On an arid upland valley in Armenia, one hot August day in 1071, the Roman/Byzantine army marched out of camp to battle the forces of the Turkish Sultan, Alp Arslan. There, near the town of Manzikert, the course of medieval history and the map of the Near East would be changed forever. It was a seminal moment, one that would set in motion a chain of events whose impact is felt to this day. The battle that ensued would sow the seeds for the future Turkish nation, and spell the doom of Byzantium.
In the latter half of the 11th century, the Eastern Roman Empire was the strongest and most developed nation in Europe and the Near East. It possessed the only truly professional military in the world, the linear descendant of the armies of the Caesars. At its greatest extent in the 6th century under the Emperor Justinian , the Empire had stretched from Spain to the Euphrates River.
In the wake of the Muslim conquests of the 7th century, Byzantium (as it has come to be called) had shrunk to an area encompassing the Balkans in Europe, and the Anatolian peninsula in Asia. Under the very capable Macedonian Dynasty the Romans had enjoyed a resurgence of power, pushing back and expanding their borders in both the east and the west. In the first decades of the 11th century the “hero Emperor” Basil II had completed this process, and the borders of the empire reached the furthest they had since the days of Justinian (see “Greatest Commanders of the Middle Ages“). The Muslim Emirates of eastern Anatolia had been conquered absorbed and the whole of Anatolia reclaimed for the Empire. Armenia, long a battleground between Rome and whatever power ruled in Persia, was again subject to the Empire. Even southern Italy again bent knee to the emperor in Constantinople.
The empire at its greatest extent under Justinian, in the 6th century
The empire at the death of Basil I, before the Manzikert campaign
However, since the death of Basil II in 1025 the Empire had been in a slow but steady decline. Civil wars had wracked the empire, and two unofficial factions had developed in the capital whose partisanship would ultimately undermine the Empire’s very existence.
One was the “Soldier’s Party”, which stood for a strong defense and championed the cause of the small farmers of the countryside. These latter provided the semi-professional militia force that was the backbone of Imperial defense. Its chief members were the great families of the provinces (called “themes”); who were also the strategoi (generals) of the thematic armies and governors of the themes. These country magnates understood that the security of their lands depended upon a strong defensive force; which their free farmers were a vital part of.
The other faction was the “City Party”, composed of the wealthy aristocrats and members of the civil bureaucracy who lived in or around the capital, Constantinople. The wealthy among them resented the taxes they paid to maintain a strong provincial defense. The members of the bureaucracy (many of which were eunuchs) distrusted the provincial nobility, which had from time-to-time rebelled against the city and placed one of its own on the imperial throne. Both these groups saw little need for the vast Byzantine military establishment. With Constantinople itself protected by the most massive and comprehensive defensive walls in the world, these grandees of the city were themselves secure enough, and had little concern for what occurred in the distant provinces. So what if a few farms got burned by the occasional Arab raid, or a few farmer’s daughters were carried off. It was a cheaper price to pay than the exorbitant taxes required to prevent it!
This factional infighting led to a cycle of civil war; with provincial generals marching periodically on the capital to replace the current occupant of the palace. Win or lose, soldiers died and the empire was weakened. When a candidate from the Soldiers Party held the throne, they attempted to shore up imperial defenses. Conversely, when the City Party was in power, it retaliated by disbanding native units, increasing taxes on the provincials (which drove many of the small landowners to financial ruin, thus reducing the supply of regular troops to the army), and replacing native Roman regiments, who might loyally follow their strategos into rebellion at some future date, with foreign mercenaries who were devoid of political interests. Under Constantine X Dukas, an emperor of the City Party, the army that garrisoned and defended Armenia, on the forward edge of the battle with Islam, had been disbanded; along with many of the regiments of other eastern Themes.
Meanwhile, on the Empire’s eastern frontiers, the rival Islamic Caliphate had become home to a new race of hardy warriors: the Seljuk Turks.
Established in the wake of conquest which followed the death of Mohammed in the early 7th century, the Caliphate was the Empire’s great rival in the Middle East. These two “super powers” of the day were often at war, and the border regions between them were the scene of regular raid-and-counter-raid by Christian Akritai and Muslim Ghazi.
The Turks were newcomers to the scene. A nomadic people, they had migrated several generations earlier from their homeland on the Central Asian steppe. Arriving in the lands of the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad, the Turks had converted to Islam and become eager warriors of the Prophet.
