The first three Comnenoi emperors (Alexius, John and Manuel),recovered a great part of Asia Minor 1081-1176.
The battle of Sirmium illustrates the fact that in the 1160s, even with a very different type of army from that which had won the great victories of the later tenth and early eleventh centuries, and different yet again from the thematic forces which had defended the empire from the seventh century, eastern Roman armies, when well-led and disciplined, were capable of winning striking victories, and remained a key instrument of imperial foreign policy. By the 1170s in Asia Minor the emperor Manuel had succeeded in establishing a real equilibrium with the Seljuk Sultanate of Konya (Ikonion) and had been gradually pressing forward around the frontier regions, with the ultimate intention of recovering the central Anatolian plateau, lost in the aftermath of Manzikert a century earlier. Imperial forces had been able to reoccupy Cilicia in the south, and the principality of Antioch recognized Byzantine overlordship. The main problem facing the emperor in the east was the fact that his western policies were constantly threatened by the activities, diplomatic or otherwise, of the German emperors, who saw the eastern Roman state as the main challenge to their power in the central Mediterranean, and went so far as to tacitly support the Seljuk Sultan Kilidj Aslan against the eastern Roman emperor. Manuel had therefore to dispose his resources carefully to avoid appearing to neglect his Balkan territories, yet at the same time to assemble sufficient manpower to mount an effective challenge to the Seljuks. An important aspect of his policy in the east was maintaining good relations with the Crusader states in Syria and Palestine, and at the same time remaining on good terms with the emirs of Aleppo who served as a valuable counter-weight to the Seljuk power to their north. When the ruler of Aleppo, Nur ad-Din, died in 1174, the balance of power in the region shifted a little away from Byzantium, as Nur ad-Din’s successor, Saladin, was more interested in affairs in Egypt and to the south.
Manuel decided, in consequence, that a strategy to eradicate the Seljuk power would pay the best results in the short-term, and began preparations for a major expedition aimed at Ikonion, the Seljuk capital itself. It is debatable whether, had his strategy paid off and he had been able to defeat the Seljuks and take the city, the policy could have worked in the long term, in view of the firm hold the Turks had by now established in the region. Nevertheless, having re-fortified a number of fortresses which directly challenged Seljuk power, war broke out and Manuel’s army, accompanied by a large siege and baggage train – stretching, according to the emperor himself in a letter he later wrote to Henry II of England, along ten miles of the route – set out in the summer of 1176 to confront the Seljuk leader in what, it was hoped, would be a decisive encounter.
Kilidj Aslan was, understandably, in some consternation about the imperial attack, which posed a serious threat to his realm. He sent to Manuel offering to negotiate but the emperor, convinced of the superiority of his forces, refused and marched on. The Seljuk Sultan had only one option, to defend his territory as best he could. Accurately assessing the routes the imperial army could follow, he decided that his only chance lay in ambushes and delaying actions. The obvious location for a defensive action was one of the passes across the mountains onto the central Anatolian plateau, on the eastern edge of which Konya was located. Manuel’s approach was from the west, but his route took him somewhat to the north first, before he could proceed along the road from Pisidian Antioch south-eastwards along the eastern shore of Lake Pousgouse (mod. Beyşehir Gölü), and then eastwards. Following this road, his army would have to march through the important pass of Tzybritze along the road to Ikonion, if they were to besiege the city. This was the direct route, which the emperor had traversed once before during an expedition beyond Roman territory in 1146. The pass is about 15 miles in length and follows a winding course, curving down in a south-easterly direction before bending around to the north-east once more. Wooded in places and offering plenty of cover to any force wishing to set an ambush, it is entered by a narrow defile several miles in length, before this opens out into a narrow plain some 9 miles long, with sloping ground on one side, steeper cliffs on the other. Near the beginning of the plain (and about 6 miles from the head of the pass), and some 2 miles from the road to the north, stood the ruins of an abandoned fortress (still visible today as mod. Asar Kalesi), the medieval Myriokephalon (‘thousand peaks’, after the numerous mountains behind it). The ground throughout its length is broken and rugged, adding to the difficulties of any military force trying to keep in formation, a point noted by the contemporary historians. At the head of the pass the cliffs close in again and the road passes through another defile before emerging onto the hilly plateau about 25 miles from Konya.
The Turks had already destroyed as much of the available seasonal forage as they could along the route followed by the imperial forces. They had also poisoned or otherwise rendered unusable the main watering places. The result was that the Roman forces were already suffering from a shortage of water and forage, and dysentery had afflicted many of the troops in the army. The Sultan’s forces occupied the pass and, on approaching it, Manuel had to decide whether or not to attack. In spite of advice to the contrary, which warned him of the danger of ambuscades, he opted to make a frontal attack, although there was at least one nearby alternative, which although difficult, would have brought the army out onto the plain near the town of Philomelion (Turkish Akşehir), and which was followed by the forces of the third crusade in 1190. The reasons for his decision are not stated; but it may have been due to the fact that Manuel was anxious about the army’s need for water and forage and had no option apart from turning back – a humiliation which, at this stage, he was unwilling to contemplate. It is also possible that, being familiar with the contours of the pass from the 1146 expedition, he expected the Turks to let his army pass through and harass him on the far side.
