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This Week In History

The Battle of Manzikert. August 26,1071.

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The Battle of Manzikert occurred on August 26, 1071 between the Byzantine Empire and Seljuk Turkish forces led by Alp Arslan, resulting in the defeat of the Byzantine Empire and the capture of Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes.

During the 1060s the Seljuk sultan Alp Arslan allowed his Turkish allies to migrate towards Armenia and Asia Minor, where they sacked cities and plundered farmland. In 1064 they destroyed the Armenian capital at Ani. In 1068 Romanus IV led an expedition against them, but his slow-moving infantry could not catch the speedy Turkish cavalry, although he was able to capture the city of Hierapolis. In 1070 Romanus led a second expedition towards Manzikert, a Byzantine fortress that had been captured by the Seljuks, and offered a treaty with Arslan: ­ Romanus would give back Hierapolis if Arslan gave up the siege of Edessa. Romanus threatened war if Arslan did not comply, and prepared his troops anyway, expecting the sultan to decline his offer.

Accompanying Romanus was Andronicus Ducas, an odd choice as Ducas was an old enemy of the emperor, leaving his best general, Nicephorus Botaniates, at home, suspecting his loyalties.

Thinking that Alp Arslan was either further away or not coming at all, Romanus marched towards Lake Van expecting to retake Manzikert rather quickly, as well as the nearby fortress of Khliat if possible. However, Arslan was actually in Armenia, with 30.000 cavalry from Aleppo, Mosul, and his other allies. Arslan’s spies knew exactly where Romanus was, while Romanus was completely unaware of his opponent’s movements.

Romanus, unaware of the loss of Tarchaneiotes, continued to Manzikert, which he easily captured on August 23. The next day some foraging parties under Bryennius discovered the Seljuk force and were forced to retreat back to Manzikert. The Armenian general Basilaces was sent out with some cavalry, as Romanus did not believe this was Arslan’s full army; the cavalry was destroyed and Basilaces taken prisoner. Romanus drew up his troops into formation and sent the left wing out under Bryennius, who was almost surrounded by the quickly approaching Turks and was forced to retreat once more. The Turks hid among the nearby hills for the night, making it nearly impossible for Romanus to send a counterattack.

On August 26 the Byzantine army gathered itself into a proper battle formation and began to march on the Turkish positions, with the left wing under Bryennius, the right wing under Theodore Alyates, and the centre under the emperor. Andronicus Ducas led the reserve forces in the rear. The Seljuks were organized into a crescent formation about four kilometres away, with Arslan observing events from a safe distance. Seljuk archers attacked the Byzantines as they drew closer; the centre of their crescent continually moved backwards while the wings moved to surround the Byzantine troops.

The Byzantines held off the arrow attacks and captured Arslan’s camp by the end of the afternoon. However, the right and left wings, where the arrows did most of their damage, almost broke up when individual units tried to force the Seljuks into a pitched battle; the Seljuk cavalry simply fled when challenged. With the Seljuks avoiding battle, Romanus was forced to order a withdrawal by the time night fell. However, the right wing misunderstood the order, and Ducas, as an enemy of Romanus, deliberately ignored the emperor and marched back to the camp outside Manzikert, rather than covering the emperor’s retreat. Now, the Seljuks seized the opportunity and attacked. The Byzantine right wing was routed; the left under Bryennius held out a little longer but was soon routed as well. Romanus was injured, and taken prisoner when the Seljuks discovered him.

When the Emperor Romanus IV was conducted into the presence of Alp Arslan, he was treated by him with considerable kindess, and offered him the terms of peace which he had offered previous to the battle. He was also loaded with presents and Alp Arslan had him respectfully escorted by a military guard to his own forces. But prior to that, when he first was brought to the Sultan, this famous conversation is recorded to have taken place:

Alp Arslan: “What would you do if I was brought before you as a prisoner?”
Romanus: “Perhaps I’d kill you, or exhibit you in the streets of Constantinople.”
Alp Arslan: “My punishment is far heavier. I forgive you, and set you free.”

Alas for Romanus, his own subjects were far less kind than his enemy, making the mercy of Alp Arlsan a curse: Shortly after his return, Romanus was deposed, humiliated, cruelly blinded and finally died in exile after great torment.

 

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