Byzantine Empire - C. W. C. Oman

Manzikert (1057-1081)

The moment that the last of the Macedonian dynasty was gone, the elements of discord seemed unchained, and the double scourge of civil war and foreign invasion began to afflict the empire. In the twenty-four years between 1057 and 1081 were pressed more disasters than had been seen in any other period of East-Roman history, save perhaps the reign of Heraclius. For now came the second cutting-short of the empire, the blow that was destined to shear away half its strength, and leave it maimed beyond any possibility of ultimate recovery.

Domestic troubles were the first inevitable consequence of the extinction of the Macedonian dynasty. The aged Theodora had named as her successor on the throne Michael Stratioticus, a contemporary of her own who had been an able soldier twenty-five years back. But Michael VI. was grown aged and incompetent, and the empire was full of ambitious generals, who would not tolerate a dotard on the throne. Before a year had passed a band of great Asiatic nobles entered into a conspiracy to overturn Michael, and replace him by Isaac Comnenus, the chief of one of the ancient Cappadocian houses, and the most popular general of the East.

Isaac Comnenus and his friends took arms, and dispossessed the aged Michael of his throne with little difficulty. But a curse seemed to rest upon the usurpation; Isaac was stricken down by disease when he had been little more than a year on the throne, and retired to a monastery to die. His crown was transferred to Constantine Ducas, another Cappadocian noble, who was supposed to be second only to Isaac in competence and popularity. Constantine reigned for seven troubled years, and disappointed all his supporters, for he proved but a sorry administrator. His mind was set on nothing but finance, and in the endeavour to build up again the imperial treasure, which had been sorely wasted since the death of Basil II., he neglected all the other departments of state. To save money he disbanded no inconsiderable portion of the army, and cut down the pay of the rest. This was sheer madness, when there was impending over the empire the most terrible military danger that had been seen for four centuries. The safety of the realm was entirely in the hands of its well-paid and well-disciplined national army, and anything that impaired the efficiency of the army was fraught with the deadliest peril.

The Seljouk Turks were now drawing near. Pressing on from the Oxus lands, their hordes had overrun Persia and extinguished the dynasty of the Buhawides. In 1050, they had penetrated to Bagdad, and their great chief, Togrul Beg, had declared himself "defender of the faith and protector of the Caliph." Armenia had next been overrun, and those portions of it which had not been annexed to the empire, and still obeyed independent princes, had been conquered by 1o64. In that year fell Ani, the ancient Armenian capital, and the bulwark which protected the Byzantine Empire from Eastern, invasions.

The reign of Constantine Ducas was troubled by countless Seljouk invasions of the Armeniac, Anatolic, and Cappadocian themes. Sometimes the invaders were driven back, sometimes they eluded the imperial troops and escaped with their booty. But whether successful or unsuccessful, they displayed a reckless cruelty, far surpassing anything that the Saracens had ever shown. Wherever they passed they not merely plundered to right and left, but slew off the whole population. Meanwhile, Constantine X., with his reduced army, proved incompetent to hold them back; all the more so that his operations were distracted by an invasion of the Uzes, a Tartar tribe from the Euxine shore, who had burst into Bulgaria.

Ducas died in 1067, leaving the throne to his son, Michael, a boy of fourteen years. The usual result followed. To secure her son's life and throne, the Empress-dowager Eudocia took a new husband, and made him guardian of the young Michael. The new Emperor-regent was Romanus Diogenes, an Asiatic noble, whose brilliant courage displayed in the Seljouk wars had dazzled the world, and caused it to forget that caution and ability are far more regal virtues than headlong valour. Romanus took in hand with the greatest vigour the task of repelling the Turks, which his predecessor had so grievously neglected. He led into the field every man that could be collected from the European or Asiatic themes, and for three successive years was incessantly marching and counter-marching in Armenia, Cappadocia, and Syria, in the endeavour to hunt down the marauding bands of the Seljouks.

The operations of Romanus were not entirely unsuccessful. Alp Arslan, the Sultan of the Seljouks, contented himself at first with dispersing his hordes in scattered bands, and attacking many points of the frontier at once. Hence the Emperor was not infrequently able to catch and slay off one of the minor divisions of the Turkish army. But some of them always contrived to elude him; his heavy cavalry could not come up with the light Seljouk horse bowmen, who generally escaped and rode back home by a long detour, burning and murdering as they went. Cappadocia was already desolated from end to end, and the Turkish raids had reached as far as Amorium, in Phrygia.

