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The Battle of Myriokephalon, also known as Myriocephalum, was a battle between the Byzantine Empire and the Seljuk Turks in Phrygia on September 17, 1176.

Battle of Myriokephalon
Conflict Byzantine-Seljuk wars
Date September 17, 1176
Place Near Ankara, Turkey
Result Seljuk victory
Combatants
Byzantine Empire Sultanate of Rüm
Commanders
Manuel I Comnenus
Baldwin of Antioch†
John Cantacuzenus
Andronicus Vatatzes†
Kilij Arslan II
Strength
About 25 000 (possibly 50 000?) Unknown
Casualties
Unknown Unknown

Background

Manuel I Comnenus had been at peace with Kilij Arslan II, the Seljuk Sultan of Rüm, during the 1170s. It was a fragile peace, as the Seljuks wanted to push westwards, further into Asia Minor, while the Byzantines wanted to push eastwards to recover territory they had lost since the Battle of Manzikert one hundred years earlier. Manuel was able to recover Cilicia and impose his authority over the Crusader Principality of Antioch, and was also aided by the fact that the emir of Aleppo, Nur ad-Din, died in 1174; his successor Saladin was concerned more with Egypt than the territory bordering the Empire, so the Seljuks were left without a strong ally. In 1175 the peace fell apart when Kilij Arslan refused to return territory he had conquered from their common enemy the Danishmends.

The march

Manuel gathered an army, supposedly so large that it spread across ten miles, and marched towards the border with the Seljuks. Arslan tried to negotiate but Manuel was convinced of his superiority and rejected a new peace. He sent part of the army under Andronicus Vatatzes towards Amasia while his larger force marched towards the Seljuk capital at Iconium. Both routes lay on a heavily wooded route, where the Turks could easily hide and set up ambushes; the army moving towards Amasia was destroyed in one such ambush, and Turkish envoys brought Manuel Andronicus' head.

The Turks also destroyed crops and poisoned water supplies to make Manuel's march more difficult. Arslan harassed the Byzantine army in order to force it into the Meander valley, and specifically the mountain pass near the fortress of Myriokephalon. There, Manuel decided to attack, despite the danger from further ambushes, and also despite the fact that he could have attempted to bring the Turks out of their positions to fight them on the nearby plain of Philomelion.

The battle

At this point Manuel had about 25 000 men, although he may have had as many as 50 000. This included a force from the Principality of Antioch. The troops were divided into a vanguard of infantry, and cavalry, archers, and other infantry following behind them; the right wing led by Baldwin of Antioch and the Byzantine left wing was led by John Cantacuzenus. The rear was commanded by Andronicus Vatatzes. Arslan may have had about the same number of troops, but the exact number is unknown. The Byzantine vanguard was the first to encounter Arslan's troops, and made it through the pass with few casualties, as the Turks were apparently not finished setting up their positions. By the time the vanguard reached the end of the pass the rear was just about to enter; this allowed the Turks to almost completely trap them. The Turks attacked the right wing first, inflicting heavy casualties, including Baldwin.

Manuel felt he could do little but watch the slaughter from his position, but eventually gathered his troops and headed back into the pass to drive off the Seljuks. This he accomplished, and the rearguard was able to finish their march with fewer casualties than the right and left wings had suffered. As night fell, Manuel fortified his position and defended it from Turkish archery attacks, which lasted for some time until the Turks withdrew.

Outcome

Both sides suffered heavy casualties, and Manuel's siege equipment had been captured and destroyed. The Byzantines, without any means of attacking Iconium, were now no longer in a position to continue the campaign. However, Seljuk Sultan Kilij Arslan II was keen for peace to be restored as soon as possible. Therefore Manuel and his army were allowed to leave on condition that Manuel should remove his forts and armies on the frontier at Dorylaeum and Siblia. However since the Sultan had already failed to keep his side of an earlier treaty, signed following a Byzantine victory in 1162, Manuel had no intention of keeping to the terms of this new arangement.

Manuel himself compared the defeat to Manzikert, and like Manzikert, it seems to have become a legendary disaster; in reality, although a defeat, it did not significantly ruin the Byzantine army, which was fighting in Asia Minor the next year. The army was quickly repaired, and a new campaign recaptured some territory in 1177. Manuel continued to meet the Seljuks in smaller battles with some success, until he died in 1180.

However, like Manzikert, the balance between the two powers began to gradually shift - Manuel never again attacked the Turks and, after his death, they began to move further and further west, deeper into Byzantine territory.

Myriokephalon had more of a psychological impact than a military impact, as it proved that the Empire still could not defeat the Seljuks despite the advances made during Manuel's reign. Essentially, the problem was that Manuel had allowed himself to be distracted by a series of adventures in Italy and Egypt, instead of dealing with the more pressing issue of the Turks. This had given the Sultan many years in which to eliminate his rivals, enabling him to build up a force capable of facing the Byzantine army in the field. Without the years required to build up this Seljuk force, the battle could never have even taken place. Furthermore, during the campaign Manuel made several serious tactical errors, such as failing to properly scout out the route ahead and failing to take the advice of his senior officers. These failings caused him to lead his forces straight into a classic ambush.

After Manuel's death the empire drifted into anarchy, and it was never again in a position to mount a major offensive in the east. Thus, ultimately the defeat marked the end of Byzantine attempts to recover the Anatolian plateau, which was now lost to the empire forever.

References

  • John Haldon, "The Byzantine Wars."
  • Warren Treadgold, "A History of the Byzantine State and Society"

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