A brief look at the battle of Mantzikert (August 19, 1071)


By afternoon Romanus' cavalry were flagging. Determined to force a decision before sundown, he ordered his entire command to advance. At first their solid weight drove the Seljuks back. The tide seemed to be turning. But the manoeuvre was leading only to a repetition, in slower time, of the frustrations of the day. Farther and farther the Seljuks retreated, drawing their opponents on, watching for the moment to counter-attack. Among the Byzantines, the heat of the long August day was telling on heavily accoutred men and mounts nearing exhaustion. Before nightfall water in large quantities would be essential. But in the country ahead every well and watercourse was in Seljuk hands. The only certain supply lay to the rear, in the Byzantine camp. There was no alternative: Romanus ordered a retirement.

Cool and steady still, his regiments began their retreat. But there was still light enough for the Seljuks to observe the movement. Their great crescent stopped, turned, and followed. Then, black clouds swirling in the twilight, they gathered way and charged. This time they did not wheel away. As the Byzantine rearguard swung round to fight, their yelling droves hurled themselves upon it.

All now hung on the reserves of heavy cavalry. Romanus ordered them in. But no forward movement among their ranks answered his command. They remained immobile: then turned, and headed for the westward hills. It was the moment of ultimate treachery. Andronicus Ducas was exacting his revenge. In the field, he believed, the battle was already lost: but in Constantinople he might now win a throne. The vital squadrons melted away into the dusk.

As the centre of the Seljuk crescent lunged into Romanus' rear its horns encircled the whole of his army, locking it in a pincer grip. A terrible hand-to-hand affray ensued. Romanus himself, wounded, and with his horse sinking beneath him, fought on to the end. But as the darkness deepened panic flared out at last. Broken and desperate, the survivors fled; and the imperial bodyguard, leaping over the corpses of their comrades, followed them.

Next morning the Byzantine emperor, weak, dishevelled, and only identified with difficulty, appeared before Alp Arslan his captor.

[From "The Barbarians of Asia: the peoples of the steppes from 1600 B.C.", by Stuart Legg (Dorset Press, 1970), p. 207-8]

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