns, fortresses, and cities. The other 25,000 (or so) were part of the “field army”: the mobile forces available to an emperor or his commanders for campaigns[2], though only a small portion of that number were ever deployed on any one foreign venture. Constantinople itself had an estimated garrison of 10,000 troops, including the Varangian Guard, which at full strength numbered as much as 6,000 men.

Native Byzantine cavalry, once the pride and principal strike force of any field army, numbered perhaps 12,000 total for both the Asian and European forces in this period. These were divided into regiments 300-500 strong, called  allagion

Gone were the soldier-farmers who formed the regiments of the old  themata system. In the post-Manzikert army provinces were home to small professional regiments (possibly raised locally), called  tagma. Most prominent among these were the tagma of of Macedonia, Thrace and Thessaly; the areas least affected by the Turkish advances in post-Manzikert Anatolia. By 1176, Byzantine recruiting of native cavalry in Asia had recovered enough over the previous century that Manuel was able to field Anatolian tagma to serve as part of a division of the army for his campaign to recapture Iconium, listed in the sources  “the eastern (alongside the western) tagmata.” [3]

Mercenaries hired for any particular campaign were a large part of any 12th century field force. In fact “regular” regiments composed entirely of foreign mercenaries were the core of the imperial field army: the basilika allagia (or taxeis). This force replaced and served the same function as the old Tagmata of elite native Byzantine units that had largely faded away after Manzikert. These mercenary regiments were the Varangians (already mentioned), the Vardariots, Skythikon, and Latinikon. The Varangians aside, the strength of these other regiments is unknown, and likely varied depending on the needs of each campaign. In time of peace they were unlikely to have number more than a single tagma of 300-500 men. But for any individual campaign might be increased to many times that size.

The Varangian Guard were the only one of these regiments that predated Manzikert. Originally comprised of Scandinavian or Russ warriors, its ranks were increasingly filled with Englishmen in the 12th century. This trend began after the Norman Conquest of England, as the Anglo-Saxon warrior class fled their homeland to find new homes and service under the Byzantine emperors. By the reign of Manuel this had become for the Norman and Angevin kings of England something of a pressure-release, a way of finding useful employment elsewhere for an otherwise troublesome under-class of warriors.

Armed in the traditional fashion of their homeland, the Varangians of the 12th century still fought as close-quarter heavy infantry, armed with a long-handled ax. In defending or assaulting a fortress or enemy camp they were invaluable (as at Eski Zagra in 1122, where with their long axes they hacked their way into the Pecheneg wagonburg). But in the open against either Frankish knights or Turkish horse archers, they were at a disadvantage. Against the former because infantry armed with axes are inherently worse off than those armed with a longer spear; and against the light cavalry Turkish horse archers because these could keep their distance while peppering the heavy infantry with their powerful composite bows.

Expecting to besiege and perhaps assault the walls of Iconium, Manuel took some or all of the Varangians with him on this campaign (they are mentioned as present at the battle in a letter from Manuel to King Henry II of England, thanking him for their service and valor), though they are not specifically mentioned in the fighting.

Of the other three “regular” mercenary (or foreign-born) regiments less is known.

The Vardarites were recruited from “Turks” (likely Magyars or Uzes) of the Vardar River valley in Macedonia, and were principally light cavalry horse archers. Likewise the Skythikon were horse archers, recruited from Pecheneg military settlers (originally prisoners of war) and later Cumans from off the Ukrainian steppes.

The Latinikon was recruited from Frankish cavalry (some of which would have been knights, the rest mounted sergeants-at-arms), and were heavily armored, lance-armed horsemen. The Byzantines appreciated the effectiveness of the charge of western knights, and began recruiting large numbers of western heavy cavalry during the 11th century; originally mostly from the Normans of Italy and Sicily. During the Manzikert campaign a large band of these was led by a Norman adventurer named Roussel de Bailleul. After the disastrous battle (where they were absent), these “Franks” attempted to take advantage of the chaos in central Anatolia by carving-out a short-lived Norman duchy in what had been the Byzantine heartland.

