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‘FROM THE HALLS OF ASIA MINOR TO THE SHORES OF SICILY’:

THE NAVY AND MARINES OF THE ROMAN (‘BYZANTINE’)


EMPIRE
IN THE 10TH CENTURY

Ρωµαν’ια ­ Romania ­ Byzantium
by Michael O’Rourke
mjor (at) velocitynet (dot) com (dot) au
Canberra Australia
September 2009

"The epochs of [Byzantium's] dominion are those in which it held


control of the sea, and it was when it lost this that its reverses
began."

—Louis Brehier, 1949.

Introduction.......................................................................................................................................................2
Vessels and Crews in AD 900...........................................................................................................................3
Ship Types and Crew Sizes...............................................................................................................................5
Designed for Speed: Galleys as ‘Surface Torpedoes’.......................................................................................8
Slenderness.....................................................................................................................9
The Size of Ships............................................................................................................................................10
Beam to length ratios.................................................................................................10
Length .......................................................................................................................12
Beam or width at widest point ..................................................................................12
Depth and Height.......................................................................................................13
Speed and Range.............................................................................................................................................13
Provisions.......................................................................................................................................................14
Fleet Sizes.......................................................................................................................................................15
Marines, Soldiers and Armed Oarsmen..........................................................................................................17
Armament of Ships.........................................................................................................................................18
What was Greek Fire? ................................................................................................19
Fighting Equipment used by the crew of a Dromon.................................................20
Tactics.............................................................................................................................................................21
Appendix: Ship Speeds in Antiquity and the Middle Ages............................................................................22
References.......................................................................................................................................................23
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Introduction

The Christian Roman Empire of the Greeks with its capital at Constantinople is known
today as the Eastern or Byzantine Empire. Its people knew it as Romania [Gk ‘Ρωµανι
α], the Empire of the Romans. They called themselves Romans [Gk ‘Ρωµαιοι,
Rhomaioi). The word ‘Greek’ was used only by Westerners.
In the West the Frankish kings also claimed to be emperors. The first was
Charlemagne in AD 800. Thereafter one or other of the contending Frankish kings
assumed the title emperor of the Romans (imperator Romanorum) when from time to
time the Latin patriarch (called “Pope”) agreed, or was forced, to crown him as such. The
Pope crowned Arnulph of Carinthia, the Carolingian king of East Francia (today’s
Germany), as emperor in 896. In 901 he crowned as emperor the King of (Frankish)
Italy, Hludwig [Louis] III ‘the Blind’.

In AD 900 the whole southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea had for centuries been
Muslim lands. The Aghlabid emir, nominally recognising the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad,
ruled Tunisia and Sicily, except for the north-east of that island. There a number of towns
remained in the hands of the Greeks. The Eastern Empire had lost Malta to the Arabs in
869 (Ahmad p.15; Brincat 1995). Crete (Arabic Ikritis) was ruled by an independent
emir, while Cyprus was a kind of condominium or no man’s land sitting between the
Empire and the Abbasid Caliphate in the Levant. Thus the ‘Byzantine’ (Roman) navy
dominated only the northern shores of the Mediterranean. 
The pirate ships from the Emirate of Crete had been brought almost to check by 900.
From time to time, however, the Cretans would still launch naval raids deep into the
northern Aegean.
In the West, although the Muslims ruled most of Sicily, the Christians—Byzantium,
along with its allies among the coastal towns of the lower mainland—still controlled both
sides of the Straits of Messina at the toe of the Italian ‘boot’. This did not, however,
prevent Muslim fleets from Palermo raiding to the coasts of Calabria, Campania and
Latium. Indeed the Saracens sacked the suburbs of Rome in 846,
Apulia – the back heel of Italy – together with the Ionian Islands on the west of what is
now Greece made up the Byzantine “Theme” (thema, military province) of Cephalonia.
Thus the Empire also controlled the mouth of the Adriatic.
In the northern Adriatic the contending naval powers included not only Byzantium but
also the small republic of Venice and various Slavic tribes along what is now the Croatian
coast. A Theme of Dalmatia, with its seat at Zadar (Zara) on the north Dalmatian coast
nearer Venice, is first mentioned in 870. This signals the return of imperial authority after
a period of Frankish rule and then autonomy. By 871 all of Romance-speaking Dalmatia*
again acknowledged Byzantine suzerainty. But this suzerainty was loose: the emperor
agreed that the Dalmatian towns could, instead of paying taxes to the imperial governor
(strategos), pay “protection” money to the neighbouring Slavic rulers (Harris 2003: 34).
The chief pirates’ nest or base was at the mouth of the Narenta (Neretva) River, which
gave its name to the ‘Narentine’ pirates. Their land, located in what is now Croatian
Dalmatia below Split, was also called “Pagania”. The main town was Mokro, modern 
Makarska, between Split and Dubrovnik. As with the Byzantines and later the Turks,
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Venice entertained both commercial and warlike relations with the ‘Paganians’, the doge
Pietro I Candiano having perished in an encounter with them in 887.

