The first of the Seljuk sultans was Togrul Beg. Of him Edward Gibbon said, “It would be superfluous to praise the valour of a Turk; and the ambition of Togrul was equal to his valour.” This is a supreme compliment, and entirely true. By the time of his death in 1063 he had firmly laid the foundations for the Seljuk Empire in the Middle East and Central Asia.
He was succeeded by one of the greatest of the of Seljuk kings, Alp Arslan. This honorific (“valiant lion”) is an affectionate title by which he is known to posterity; his real name was Muhammad Ibn Dawud Chaghri. Gibbon here tells us,
The name of Alp Arslan, the valiant lion, is expressive of the popular idea of the perfection of man; and the successor of Togrul displayed the fierceness and generosity of the royal animal.
He expanded on the conquests of his predecessor, enlarging Turkish domains by wile and lance. The Byzantine Empire in those days was hard-pressed to maintain its frontiers; and that job would become even harder once Alp Arslan took the field in search of territories to submit to him. The Greek emperor, Romanus Diogenes, was his equal neither in military nor personal virtue.
In 1071 the sultan marched at the head of a force of over one hundred thousand men towards eastern Anatolia. Near the city of Manzikert, his forces collided with the Romans in one of the most decisive battles of medieval history. Before the battle, Romanus had treated Alp Arslan contemptuously, refusing his offers of peace. Gibbon tells the tale:
Had he listened to the fair proposals of the sultan, Romanus might have secured a retreat, perhaps a peace; but in these overtures he supposed the fear or weakness of the enemy, and his answer was conceived in the tone of insult and defiance. “If the barbarian [Romanus said] wishes for peace, let him evacuate the ground which he occupies for the encampment of the Romans, and surrender his city and palace of Rei as a pledge of his sincerity. [Ch. LVII, Decline and Fall]
Battle was then joined. The result was that “the Asiatic provinces of Rome were irretrievably sacrificed.” Romanus himself was captured by the sultan; by some accounts, he was subjected to having the sultan’s foot placed symbolically on his neck to drive home the reality of his defeat. (This was in keeping with the custom of the day; the emperor Justinian II had done the same thing to his rivals Leontius and Apsimar).
And yet, as many historians have averred, the medieval Islamic princes usually exceeded their Christian counterparts in the chivalric graces: they broke their word less often than did the Frankish and Byzantine kings, and considered it a moral duty to show respect for the defeated.
From the divan Romanus was conducted to an adjacent tent, where he was served with pomp and reverence by the officers of the sultan, who, twice each day, seated him in the place of honour at his own table. In a free and familiar conversation of eight days, not a word, not a look, of insult escaped from the conqueror; but he severely censured the unworthy subjects who had deserted their valiant prince in the hour of danger, and gently admonished his antagonist of some errors which he had committed in the management of the war.
Romanus and Alp Arslan actually dined together, and the Turkish sultan asked his counterpart what sort of treatment he expected to receive. Romanus said, “If you are cruel, you will take my life; if you listen to pride, you will drag me at your chariot-wheels; if you consult your interest, you will accept a ransom, and restore me to my country.” When the sultan asked the emperor what he himself would have done had their situations been reversed, Romanus replied honestly–but insolently–that he would have had the sultan lashed.
At this Gibbon says, “The Turkish conqueror smiled at the insolence of the captive; observed that the Christian law inculcated the love of enemies and forgiveness of injuries; and nobly declared that he would not imitate an example which he condemned.” In the end he had Romanus ransomed.
His empire would eventually cover much of Western Asia. But even great men can fall victim to the terrible fickleness of fortune, as we have observed so often in these pages. And in the end, he was struck down in a bizarre assassination. He had condemned to death a particularly obstinate military enemy named Joseph the Carizmian.
Joseph, upon hearing his sentenced pronounced, drew a dagger and rushed the sultan; Alp Arslan asked his bodyguards not to interfere, knowing he was an extremely skilled archer. But while trying to draw his bow on the assailant, the sultan’s foot slipped, and the killer’s dagger found its mark. Joseph was immediately killed by the sultan’s retinue.
Gibbon rises to great eloquence in describing his final words and legacy:
“In my youth [began Alp Arslan’s final words] I was advised by a sage to humble myself before God; to distrust my own strength; and never to despise the most contemptible foe. I have neglected these lessons; and my neglect has been deservedly punished. Yesterday, as from an eminence I beheld the numbers, the discipline, and the spirit of my armies, the earth seemed to tremble under my feet; and I said in my heart, surely thou art the kind of the world, the greatest and most invincible of warriors. These armies are no longer mine; and, in the confidence of my personal strength, I now fall by the hand of an assassin.”
Alp Arslan possessed the virtues of a Turk and a Musulman [Muslim]; his voice and stature commanded the reverence of mankind; his face was shaded with long whiskers; and his ample turban was fashioned in the shape of a crown. The remains of the sultan were deposited in the tomb of the Seljukian dynasty; and the passenger might read and meditate this useful inscription:
O ye who have seen the glory of Alp Arslan exalted to the heavens, repair to Maru, and you will behold it buried in the dust!
The annihilation of the inscription, and the tomb itself, more forcibly proclaims the instability of human greatness.
This last sentence, oft forgotten by the insolence and myopia of power, forms an unanswerable commentary on all human affairs.