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

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Battle of Myriokephalon - Seljuks vs Romans (1176AD)

Late Roman / Eastern Empire dart throwing infantry.
While uniforms and armor varied over the centuries the basics changed very little.

A Declining Roman Empire?

Maybe Not.

The Battle of Manzikert in 1071 has always been the point in time historians say marked the decline of the Eastern Roman Empire.

But is that true?

The Roman Republic and Empire had recovered again and again from military defeats. In this article we see over 100 years after Manzikert that the Roman Army was still able to mount major campaigns against the Turks in Anatolia, in the Balkans, in Italy and in Egypt. The Romans held their lands and even expanded.

In my view the "decline" of the Eastern Empire had a lot more to do with the treachery of the Crusaders in 1204 and their sack of Constantinople. The sack of the city happened only 28 years after this battle.


Between 1158 and 1161 a series of Roman campaigns against the Seljuk Turks of the Sultanate of Rûm resulted in a treaty favorable to the Empire, with the Sultan recognizing a form of subordination to the Roman Emperor.

Immediately after peace was negotiated the Seljuk sultan Kilij Arslan II visited Constantinople where he was treated by Emperor Manuel I Komnenos as both an honored guest and an imperial vassal. Following the Sultan's visit there was no overt hostility between the two powers for many years.

BOTTOM LINE - The Turks badly wanted to expand over to the coast, but they took one look at the Roman Army and declined to take action.

The Romans took advantage of this peace to expand their power. 

Emperor Manuel I Komnenos pursued an energetic and ambitious foreign policy. In the process he made alliances with Pope Adrian IV and the resurgent West. He invaded the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, although unsuccessfully, He was the last Eastern Roman emperor to attempt reconquests in the western Mediterranean

In the East, the Emperor recovered Cilicia from local Armenian dynasts and managed to reduce the Crusader Principality of Antioch to vassal status.

The passage of the potentially dangerous Second Crusade through his empire was adroitly managed. Manuel established a Roman protectorate over the Crusader states. Facing Muslim advances in the Holy Land, he made common cause with the Kingdom of Jerusalem and participated in a combined invasion of Fatimid Egypt. Manuel reshaped the political maps of the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean, placing the kingdoms of Hungary and Outremer under Roman hegemony.

While the Romans were rebuilding their power so were the Turks. 

Kilij Arslan used this peaceful period to destroy the Danishmend emirates of eastern Anatolia and also eject his brother Shahinshah from his lands near Ankara. Shahinshah, who was Manuel's vassal, and the Danishmend emirs fled to the protection of Rome. 

In 1175 the peace between the Empire and the Sultanate of Rûm fell apart when Kilij Arslan refused to hand over to the Romans, as he was obliged to do by treaty, a considerable proportion of the territory he had recently conquered from the Danishmends.

Both side moved to a new war.

Strengthening the Economy

Here is a good spot to review the growing power of the Romans.

Former money changer Michael IV the Paphlagonian (1034–41) assumed the throne in 1034 and began the slow process of debasing the gold coins

The debasement was gradual at first, but then accelerated rapidly. about 21 carats (87.5% pure) during the reign of Constantine IX (1042–1055), 18 carats (75%) under Constantine X (1059–1067), 16 carats (66.7%) under Romanus IV (1068–1071), 14 carats (58%) under Michael VII (1071–1078), 8 carats (33%) under Nicephorus III (1078–1081) and 0 to 8 carats during the first eleven years of the reign of Alexius I (1081–1118).

Under Alexius I Comnenus (1081–1118) the debased solidus (tetarteron and histamenon) was discontinued and new gold coinage of higher fineness (generally .900-.950) was established, commonly called the hyperpyron.

Income to the Roman Treasury is a vital measurement of the strength of the state.

The exact amount of annual income the Roman government received, is a matter of considerable debate, due to the scantiness and ambiguous nature of the primary sources. The following table contains approximate estimates.