(*) The Byzantine citizens of Croatia spoke Dalmatian, a language related to the Italian
tongues, rather than Greek or Slavic. To simplify, wecna say that Slavic was sppoek in
the hinterland, Dalmatian in the towns and Greek in the citadels.

Lower Greece and the Cyclades were imperial domains, while, as we have said, Crete
was under Muslim rule (map in Treadgold 1995: 209). Thus the lower Aegean was a
frontline in the contest between Christianity and Islam.
Rhodes and Asia Minor were ruled by Constantinople. Cyprus was shared between the
Greek empire and the Arab caliphate. Both Greek and Arab tax collectors had operated on
Cyprus since the seventh century.

There were at least 28 major naval engagements across the Mediterranean from AD 800
to 1000. The Christians - mainly the Greeks but on occasion the Italians - won 16, the
Muslims 12 (Pryor 1988: 104). But strategically the contest had already gone to the
Muslims because they took control of most of the key islands along the trunk routes, or
what used to be the main sea lanes, of Antiquity: east-west trade largely ceased by AD
700. Byzantium lost, or it began to lose, Crete from 825 and western Sicily from 827;
eastern Sicily including Syracuse held out until 878. But after that the tide of naval war
turned back in favour of the Empire.
With renewed prosperity, the emperors could afford to enlarge their sea forces.
Between 842 and 900 the numbers of oarsmen enrolled in the navy more than doubled,
from 14,600 to 34,200. And to arm the new additional ships further marines were
recruited: in about AD 870 the Imperial (central) Fleet at Constantinople received its own
dedicated troops in the form of 4,000 new marines (Treadgold 1995: 66, 197 etc). Three
major expeditions were sent to conquer the piratical Emirate of Crete: in 911, 949 and
960-61. The first two were botched, the last was successful (Treadgold 1997: 494 ff).

Vessels and Crews in AD 900

Oarsmen (Gk kopelatoi) were salaried professional or semi-professional seamen, which is


to say: not amateur civilians who volunteered their time, and certainly not slaves.
Marines (polemistai) and ordinary oarsmen were paid nine nomismata (gold coins) per
year. The higher ranks obviously received more, e.g. ships’ masters (“centarchs of the
ships”: two per vessel) and pilots or helmsmen (protokaraboi) were paid 72 nomismata
per year (Treadgold 1995: 128, 131 etc).
Marines, like land soldiers, also had other income, namely as the holders of tax-free
military lands, typically a good-sized holding of 432 modii [35 hectares], which they sub-
let to tenant farmers (peasants).* A marine was more of a soldier than a farmer, however,
since his holding was large enough for him to afford to have his relatives, tenants and
hired hands run it for him when necessary. The marine (or in the case of an older men, his
son) was able to devote the larger part of a year to military training and exercises and/or
fighting in naval expeditions, with minimal time living with his family and managing the
farm.
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It is unclear how many, if any, of the oarsmen farmed plots of state land. Evidently the
rowers who manned the Imperial (central) Fleet did not; but perhaps some oarsmen in the
maritime Themes were peasant farmers or fishermen (Treadgold 1995: 173 ff).

