The Failed Experience: Why Did Manuel Komnenos Lose the Battle at Myriokephalon?

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This image by Gustave Doré shows the Turkish ambush at the pass of Myriokephalon.The Failed Experience: Why Did Manuel Komnenos Lose the Battle at Myriokephalon?

By Roman Shlyakhtin

Annual of Medieval Studies at CEU, Vol.14 (2008)

Introduction: On the 17th of September, 1176, a huge Byzantine army entered a defile some 40 km east of modern Konya. The Byzantine chronicles call it Myriokephalon. The Byzantine army was moving slowly because of a large siege train. A faulty battle plan made by the leader, Emperor Manuel Komnenos, allowed the enemy to occupy the heights above the defile. In this plan, the wagons with ballistas and other machinae were separated from the main divisions of the army. As a result, the Seljuq forces, led by Sultan Kilidj-Arslan II of Ikonion, successfully attacked the Byzantines. By nightfall it was finished. Most of the Byzantine army lay dead in the ravines and on the hills, while the remainder defended themselves against the fervor of the enemy on a small fortified hill at the eastern end of the defile. The next day a peace treaty was signed and Manuel’s army started its long way home.

This is the general outline of the battle of Myriokephalon which can be found in many works dedicated to the history of Byzantium. Nearly all the authors blame Manuel Komnenos, but not so many of them have tried to find out what he is to blame for and why he made such mistakes. In other words: What factors affected the decisions of the emperor on this unlucky day? This article is an attempt to answer this question, but first one must give a more detailed description of the battle itself.




On the morning of 17 September 1176, the imperial army began to enter the long defile of Myriokephalon. The marching order, according to Choniates, was: the first division of the army, headed by John Doukas and Andronikos Angeloi, then the second regiment, headed by Constantine Macrodoukas and Andronikos La(m)parda, which probably consisted of experienced eastern border guards. The right wing was headed by Baldwin of Antioch, the brother of the emperor’s wife, and the left wing by Theodore Maurozomes. They were followed by the wagons, the supplementary units, then by the emperor with his personal guards; finally, the Byzantine order was completed by the forces of the rearguard under the command of Andronikos Kontostephanos. The first two regiments successfully passed through the difficult terrain, and, according to a special order apparently given by Manuel, moved forward at high speed to occupy positions at the end of the defile. They were attacked by the Seljuqs. Nevertheless, the imperial archers forced the enemy to withdraw back to their first positions. The next unit of the Byzantine army was attacked immediately after its passage; its inexperienced commander, Baldouin of Antioch, exhibited miracles of bravery, but without great success. According to Choniates, this was a key moment in the battle; the next phase was actually a catastrophe.

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Sharan Newman