Successive Caliphs had enrolled the warlike Turks as mercenaries into their armies. In time these Turkish mercenaries became the strongest force in Islam, and had supplanted the secular authority of the Caliph with that of their own Sultan; relegating the Caliph to the position of religious figurehead. (In several ways this arrangement between Turkish Sultan and the Abbasid Caliph in the 11th century mirrors that in feudal Japan between the Shogun and the Mikado, the Japanese Emperor.) Thus, by the 11th century A.D., the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad had become overlaid by the Seljuk Turkish Empire.
Filled with all the zeal of new converts, the Turks happily conducted jihad upon the neighboring Christian Roman Empire. The usual situation of low intensity raids-and-reprisals along the border grew larger and more dangerous. Turkish forces penetrated deep into Anatolia on several occasions, finding the interior of the Roman provinces rich pickings; their garrisons reduced in strength by decades of military cuts. In 1067 the ancient city of Caesarea (formerly Mazaca in Cappadocia), capital of the Charsianon Theme was sacked by one of these deep-penetrating Turkish raids, and the population massacred. Three years earlier, in 1064, a large Seljuk army, led by their Sultan Alp Arslan, attacked the Armenian capital of Ani, denuded of its Roman garrison following the withdrawal of troops by the late Constantine X. After a siege of 25 days the Turks captured the city and massacred the population. An account of the sack and slaughter is given by an Arab historian:
“The (Turkish) army entered the city; massacred the inhabitants, pillaged and burned it, leaving it in ruins and taking prisoner all those who remained alive… The dead bodies were so many that they blocked the streets; one could not go anywhere without stepping over them. And the number of prisoners was not less than 50,000…” 
Then in 1068 a new soldier Emperor took the imperial diadem. A leader of the Soldier’s Party, Romanus IV Diogenes gained the throne by marrying Eudoxia, widow of Constantine X Dukas. Her son by her late husband, the 17-year-old Michael VII, was too young to rule and had, in any case, shown little inclination or ability. At his mother’s marriage to Romanus Michael was relegated to the position of powerless “co-Emperor” to the mature soldier, Romanus Diogenes.
The Dukates were a leading family of the City Party, and deeply resented Michael being supplanted by his mother’s new husband. Though they were unable to prevent Romanus’ accession to power, they were determined to undermine his reign. Romanus was aware how precarious was his perch, which could only be made secure by a military victory: as a hero-emperor he could stand against the Dukates on his own. In 1070, he decided to lead a massive army east; to bring the Turks to a great battle and by inflicting upon them a crushing defeat stabilize the eastern frontier for a generation.
Romanus spent the year mustering troops from all over the Empire, assembling the combined forces of the European and Asiatic themes: the banda (companies) of professional kataphractoi, the heavy cavalry that were the backbone of the imperial army. In addition he brought the elite Imperial Guard regiments stationed in or around Constantinople. These were collectively referred to as the “Tagmata”. Mostly composed of regiments of kataphractoi, these also included units of klibanophoroi, the super-heavy armored lancers that were the iron core of the emperor’s strike force. Many of these guard regiments dated back to the Emperors Diocletian and Constantine. But a more recently raised force was the storied Varangian Guard. Raised by Basil II, these were axe-wielding Scandinavian and Russian heavy infantry. Famed for their giant stature and ferocious courage, they were much feared and respected in the east; and formed the Emperor’s personal bodyguard, always attendant upon his person.
The total force Romanus took east was 60,000 strong, and represented nearly every soldier available to the Emperor at the time. To appease his Dukate rivals, he was forced to appoint as his second-in-command a young dandy of the city: Andronikus Dukas, cousin of his co-Emperor, Michael, and a man devoid of military experience. This promotion of a political enemy to high command was to have disastrous results in the coming campaign.
The year 1070 was spent chasing small bands of Turkish raiders out of Anatolia. with the imperial grande armée advancing ever eastward. By the summer of 1071, the emperor had reached Armenia, a land of high hills and long, deep valleys.
Mount Ararat looms majestically behind the monastery of Khor Virap in southeastern Armenia.
There Romanus split his army. While he and the largest part marched on the fortress town of Manzikert, Romanus detached a strong force of Roman regulars (perhaps including some of his Varangians) as well as Pecheneg and Norman mercenaries, to besiege the fortress of Chliat, a day’s march away. Manzikert was easily captured on August 23, and Romanus camped in the valley and waited for Chliat to fall and for that detachment to return.