(*) A peasant who had 50-100 modii (over four hectares) was considered well-
established.

Province or Fleet Name Main Base Number of   Oarsmen Marines


ships
(guesstimates: 
Note 1) 

Imperial (central) Fleet Constantinople 245 [note 2] 19,600 4,000 


[formed in 
AD 870]

Theme of the  Attalia  72 5,710 1,000


Cibyrrhaeots [southern 
Asia Minor]

Theme of Samos [created  Samos [in the  50 3,980 600


AD 844; or perhaps as  south­east 
late as 882] Aegean]

Theme of the [northern]  Mytilene on  33 2,610 400


Aegean  Lesbos 
(probably)

Theme of Hellas [our  Thebes 28 2,300 Nil [Note 3]


eastern Greece]

Totals 428 34,200 6,000

Adapted from Treadgold 1995: 67, 76, passim.

Note 1: Using the numbers of oarsmen, we calculate the number of ships by assuming 
that three­quarters are 100­oar galleys and one­quarter are 50­oar galleys.

Note 2: Naval squadrons were posted in some of the non­maritime Themes. For example 
the squadron stationed in Calabria seems to have had seven ships in 929 (Runciman 
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1933/1975: 153, citing Ibn Adari).

Note 3: Whittow (see later) proposes that the Thematic troops of Hellas included 700 
marines.

Ship Types and Crew Sizes

The ships of the Byzantine navy were mainly war-galleys called dromons or ‘dromonds’,
from the Greek for ‘racers’, ‘runners’, ‘couriers’ (Gk dromein, ‘to run’). This term
appears already in the historian Procopius (fl. AD 550).
Our word “galley” comes from—less likely—the late Latin galea (literally ‘helmet of
cat or weasel skin’) or—more probably—from the Byzantine Greek galaia (plural galeai
or galaiai). This seems to have been a variant of Greek galeos, ‘dogfish, small shark,
galeoid shark, swordfish’. The dogfish is a galeoid shark with weasel-like markings.
Others trace the name to the Greek for ‘rockling’ or ‘cat-fish’ {?catshark?}; also galê
‘ferret, marten, weasel, cat’, with the connotation of speedy. The Byzantine term
originally denoted a small, light fast war-dromon; the name galaia appears in the 900s
(Toynbee 1973: 332; Bondioli et al., in Gardiner ed., 2004: 175; “galeoid”: R S Lopez
1976: 82).
Sails were used as well as oars. Dromons relied on oars for their tactical manoeuvring.
Sails—two, sometimes three, “lateen” (triangular) sails—were used for cruising when the
direction of the wind was suitable.

While most dromons were biremes (two levels of oars on either side), there may have
been some larger triremes. Pryor & Jeffreys will allow that “just possibly” there were
some large trireme galleys (Dromon p.192). But George Makris, probably correctly,
believes that in the Middle Ages there were no vessels with three banks of oars on either
side. Although the Byzantine writers do often refer to warships as triremes, he proposes
that the usage is an archaism (Makris, p.10).
The largest dromon crew known is 300: 230 ships-crew* and 70 marines. There were
also smaller monoremes, i.e. with 25 oarsmen on either side, which were fast and light
ships used for scouting. As we have said, these latter were called ghalaía or galeia (plural
galeai: possibly ‘cat-fish’), whence comes our word ‘galley’ (Toynbee 1973: 332; Pryor
in Gardiner 2004: 102, 105, 106).