Despite the demonstrated risk of hiring these “land Vikings”, the Komnenian emperors knew their worth in battle and expanded their recruitment. The Frankish cavalry gained much prestige following their success against the Turks during the First Crusade, no doubt impressing the Byzantines even more.

By the 12th century the Byzantines were recruiting knights and sergeants from all over western Europe. Aside from the Latinikon, individuals and bands of Frankish mercenaries were hired as needed for whatever campaign might be pending, likely brigaded together with the Latinikon. Manuel, a Frankophile, came to rely increasingly on both Frankish cavalry and tactics; going so far as to arm many of his native regiments with the heavier western lances and even promoting jousting tournaments in the Hippodrome of Constantinople (in part, no doubt, to please his beautiful young Frankish empress, Maria of Antioch). The emperor himself at times tilted against opponents, and became an accomplished jouster. Manuel was deemed in the west to be a very “debonair” and “courteous” knight.

Aside from the native “regular” territorial regiments and these mercenary forces, the provincial landed magnates (dynatoi) could assist in regional defense or local campaigns with their own (sometimes substantial) numbers of troops raised and maintained at their own expense from among their retainers, relatives and tenants. The quality of these troops, however, tended to be inferior to the professional troops of the basilika allagia and the regular tagma of the provinces.

Finally, when personally on campaign the emperor would be accompanied by a household tagma comprised of members of the imperial family and closest retainers, called oikeioi (“those of the household”). These served as did “household knights” in western courts and were likely equipped as the heaviest of cavalry (kataphractoi). As well as being an elite bodyguard for the emperor, this group also functioned as a staff college for young officers who’d attracted the emperor’s favor. Their number would have fluctuated but likely they numbered no more than 300 men and probably less.

For the campaign of 1176 Manuel brought the tagma of both Europe and Anatolia; the four elite regiments of the  basilika allagia; an undetermined number of mercenaries raised for the campaign, as well as local dynatoi and their retinues of irregulars; and his own oikeioi guards. This, the largest Byzantine army to take the field since Manzikert, was augmented by allied contingents of horse archers from the vassal states of Hungary[4]  and Frankish heavy cavalry (knights and sergeants) both from vassal Crusader Antioch and mercenaries from the west (the latter, at least, likely brigaded together in the Latinikon regiment). In total some 35,000 men[5], supported by a supply train of 3,000 wagons, with an extensive siege train dismantled for transport.

Up to the Battle of Manzikert, Byzantine tactical practice against Turkish light cavalry horse archers was to form-up in two lines, one behind the other, a “bow shot” apart (approximately 300 yards). The first line was to advance against the swarming horse archers, employing their own bows and short, controlled charges to keep the Turks off-balance and eventually pin them against a physical barrier (such as a river or cliff-side). The second line, behind and parallel to the first, had merely to keep pace and maintain position, in readiness for the inevitable attempt by the Turks to sweep around the flanks of the first line and attack it from the rear. If this occurred, the second line would allow the Turks to get between the two lines, then charge and crush them in-between.

However, at Manzikert this formation had failed disastrously, mostly because the Related imagecommander of the second line (Andronikos Doukas) deliberately betrayed his family’s rival, Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes. In the following years, a lack of disciplined troops who could be trusted to execute such a maneuver led to the development of an alternative tactical formation:  the parataxis. This was a defensive formation, a hollow square with the baggage in the center, infantry on the outside and cavalry in-between. The infantry armed with spear-and-shield and supported by foot archers could defend against Turkish archery, protecting the cavalry’s mounts from being killed by Turkish arrows. The horsemen, in turn, could charge out of the square if the opportunity presented itself. It was an effective counter  to the fluid swarming tactics of the Turkish horse archers. A similar formation was employed by Richard I of England (who may have learned this from the Byzantines) at the Battle of Arsuf .