The size of the Seljuk force is unknown. The numbers of the imperial army are likewise difficult to assess, but the siege-and baggage train is reported to have included 3,000 carts, and an army stretching over more than ten miles, marching five abreast, would number something in the order of 25,000 men. The accuracy of this estimate depends on terrain, width of the marching column, numbers of horses and so forth, so it is only the very crudest guide. The army was divided, following standard practice, into several divisions, each of which seems to have consisted of a balanced force of cavalry, archers and infantry, except the van, which was made up chiefly of infantry. A contemporary account based on the reports of those present on the campaign describes the imperial column as made up of the van division (as noted, chiefly infantry, largely of the palace regiments), followed by the main division (made up of the eastern and western tagmata), the right wing under Baldwin of Jerusalem followed by the pack and baggage train, and then the siege train, and then the Roman left wing. This was then followed by the emperor’s own division and picked troops, followed in turn by the rearguard under the trusted senior commander, Andronikos Kontostephanos – a classic Roman marching order.
Manuel is reported to have taken no account of the rough terrain through which his army now had to pass. The heavily laden pack-animals did not have their loads redistributed and lightened; the carts carrying the siege-engines were not redeployed to make their passage more quickly; no advance parties were sent through to try to locate and dislodge the Turkish ambushes. Following the emperor’s decision, the Roman vanguard pushed on and marched through the defile into the pass. The predominantly infantry force seems to have taken the Turks by surprise, for it was able to push through with only token opposition – possibly the Turks were still getting into position at this point, since the sources are not clear about when Kilidj Aslan sent in his troops.
The march through probably took between five and six hours, and given the length of the imperial column, which had almost certainly extended as the troops defiled through the narrower sections, the van will have reached the head of the pass by the time the rear divisions were entering. Close behind the van division, the main division marched hastily through; but it was at this point that the Turks in the heights above and around the pass seem to have launched their attack, falling on the Roman right wing and the baggage train in particular, which had followed more slowly and had become strung out over a longer distance. One source speaks specifically of the failure of the right-wing troops to maintain any sort of battle-order or use their archers to fend off the Seljuk attacks. The right wing suffered heavy casualties and its troops broke formation and began to run both forwards and to the rear. Baldwin himself fell in the action. Many of the soldiers tried to take refuge on a small hill, but large numbers were also injured when they fell into the dry ravine between the road and the raised ground. The Turks had set several ambushes along the length of the pass, according to a contemporary source in seven different ‘trench-like’ valleys through which the route passed, and no sooner had some soldiers made their way out of one ambush than they fell into the next. Meanwhile, the van division, which had escaped the main attack, was through the pass, where it established its own fortified encampment on a hill, soon to be followed by the main division. Choniates notes specifically that the Turks left these divisions alone once they had pushed through the pass and encamped.
The divisions behind the baggage also began to panic and dissolve as the effects of the Turkish attack became evident and as they came upon the carnage of the draught and baggage animals and their handlers, mercilessly shot down by the Turkish archery and now partly blocking their path. Turkish arrows now rained down upon the rearmost Roman units, whose path was blocked by the destruction of the siege and baggage train, and for a while it is reported that the emperor himself resigned all hope and simply sat passively awaiting his fate. The situation was not improved by a sudden dust-storm which blew up, making it impossible for a while for the troops on either side to make out their foe. The emperor was then galvanized by some of his soldiers and officers and, exerting himself to re-establish some discipline, was able to reform the various detachments into a defensive formation, managing to get the rest of the force through the pass where it joined the van and centre divisions. The rearguard seems to have followed through without suffering from the Seljuk attacks, and arrived at the fortified encampment as dark fell.
Analysis of events after the battle, and in particular of all the information pertaining to the numbers and strength of eastern Roman armies in the next year or two, strongly suggest that overall casualties appear, in spite of Choniates’s dramatic account, not to have been heavy, except among the troops of the right wing, which seems to have been almost annihilated. But the whole baggage and siege train was destroyed, its personnel and animals killed or captured. That evening the army took up a defensive position on and around the hill occupied by the van division, where it spent the night repelling the sorties and attacks of the Turkish mounted archers. Without the equipment Manuel had brought with him the expedition could not hope to achieve its aim of taking Konya and, given his difficult situation and following discussions with his officers, the emperor now accepted Kilidj Aslan’s offer to negotiate, and was able to withdraw without further loss.
The defeat, while not costly in manpower, was expensive in terms of opportunities lost through poor tactics. For even though the correct procedure was followed up to the point at which the army arrived before the pass, military handbooks advised that such locations should either be avoided or, where absolutely unavoidable, carefully scouted out in advance. It was a standard tenet of eastern Roman military practice that, where an army has to pass through a narrow defile or pass, or where the soldiers might be able to march only two abreast or even in single file, cavalry should dismount and their horses, with the baggage, should be placed in the centre. A detachment of troops should also be left behind to hold it until the army returns. While the emperor seems to have followed these precepts in part, his failure to consider other options, or to scout the pass and take adequate account of the ways in which the Turks had disposed their defences, was substantially responsible for the defeat and the loss of the siege train.
As with Manzikert, with which Manuel himself compared the defeat, Myriokephalon has usually been grossly exaggerated, at least in terms of casualties and the after-effects on the army. For it was certainly not a catastrophe. The loss of the siege train was indeed a disaster for the expedition and for Manuel’s strategy, however, and threw the emperor into a fit of depression for a while, encouraging a gloomy reaction to the failure. But its longer-term effects were more damaging to the empire, for Manuel was never again in a position to assemble such a costly expeditionary force. Yet even after the battle, the Turks were unable to press what little advantage they had been able to derive from it. The empire’s armies were still intact and in place, and a year later, were able to inflict a dramatic defeat on an invading Seljuk force while maintaining the empire’s position in the Balkans. Only after Manuel’s death in 1180 and the collapse of his carefully constructed system of diplomatic checks and balances did the real collapse in imperial power begin once more.