Emperor Theophilos' Defeat at the Battle of Anzen

22 July 838, 1.175 years ago, the Byzantine Emperor Theophilos was defeated in the Battle of Anzen in Anatolia, 250 miles east of Ankara.
“The sword is truer in tidings than writings: in its edge is the boundary between earnestness and sport / white as to their blades, not (books) black as to their pages – in their broad sides lies the removing of doubt and uncertainties / … they would not have concealed what befell the idols and crosses / In a notable victory too sublime to be described by any ordered verse or scattered discourse, / A victory in honour of which the gates of heaven and earth comes forth in her new garments” (Abu Tamman)

An illustration from the Byzantine “Synopsis of Histories” by John Skylitzes (12th century) showing Emperor Theophilos retreating up a hill with his bodyguards)

In an offensive to punish the Byzantines for their intrusion into Abbasid territory in present-day northern Iraq, Caliph Al-Mu’tasim ordered two large armies into Roman Anatolia towards the cities of Ancyra (Ankara) and Amorion in the heart of Asia Minor. Emperor Theophilos marched in early June of the year 838 with equally large host of about 40.000 men from Constantinople to counter the Arab invasion – one of many in these days. Only 20 years before, Abbasid troops laid siege to the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire itself.

The Emperor Theophilos and his court

Parting with some of his troops to reinforce Amorion, the seat of his own dynasty, Theophilos and his army more or less stumbled over the northern wing of the Abbasid army under their Persian General Afshin and decided against an immediate night attack. The next day, the Byzantines finally charged the Arabs and, after a tumultuous initial success were met with a equally fierce counter-charge, when Afshin unleashed his 10.000 Turkish horse archers on them. While Theophilos actually re-grouped his army on one wing, the other one thought him dead, broke and routed. Theophilos found himself surrounded on a hill with his elite regiments and unreliable Kurdish mercenaries and, while the Arabs emplaced siege engines to bombard the Byzantines, Theophilos decided to break out with his guard and succeeded. The battle was lost anyway.

Arabs besieging Amorion

However, the road to the Abbasid defined strategic goals was wide open now , Ancyra was plundered five days later, an enormously quick follow-up by the Arabs and Amorion fell two days later and was put to the sword, its population  of 70.000 were either killed or sold as slaves. Theophilos himself, actually one of the more active and efficient Byzantine emperors, had his hands full to quell various rebellions that had been sparked by the premature news of his death – that occurred five years later. Theophilos’ Phrygian dynasty could not assert itself after that and the immediate consequence was the abandonment of their iconoclastic policy and the veneration of icons, once more forbidden by Theopilos’ father Michael the Stammerer in 832, was reintroduced into the Orthodox Church under the following Macedonian dynasty and remained and important attribute to this day.

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