THE SELJUK TURKS

The Turkish Sultanate of Rum (or Iconium) in central Anatolia was established by Alp Arslan in the years following Manzikert. The army of the Sultanate consisted of two elements: the ‘askar (army in Arabic) of the Sultan, which was a professional body of troops paid with cash or land-grants (called iqta’at) and comprised (paradoxically) of slave soldiers (ghulams or mamālīk); and the ‘askar of the provincial amirs. These slave soldiers were drawn from among prisoners of war and from older boys purchased from the slave market. They could be of any race, but most were Daylamis, Khorasanians, Georgians, Turkomans, and increasingly in the late 11th through the 13th century from former peoples of Byzantine Anatolia. (By a twist of fate the ghulam who captured the Emperor Romanus Diogenes at the Battle of Manzikert was himself a former Byzantine!)

During the reigns of Alp Arslan and his successor, Malik Shah, the royal ‘askar was as large as 46,000 cavalry. But with the break up of the Seljuk Empire, the wealth and power of the Sultans of Rum had declined and this force had shrunk to less than half that size. However, the armies of the provincial amirs could still be quite large. But these armies of the amirs were also semi-independent and could not always be relied upon to support the Sultan’s military campaigns.

To augment their ‘askar the Rumi Seljuks relied heavily upon Turkoman tribal auxiliaries. These were fierce if unreliable soldiers, and were the sinews of Seljuk military strength in this period. They fought under their own clan or tribal banners, commanded by their own chieftains. They were undisciplined and fought for plunder, and would only stay in the field if the prospects for such were good.

All Turks fought principally as light cavalry mounted archers, but were quite willing to dismount and fight on foot if necessary. The professional askari, while still principally light cavalry, wore  body armor of lamellar or mail, and used lances, maces, ax or sword in close-quarter combat. This was true too of the tribal nobility of the Turkomen clans.

The exact number of warriors the Sultan Killij Arslan had at his disposal for the 1176 campaign is unknown, but likely less than the 35,000 men Manuel was preparing against him.

The primary tactic of the Turks, as with all nomadic steppe horsemen, was to approach an enemy in a loose formation, harassing them with long range archery; while occasionally darting in-and-out to fire at closer range or use saber and mace to cut-up detached or isolated groups. The Turks tended to be patient, cautious warriors, and were content to let sun and fatigue work to weaken their enemy before closing with him in earnest. When the enemy was sufficiently “softened-up”, the the Turks would close for the kill. A small portion of every Turkish army was heavy cavalry, either armored ghulams or noblemen. These provided the shock troops that would break an already weakened enemy.

Unusually for nomadic horsemen, the Turks were also quite willing to dismount and take advantage of rough terrain when necessary. Using covering terrain, they were adept at ambush and surprise attack.

THE CAMPAIGN AND BATTLE 

Manuel marshaled his forces at Lopadion, the great fortress in the Opsikion Theme of northwestern Anatolia built by his father, John II. This was the headquarters and main base of the Anatolian tagma and the mustering place for expeditions by the Komnenoi emperors against the Seljuks of Rum. The site was well watered by the Rhyndacus River and near-by Lake Apolloniatis. As his army set out, Manuel’s column stretched some 10 miles. A diversionary force under the emperor’s nephew, Andronikos Vatatzes,  was sent east to drive the Turks out of the northern Anatolian hills around Amasia in Pontia, while he led the main force in person to the campaigns main objective, Iconium. (The composition of this secondary force is unknown. But as there is no mention in the accounts of the coming battle of the Hungarian and Cuman allies, these were likely attached to Vatatzes’ diversionary force.)

The Emperor’s column headed south, staying within Byzantine territory. Three hundred and seventy miles later Manuel reached Laodicea on the Lycus, where the army turned east toward the Seljuk frontier. The column now marched through ancient Phrygia, where  Alexander the Great once passed in the early days of his conquest of the Persian Empire. This area, the themes of Thrakesion and Anatolikon, had been overrun by the Seljuks after Manzikert, but recovered by Manuel’s father and grandfather. Each night on the march, the Roman forces entrenched their camp each night in the ancient tradition of their forebears, dating back to the Roman Republic.