(*) At least 200 rowers (up to 216: two ousia) and up to 30 non-rowers, i.e. siphon
operators, a trumpeter, helmsmen, bow-hands, servants, aides and the captains (two per
ship). On one hypothesis the bottom banks had just one rower [27 x 5 = 54 x 1 rower =
54 rowers], while the upper banks were allocated three men per oar [27 x 2 x 3 rowers =
112].

i. Small Galleys (50 oars)
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Small light galleys are named generically as dromones by emperor Leo VI, acc. AD 886.
As noted, their more specific name was galaiai or galeai. They were used mainly for
scouting purposes, but evidently they could also be used as fighting craft in the line of
battle (Dromon pp.190, 284 etc).
Galeai were 50-oar monoremes, i.e. with a single row of 25 oars on either side. One
such 50-oared galley has recently been excavated at Yenikapi (the ancient Harbour of
Theodosius) in Istanbul. It is 30 metres long and nine metres wide (Saudi Aramco World,
2009). Noting the large beam, it is likely that the Yenikapi ship was a civilian trader
rather than a warship.
If galeai were capable of fighting in battle, then probably the 50 rowers all rowed from
below deck for better protection. A naval battle between small single-row oared boats is
mentioned in the Romaic hunting manual dating from the 11th C. called ‘the Cynegetica
of Pseudo-Oppian’: Venice, Bib. Marciana, cod. Gr. 479.

Illustrations

On the Internet, perhaps the best image of a small, single-sail dromon can be found at
‘Oströmisches Kriegsschiff’: http://home.arcor.de/accra/kriegsschiff.html; accessed 2009.
Also here: http://www.mlahanas.de/greeks/medieval/war/thdromon1.jpg; accessed 2008.
Good drawings are also available in book form in Gardiner 2004 and Pryor & Jeffreys’
Dromon.

iia. Chelandia Ousiaka (100 oars) - the second-class or ordinary smaller dromons

“Chelandion”, plural chelandia, means simply “eel-shaped thing”, i.e. any long thin
vessel (from the Gk kheli, egkhelys, ‘eel’).
The Ousiako—called (plural) chelandia ousiaka in AD 949—used to be considered a
type of vessel. The current thinking is that an ousia was not a type of ship but rather just a
reference to the standard complement of 108 (or 110) crew for a warship. Thus a
chelandion ousiako took its name from one company or Ousia (‘entity, unit,
complement’) of 100 oarsmen. Adding officers and others, the total on board came to
108-110* men (Toynbee 1973: 332; Pryor in Gardiner 2004: 103; Pryor & Jeffreys 2006:
255, 450 etc).
So chelandion ousiako was simply another name for the smaller type of two-banked
galley or dromon: two sets of 25 oars (50) on both sides of the ship, one man for each oar.
The lower rank rowed only, while the upper rank would either row or disengage to fight
when required.

(*) The better-documented Franco-Sicilian (Angevin) galleys of the late 1200s had crews
totalling 152: 108 oarsmen, 36 marines, four helmsmen [operating two steering oars: two
per oar], two ship’s boys and two masters.

iib. Chelandia Pamphylia (100 oars): the smaller dromon crewed by first-class or
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‘picked-crew’ seamen. This was the type that formed an admiral’s flagship.

The Pamphylos, in 949 called (plural:) chelandia pamphyla, likewise used to be regarded
as the name of type of ship: a fast two-banker, with a crew of between 120-160 (or 120-
150). More recently Pryor & Jeffreys, Dromon p. 191 ff and 260, have argued that
pamphyloi were so-named because they were crewed by picked rowers, rather than being
a specific type of vessel. They note that it was not specified how many of the 130 or 160
men were oarsmen and how many were non-rowing marines.
The figures for oarsmen range from 100 to 110 (i.e. around 108 men) and 120 or 130 to
160 for total crews. The difference was represented by officers, helmsmen and soldiers or
marines.

