Episode 250 – Retaking Anatolia

The Battle of Myriokephalon (from weaponsandwarfare.com)

We talk about why the Romans didn’t have more success in fighting the Turks. Was there a better way to fight the nomads? Or was it not really about tactics but strategy?

Period: 1070-1180

Stream: Retaking Anatolia

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Categories: Uncategorized | 14 Comments

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14 thoughts on “Episode 250 – Retaking Anatolia

  1. Connor M

    Great episode! I have a couple requests for the next series of listener questions (they have to due with events closer to 1204). First, can you discuss the collapse of the Seljuk Empire and eventual rise of the Zengids, the Khwarazmians, the Ayyubids, and the Ghurids from their own perspective. Second, I have run across a theory that the tribal system in Mongolia was really a scheme of military organization by the decimal system that the rulers of each realm had varying levels of control over. This video explains it better than I could: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uNMTbhIVCow. Do you think this applies to the Turkish tribes of Anatolia or is another system a better explanation? Finally, can you give a lay of the lands outside the “empire” in 1204 before the Mongol conquests begin?

    • George

      Ditto. It’s really hard to find any information on how these nomadic ‘tribes’ actually functioned.

  2. Flavio

    Great episode. It makes the Roman lack of action against the Turks when they were clearly an existential threat to Empire make more sense; it was still a big mistake, but a more understandable one.

  3. Brent

    Interesting. Much of Byzantine literature I have read has criticized the supposed feudalization of Byzantium as a negative trend that hastened the fall of The Empire. This is still to be found on the wikipedia entry on Byzantium as well.

    But you present an argument for the opposite…that a feudal structure might have saved Byzantium. What was once a strength; the centralization of authority, money, and power, had become a weakness.

    I wonder what lessons this has for our own times.

    • Hey, good point. Two things about this:
      1) The feudalisation idea was a theory popular among Byzantinists in the early 20th century that has been heavily criticised by modern historians. But since it’s in all the most famous Byzantine history books of that era it hangs around today.
      2) I am not suggesting that feudalisation would have saved Byzantium. Though I can see now why it might seem like I was saying that. As you mentioned – feudalisation would have weakened central authority. Had that happened then the Empire would have been far more vulnerable to attack from organised states like the Normans or Hungarians. It would not necessarily have worked against the Turks either since the plateau was not rich enough land to be worth fighting over. The point Prof Whittow was making was that the Byzantines were not structurally organised to effectively combat the nomads. Given time they might have figured out a different response as conditions changed.

      • George

        Would the Normans really have an easier time fighting against a more feudal empire? It feels like local magnates might be better at defending their localities than a centralised government always waiting for the emperor’s response. That’s why the Normans found the empire an easy picking in the first place, no?

    • There are quite a lot of imponderables going on there. What would Byzantine feudalism have looked like? It wouldn’t necessarily have been the same as in the West. Then you have different eras of Norman attacks. Yes the initial aggression in Italy would have been more easily defended if local aristocrats were more militarised. But then why would those aristocrats have gone on accepting instructions from Constantinople? That becomes a bit of a chicken and egg situation.
      Later on when the Normans invade the Balkans they were doing so with a traditional field army. The Romans beat them every time they invaded which suggests a central field army was best for dealing with those attacks.

  4. Francesco

    These past few episodes (including all of the episodes where Manuel goes off on adventures) have been eye opening and very interesting. Maybe its too late for “nomads on the plateau” questions but I have another two:
    1) Do we have evidence that nomads _ever_ occupied the plateau before Manzikert? The terrain and environment seems very hospitable for that way of life and it seems an enormous “disequilibrium” that only in the 11th century did it become home to people with that culture.
    2) What did the Romans do with the plateau before it became a battle ground? I think I remember an earlier episode saying that it was used as pasture for goats, but I can’t seem to find it now.

    • Great questions. In reverse order: 2) yes the Romans used the plateau to breed animals. Both ordinary people and the government had huge herds here. The government had stud farms to develop horses for the army. 1) Yes! The Cimmerians, tribes of steppe archers, defeated the Assyrians in 705 BC and moved onto the plateau. They were crushed by the growing power of the Medes about a century later.

  5. CJ

    I do not know if this has been answered in the podcasts as I am around episode 75 in 750s so please forgive me if it has.

    My questions for the next end of century roundup videos is this: Why did the Turks have success conquering Anatolia compared to the Arab invasions?

  6. Martinmartinus

    The Romans should not have brought Franks to Anatolia to fight for them: They should have gone to Frankia and watch the strategy of castling that the Franks had used to subjugate their own peasants. Or they could have built a time machine and studied how the British invaded and subjugated the Boers with block houses and ethnic cleansing.
    Small stone forts that can signal one another and that are placed to hem in and harm the economy of the nomads. 20 men can hold a stone fort bult in defensive location against an army.

    • Martinmartinus

      Or rather, to harm pastoral nomads, you need to control the water source of their herds.

  7. Russ Rutherford


    As usual, I have really enjoyed your analysis and perspective on Anatolian conditions in this period. It really is first rate work. On that note, I wanted to pick your brain on some questions I had.