Light Turkish cavalry harassed the column as it moved ever closer to its objective, setting afire the grass and poisoning the wells ahead of the Byzantine line of march. There would be little forage for the Emperor’s horses or clean water for the army to drink. By the time they arrived at the ruined fortress of Myriocephalon, at the foot of the Tzivritze pass, through which the route to Iconium passed, the Byzantine forces were “grievously afflicted by a disease of the bowels which utterly ravaged the army”.

The Sultan Kilij Arslan had not sat idle as the Byzantine juggernaut drew ever nearer to his capital. He had summoned Turcoman warriors from throughout Anatolia and northern Syria to come defend Muslim lands from the “infidel”. Though likely smaller than the Imperial forces marching toward him, the Turkish army was swollen with new-arrived allies, and ready for battle. Nevertheless, the  Sultan sent envoys to the Emperor at Myriocephalon offering peace.

According to the historian Niketas Choniates, the Emperor was advised by the “old soldiers” of his army to accept the Sultan’s proposals, rather than risk all in battle. But the Emperor heeded instead  the counsel of his hot-headed younger relatives and in-laws who “had never heard the sound of the war trumpet” and were eager for the fight. The envoys were dismissed, Manuel saying he would only continue discussions once he had taken Iconium. The bellicosity of the emperor’s relatives aside returning to status quo ante bellum made little sense. The expense of such a grand campaign could only now be justified by victory.

While negotiations were still underway the Sultan’s army prepared for battle. Before the Emperor’s army lay the pass of Tzivritze. High bluffs and jutting cliffs overlooked the road as it cut through the high hills, a narrow defile that was a perfect place for an ambush.

“This place is a far-stretching defile with mountain passes that descend gently the steep northern slope to the hills below, opening up into broad ravines and then dropping down on the other side to jutting rocks and precipitous, beetling cliffs.” [6]

A forbidding place indeed through which to attempt to march an army.

The Turks began to move into ambush positions in the hills above, to await the Roman forces.

On the morning of the 17 of September 1176 Manuel’s army broke camp, and began to enter the pass. Strangely, against all precepts of established Roman practice, they failed to picket the heights or make any attempt to use their numerous light infantry to clear the pass before proceeding. In fact, throughout that day Manuel, who all his life had been a vigorous man and brave warrior, showed an unusual mental lethargy and even fatalism[7]. Even when warned by scouts that light Turkish infantry and cavalry were seen in the hills above the pass, still Manuel ordered the column forward.  Niketas records:

“It appears that Manuel took no precaution on behalf of the army when he set out… He neither lightened the loads of the pack animals nor did he put aside the wagons carrying the siege engines, nor did he attempt to rout the Turks in advance from the overgrown mountain passes with a company of his light troops, thus smoothing the way for the army.  After making his way over the open plains, he elected to be pressed in by this narrow defile, even though he had been forewarned.” [8] 

The Byzantine column advanced  in several divisions.  The vanguard was composed of the professional soldiers of the eastern and western Tagmatacommanded by the regimental commanders  John and Andronikus Angelos-Doukas (the latter father of the future emperors Isaac II and Alexios III), Constantine Makrodoukas, and Andronikos Lapardas. (The number of commanders suggests that the eastern and western Tagmata, on at least this occasion, consisted of four regiments.)  These were followed by the next division, the “right wing”, led Baldwin of Antioch, brother of the Empress Maria, and composed of the Latinikon and the allied Frankish contingent from Crusader Antioch.  Next came the army’s baggage, attended by the host of camp “menials”[9] , and the wagons carrying the dissembled siege equipment, vital to the success of the expedition. The baggage train was followed by the “left wing”, led by Theodore Mavrozomes and John Kantakouzenos. The emperor and his picked troops (oikeioi and perhaps the Varangians) came next. Finally came the rear guard, under Andronikos Kontostephanos, the composition of which is unknown.

All these officers were experienced captains of war, men who had served successfully in Manuel’s earlier wars and in some cases those of his father. Though most were related to the imperial family, these were not “royal favorites” serving in positions for which they were unsuited. All of which makes the decision to march through the pass without first clearing it of Turks all the more unfathomable.

