Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Sunday, May 3, 2015

First Contact - Seljuqs vs Byzantines at the Battle of Kapetron

First Contact - The Coming of the Turks
A Byzantine-Georgian army meets the 
Muslim Turks for the first time.

It seems that the Eastern Roman Empire could never catch a break.  For centuries the empire had been fighting Muslim Arab invasions in Anatolia and Italy as well as endless Bulgarian invasions in the Balkans.

Then along comes the great Roman Emperor Basil II (976 - 1025).  His long reign were dominated by civil war against powerful generals from the Anatolian aristocracy. Following their submission, Basil oversaw the stabilization and expansion of the eastern frontier of the Byzantine Empire, and above all, the final and complete subjugation of Bulgaria, the Empire's foremost European foe, after a prolonged struggle. For this he was nicknamed by later authors as "the Bulgar-slayer", by which he is popularly known. 

At his death, the Empire stretched from Southern Italy to the Caucasus and from the Danube to the borders of Palestine, its greatest territorial extent since the Muslim conquests four centuries earlier.

From the seventh to the 12th centuries, the Byzantine army was among the most powerful and effective military forces in the world – neither Middle Ages Europe nor (following its early successes) the fracturing Caliphate could match the strategies and the efficiency of the Byzantine army. 

Restricted to a largely defensive role in the 7th to mid-9th centuries, the Byzantines developed the theme-system to counter the more powerful Caliphate. 

From the mid-9th century, however, they gradually went on the offensive, culminating in the great conquests of the 10th century under a series of soldier-emperors such as Nikephoros II PhokasJohn Tzimiskes and Basil II. The army they led was less reliant on the militia of the themes; it was by now a largely professional force, with a strong and well-drilled infantry at its core and augmented by a revived heavy cavalry arm. With one of the most powerful economies in the world at the time, the Empire had the resources to put to the field a powerful host when needed, in order to reclaim its long-lost territories.

Eastern Roman Themes
The themes were the main military-administrative divisions of the middle Byzantine Empire. They were established in the mid-7th century in the aftermath of the Muslim conquests of parts of Byzantine territory, and replaced the earlier provincial system established by Diocletian and Constantine the Great. The first themes were created from the areas of encampment of the field armies of the East Roman army, and their names corresponded to the military units that had existed in those areas.
A theme was an arrangement of plots of land given for farming to the soldiers. The soldiers were still technically a military unit, under the command of a strategos. They did not own the land they worked as it was still controlled by the state. Therefore, for its use the soldiers' pay was reduced. By accepting this proposition, the participants agreed that their descendants would also serve in the military and work in a theme.
The commander of a theme did not only command his soldiers. He united the civil and military jurisdictions in the territorial area in question.  Military staffing for local themes might range up to 9,600 men.

The Seljuq Turks

By 1045 the Byzantines had stabilized their eastern borders with the Arabs and eliminated Bulgaria as a threat.  But they were still being pressed by Muslim armies in Italy.

This fairly peaceful situation did not last.  A new enemy appeared.  The second half of the 11th century was marked by the strategically significant invasion of the Seljuq Turks, who by the end of the 1040s had succeeded in building a vast nomadic empire including most of Central Asia and Persia.

The Seljuqs united the fractured political scene of the eastern Islamic world and played a key role in the first and second crusades. Highly Persianized in culture and language, the Seljuqs also played an important role in the development of the Turko-Persian tradition, even exporting Persian culture to Anatolia. 

The settlement of Turkic tribes in the northwestern peripheral parts of the empire, for the strategic military purpose of fending off invasions from neighboring states, led to the progressive Turkicization of those areas.

A Seljuk horse-archer


The Battle of  Kapetron

Once again we are faced with major political and military events about which there is near zero meaningful information.

The 1040s saw the Muslim Seljuk Turks first appear on the eastern borders of Byzantium.  Word of the aggressive and militaristic Turks would have long before reach Constantinople's leaders.  Since the 900s the Seljuqs had slowly expanded their empire from central Asia through Persia to the borders of Byzantium.

