Today is an important anniversary in Byzantine history. 942 years ago today, on August 26, 1071, Byzantine armies under the personal command of Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes were disastrously defeated by the Seljuk Turks, under their Sultan Alp Arslan. Romanus was captured–the only Byzantine Emperor ever to be captured by a foreign enemy on a field of battle–and brought before the Sultan, who graciously released him. But the damage was done. A ruinous peace treaty and crushing tribute essentially disconnected Byzantium from Anatolia, its center of gravity, and began burning the long fuse down to its final defeat, again at the hands of the Turks, in 1453.

Exactly how disastrous the Battle of Manzikert was has been a point of contention among historians. It did not lead to the immediate dissolution of the empire, which did after all continue for a few more centuries; it took the even more fatal weakening of the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade to eclipse Byzantium’s strength once and for all, leaving it weakened in the face of the Turkish resurgence under the Ottomans in the 15th century. Thus, it takes historical hindsight to see the significance of Manzikert for what it was. Medieval historians have tended to exaggerate the number of Byzantine troops killed. Frequently you hear about the battle being portrayed as a massacre, a savage decimation of Romanus’s troops; in actuality that may not be accurate. (Casualty figures from medieval battles are always greatly exaggerated–often by a factor of ten). I think this is projecting Manzikert’s political effects into a military assessment.

It really was politics that caused Romanus to lose the battle. His rule, which had only lasted three years, was deeply resented by the powerful Ducas family who believed they were entitled to the throne. In fact it was a member of that family, Andronicus Ducas, who disobeyed a key order of Romanus and arguably undermined the strength of the Byzantine army. Certainly after the battle the Ducas family refused to countenance the ruinous treaty that the Seljuks dictated. It was their revenge for breaking this treaty that stripped Byzantium of its Anatolian provinces. The Ducas family did eventually take over the throne, with disastrous results. Romanus IV, therefore, comes out of the battle with his historical reputation relatively intact.

malazgirt turkey

Malazgirt, Turkey today, seen from Google Earth.

Today the Manzikert battlefield bears no trace of its medieval past. It’s somewhere around the modern town of Malazgirt, Turkey, where a statute of Alp Arslan stands commemorating the victory. There’s very little there to indicate that this place is one of the hinges on which world history turned.