The first division entered the defile, but not before taking the precaution of sending a force of light infantry into the flanking hills to drive the Turks back away from the road:

The troops (of the first division) passed through the rough terrain without injury, for the infantry, sent on ahead, startled the barbarians (Turks), dislodging them from the hills below the mountain where they had been posted to give battle, and sent them scurrying back to the steeper slopes for cover. [10]

The second division (the “Right Wing”), composed of Baldwin’s Franks, now entered the defile. According to Niketas, they had mistakenly allowed space between themselves and the rear of the first division, and by the time they were in the narrows the Turks had “scurried” back to the lower hills overlooking the path. Niketas also indicates the Franks were not marching in tight order, but were strung out. Seeing an opportunity, the Turks attacked.

Swarming down from the higher ground, they showered the column with arrow and javelin from above, while others charged down to hit the column in flank(s), where they were soon intermingled with the now disordered Frankish troops.

Perhaps the troops (the Franks of the second division) who followed would have passed safely through the Turkish melee also had they only closed ranks with the companies (of the first division) who preceded them and used their archers to repel the onslaughts of the Turks, but they neglected to maintain closed ranks, allowing the superior number of Turks swarming down from the hill sides from the higher ground to scatter the troops and engage them in a most reckless manner.[11]

Baldwin’s men, pressed from all sides and the enemy intermingled within their formations, were now in a dangerous plight. Gathering “certain of his knights”[12] the emperor’s brother-in-law tried to save by valor what his mismanagement had placed in peril. With this small cadre of armored horsemen he charged into the Turks, attempting to drive them back and give his men respite. But his small force, despite fighting with desperate courage and displaying “noble deeds”[13] of daring, was surrounded by the enemy and all were cut down.

Their commander dead, the Frankish division routed, attempting to flee the way they had come. With the Turks hot on their heels, cutting men down from behind, they threw the next division into confusion as well.

Elated by their success, the barbarians closed all avenues of escape to the Romans, who, pressed closely together, were unable to move through the mountain pass… in the narrow space (the Romans) fell over on another, unable to harm the enemy, and in blocking the way to those marching with them they made it impossible for them to defend themselves. Thus they were easily killed by their attackers, for there was no aid whatsoever from the troops in the rear or from the emperor, nor was their any possibility of retreating or breaking to either flank. [14]  

As has been seen on other occasions, such as at the twin debacles of Cannae and Adrianople, the Romans (and in this case their Frankish auxiliaries) found themselves pressed from all sides by the enemy and the terrain, so closely that the soldiers had no room to use their weapons nor even lift their shields to defend themselves from their tormentors. Retreat was blocked by the baggage train to their rear: Turkish arrows raining down from the heights above felled the oxen that served as draft animals and their drivers as well, rendering the wagons immobile. These now clogged the defile, preventing both retreat for the trapped second division and reinforcements from the next division (the “Left Wing”), commanded by Mavrozomes and Kantakouzenos, coming to their rescue.

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Niketas describes the carnage in the pass:

…horse and rider were cast down together. The hollows were filled with bodies. The groves were glutted with the fallen. The babbling, rushing streams flowed red with blood. Blood commingled with blood, human with that of pack animals. The horrors that took place there defy all description. Since they could neither advance nor retreat… the Romans, like cattle in their pens, were cut down in this gorge.[15]

At this point, with disaster looming and panic beginning to spread, the Sultan employed what is known in modern military parlance as PSYOPS (Psychological Operations). On the bluffs above the struggling masses in the defile, a lance was raised bearing upon it the severed head of the Emperor’s nephew, Andronikus Vatatzes; who had been commanding the diversionary force far to the north against Amasia. This expedition had also come to ruin a week earlier, and news of this was for the first time now  provided by the grizzly site of its commander’s severed head.

This sight, combined with the unfolding disaster before him, left Manuel (in the words of Niketas) despondent and stricken. For the remainder of the battle he was strangely detached as events unfolded. Today we would recognize him as having fallen into a state of psychological shock. Abandoning the role of commander-in-chief, he rashly pressed forward with his retinue (oikeioi) and the “Left Wing” division into the pass, further compounding the magnitude of the disaster by in effect throwing good money after bad.