YearAnnual Revenue
3059,400,000 solidi/42.3 tonnes of gold
4577,800,000 solidi
5188,500,000 solidi
5335,000,000 solidi
54011,300,000 solidi/50.85 tonnes of gold
5556,000,000 solidi
5658,500,000 solidi
6413,700,000 nomismata
6682,000,000 nomismata
7751,800,000 nomismata
7752,000,000 nomismata
8423,100,000 nomismata
8503,300,000 nomismata
9594,000,000 nomismata
10255,900,000 nomismata
11505,600,000 hyperpyra
13031,800,000 hyperpyra
13211,000,000 hyperpyra

Click to enlarge map
A map of the Roman Empire showing the location of Myriokephalon.

The Empire Was NOT in Decline

With 20-20 hindsight historians jump on the decline of the Empire side.

To me three factors show the Empire was not in decline: 

  1. The improved Roman political and military position in the Balkans and in the East; 
  2. The improved value of the nation's gold coins; 
  3. And the steady growth since 775 AD on (above chart) tax income to the treasury.

Yes there were problems, but when did problems not exist for any nation?

While not at a peak of power it is fair to say the Empire had recovered from Manzikert and was growing its power.

A Mamluk soldier by Carle Vernet, 1822.
Mamluk translated as "one who is owned", meaning "slave", is a term most commonly referring to non-Arab, ethnically diverse Muslim slave-soldiers and freed slaves to which were assigned military and administrative duties.

The Roman Army

All sources agree that the Emperor gathered an exceptionally large army to teach the Turks a lesson.

One historian puts Manuel's army at around 35,000 men. The number is derived from the fact that sources indicated a supply train of 3,000 wagons accompanied the army, which was enough to support 30,000–40,000 men.  

The army may have contained 25,000 Roman troops with the remainder composed of an allied contingent of Hungarians sent by Manuel's kinsman Béla III of Hungary and tributary forces supplied by the Principality of Antioch and Serbia.

The main division of the army consisted of the eastern and western Imperial Tagmata Regiments. The vanguard was mostly infantry with some cavalry units. The right wing was largely composed of Westerners led by Baldwin of Antioch (Manuel's brother-in-law). 

Then we have baggage and siege trains. The Roman left wing, led by Theodore Mavrozomes and John Kantakouzenos; then comes the Emperor and his picked troops; and finally the rear division under the experienced general Andronikos Kontostephanos.

The Seljuk Army

Modern historians have estimated that the various Seljuk successor states (such as the Sultanate of Rum) could field at most 10,000–15,000 Turks. 

This is likely a closer estimate for the possible Seljuk strength at Myriokephalon considering the much larger and united Seljuk Empire fielded around 20,000–30,000 men at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. 

The Sultanate of Rum was much smaller territorially than the Seljuk Empire and probably had smaller armies, for example, its army at the Battle of Dorylaeum in 1097 has been estimated at between 6,000–8,000 men.

The Seljuk army consisted of two main sections: the askars of the sultan and of each of his emirs, and an irregular force of Turkoman tribesmen. The askari (Arabic for 'soldier') was a full-time soldier, often a mamluk, a type of slave-soldier though this form of nominal slavery was not servile. 

They were supported by payments in cash or though a semi-feudal system of grants, called iqta'. These troops formed the core of field armies and were medium to heavy cavalry; they were armored, and fought in coherent units with bow and lance. 

In contrast, the Turkoman tribesmen were semi-nomadic irregular horsemen, who served under their own chieftains. They lived off their herds and served the sultan on the promise of plunder, the ransom of prisoners, for one-off payments, or if their pasturelands were threatened. These tribesmen were unreliable as soldiers, but were numerous, and were effective as light mounted archers, adept at skirmish tactics.

The Battle - September 17, 1176

The Emperor assembled the full Imperial army and marched against the Seljuk capital of Iconium. Manuel's strategy was to prepare the advanced bases of Dorylaeum and Sublaeum, and then to use them to strike as quickly as possible at Iconium.