The galleys called ‘pamphylia’ were able to be used as horse-transports, or at least they
were originally designed as transports and afterwards also used in battle or evolved to
become war-galleys. Thus a chelandion was not as slim or as fast as a dromon proper.
Probably they had more depth in the hold and were wider in the ‘beam’, i.e. width at
widest point.* They were emulated in the Latin West and in the Muslim world, in both
roles, as early as the ninth century (Dromon pp.325, 449 etc).
Describing the Cretan expedition of 961, Leo says that “he [the Byzantine commander
Nicephorus Phocas] had brought ramps with him [to Crete] on the transport ships and
thus transferred the army, fully armed and mounted, from the seas to dry land” (Leo Diac.
I:3).

(*) The beam at the wale [highpoint of the hull] was up to five metres in Italian horse-
transporter galleys of the 13th Century (Gardiner 2004: 115).

In the expedition to Crete in AD 911 there were two types of Pamphylia with,
respectively, 160 and 130 men. By contrast, in the 949 expedition the two types had
crews of 150 and 130 men (Toynbee 1973: 332).
The actual ship had 100 oars; the extra men were on the upper level and some or all of
them were probably available to row and/or fight.

Rautman p.211 reproduces a drawing from Unger’s The Ship in the Middle Ages (1980)
which shows a relatively wide-looking bireme vessel. Indeed some writers - see below -
have argued that Byzantine galleys may have been as wide as 10 metres. As noted earlier,
one of the galleys found at Yenikapi in Istanbul was nine metres wide.

iii. The Dromon Proper 
The narrower-bodied War Galleys

By the Macedonian Age (from the late 800s), the term dromõn had become a generic for
any war galley that could take its place in the line of battle. By the 10th century, the
standard Byzantine war galley was a bireme. Thus we may speak of the pure, non-horse-
transporting narrow large galley (4 x 25) as the “dromon proper” (Pryor & Jeffreys
pp.192, 411 etc).
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The large dromon sometimes had three lateen sails but more usually two (Dromon
p.448). Good illustrations can be found in the Time-Life book, 1989 (photograph of a
scale model), in Gardiner 2004, and in Pryor & Jeffreys.

In one configuration the dromon proper—also, by AD 800, generically (and confusingly)


called a chelandion—had a rowing crew of 100. There were two banks of oars with 25
benches in each file, one bank being rowed from below deck (Dromon p.448). To these
were added captains: two per ship, helmsmen, bow-hands, a trumpeter, siphon operators
and marines. Including marines, the total crew would reach around 160 men.
There was another configuration with a crew of 200. According to some writers, this
type had 150 rowers: 50 oarsmen on the lower bank and 100 on the upper bank in two
files, two per oar, together with 50 marines, making up the total of 200.* Others say that
200 oarsmen manned 100 oars: each of the top 25 oars was manned by three rower-
fighters (not necessarily all rowing at once) while the bottom 25 oars were each rowed by
one non-fighter oarsman. —Hocker in Gardiner 2004: 94 vs Baynes p.302. See also
Doorninck 1993.

(*) The Naumachica of emperor Leo VI, d. 912, describing “very large” dromons with
200 men, says that “50 are oarsmen at the lower level, while 150 armed men are
stationed above, ready to do battle with the enemy” (quoted in Gardiner 2004: 142).
Presumably this meant 100 rowers (50 x 4) plus 50 marines, the two top banks of
oarsmen also being fighters.

Designed for Speed: Galleys as ‘Surface Torpedoes’

See below for a discussion of the data set out in the following table.

One point to note: Byzantine galleys were sleeker than Viking longboats, or at least
sleeker than one type (the Gokstad), probably because they could afford to be: the
Mediterranean is less demanding then the Atlantic. Or perhaps Viking ships were
optimised for navigating estuaries?

