Friday, 26th August 1071. A date scorched into history. In the morning, Emperor Romanus Diogenes led his Byzantine armies to battle against the Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan, intent on securing the Lake Van lands for the empire and firmly defining her borders once more. By dusk, he was in chains, his dreams and his armies in tatters around him.
Some believe the defeat at Manzikert was the single event that broke the Byzantine Empire. Others reckon the battle was a bloodbath that saw the empire’s armies reduced to nothing. In fact, it was neither of these things. But it was a telling and grievous blow to the image of imperial invincibility and a catalyst for the disastrous sequence of events that followed.
The Battle of Manzikert was a fraught clash indeed and many lives were lost – though not as many as some estimates once suggested. It is thought that the Byzantines lined up on Manzikert’s plains with anything between 20,000 and 40,000 soldiers, and the Seljuks faced them with a similar number. Modern estimates show that probably only as much as 20% of each army fell or were captured in the battle. But the Seljuks won and won well. How? Well, the telling factor was neither the tactical nous nor the ferocity of the sultan’s army.
Quite simply, treachery won the day.
Those in the Byzantine court who opposed Romanus Diogenes’ rule were set on seizing power for themselves, blind to how detrimental their actions would be to the empire. The Doukas family had once held the throne, and thought of nothing else other than reclaiming it. They detested Romanus, denouncing him as an unworthy impostor. They spent vast fortunes to undermine his authority and buy the loyalty of his generals. So much so that, late on that August day on the far-flung plains of Manzikert, the Byzantine Emperor found his forces crumbling around him just as his foes had planned. Their designs brought about the defeat and capture of a Byzantine (or Roman) Emperor for the first time in over eight hundred years. What followed was a woefully damaging civil war that resulted in the irretrievable loss of Anatolia to the Seljuk Turks.
‘Strategos: Island in the Storm’, the concluding volume of the Strategos trilogy, tells the tale of the few good men in these fraught times. Apion, Strategos of Chaldia, stands loyally by Romanus Diogenes’ side as they step onto the plains of Manzikert, ready to face fate . . .