Manuel exhorted his men to clear the way ahead, and many perished in the attempt. The wagons blocking their progress were overturned and their vital cargo cast into gullies on either side of the road. Though the army’s supplies and siege equipment was thus lost, the rear divisions of the army could press forward. Repeatedly the Romans attempted to clear the Turks from the high ground to either flank, but were repulsed at every attempt, the Turks having the tactical advantage of fighting from higher ground.

At some point Manuel commanded his men to “save themselves as best they could” [16]  and led his household in a desperate effort to cut their way through the Turkish ranks. Most of the men of his retinue, “the emperor’s most illustrious kinsmen”[17]  were slain in the fighting. Manuel did not spare himself from the thick of the fighting. Conspicuous in his gilded armor, purple tunic, and red boots (which only the Roman Emperor himself was allowed to wear) Manuel was targeted by the Turks for death or capture. By the end of the day  he has “suffered many wounds and bruises from sword and mace wielded by the Turks: his whole body was covered with injuries, his shield was pierced by some thirty arrows, and he was unable to set straight his (dented) helmet which had been knocked askew”[18]. No doubt Manuel wore the finest armor available, and this likely saved his life time-after-time that day.

The pathway forward was cut by seven “trench-like and contiguous valleys”[19], which the army must fight through, and the pass narrowed and widened at different stages. All these side valleys as well as the hills above teemed with Turkish bands; each of which had to be driven back. At some stage, late in the day, a violent sandstorm briefly swept through the pass, turning an already nightmare situation even worse. Men fought blindly, blowing sand stinging their eyes; sometimes killing friend instead of foe. The dead clogged the ravines and gullies, which became one mass grave for Romans and Turks, horses and pack mules alike.

In their near-panicked attempt to fight their way out of the trap, the Romans abandoned their wounded, who “stretched their hands in supplication with piteous gestures and voices… pleading with those nearby to come to their aid…”[20] but were left to death or capture.

At some point Manuel dismounted and  rested beside a wild pear tree. The emperor of the Romans was alone, his bodyguard and attendants dead or separated during the sandstorm that had now passed. His sword was gone, and he had only the broken shaft of his lance to defend himself. A cavalryman of “humble station” saw the emperor, and came to his aid. He offered to serve the emperor “to the utmost of his ability”, offering Manuel a drink of water from his bottle and even adjusted the emperor’s battered helmet which had slipped sideways on his head.

While the two men were so occupied, a Turk came along and attempted to steal the emperor’s horse, tethered to the tree. Manuel (apparently recovering himself) struck this miscreant a blow to the head with the broken piece of his lance, knocking the Turk to the ground. Other Turks, however, in search of captives, were drawn to the scene and beset the two Romans. Manuel took up his companion’s still intact lance, and as a Turk charged down upon him speared the man through the side and killed him. The trooper at his side  drew his sword and cut off the head of another. But the unequal contest could only have ended badly for both had not a troop of ten Roman cavalrymen arrived and drove off their tormentors.

Forming around the emperor, they proceeded up the pass, adding others to their band as they went. The Turks recognized Manuel, and a band of elite cavalry (likely the ghulams of some amir or the Sultan’s own guards) set upon them, intent to kill or capture the emperor.

 

“All were mounted on Arabian stallions, and in appearance they stood out from the many: they carried elegant weapons, and their horses were bedecked with splendid ornaments, in particular with adornments of tinkling bells suspended from the horsehair that reached far down (their mounts) neck.”[21]

But Manuel and this brave band fought their way through, driving off these assailants. Pressing on, they defeated all attempts to take the emperor. Along with other survivors of the column they were able to fight their way through and eventually win through to the end of the pass and the table land beyond. Here they were able to join the vanguard division, which had set up a camp. The vanguard’s commanders had long been anxious for the emperor’s safety, and now were overjoyed to see Manuel, won free of the trap.