    I thought the difference in what occurred when Turkic nomads came onto the Anatolian Plateau after Romanos Diogenes was captured and the original rise of the Arabs in Heraclius’ and his successors’ reigns was interesting. When you mentioned that the Roman elites largely abandoned their estates and the people that remained were not able to militarize to fight the Turks, it made me wonder why this did not happen in Heraclius’ day. If I remember correctly, Heraclius stationed four army groups in Anatolia and they shadowed, harassed, ambushed, evacuated peasants and did what they could to resist the continuous Arab raids and offensives.Do we know if the original elites of the area abandoned the plateau of the 7th century as they would in the 11th? I remember a militarized elite establishing itself in the region and fighting every year. Did that happen because not as many people left or did the army officer groups just become the new elites? I wonder if the Doukas family could have done something similar post Manzikert to arrest the deterioration of the situation? I would love to hear any insights you have on any of that.

    I think you are right about the post Manzikert period being the last chance for the Romans to take the plateau back from the Turks without absorbing them somehow (Unless Malik Shah’s proposal to clear them out or Alexious’ take Antioch strategy had worked) . That being said, there is a theory I wanted to ask you about. I think from what I learned in this episode, and some others, do you think it is safe to say that the Doukas clan was the most damaging Dynasty we have seen so far in the podcast? I think so for a few reasons. First, Constantine X did not contest Seljuk gains in the mountains that allowed larger numbers of nomad war bands onto the plateau like at the sack of Ani. I feel like Constantine Monomachos’ and Isaac Konmemos’ defenses were more vigorous and though there were defeats, they kept most of the action in the mountains by contesting their raids there and reinforcing Roman power after attacks. Like you said in this episode, once the nomads had Muslim allies holding the door open on the Armenian mountain passes, it made countering nomad presence much more difficult. Then, there is Andronicus Doukas’ betrayal of Romanos at Manzikert itself, when he could have intervened to allow for a more positive result. I wonder if he had intervened if he could have rescued the emperor, or maybe even driven off the Turks. Was a Dorelayum-like victory possible, catching the Turks between two forces? And finally, Michael VII kept sending out weaker and weaker forces to combat the Turks directly instead of reinforcing the cities and strong points they held to harass the nomads and make them leave for the winter (Like in Heraclius’s day). I agree that Andronicus Komnenos was the worst emperor so far, but as a dynasty, were the Doukai the worst?

    When you talked about needing to retake the mountains as was done in the Macedonian Dynasty to block out more tribes, could Alexious’ and John’s strategy to retake Antioch be seen in this light? To surround the plateau, get the Armenians and crusaders involved and maybe seal up the breach?

    I thought your contrast of the conditions of fighting step nomads in the Balkans versus fighting them in steppe conditions was particularly insightful and useful. It does make me wonder how Maurice’s armies were able to successfully oppose them North of the Danube. As I recall, the armies he sent defeated the Avars several times. Are there any suggestions as to how he managed that? I think your comment about keeping pressure up on the nomads in their home turf was beyond most states was right on since Maurice was overthrown trying to do just that if I remember right. You mentioned the Chinese had similar difficulties; do you know of any other examples of a civilization having Maurice like success on the steppes?

    Finally, you said the idea of moving incorporated steppe tribes onto the Anatolian Plateau probably wouldn’t have worked so well and if I understand right, that is basically what Constantine Monomachos tried just before the Pecheneg wars, right? Obviously, that was terribly bungled, but do you think there could have been a way for something like that to work out? I noticed that the Roman government was able to settle defeated nomads in the Balkans and regularly use them in the army in both the Balkan and Anatolian theaters. Do you think there was a way that could have been done successfully prior to the post Manzikert or loss of Ani collapses? I mean, obviously not in the whole sale way that Monomachos attempted, but more gradually, or in smaller numbers or with more assurances. I think about the Seljuk realm that was composed of settlements and nomads that worked well together on the plateau, and I wonder two things. Could the Romans have done something like that, and since the nomads didn’t respect the Sultan of Rum’s peace treaties is there any evidence that they raided the sultan’s settled peasants or caused the Sultan other Nomad versus settled people problems to their own Seljuk authorities?

    Anyway, thanks again for all the great work. I am learning and enjoying it like always

    • Great questions:
      1) The Arabs did not attempt to settle on the plateau. So the majority of people in Anatolia could stay put and deal with an occasional raid. Whereas by staying the Turks made life too difficult for people to live with. The reason the Romans weren’t able to leave armies on the plateau to fight (as Heraclius had done) is that Generals kept using those troops to try and overthrow Alexios Komnenos. So he had no incentive to put forces back in Anatolia until much later on.
      2) Yes the Doukai had a very bad run in that period. I’m reluctant to condemn them too harshly though as we lack the sources to be sure we can pin all the blame on them. It’s possible that the Turkic raids were too complex a problem for many Emperors to cope with.
      3) Yes I think the idea was to use the Latins and Armenians to hem the plateau in. But it’s hard to make allied people do your bidding the way you want it done.
      4) Yes Maurice sent his armies to attack the nomads in Autumn or early Spring – when the grass was much less thick – making it harder for the nomads to keep herds of horses fed. He also attacked their homes which was a rare thing for the Romans to be able to do (since the nomads usually didn’t have a fixed capital as the Avars had created). And yes Maurice was eventually overthrown for asking his men to spend the winter north of the Danube.
      5) I think money could have talked. Particularly with tribes that were only recently converted to Islam. But I don’t know enough about when this would have been possible. In theory though with enough cash the nomads might have been persuaded to attack the Seljuks or fight with the Romans. But at a certain point they came to identify themselves with the Muslim world at which point alliances with the Christians was tricky. Could Pechenegs have been similarly induced to fight for the Romans? Maybe. But when they did so in the Balkans they were broken up into small manageable groups. To stand a chance against the Turks they would need to have been moved over in bigger numbers – at which point I suspect they would have asserted their independence. It was their way.

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