[Illustration] from The Byzantine Empire by C. W. C. Oman


In 1071 came the final disaster. In pursuing the Seljouk plunderers, Romanus was drawn far eastward, to Manzikert, on the Armenian frontier. There he found himself confronted, not by a flying foe, but by the whole force of the Seljouk sultanate, with Alp Arslan himself at its head. Though his army was harassed by long marches, and though two large divisions were absent, the Emperor was eager to fight. The Turks had never before offered him a fair field, and he relied implicitly on the power of his cuirassiers to ride down any number, however great, of the light Turkish horse.

The decisive battle of Manzikert, which it is not too much to call the turning-point of the whole course of Byzantine history, was fought in the early summer of I07I. For a long day the Byzantine horsemen continued to roll back and break through the lines of Turkish horse bowmen. But fresh hordes kept coming on, and in the evening the fight was still undecided. As the night was approaching, Romanus prepared to draw his troops back to the camp, but an unhappy misconception of orders broke up the line, and the Seljouks edged in between the two halves of the army. Either from treachery or cowardice Andronicus Ducas, the officer who commanded the reserve, led his men off without fighting. The Emperor's division was beset on all sides by the enemy, and broke up in the dusk. Romanus himself was wounded, thrown from his horse, and made prisoner. The greater part of his men were cut to pieces.

[Illustration] from The Byzantine Empire by C. W. C. Oman


Alp Arslan showed himself more forbearing to his prisoner than might have been expected. It is true that Romanus was led after his capture to the tent of the Sultan, and laid prostrate before him, that, after the Turkish custom, the conqueror might place his foot on the neck of his vanquished foe. But after this humiliating ceremony the Emperor was treated with kindness, and allowed after some months to ransom himself and return home. He would have fared better, however, if he had remained the prisoner of the Turk. During his captivity the conduct of affairs had fallen into the hands of John Ducas, uncle of the young emperor Michael. The unscrupulous regent was determined that Romanus should not supersede him and mount the throne again. When the released captive reappeared, John had him seized and blinded. The cruel work was so roughly done that the unfortunate Romanus died a few days later.

After this fearful disaster Asia Minor was lost; there was no chief to take the place of Romanus, and the Seljouk hordes spread westward almost unopposed. The next ten years were a time of chaos and disaster. While the Seljouks were carving their way deeper and deeper into the vitals of the empire, the wrecks of the Byzantine army were employed not in resisting them, but in carrying on a desperate series of civil wars. After the death of Romanus, every general in the empire seemed to think that the time had come for him to assume the purple buskins and proclaim himself emperor. History records the names of no less than six pretenders to the throne during the next nine years, besides several rebels who took up arms without assuming the imperial title. The young emperor, Michael Ducas, proved, when he came of age, to be a vicious nonentity; he is remembered in Byzantine history only by his nickname of Parapinakes, the "peck-filcher," given him because in a year of famine he sold the measure of wheat to his subjects a fourth short of its proper contents. His name and that of Nicephorus Botaniates, the rebel who overthrew him, cover in the list of emperors a space of ten years that would better be represented by a blank; for the authority of the nominal ruler scarcely extended beyond the walls of the capital, and the themes that were not overrun by the Turks were in the hands of governors who each did what was right in his own eyes. At last a man of ability worked himself up to the surface. This was Alexius Comnenus, nephew of the emperor Isaac Comnenus, whose short reign we related in the opening paragraph of this chapter.

Alexius was a man of courage and ability, but he displayed one of the worst types of Byzantine character. Indeed, he was the first emperor to whom the epithet "Byzantine," in its common and opprobrious sense could be applied. He was the most accomplished liar of his age, and, while winning and defending the imperial throne, committed enough acts of mean treachery, and swore enough false oaths to startle even the courtiers of Constantinople. He could fight when necessary, but he preferred to win by treason and perjury. Yet as a ruler he had many virtues, and it will always be remembered to his credit that he dragged the empire out of the deepest slough of degradation and ruin that it had ever sunk into. Though false, he was not cruel, and seven ex-emperors and usurpers, living unharmed in Constantinople under his scepter, bore witness to the mildness of his rule. The tale of his reign sufficiently bears witness to the strange mixture of moral obliquity and practical ability in his character.