Not all were so lucky. John Kantakouzenos, commander of the “Left Wing”, also found himself alone and beset by many Turkish opponents. Fighting bravely, he looked about for any who would rally to his side. But it was every man for himself, and he was cut down in sight of the emperor he served as Manuel and his band passed by.

As night fell, Andronikos Kontostephanos appeared with the rear guard, which had an easier time of it late in the day. Many of the Turkomen that had earlier blocked the pass or were posted in the heights above had filled their saddlebags with loot and scattered back into the hills, satisfied with a good day’s work.

The Battle of Myriocephalon was over.

AFTERMATH

Casualties in the battle are unknown, but were likely not less than 25% for the Romans. The Turks too had suffered, but nothing like that which had befell Manuel’s forces. Advancing on to the siege of Iconium was impossible, as all of the siege equipment had been lost with the baggage train in the defile. All that was left to the Romans was to find a way to extricate what was left of their army.

After some skirmishing outside the Roman camp the following day, the Sultan sent a representative to negotiate a truce. An agreement was reached, and the Roman army withdrew, with promises to turn over certain border fortresses in return for safe conduct unmolested back to Roman territory. However, as bands of Turkish ghazis (likely beyond the control of any authority, even the Sultan’s) harassed their withdrawal, ultimately the Romans reneged on their agreement to hand over the places in question. Hostilities broke out again, with the Turks raiding into Roman territory. However, this time it was they who fell into an ambush as they raided up the Meander River at Hyelion and Leimocheir, some scant repayment for Myriocephalon.

But the disaster in the pass signaled the end of Roman expansion and recovery in Anatolia. Never again would the Turkish grip on these lost territories be threatened. The loss of prestige was perhaps greater than the loss in manpower (much of which was provided by mercenaries, and could be replaced whenever coin was available). It has been said that Manuel began the battle perceived in the west as the mighty “Emperor of the Romans”. After Myriocephalon, he (and his successors) were merely seen as the “King of the Greeks”.

As with much of his ambitious foreign policy ventures, Manuel here overreached. Byzantium was no longer the powerful Eastern Roman Empire of even a century before, and had neither the financial or military resources to dominate its neighbors and regain its lost territories. His expansionist policies were ultimately unsustainable, and only served to make enemies on nearly every front.

Manuel sowed the wind. It was left to his successors to reap the whirlwind. In the next generation, the Venetians and Franks, alienated and turned against their former allies, sacked Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade.

1387437

NOTES:

  1. Manuel responded to repeated offenses against Byzantine interests by the ruthless and unscrupulous Raynald of Châtillon, Prince of Antioch.
  2. This represents perhaps the maximum number available for campaigns, and many field armies were considerably smaller.
  3. Niketas Choniates, History
  4. Niketas Choniatēs describes these as “Cumans from beyond the Danube”, but were almost certainly Magyar horsemen from Hungary. See Niketas, 178
  5. Birkenmeier, John W. (2002), The Development of the Komnenian Army: 1081–1180; p. 131
  6. Niketas, 180
  7.  The life of an emperor, much of whose time was occupied with sedentary ceremonial duties and consuming rich foods cannot have been conducive to good health.  Though by all accounts a vigorous and active man, at 58 years of age Manuel’s lifestyle might at this most inopportune time have caught up with him.
  8. Niketas, 181
  9. Ibid, 180
  10. Ibid, 181. The Wikipedia entry on the battle states that the first division was composed of infantry, but based upon Niketas’ chronicle there is no reason to believe this to be the case. All the divisions except the baggage train were likely mixed infantry and cavalry, light and heavy.
  11. Ibid
  12. Ibid
  13. Ibid
  14. Ibid
  15. Niketas, 181, 182
  16. Ibid, 183
  17. Idid, 184
  18. Ibid, 183
  19. Ibid
  20. Ibid 184
  21. Ibid 185
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2 Responses to MYRIOCEPHALON, 1176: BYZANTINE RESURGENCE COMES TO A DISASTROUS END

  1. Joshua says:

    Thank you for this article! Love this era of history and I always think Byzantine history is underappreciated.

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