The battle took place near Lake Beyşehir.

Speed may have been the goal, but Manuel's army of 35,000 men was large and unwieldy. According to a letter that Manuel sent to King Henry II of England, the advancing column was ten miles long.

The Turks destroyed crops and poisoned water supplies to make Manuel's march more difficult. King Arslan harassed the Roman army in order to force it into the Meander valley, and specifically the mountain pass of Tzivritze near the fortress of Myriokephalon.

IMPORTANT - Just outside the entrance to the pass at Myriokephalon, Manuel was met by Turkish ambassadors, who offered peace on generous terms. The Sultan saw a Roman army perhaps three times the size of his own force and offered peace.

The mistake came from the Roman leadership. Most of Manuel's generals and experienced courtiers urged him to accept the offer. The younger and more aggressive members of the court urged Manuel to attack, however, and he took their advice and continued his advance into a narrow pass.

The lack of forage, and water for his troops, and the fact that dysentery had broken out in his army may have induced Manuel to decide to force the pass regardless of the danger of ambush.

Manuel made serious tactical errors, such as failing to properly scout out the route ahead. These failings caused him to lead his forces straight into a classic ambush.

Maria of Antioch with Emperor Manuel I Komnenos

In this matter the Emperor, at a minimum, acted foolishly to pass up a peace proposal and acted recklessly to march a 10 mile long army column into a narrow pass that was not properly scouted.

The Roman vanguard was the first to encounter King Arslan's troops. They went through the pass with few casualties, as did the main division. Possibly the Turks had not yet fully deployed in their positions.

The Roman divisions sent their infantry up onto the slopes to dislodge the Seljuk soldiers, who were forced to withdraw to higher ground. The following divisions did not take this precaution, also they were negligent in not maintaining a defensive formation of closed ranks and they did not deploy their archers effectively.

By the time the first two Roman divisions exited the far end of the pass, the rear was just about to enter; this allowed the Turks to close their trap on those divisions still within the pass.

The Turkish attack, descending from the heights, fell especially heavily on the Roman right wing. This division seems to have quickly lost cohesion and been broken, soldiers fleeing one ambush often running into another. Heavy casualties were sustained by the right-wing and its commander, Baldwin, was killed.

The Turks then concentrated their attacks on the baggage and siege trains, shooting down the draught animals and choking the roadway.

The left-wing division also suffered significant casualties and one of its leaders, John Kantakouzenos, was slain when fighting alone against a band of Seljuk soldiers.

The remaining Roman troops were panicked by the carnage in front of them and the realization that the Turks had also begun to attack their rear. The sudden descent of a blinding dust-storm did nothing to improve the morale or organization of the Roman forces, though it must have confused the Seljuk troops also.

At this point, Manuel seems to have suffered a crisis of confidence and reputedly sat down, passively awaiting his fate and that of his army.

The Emperor was eventually roused by his officers, re-established discipline and organized his forces into a defensive formation; when formed up, they pushed their way past the wreck of the baggage and out of the pass.

Debouching from the pass they rejoined the unscathed van and main divisions, commanded by John and Andronikos Angelos, Constantine Makrodoukas and Andronikos Lampardas. Whilst the rest of the army had been under attack in the pass the troops of the van and main divisions had constructed a fortified encampment. The rear division, under Andronikos Kontostephanos, arrived at the camp somewhat later than the emperor, having suffered few casualties.

The night was spent in successfully repulsing further attacks by Seljuk mounted archers. Niketas Choniates states that Manuel considered abandoning his troops but was shamed into staying by the scathing words of an anonymous soldier and the disapproval of a shocked Kontostephanos. However, this would appear to be hyperbole on the historian's part as Manuel would have placed himself in much greater danger by flight than if he remained in the midst of his army. 