The Turks had invaded the Roman military theme of Iberia (see map below), and for some time there appears to have been a considerable amount of fighting on the eastern border.

The Turks under İbrahim Yinal attacked the city of Arzen, a vibrant commercial center in the Byzantine-administered in Iberia.  The city was home to warehouses belonging to Syrian and Armenian merchants.

The city defended themselves for six days by barricading the streets and attacking the Turks from roof tops.  Roman troops in the area refused to march to the defense of the city, and the Turks were focused on destroying a supply base for their enemies.  The Turks set fire to the city reducing it to ashes.

Emperor Constantine IX
The Emperor organized an allied army
to face a Turkish invasion.

Armenian historians claim that 140,000 people were killed and that the Turks filled the slave markets of the east with women and children from Arzen.  

As Roman troops entered the area in 1048 it was reported that tens of thousands of Christians had been massacred and several areas were reduced to piles of ashes. 

Both Byzantium and the Christian Kingdom of Georgia were alarmed and agreed on an alliance to face the Turks.

The Emperor Constantine IX ordered a defensive strategy till the arrival of Georgian reinforcements.  The Emperor sent to the Georgian warlord Liparit, whom the Byzantines had aided in his struggle against the Georgian king Bagrat IV, to unite with Roman forces against the advancing Seljuqs.

A combined Byzantine-Georgian army of 50,000, under the command of AaronKatakalon Kekaumenos and Liparit, met the Seljuqs head-on at Kapetron on September 10, 1048.

For reasons that are not explained the allied army took on the Turks in a fierce nocturnal battle.  The Turks might have been outnumbered and may have tried to surprise their enemies in a night attack.

Night battles in any war are more about anarchy and the blind attacking the blind.  That was most likely the case at Kapetron.  Blind or not, the Christian allies managed to repel the Turks, and Aaron and Kekaumenos, in command of the two flanks, pursued the Turks "till cock's crow". 

In the center, however, Yinal managed to capture the Georgian prince Liparit, a fact of which the two Byzantine commanders were not informed until after they gave thanks to God for their victory.

Losses on both sides were said to be great.

Ibrahim Yinal was nevertheless able to safely leave the Byzantine territory, laden with spoils and captives. The Emperor later sent ransoms to the Turks who refused them, however, and released Liparit on condition that he would never again fight the Seljuqs.


The devastation left behind by the Seljuq raid was so fearful that the Byzantine magnate Eustathios Boilas who moved to Iberia described, in 1051/52, those lands as "foul and unmanageable... inhabited by snakes, scorpions, and wild beasts." The Arab chronicler Ibn al-Athir reports that Ibrahim brought back 100,000 captives and a vast booty loaded on the backs of ten thousand camels.

The Roman-Georgian army had driven their enemy from the field of battle and earned a "victory" of sorts . . . the right to rule over a countryside that was devastated by their Muslim enemy.

It was not a good sign that the Allied generals decided they would not, or could not, follow and crush a defeated enemy.  The allies may have felt they were too weak, the Turks still too strong or both.  

But allowing a defeated enemy army burdened with captives and loot to slowly escape sent a strong message of Christian weakness to the Turks.

Seljuk Turks

Eastern border of Byzantium in 1025
The Turks invades the Byzantine military theme of Iberia.

(Battle of Kapetron)      (Seljuk Empire)      (Byzantine Army)

(Iberia)      (Battle of Kapetron)


Anonymous said...

"It seems that the Eastern Roman Empire could never catch a break."

It was a wall that soaked up wave after wave of attacks from the East. It was fortunate for the West that it stood for as long as it did.

Anonymous said...

if theres a Wall , no soaked would happen ...
unprotected borders by massive armies needed , or a Wall , as the Great Wall ...
akrites armies scarce , or few fortifications , cannot hold foreign armies in a bigger border , no satelite , or else cannot bring a time reaction to face a foe army invasion ...
thats true for the west , as they became stronger and could face that too