Unbeknownst to Romanus, the Turkish Sultan and his army were at that very moment marching directly upon him.
Earlier in the year Sultan Alp Arslan (“The Mountain Lion”) had made peace overtures. But Romanus needed a victory, not a negotiated settlement. He rejected the Sultan’s offer, and now Alp Arslan was coming to give Romanus what he desired: a great and decisive battle.
Roman scouting was unaccountably poor, and the first indication the Romans had that a large Turkish army was in the vicinity was when foraging parties were driven-in by large, aggressive bands of Turkish horse archers. A considerable force of Roman regular cavalry, under the general Basilakes, Dux of Theodosiopolis (a Roman fortress town near the eastern frontier, now the modern Turkish Erzurum) was dispatched to drive off what was thought to be just small groups of Turkish raiders. Instead, Basilakes blundered into the Sultan’s army, and his command was annihilated. Another contingent under Nikephoros Byrennios, commander of the forces of the European themes, was dispatched to aid Basilakes. These too were roughly handled, and retreated back into the Imperial Camp.
As swarms of Turkish horsemen poured into the far end of the valley, the Emperor and his commanders realized this was no raiding force, but the Sultan’s main army.
Alp Arslan again sent a delegation to request a cessation of hostilities; but, as earlier in the year, Romanus rejected this overture. Sending messengers riding post-haste to Chliat, Romanus prepared to give battle the next day.
“THE TERRIBLE DAY”
The following morning, August 26th, 1071 the last great native Roman army the Empire would ever field marched out of camp and prepared for battle.
The exact number of Romanus’ deployed forces is unknown. Though originally 60,000 strong, the detachment sent to Chliat (the size of which is unclear) and the loss of Basilakes force had reduced this figure. They were facing a boiling cloud of some 40,000 Turkish light cavalry horse archers, led by Sultan Alp Arslan in person. He was attended by a number of heavy cavalry, Ghulam slave-soldiers who comprised his personal household guards. All factors considered, the armies opposed may have been roughly equal in number.
The Romans deployed in the usual formation recommended by Byzantine tactical manuals when faced with swift-riding nomadic horse-bowmen: two divisions in line, one behind the other, a bow’s shot apart. Though it is not stated, each of these lines was composed of 3-6 ranks of horsemen. The first line was to advance steadily against the enemy, attempting to come to close quarters if possible; but maintaining an advancing wall of armored men and horses, forcing the lightly armed and largely unarmored nomads to fall back. The second line was to follow the first, preventing its encirclement (the favorite tactic of the steppe nomad, utilizing their speed and mobility to encircle and attack from flank and rear slower-moving formations). Should the Turks get behind the first line, the second line would then charge those enemy forces; “sandwiching” and crushing them between the two lines.
Romanus’ first line consisted of the professional banda of the empire. In the center, surrounding the emperor, were the elite regiments of the tagmata, between three and six thousand strong (actual numbers are not given by the sources). On either flank of these were the kataphractoi of the European and Anatolian themes, on the left and right respectively. The Emperor personally commanded this first line, surrounded by his guards and beneath the sacred, gem-encrusted banner of the holy Labarum, the ancient standard first carried by Constantine the Great at the battle of Milvian Bridge.
The second, supporting, division was composed of the feudal retainers of the great landed gentry of the eastern frontiers, the akritai. Much like feudal men-at-arms among the Franks in the west, these troops varied in quality; but all were armored cavalry capable of roughly handling a lightly clad Turkic nomad if it came to close quarters. Armed with bow as well as lance, they were also capable of skirmishing at a distance with the Turks as they attempted to close with and destroy them.
This was a textbook plan, as taught by Byzantine manuals such as “The Tactica” of the Emperor Leo the Wise; proven over centuries of warfare to be the most effective way of defeating elusive nomad horse archers. The weakness in the Emperor’s deployment was not military but political: Andronicus Dukas, his political enemy, was given command of the tactically vital reserve force that comprised the second line.