Length-width
(beam) ratios:

Typical modern torpedoes: 11-14

Franco-Sicilian (Angevin Neapolitan) fast


war-galleys of 1275: 10.7

Ditto: slow military horse-transport galleys (19 10.1


oars):

Present-day submarine, viz Australian Collins


class: 10

1960s era hunter-killer submarine – UK


9

Oberon class: 9.8

Present-day frigate, US Oliver Hazard Perry


class. – But on another measure: see after this 9.1
table, modern frigates have about the same
slimness as some medieval galleys.

Present-day frigate, US Arleigh Burke class: 8.6

Byzantine dromon, Pryor & Jeffreys’ 8.9 to 6.4


estimate: (Pryor 2004
offers about
“8.0”)

Genoese horse-transport galley, AD 1246: 8.7

Present-day naval fast attack craft, i.e. German


Gepard class: 7.4

Byzantine dromon, Makris’s estimate: 6

Modern maxi-yacht: 5.7-6.0

Norse long-ship from Gokstad, ca. AD 850


(various sources): 4.7 to 4.9

Present-day naval coastal patrol boats and 4.8-5.0


minesweepers

James Cook’s Endeavour, 1770: 3.9


A very blunt-nosed ship:

Ship-wrecked Late Roman-early Byzantine 3.8


merchantman from Yassiada near Kos, the
Greek island NW of Rhodes, SE of Turkish
Bodrum, ca. AD 350:

Nelson’s warship Victory, launched 1765: 3.6

Columbus’s Santa Maria, 1492: 3

Shipwrecked Byzantine merchantman from


Serçe Limani near Rhodes, ca. AD 1025: 2.8

Slenderness

Another measure is the slenderness of the hull form, which can measured as a ratio: the
displaced volume against the length at the waterline. Specifically: (M) = length of the
waterline divided by the displacement volume to the power of 1/3 (Gardiner 2004: 128).
10

An ancient trireme was somewhat more slender than a modern naval frigate which in
turn is more slender than a medieval war galley:

(M)
15: A modern rowing ‘four’.
9: Ancient trireme: attack by ramming.
8: Modern naval frigate.
8-6.5: Medieval galleys: missile attack followed by grappling.

The Size of Ships


As a datum: the width of a rugby field is 70 metres.

Today’s small Boeing 737 twin-jet airliner is up to 36 m long: 31.1 m in the case of the
500 series, and its fuselage is 3.8-3.5 m wide – very near the dimensions of the early
medieval galley.

Beam to length ratios

It is convenient to list first the oldest-surviving exact measurements of a galley, namely


for Franco-Sicilian warships in the later 13th century. In the following paragraphs we have
interpolated in square brackets the figures for the typical Venetian galley that fought at
the latter-day Battle of Lepanto in 1571. It will be seen that 16th centiry Venetian galleys
were a little longer and significantly wider. But all galleys were tiny by modern
standards.

Sicilian galleys, 13th century: Overall length 39.30 m* [Lepanto: 42 m], keel length 28.03
m, keel depth 2.08 m. Hull width: beam or widest section 3.67 m* [Lepanto: 5.1 m]. Thus
very slim: a length-width ratio of 10.7. —Cf the somewhat wider beam of the present-
day ‘Skandia’ Super Maxi yacht, namely 4.9 m.
13th C galley: Width between ‘outriggers’, the externally mounted rowing frames on
either side:** 4.45 m [Lepanto 6.7 m]. Propulsion: 108 oars, most 6.81 m long, some
7.86 m, and two steering oars 6.03 m long. Foremast and middle mast respectively 16.08
m and 11.00 m high; circumference both 0.79 m, yard [sail] lengths 26.72 m and 17.29
m. Overall deadweight tonnage approximately 80 metric tons. This type of vessel had
two, later three, men on a bench, each working his own oar [27 oars x 4 banks = 108
oars]. —Data in Bass 1972 and John H. Pryor 1988.

(*) Pryor & Jeffreys 2006 give the figures recorded for Sicilian (Angevin) galleys of the
13th century as: length 40 m and beam 4.6 m. Gardiner 2004: 115 says Sicilian (Angevin)
and Genoese horse-transports of the 13th century were 4.1 m in beam at the wale.