The following day, the Turks circled the camp firing arrows; Manuel ordered two counterattacks, led by John Angelos and Constantine Makrodoukas respectively, but there was no renewal of a general action.

Eastern Empire reenactors. The headwear shows the 
influence of the Arabs they fought for centuries.


The Roman siege equipment had been quickly destroyed, and Manuel was forced to withdraw – without siege engines, the conquest of Iconium was now impossible.

Both sides had suffered casualties, though their extent is difficult to quantify. Modern historians have postulated that about half of the Roman army was engaged and around half of those became casualties.

As the Roman army moved back through the pass after the battle it was seen that the dead had been scalped and their genitals mutilated, "It was said that the Turks took these measures so that the circumcised could not be distinguished from the uncircumcised and the victory therefore disputed and contested since many had fallen on both sides."

Also the Seljuk Sultan was keen for peace to be restored as soon as possible; he sent an envoy named Gabras, together with gifts of a Nisaean warhorse and a sword, to Manuel in order to negotiate a truce. As a result of these negotiations, the Roman army was to be allowed to retreat unmolested on condition that Manuel destroy his forts and evacuate the garrisons at Dorylaeum and Sublaeum in the Roman-Seljuk borderlands.

However, despite Kilij Arslan's protestations of good faith, the retreat of the Roman army was harassed by the attacks of Turkoman tribesmen. This, taken with an earlier failure by the sultan to keep his side of a treaty signed in 1162, gave Manuel an excuse to avoid observing the terms of this new arrangement in their entirety. He therefore demolished the fortifications of the less important fortress of Sublaeum but left Dorylaeum intact.

The defeat at Myriokephalon has often been depicted as a catastrophe in which the entire Roman army was destroyed. Manuel himself compared the defeat to Manzikert.

In reality, although a defeat, it was not too costly and did not significantly diminish the Roman army. Most of the casualties were borne by the right wing, largely composed of allied troops commanded by Baldwin of Antioch, and also by the baggage train, which was the main target of the Turkish ambush.

In a message to Constantinople the Emperor: "Then extolled the treaties made with the sultan, boasting that these had been concluded beneath his own banner which had waved in the wind in view of the enemy's front line so that trembling and fear fell upon them." 

It is notable that it was the sultan who initiated peace proposals by sending an envoy to Manuel and not the reverse. The conclusion that Kilij Arslan, though negotiating from a position of strength, did not consider that his forces were capable of destroying the Roman army is inescapable. A possible reason for Kilij Arslan's reluctance to renew the battle is that a large proportion of his irregular troops may have been far more interested in securing the plunder they had taken than in continuing the fight, thus leaving his army seriously weakened.

The limited losses inflicted on native Roman troops were quickly recovered, and in the following year Manuel's forces defeated a force of "picked Turks". John Komnenos Vatatzes, who was sent by the Emperor to repel the Turkish invasion, not only brought troops from the capital but also was able to gather an army along the way. Vatatzes caught the Turks in an ambush as they were crossing the Meander River; the subsequent Battle of Hyelion and Leimocheir effectively destroyed them as a fighting force. 

This is an indication that the Roman army remained strong and that the defensive program of western Asia Minor was still successful. After the victory on the Meander, Manuel himself advanced with a small army to drive the Turks from Panasium, south of Cotyaeum.

Manuel continued to meet the Seljuks in smaller battles with some success, and concluded a probably advantageous peace with Kilij Arslan in 1179. However, like Manzikert, Myriokephalon was a pivotal event and following it the balance between the two powers in Anatolia gradually began to shift, and subsequently, the Eastern Empire was unable to compete for dominance of the Anatolian interior.

This image by Gustave Doré shows the Turkish ambush at the pass of Myriokephalon. This ambush destroyed Manuel's hope of capturing Konya.

Click to enlarge map

(Manuel I Komnenos)    (Byzantine economy)    (Byzantine coinage)

(Myriokephalon)    (Mamluk)

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