Today in Middle Eastern history: the Battle of Myriokephalon (1176)

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While in many respects the 1071 Battle of Manzikert was the beginning of the end for the Byzantine Empire, it was a very long end and it should not be said that the empire went quietly. In fact, over the next century after Manzikert there were signs of life out of Constantinople and it even seemed like the empire might be eclipsing its Seljuk enemies. But any hopes of an immediate imperial resurgence died—along with a whole bunch of Byzantine soldiers—at the Battle of Myriokephalon in September 1176.

There are some parallels between the Byzantine Empire’s condition in the mid-1100s and its lengthy revival between the 9th and 11th centuries—a revival that came to a screeching halt at Manzikert. The empire was able to take an offensive military posture starting in the late 9th century, due in large part to the internal struggles of the Abbasid Caliphate. Those struggles weakened the caliphate’s military power and its control over the Arab-Byzantine frontier, leaving several local emirates on that frontier more or less on their own to deal with the Byzantines. Similarly, by the 1100s the once very large and very powerful Seljuk Empire had come apart at the seams, leaving the Sultanate of Rum (the Seljuk kingdom in Anatolia) increasingly on its own as the rest of the empire fragmented into smaller and smaller states. External pressures, mostly from the Zengids in Syria and the Turkic Danishmend state in northeastern Anatolia, further weakened the Seljuks of Rum and drew their attention east, away from the Byzantines.

Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (d. 1180) took full advantage of the Seljuks’ weakness, and in the 1150s and 1160s he won several victories against them that forced their ruler, Kilij Arslan II (d. 1192), to subjugate his sultanate as a Byzantine vassal. As his predecessors had done back in the 9th century, Manuel used this period of peace on his eastern front to take care of other threats to the empire so that he could then refocus his attention fully on the Muslims. He won a campaign against Hungary that left the Balkans securely in Byzantine possession and took Cilicia, in southern Anatolia, from its Armenian rulers. His record, however, wasn’t entirely successful—he allowed himself to get talked into a joint invasion of Egypt by Amalric I, king of Jerusalem, that failed badly and cost the Byzantines considerably.

The problem for the Byzantines is that while they were dealing with other potential threats, so was Kilij Arslan. Some of this was just good timing—Nur al-Din Zengi, the leader of the Zengid emirate, died in 1174 and the new power in Syria, Saladin, was too preoccupied with the Crusaders to be a problem for the Seljuks. But Kilij Arslan was also able to thoroughly defeat the Danishmends.

In fact it was Kilij Arslan’s defeat of the Danishmends, and his refusal to give their territory to Manuel (who was technically his sovereign), that broke the peace between the Byzantines and the Seljuks. Not that they were going to be able to remain at peace for very long anyway. The Byzantines didn’t want a vassal in central Anatolia, after all—they wanted central Anatolia back under their control. Obviously this was going to be a problem for the Seljuks, who didn’t want to give central Anatolia back and really didn’t want to be Byzantine vassals very much, come to think of it. And so it was war, again.

The army that Manuel led against the Seljuks was likely pretty large, somewhere in the 30,000-40,000 range. The Seljuk force would have been smaller but it’s unknown by how much—early sources put them in the 20,000-25,000 range but historians have tended to revise that number down by several thousand on the basis of other relatively contemporary evidence. They simply don’t believe the sultanate could have supported an army of 20,000 or more at this point in its history. Kilij Arslan appears to have tried diplomacy first, but when Manuel rejected negotiations he deployed his nimbler cavalry to harass the Byzantines and used a scorched earth campaign (destroying food supplies and poisoning water sources) to force them in the direction of a fortress called Myriokephalon, in west-central Anatolia, which controlled a mountain pass across the border into the Seljuk sultanate. The idea was to leave the Byzantines no choice but to attempt the pass, where their numbers advantage would matter less. Which the Byzantines helpfully did, on September 17.

You’ll find Myriokephalon roughly in the center of this map (Wikimedia Commons)

The Seljuks took up elevated positions on either side of the pass. The Byzantine army marched through in units—first the vanguard, obviously, then the center division of the main army, followed by its left and right wings, the baggage train, the emperor’s personal entourage, and the rearguard. Those first two units made it through the pass relatively peaceably, but the Seljuks then launched their attack. The Byzantine right wing was heavily decimated, the left wing also suffered considerable losses, and Manuel lost control of his army for a time. He finally regained composure and managed to form up what was left of the units in the pass to make a break to the other side. The Seljuks, by this point focused on the Byzantine baggage train, let them go, and did likewise with the rearguard.

Once whatever remained of the Byzantine army had crossed the pass, they formed up in a defensive unit and spent the night and the next day fending off Seljuk mounted archers. In the meantime, the Seljuks busied themselves destroying the Byzantines’ siege engines. When the Seljuks finally withdrew, the Byzantines had lost a substantial portion of their army (historians estimate about a quarter of it), and more importantly those siege engines, which meant the campaign was over before it began. This time, when Kilij Arslan sent emissaries requesting negotiations, Manuel received them and started talking. The deal they reached allowed Manuel and his army to cross safely back into Byzantine territory on the condition that they evacuate and destroy two frontier fortresses, Dorylaeum and Sublaeum. Because some Turkic irregulars continued to skirmish with the Byzantines during their return trek, partially violating the agreement, Manuel wound up only destroying Sublaeum.

Myriokephalon’s significance lies not so much in its immediate aftermath, in which the Byzantines remained at parity or even a bit stronger than the Sultanate of Rum, but in the lost opportunity it represents. The Byzantine failure here ended their last, best chance to reverse the outcome of Manzikert and drive the Seljuks out of central Anatolia. More to the point, really, it was Manuel’s decision to make peace with Kilij Arslan in the 1160s and focus his attention elsewhere—a diplomatic move that, to be fair, had worked for past Byzantine emperors—that allowed the Seljuks time to rebuild their military and bolster their own security, in order to meet the Byzantines on more even terms.

After Manuel’s death the Byzantine Empire entered a period of internal discord that culminated with the disastrous Fourth Crusade and the temporary displacement of the empire altogether, in favor of the Latin Kingdom of Constantinople. The Sultanate of Rum didn’t fare much better, honestly. The Seljuks suffered a major setback in the Caucasus region in the early 1200s, and while they did have the pleasure of forcing the main Byzantine successor state, the Empire of Trebizond, to become their vassals in the 1210s, by the 1240s they themselves were reduced to the status of vassals to the Mongols. Over the ensuing decades the Seljuks weakened, and their territory was broken up into small basically independent principalities under other ruling dynasties. As the Mongol Ilkhanate began to disintegrate the Seljuks went with it, their sultanate finally ceasing to exist altogether in the early 1300s.