All that long, hot August day the steel-clad Roman horsemen advanced up the highland valley. Tantalizingly just beyond the reach of their lances, a cloud of Turkish horse-archers continued to skirmish. Arrows flew back-and-forth, doing little damage to either side. The Turks refused to stand against the mailed Roman bands, and all day continued to fall back before the Byzantine advance. Exchanging arrows, the Turks refused to stand and fight at close-quarters. By mid-afternoon the advancing Roman line passed over the campsite occupied that morning by the Sultan’s army. Still the enemy fell back down the long valley, loosing arrows as they withdrew.
Casualties were likely few on either side during the day-long, rolling skirmish battle. The Romans were well armored, and few of the light Turkish arrows would have wounded or killed a man. A horse killed or lamed would dismount its rider, but as the Romans were advancing and the enemy retreating, such an unlucky victim could pass back through the ranks of his comrades and return to camp. For their part, Roman arrows falling among the loose-ordered and constantly boiling ranks of the Turks often as not missed their rapidly moving targets. As each Turk maintained a string of additional ponies a slain or lamed mount was quickly replaced.
Near evening, frustrated by the Sultan’s unwillingness to come to grips, the Emperor reluctantly ordered the Roman bands to wheel-about and return to camp.
No sooner had the Romans shown their backs to the enemy then kettle drums began booming, and the Turks closed-in like a pack of wolves.
For the next hour as the Romans retired towards their camp the Turks pressed hard upon their rear. The Romans were able to keep their enemy at bay with controlled “pulse charges”, in which individual banda would suddenly wheel about and charge those Turks nipping at their heels. The Turks would scamper off on swift ponies, out of range to regroup, while the charging Roman band would return as quickly to its place in the retreating line. Only the best drilled and disciplined soldiers in the world would have been capable of such maneuvers. It is a testament to their quality that though greatly stressed by the factional strife that ripped the Empire throughout the century, the Roman army was still capable of this most difficult of maneuvers: a fighting withdrawal.
View of the battlefield from the rising ground to the south. It was from here that the Sultan viewed the oncoming Romans and the slow withdrawal of his horsemen before them. It was in the flat ground in the center of the picture that Romanus ordered the Byzantine forces to “about-face” and return to camp; a move that triggered the Seljuk counter-offensive.
Toward sunset, the Turks seemed to make a fatal mistake: around both ends of the retreating Roman first line swarmed light horse archers, into the space between the first and second lines. It was an obvious attempt to separate them and destroy the Emperor’s first division in detail, the very thing the Roman deployment was meant to counter.
For Romanus and his tired troopers, the opportunity had come to at last smash these impudent rascals at close quarters!
Imperial trumpets blew the order, calling for the still retreating second line to halt, wheel-about in-mass, charge and smash the foolish interlopers between the army’s two iron-clad divisions.
Instead, to the dismay and growing horror of the soldiers of the Emperor’s division, the second line continued to withdraw from the battle. Either because he misunderstood the order (unlikely), or willfully and treasonously disobeyed it, Andronicus Dukas led the second line off the field. The Emperor and the professional regiments of the Eastern Roman Empire were abandoned to their fate.
(The Dukates would later defend Andronicus’ actions by claiming that Romanus and the first division was hopelessly cut off and doomed; and that Andronicus was wise to save what he could of the army, refraining from what amounted to throwing good money after bad. This argument, however, is all too self-serving to be convincing.)
Kataphract of the Tagmata battles Seljuk Ghulam near the Labarum in the closing stages of the battle
The first division found itself surrounded and attacked from all sides. All order and command-and-control vanished, as the battle dissolved into swirling chaos. First the right-wing, composed of the troops from the themes of Anatolia (the senior regiments of the army) broke and fled back up the valley. This freed more Turks to join those swarming around the armored guard regiments massed about the Emperor’s standards. Then the left-wing, the thematic regiments of Europe led by Byrennios, cut their way out of the encirclement, seeking refuge in the nearby hills. This left only the emperor and the elite tagmata desperately fighting on.
The Sultan Alp Arslan had known from the beginning that at some point he would have to fight the Romans at close quarters in order to break them and gain a total victory. Now, as chaos reigned in the Roman ranks, the Sultan put aside his gilded bow and drew his mace (the favorite weapon of Turkish heavy cavalry). Surrounded by the armored Ghulams of his personal guard, he now charged into the center of the Roman masses, where the Emperor could be identified still fighting, surrounded by his Varangians beneath the holy Labarum.
