Episode 22 – The Battles of Gaxia versus Manzikert

Today we head over to the Battles bracket where we will be discussing two important clashes in world history with the first being the Battle of Gaixia which helped found the Han Dynasty of Ancient China and the Battle of Manzikert which was fought between the Seljuk and Byzantine Empires which fatally weakened the later.

Battle of Gaixia
Battle of Gaixia

Fought in 202 BC, the Battle of Gaixia was fought between the forces of Liu-Bang, the King of Han and Xiang Yu King of the Chu. If you remember in episode seven when we discussed Qin Shi Huangdi who united China until his death in 210 BC caused things to unravel. For the next four years, the subject states began to fight for the remains of the empire until there were only two left, the Han and the Chu.

Liu-Bang of the Han was initially a minor patrol officer in the Qin dynasty, but with Huangdi’s death, he decided to switch sides and become an anti-Qin rebel. One of his rivals in the anti-Qin movement was Xiang Yu who was the overall head of the rebel forces. The Qin Empire was split into something known as the Eighteen Kingdoms, created by Xiang Yu. He gave Liu Bang a region in the southwest known as Han which included Sichuan, Chongqing, and southern Shaanxi. The area was one of the least productive at the time which Liu Bang viewed as an insult.

The tension between the two men led to Xiang Lu holding Liu Bang’s father and wife hostage, but in the end, they agreed to a peace treaty. The truce, known as the Treaty of Hong Gate or the Hong Canal, was but a ruse engineered by Han Xin, another military general who sided with Liu Bang. Han Xin orchestrated a series of ambushes against the Chu armies over and over again forcing them into a canyon at Gaixia. The reason for this was to use the Chu’s vastly larger army against itself by putting it into a narrow and tight battlefield. This could be considered another Cannae, where the Roman army was smashed by the Carthaginian’s led by Hannibal Barca. We’ll meet Hannibal in episode 80 when he faces off against Joan of Arc.

To further move the trap forward, one of Xiang Lu’s favorite consorts, one Yuji, was captured by the Han army. Han Xin then placed her in the valley near Gaixia to entice the Chu army to save her. Xiang Lu certainly knew this was a risky place to fight, but he felt that his numerically superior Chu army was up to the task. Here is where history starts getting fuzzy.

It is supposed that the Chu army was numbered about 100,00 men with Han’s hovering around 600-700,000. So, in reality, the Han’s were the bigger force, but other historical records suggest that the opposite was true. Who to believe?

Now we begin to get into legend and storytelling when we get to the Battle of Gaixia. Supposedly, Han Xin started an attack known as the “ambush from ten sides.” The attack, while devastating to the Chu, wasn’t near enough to claim victory. Xiang Yu had saved his consort Yuji, and his men had fought bravely, but he felt that the end might be near. Then, the Han soldiers began to sing songs native to the Chu. This caused the soldiers to yearn for home, and slowly but surely, they started to abandon their leader and headed home.

The reason I mentioned storytelling is that our old tale-teller is our old friend Sima Qian from the Shi Huangdi episode who we know stretches the truth a bit. He tells us that the Consort Yuji commits suicide as the armies of the Han began to encircle the Chu. Xiang Yu buried his love that morning and escaped the canyon at Gaixia only to be caught soon after that, committing suicide when he was about to be captured. 

The aftermath of the Battle of Gaixia was the start of the Han dynasty which was to rule a unified China for the next four hundred plus years. Liu Bang was to be named Emperor Gaozu, and he would rule for four years. The Han dynasty is considered one of the greatest Chinese dynasties of all time.

Quickly after taking control of China, Liu Bang, jealous and somewhat scared of Han Xin, had him and other powerful generals executed to solidify his authority.

Now to turn to our, Putting it Into Perspective segment of the podcast. 

In the years surrounding the Battle of Gaixia, Hannibal’s armies fight against the Romans, The Parthians fight the Seleucid Empire, the Spanish city of Seville is founded by the Roman general Scipio, the Battle of Zama, which we will hear about in episode 52, is fought leading to the end of the Second Punic War.

Battle of Manzikert
Battle of Manzikert

Now on to the Battle of Manzikert.

This clash between the forces of the Byzantines and the Seljuk Empire wasn’t a huge fight, in fact, it is estimated that only 80,000 men were there which is small when you talk of decisive battles. What happened there was a mental death blow to the successor to the Roman Empire, and the ramifications of its outcome would accelerate the eventual fall of Constantinople, an event we will discuss next episode.

Edward Gibbon, the author of the seminal work known as the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, said this about the battle, “The Byzantine writers deplore the loss of an inestimable pearl: they forget to mention that, in this fatal day, the Asiatic provinces of Rome were irretrievably sacrificed.