(**) Not used on middle-period Byzantine galleys.

Turning to New-Roman or Byzantine vessels, we have first the estimates of George


11

Makris. Describing the largest Byzantine type, he writes: “The length of … large tenth-
century dromons has been estimated at 60 m, their breadth at 10 m, and their height from
the keel to the top of the bow and stern towers as 5–6 m. Their draft was 1.5 m. With a
displacement of more than 100 tons, these vessels could cruise at five knots and
developed a battle [or dash] speed of seven knots”. —Makris, in Laiou p.92, but citing no
specific source. This speed is probably correct noting that the fastest of the galley types,
the ancient trireme, could sustain seven knots for over eight hours and briefly dash at
over nine knots (Gardiner 2004: 129).
Makris’s “60” metres is a minority view, most writers making Byzantine craft smaller,
i.e. similar to the Sicilian example cited earlier.
For the fact is we have no actual measurements for the size of Byzantine galleys. Or
not until the recent excavations at Yenikapi in Istanbul; the biggest ship that has appeared
there so far is 40 metres (130 feet) long and dates from the sixth or seventh century
(Saudi Aramco 2009). Another smaller galley from Yenikapi was nine metres wide. The
7th Century Yassiada shipwreck likewise, although a trading ship, was up to 40 metres
long (some estimates say “30” metres) (Illsley website 2009).
Pryor & Jeffreys would make the typical Byzantine galley distinctly shorter than
Makris, say 31 m., the same length as James Cook’s Endeavour or a 500 Series Boeing
737. They offer a range for the beam (width at widest point) of 3.5 to 4.85 m for a
Byzantine dromon, i.e. generally wider than a 13th century Angevin galley but narrower
than a 16th century Venetian galley. Thus, length-width ratio of 6.4 to 8.9.
The hold of an Angevin galley, from floor to deck at centreline amidships, was 2.04 or
2.08 m deep.
For comparison, Viking longships were typically under 30 metres, averaging nearer 20
metres, deckless, and with a crew of under 80, i.e. usually fewer than 40 oars on either
side. The longest known long-ship was the Roskilde find at 35 or 36 metres (see
http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~jasen01/texts/longship.htm; accessed 2007).
Late medieval or early modern sailing ships were even tinier: Columbus’s flagship the
Santa Maria (1492) was probably not more than 18 metres long. —Phillips 1992.
The flagship of the Duke of Medina Sedonia, commander-in-chief of the Spanish
Armada in 1588, was the Portuguese galleon São Martinho. It had an overall length of
about 55 metres (180 feet) with a beam of about 12 metres (40 feet), according to the
Wikipedia authors: ‘San Martin’, 2009.
A small, slow-sailing 18th century ship, namely Cook’s Endeavour, was a little shorter
than an Angevin galley at 32 m long but with a beam (width at widest point) of about
twice that of a medieval galley, nearly nine metres. Thus the Endeavour was very blunt
and “fat” compared to a galley, i.e. length-width ratio: around 3.9. A large 18th century
vessel such as Nelson’s Victory was distinctly longer, at 57 m long, and very much wider,
with a beam of 16 m; ratio: 3.6.
Also for comparison, present-day naval coastal patrol boats, optimised for medium
speed, are of the same order as Cook’s Endeavour: 30-50 metres long with a beam of 7-9
m. Modern minesweepers, with no need for speed, cluster around 50 m in length [beam
10-11 m]. Length-width ratios of about 4.8 to 5.0.
A modest sized modern submarine such as the 1960s Oberon class is 90 x 8 x 6
metres, i.e. much longer than a galley but not much wider in the beam.
Our modern frigates are much larger again, as would be expected of vessels designed
12

for oceanic travel. They are also very slim: from 80 to 120 metres in length and beam 11-
12 m. Length-width ratio of around 8 or 9. That is, long enough for oceanic travel, slim
for fast combat.