The fighting was vicious and at close quarters, and the weary and outnumbered Romans were overpowered. Romanus was captured, trapped beneath his fallen horse. He was taken before the Sultan, who treated him as a guest, not a prisoner. Among the other spoils on the battlefield was the Labarum, as well as the standards of the various guard regiments that, like it, dated back to Constantine.
Romanus was held for only a few days before being released by the Sultan, who treated him with every courtesy and even arranged an escort back into Roman territory. The defeated emperor returned to find the Dukates in rebellion, with young Michael VII now declared sole ruler. In the resulting civil war, Romanus was captured and blinded by the vengeful Dukates in such a severe fashion that he died of the injury.
The result of that “Terrible Day” at Manzikert (as Roman chroniclers referred to it) was not immediately so terrible. The Turks were granted certain towns on the periphery, but of these only Antioch was of any great consequence. But the loss of so many trained troops was serious, and the decade of civil war that followed depleted the imperial power even more. While so occupied, clans of Turcomans only nominally under the control of the Sultan drifted into undefended Anatolia. They occupied the land, killing or driving off the Roman farmers that were the backbone of the empire. Within a decade, Anatolia was lost to the empire.
The loss of Anatolia was ultimately a death-blow for the empire. Here was the breadbasket of the empire, the rich lands whose grain and taxes had fed and clothed the empire. From where the highly professional armies of the past centuries had been recruited and based. While some of the army survived to return to their garrisons in Europe or Asia, the parts were never again assembled as one mighty strike force. Without Anatolia, no native “Roman” army could be recruited of any size to regain the lost lands.
By the time Alexios Komnenos had consolidated power and established a new dynasty in 1081, the damage was irreparable, and the Turks would never be driven from these lands again. For the remaining centuries of its declining existence, the Eastern Roman Empire would be forced to rely largely on mercenary soldiers, of often dubious quality and loyalty, to fight its battles.
Anatolia, once the fertile heart of the Hellenized Roman east, became after Manzikert a vast arid steppe; as the nomadic Turks deliberately turned farmland into pasture for their sheep. By the time the First Crusaders passed through on their way to Jerusalem, the once fertile farmlands of Anatolia had been reduced by the Turks to a desert. In the years after, ancient cities that had seen the passing of Darius and Alexander, of Caesar and Belisarius, decayed and were abandoned. Romania became Turkey, which of course it is to this very day.
The result of that “terrible day” was a catastrophe from which the Roman Empire in the East never recovered. The Byzantine/Roman army had for centuries shielded the West from the forces of militant Islam. Without this bastion, the west would have to rise up and provide its own military response to the march of Islam: the Crusades.
To this day we still feel the echo of those distant centuries of conflict. The hatreds and paranoia engendered by those wars between Christian Europeans and Muslims still affect relations between the Islamic world and the west today.
There is a sobering lesson to be learned from Manzikert, pertinent to America: when partisan hatred is so great and a nation’s politics become so poisonous that defeating ones’ domestic political opponents becomes more important than defeating a deadly enemy abroad; then any treason is possible to further that despicable cause. Certainly the partisans of the House of Dukas never accepted their responsibility for the disaster at Manzikert. The defeat of their political rival, Romans Diogenes, justified in their minds betraying the empire they served.
1. The term “Byzantine” was an invention by later historians, and would have seemed bizarre to the men of the time, who thought of themselves as “Romans”, and their land Romania. In Greek, the language of the Empire, their realm was called Basileia Rhomaion; and in the West was referred to in Latin as the Imperium Romanum.
2. This gruesome account comes from a friendly, Muslim, source. It should be noted that the sack and slaughter of captured enemy cities was not uncommon. Up until the 20th century it was an accepted law of war that a city that failed to answer the call to surrender by a besieging army could expect little mercy once the city was stormed. When modern (revisionist) historians point to the sack of Jerusalem by the First Crusaders as evidence of their barbarism the reader should bear this in mind, as well as the (then) recent example of the sack and slaughter at Ani and other Byzantine cities by the Turks in the years preceding the Crusade.
3. Modern Turkey sprang-up out of the Ottoman Empire after World War One. The Ottoman Turks were a different clan than the earlier Seljuks. They migrated from their central Asian homeland into Seljuk Anatolia, fleeing the Mongols under Genghis Khan. They were settled as ghazi in Bithynia, on the borders of much-reduced Byzantium. From here they slowly grew into a powerful kingdom that swallowed both the Byzantine and the Seljuk realms into their own larger empire.
Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.