August 26th, 1071.
Night had come. The Byzantines had fallen back with the dusk. At that moment, Alp Arslan felt a sudden boldness and impetuosity swelling through him as he heard the confused shouting of his enemies in the dark distance. Turning from defense to offense, he ordered a counterattack against the enemy flank, where the destiny of Anatolia awaited.
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The rise of Islam severely disrupted the strategic balance of power in the Mediterranean. After the death of the Prophet Muhammad, his followers burst forth from Arabia. Under one of the greatest of them, Khalid ibn al-Walid, the Byzantines were smashed at Yarmouk and driven out of Syria. Similar victories drove them out of the Levant and Egypt. The result was that by the beginning of the 8th century, the Byzantine Empire had been stripped of its wealthiest provinces, which had been Roman for the better part of 1,000 years. Then a new, European enemy appeared in the form of the Slavs, who took most of the Empire’s Balkan heartland. Byzantine dominions were therefore largely confined to Anatolia, a few fortresses in Greece, and some coastal strongholds on the Adriatic.[i] Constantinople itself was besieged numerous times, and though these sieges were beaten off, it looked like nothing could stop the advancement of Islam from the south and east or the Slavs from the north and west.
Alongside these military reverses, the Empire also faced economic reverses, as its treasury became depleted through the loss of valuable lands. This resulted in changes in administration and the compensation of soldiers. Unable to pay the traditional wage, the Empire instead took a page out of the Late Roman Republican playbook and compensated veterans with grants of land. Meanwhile, the old Roman provincial system was downsized into a series of smaller districts called themes.[ii]
Nevertheless, the Empire held on. Under its energetic Emperor Leo III Isaurian, the series of military reverses finally stopped. Leo threw off the Siege of Constantinople of 717-18 and then gave the Umayyad caliphs a serious defeat on land in the Battle of Akroinon in Anatolia. In 867, a new, capable dynasty, the Macedonian, came to the throne with the accession of Basil I. Taking advantage of a period of disunion in the Middle East, this new dynasty built on the foundation of the previous one and shored up the Empire in Europe, recovering its Balkan heartlands, and even extended its dominion back into northern Syria, based in the stronghold of Antioch.[iii] This left it in good shape for its successor dynasty, the Doukai. At that time, the Muslim world experienced even more disruptions at the hands of a new people migrating into the area, the Seljuk Turks.
The Seljuks, who were named after a legendary ancestor, were a Turkic-speaking people who originated from the Asian Steppe and had allied themselves with the Persian Samanid Empire in the 10th century at the end of a period of migration. During their time in Persia, they adopted some local customs and the local language, and converted to Sunni Islam.[iv] The Seljuks then found themselves embroiled in dynastic hostilities against the succeeding Ghaznavid Dynasty, which had conquered the Samanids. These hostilities ended in favor of the Seljuks, leaving them in control of the Ghaznavids’ western territories in modern Iran. By the middle of the 11th century, the Seljuks had established themselves as important players in the Middle East, capturing Baghdad. Unsurprisingly, the Seljuks, now under the leadership of Alp Arslan, turned their attention westward, to Armenia and Anatolia, where they had already sent probing operations.
After the loss of Egypt, the Levant, and Syria, Anatolia became the most important part of the Byzantine Empire. It was the place from where most of the soldiers hailed.[v] Additionally, Anatolia was a base for power projection into the wealthy Armenian hinterland, which stood at the epicenter of valuable south-north and east-west trade routes.[vi] Long a client state of the Empire, Armenia acted as a buffer between Byzantine and Seljuk territory, but starting in the 1020s, the former got more directly involved in its internal affairs, even inviting the Seljuks to participate with them in 1044.[vii] The next year, the Byzantines, under Emperor Michael IV, conquered the Armenian Capital, Ani.[viii] This put Byzantines and Seljuk territory adjacent to one another for the first time.
The Seljuk Turks were still growing in power and raids into Armenia began soon after the conquest of Ani. Alp Arslan eventually took city and destroyed it, opening lands from which the Seljuks could let their horses graze. This in turn reduced Armenia into a staging point for further westward expansion. Additional Byzantine fortresses in eastern Anatolia were then destroyed, paving the way for a great westward push.
The new Byzantine Emperor, Romanus IV Diogenes, launched a small counterattack against the Seljuks at Sebastea. A series of small-scale engagements followed between 1068 and 1071. At this point, the chance for peace opened when Alp Arslan proposed a truce with Romanus, as he was also engaged in combat with the Fatimid Caliphate, based in North Africa, Egypt, and the Levant, to the south. Nevertheless, local Seljuk leaders continued their raiding into Anatolia, and Romanus gathered a massive army to take eastward. The peace overtures would not last long.
Following a diplomatic crisis that involved Romanus’ nephew and Alp Arslan’s brother-in-law, the two powers again went to war, with the latter taking the strategic offensive by moving into Anatolia and capturing the city of Manzikert after a short siege.[ix] Romanus responded, moving into eastern Anatolia, near Lake Van, to reassert Byzantine control of the area. The move would surely beckon the decisive battle in the strife between the Seljuks and Byzantium.
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[i] Paul Markham. “The Battle of Manzikert: Military Disaster or Political Failure?” August 1st, 2005. De Rei Militari.https://deremilitari.org/2013/09/the-battle-of-manzikert-military-disaster-or-political-failure/. Retrieved January 30th, 2021.
[iv] DHWTY. “The Seljuks: Nomads Who Built an Empire and Took on Byzantine Power.” Ancient Origins. April, 22nd, 2019. https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-important-events/seljuks-0011773. Retrieved January 30th, 2021.
[v] Davis, Paul, K. 100 Decisive Battles From Ancient Times To The Present. Page 118. Oxford University Press. Santa Barbara, CA. 1999.
[vi] Ibid, 119.
[viii] Kolev, George (narrator). “Battle of Manzikert 1071 – Byzantine – Seljuq Wars Documentary.” Kings and Generals Channel.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WjS1FbHLIxM. January 18th, 2018. Retrieved January 31st, 2021.
[ix] Davis, 120.