The Battle of Manzikert was fought between forces of Byzantium led by their Emperor, Romanus IV Diogenes against the Seljuk army led by Alp Arslan. They both had an equal number of men. The Byzantines, while still a formidable force, were not the same army of the past. Their previous emperors, Constantine IX, and X were incompetent and let their armies’ decay during their reigns. The Seljuks, on the other hand, became more and more formidable making them a power to be reckoned with.

The Greeks relied on their military manuals like the Strategicon and Tactica to guide their generals. But as pointed out in the book, 100 Decisive Battles, by Paul K. Davis, “…the sturdy Anatolian peasant upon which the empire had long depended for its soldiery was no longer providing the core of the army.” He further goes on to write, “Only the lack of an organized rival kept the Byzantine army the premier force of the time, and the tenuous nature of the force’s composition meant that it could not really stand to be seriously challenged or poorly commanded.

Some of you might wonder where Anatolia is located. It is basically the Asian part of Turkey with some extra land in Armenia. It was one of the great recruiting grounds for the Romans and their successor state, the Byzantine Empire. This is one of the main reasons that the Battle of Manzikert is so crucial as it was fought in the mainly Christian, Greek-speaking territory of Anatolia. 

Leading up to the battle, we need to look at the makeup of the Byzantine army in particular. They had about 40,000 men with only about 5,000 of them, professional troops. The rest included some Frankish and Norman mercenaries along with Bulgarian, Turkic, Georgian and Armenian men. There were some of the Varangian Guard, the most feared of their troops along for the ride, but not many. The reason I mention this is because the loyalty of some of the men would come into question when push came to shove.

To top things off, Emperor Romanos, thinking his troops superior to his enemy, split his forces as the headed to Lake Van, with the goal of retaking the fortress at Manzikert. This was in direct violation of the peace treaty he signed with the Seljuks. Their leader, Alp Arslan was on his way to Egypt to take care of a revolt but when he heard of the Byzantine deception, turned back and took his entire army of 40,000 with him.

As they neared each other, Arslan offered a peace treaty once again as he knew that one part of the split army of Romanos had been defeated at a battle we have no name for. Others have suggested that no fight occurred with general Joseph Tarchaniotes fleeing from the Seljuk army. Whatever the reason for the 20,000 men not being available to the Byzantine’s, they were now at half strength. 

The Seljuks were nomadic peoples, so their strength was in their cavalry which they used in a hit and run strategy. During the battle, the Turkic mercenaries bailed out early on as did many other units of the Byzantine army. Those who were not captured or killed, ran away, back to their homes throughout the empire. Emperor Romanos was taken prisoner where he was eventually released after a ransom was agreed upon.

When he returned to Constantinople, Romanos knew he was in trouble. His rivals, the Doukas family, defeated him in battle three times. They sent him into exile where he died of an infection after he was blinded, a typical penalty in those times.  

The aftermath of the Battle of Manzikert was not the decisive fight that some historians claim, but it was a clash that set the wheels in motion to severely cripple the Byzantine Empire. First off, the ensuing civil war damaged them, but more importantly, they lost their major recruiting center in Anatolia. That region began to convert from a Christian-Greek region to an Islamic-Turkic one slowly. In 1453, the Fall of Constantinople, an event we will interestingly enough be covering next episode, was the culmination of events that can be traced to the Battle of Manzikert.

Now for our second Putting it into Perspective segment. 

At the time of the Battle of Manzikert, Canterbury Cathedral is rebuilt following a fire, the Normans conquer Sicily, William the Conqueror invades Scotland, Sviatoslav II begins his reign as the head of Kievan Rus, and Omar Khayyam of Persia computes the most accurate length of a year to date. 

Let’s begin our scoring between these two influential battles. First, we have 15 points to give out for the number of people involved in the fights. Gaixia wins this by a landslide as there were an estimated half a million people there while Manzikert’s armies totaled 80,000 combined. Fifteen for the Chinese contest with five going to their opponent.

Next up is the 20 points of how the battle affected the rest of the world at the time. Gaixia really only changed China with minimal effect in the near- or far-term while Manzikert’s outcome reverberated throughout the Western Asiatic region and Europe. Twenty to Manzikert, eight to Gaixia.

Twenty-five points now need to be dolled out based on the effect on world history. The same argument that we made on the last point give away works here. Twenty-five to Manzikert, fifteen to Gaixia.

The big prize, of course, is how the battle affected their country for the better at that time. For the Byzantines, it was a minor disaster, for the Seljuks, a significant victory. It set into motion the decay and eventual destruction of the Byzantine Empire. For the Chinese, the Battle of Gaixia led to a four-hundred-year reign of the Han dynasty which is considered a golden age of Chinese history. For these reasons, Gaixia gets the full 40 points with Manzikert getting 25. 

This was a see-saw contest, but the numbers tell us that Gaixia moves on to the second round where it will face off against Platea.

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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