26 August 1071, the Eastern Roman Emperor Romanos IV was decisively defeated by the Seljuk Turks under Alp Arslan at the Battle of Manzikert in present-day eastern Turkey.
It speaks volumes about the political situation in the Middle East around the year 1000 that Seljuk, the chieftain of a band of a nomadic tribal confederation, only recently converted to Islam, could establish himself as the leading faction in the ancient cultural region and that the grandson of the said condottiero and namesake of the dynasty, after adopting Persian customs and court manners, would already rule an empire almost the size of that of the Achaemenid kings of old. But then, their ancestor Dareios started out pretty much in the same manner 1,500 years before. And now, in the last decades of the 11th century, the Seljuk Sultan Diya ad-Din, called Alp Arslan, the brave lion, threatened Anatolia, the heartlands of Eastern Rome, as well as Fatimid Egypt. And while the sultan was actually about to show the latter what was what, the new Roman emperor Romanos IV Diogenes marched towards Edessa and Aleppo to secure his frontiers and re-conquer the fortified Armenian trading town of Manzikert and Alp Arslan marched west to meet him instead.
“Alp Arslan: "What would you do if I were brought before you as a prisoner?" Romanos: "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." (alleged conversation between the two commanders after the battle)
|A modern imagination of a captive Romanos in classical Roman garb, led to the victorious Alp Arslan under the large banners with the double eagle symbol of the House of Seljuk*|
|Alp Arslan humiliating Romanus (from an Italian 15th century manuscript)|
After initial successes in Central Anatolia, Romanos’ army of 40,000, consisting of only one fourth of Byzantine core troops and lots of various mercenaries, Anglo-Saxons, Normans, Bulgars, Turkish Pechenegs and Cumans and whatnot, approached Manzikert and the emperor promptly turned down Alp Arslan’s favourable conditions for a peace, seeking a military decision as well as a stabilisation of his own rather shaky position in Constantinople by warding off the threatening Turkish invaders once and for all. Manzikert was re-conquered on August 23rd and after initial pitched battles with Alp Arslan’s vanguard, Romanos’ Turkish mercenaries decided to defect to the enemy and his Normans simply refused to fight. Treason would be the end of him three days later. While drawn up in proper battle formation and pushing the Seljuks before him, both his wings were badly shaken by Turkish hit-and-run tactics. Deciding to take back his centre and calling it a day, Romanos’ own rear guard under his co-regent and rival Andronikos Doukas seized the opportunity to withdraw on his own and leave the emperor in the lurch. His withdrawal was misconstrued as opting for flight and within moments, the Roman army broke away in a general rout. Only Romanos and his Varangian lifeguard stood. And they were overwhelmed soon enough.
|Alp Arslan on his throne (15th century Persian miniature)|
Persified as he was, Alp Arslan decided not to treat his imperial prisoner like the Sassanid Shah Shapur did with the captured Roman emperor Valerian in 260 CE. He sent him home to Constantinople, knowing what Romanos would be getting into. And indeed, after the political turmoil and short civil war that followed the defeat at Manzikert, Romanos was dethroned, blinded and banished to a small island in the Bosphorus where he died in 1072, allegedly while maggots fell from his infected wounds in his face. And while his eventual successor Alexios had to call to the pope for help against the Seljuk Turks, a plea that caused the First Crusade, more and more Turkish lords with their warriors and settlers swept into Anatolia and the Eastern provinces of the Byzantine empire were gone forever. It was the beginning of the end of Roman rule in Asia Minor.
* by an otherwise unnamed Turkish artist, found on http://www.alp-web.com/2014/07/tunceli-ili-ve-tarihcesi.html
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