Manuel I Komnenos’ Fateful Day at Myriokephalon in 1176


17 September 1176, the Eastern Roman Emperor Manuel I Komnenos suffered a fateful defeat at the hands of the Turkish Sultan Kilij Arslan II of Rum at Myriokephalon, 40 miles west of the Seljuk capital of Iconium, today’s Konya.

“Manuel slipped out of the phalanx’s iron grip as though it were a trap set for a weasel. He suffered many wounds and bruises from sword and mace wielded by the Turks: his whole body was covered with injuries, his shield was pierced by some thirty bloodthirsty arrows, and he was unable to set straight his helmet which had been knocked askew. But beyond all expectations he escaped the clutches of the barbarians, protected by God, who long ago had screened David’s head in the day of battle, as the lover of psalms himself relates. The other Roman divisions fared much worse.” (Niketas Choniates, “Historia”)

 
Gustav Doré’s imagination of the Battle of Myriokephalon
from his “Histoire des Croisades” series,
named “Lurking on the precipice, the Turks ambush the Christians” etching, ca 1875

 

The defeat inflicted on the Byzantines on the “Terrible Day” of Manzikert in August 1071 by Sultan Alp Arslan changed the political situation in the Near and Middle East of the Middle Ages from one day to the next. The Oghuz Turks, originally from the shores of Lake Aral and the river Ural, slowly migrating into Persia, carved out their empire under the Seljuk dynasty and began to threaten the Arab world as well as their old arch enemy, the Eastern Roman Empire. The victory at Manzikert brought the Seljuks to the borders of Egypt and the Golden Horn itself. Emperor Alexios Komnenos sought for help in the West and the plea was answered – by Pope Urban’s call for the First Crusade.

 
Emperor Manuel Komnenos

A hundred years later the situation had changed dramatically again. While the Seljuks and Arabs busied themselves with the Crusader Kingdoms along the Levant, Emperor Manuel I Komnenos thought it a good idea to finally dislodge the Turks from Anatolia. Marching with up to 40,000 men into the valley of the eponymous Meander, half of them Byzantine core troops, the other allies and mercenaries coming from Hungary to the Principality of Antioch, while Kilij Arslan’s men withdrew deeper into the mountainous Anatolian hinterland, leaving scorched earth behind them, after Manuel refused to negotiate – and found an excellent place for an ambush at the Pass of Myriokephalon. The Byzantine army was in hot pursuit and the Seljuk’s not nearly finished with laying their trap, while Manuel’s vanguard already pushed through the pass and saw their enemy. Manuel’s following divisions closed in and drove the Turks up the steep left flank of the hills. The rest of the Byzantine army didn’t maintain  discipline, just flowed into the pass and Kilij Arslan turned the table, pushing the Romans back into the valley. The men there had barely the room to move all of a sudden, stumbled over their own baggage train that had arrived in the entrance of the pass and found themselves in a slaughterhouse. Nonetheless, the losses on both sides must have been severe and Manuel withdrew west with the tail between his legs.

 
The Battle of Myriokephalon – as imagined by an unknown artist (Istanbul Military Museum)

Emperor Manuel compared himself with Romanos IV who had lost Manzikert in his reports home to Constantinople, but the defeat at Myriokephalon was by no means as decisive as the “Terrible Day”. The psychological effect on Manuel was profound, though. He never engaged the Seljuks in a major battle again during the last four years of his reign, even though the Byzantine army won a few minor engagements. The Sultan of the Rum Seljuks didn’t follow up on his victory by launching a major campaign either, but the frontlines gradually shifted towards the west year by year and Manuel’s dream of restoring the Eastern Roman Empire to the former glory of a Mediterranean superpower vanished. The Turks would never be dislodged from Anatolia by the Eastern Romans and a generation after Manuel’s death in 1180, the sack of Constantinople by Latin Christians during the Fourth Crusade marked the beginning of the end of the Byzantine Empire.

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