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The Byzantine Empire on the Brink of Destruction

Posted by on November 1, 2012

News of al-Hakim’s ruthless persecution of Christians wasn’t the sole event that triggered hatred in the west. The Byzantine Empire, in the eleventh century, was on the brink of destruction. In the 1040s, Turkish warriors migrated from the steppes of central Asia and conquered Persia, then invaded Armenia and Iraq, and conquered Baghdad in the year of 1055.

The Turkish invasions jeopardized the safety of pilgrims and threatened to sever Europe’s ties with Jerusalem. To make matters worse, Byzantium was severely weakened by the Bubonic Plague. Many people had died, leaving the emperor unable to protect the pilgrims and his people from Muslim raids.

In the summer of 1071 Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes decisively chose to fight back with two goals in mind: recapture all territory lost to the Turks and crush Sultan Alp-Arslan and his armies for good. However, it was not so. In his haste to build a large army, Romanus failed to read the enemy’s strategy and made some serious blunders in his own strategy as well. On 26 August, Romanus marched on Alp-Arslan’s army, while Alp Arslan’s army retreated, forming a crescent until the wings–left and right flanks–of his army surrounded the Byzantine troops. Then, before the sun began to set, Romanus decided to turn his army around and head back to camp before night settled in. Romanus gave Alp-Arslan the upper hand because, immediately after the Byzantines’ backs were turned, Alp-Arslan struck. Romanus and his troops were quickly surrounded and roundly defeated.

Romanus was captured but he was not held captive for long. Alp-Arslan was far more kind and gracious than Romanus’s own people because, shortly after Romanus returned to Constantinople, he was “deposed, and then blinded and finally killed after great torture and torment.”

The Byzantine army was crushed and the emperor who succeeded Romanus was unable to repel the Turkish advancement. By the time Alexius Comnenus took the imperial throne in 1081, only a few coastal towns in the north belonged to the Byzantine Empire. Not only were his coffers empty, Alexius was bombarded with perpetual threats from the Turks. At the same time, ferocious Pecheneg and Cuman nomads from the Russian steppes raided the Danube frontier. It was at this crucial moment that Emperor Alexius decided he needed help.

In 1093, Alexius wrote a letter to Robert, Count of Flanders, requesting his military aid against the Seljuk Turks. In his letter, Alexius wrote of all the horrible deeds the Seljuk Turks had committed. Emperor Alexius feared–no, he knew–that all of Byzantium would fall to the Turks, and Christianity in the East would be stamped out. These fears weren’t imagined; they were very real, and they were certainly spelled out to Count Robert.

Alexius also took the extra measure to provide Count Robert with other reasons why Robert should send military aid to Constantinople:

“Remember that you will find all those treasures and also the most beautiful women of the Orient. The incomparable beauty of the Greek women would seem to be a sufficient reason to attract the armies of the Franks,” Alexius wrote.

Beautiful women! That would have provided any man with enough incentive to travel a long distance and fight in a foreign land. However, Emperor Alexius needed only a small army of strong knights and war lords to fight the Turks. That’s what he wanted. He had not anticipated the enormous armed force that would arrive at the shores of Constantinople three years later.

Sources Used:

Alexius I Comnenus: Byzantine Emperor: http://www.rdsinc.com/pdf/samples/sp691771.pdf

The Battle of Manzikert (1071 A.D.): http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/imperialism/notes/manzikert.html

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