Length

Hocker, in Gardiner 2004: 95, has proposed that a typical dromon was probably some six
metres or 20 ft wide and 35-40 metres long (115-130 feet). The length of the classical
trireme of Antiquity was about the same as Hocker’s guess, i.e. up to 40 metres long.
Pryor in the same text: Gardiner, ed. 2004: 105, had offered “about 31” metres long,
but only “four” metres in beam or breadth at its widest point. This represents a length-
width ratio of about 8. All galleys rode low in the water: as little as about two metres
from the gunwale [top edge of the side] to the water; hence the risk of their being
swamped in storms.

Pryor & Jeffreys (2006) in turn say that the standard Byzantine dromon was some 28.6
metres or 94 feet long at the waterline, or 31.25 metres or 102.5 feet overall, excluding
the front spur or beak (Lat. calcar, ‘trampler-down’). The beak was 6.6 metres long on
13th century Provençal galleys (Pryor in Gardiner 2004: 111).
Here the precision of the figures is puzzling: perhaps Pryor & Jeffreys estimated ‘95’
and ‘100’ feet respectively and then converted very loosely to metric?
The figures are not supplied by our written sources but are guesstimates deduced from
the need for maximum performance and the seated oarage system. In a 4 x 25 oar
configuration, the length must accommodate 25 rowers; and if we allocate one
longitudinal metre to each, we obtain the minimal figure of 25 metres; adding 2.5 metres
at the bow and stern gives us 30 metres.
For comparison, James Cook’s bark HMS Endeavour, as we have said, was 32.3
metres long. Also the largest Viking longships sometimes exceeded 30 metres, e.g. the
Danish Roskilde ship of AD 1025: 35 m. Most Norse ships, however, were under 30 m,
e.g. the early Norwegian ships from Oseberg, dated to AD 834, and from Gokstad were
22-24 m long.

Makris (as we have said) offers larger figures for the Byzantine dromon, at least for the
largest type: the length of the large tenth-century dromons, he says, was 60 metres and
their breadth 10 m. Length-width ratio: 6. Their draft [depth below the waterline] was, he
says, only 1.5 m. From underwater bottom to above-decks top, i.e. from the keel to the
top of the bow and stern towers, their height was 5–6 m. With a (small) displacement of
little more than 100 tons, these vessels could, he says, cruise at five knots [9.3 km/h] and
develop a battle speed of seven knots [13 km/h or 648 metres in three minutes].

Beam or width at widest point

As illustrated in Gardiner 2004, the bireme dromon was narrow by comparison with some
comparable modern ships such as a long-haul ocean-going naval patrol boat, but
relatively broad for an oared ship – possibly broader than a Viking long ship.
In slenderness of hull form, as we have said, the trireme of Antiquity was a little more
13

slender than a modern frigate which in turn is slightly more slender than was a dromon
(Coates in Gardiner 2004: 128). But classical triremes relied on the tactic of ramming, for
which speed was more crucial. In contrast the New-Roman or medieval Greek dromons
were fire-shooters [Greek Fire] and marine-carriers [platforms for archers].
Greek Fire was a liquid, probably distilled petroleum, projected from siphons or pump-
jets through a nozzle or nozzles that were either fixed in brass figureheads on ships or
manipulated to turn in various directions. For more on this, see later.

The body of the dromon was not straight-sided but slightly flared. Thus the beam at the
waterline was narrower—about 3.5 metres in war-dromons according to Pryor & Jeffreys
—than the beam at the deck-line (about “4.46” metres). Gardiner 2004: 95, however,
offers six metres for the beam of a Byzantine dromon. Again the largest Viking longships
also had beams of this size: Gokstad five metres.
In the case of horse-transporting chelandia or dromons, Pryor & Jeffreys guess that the
beam may have been around 4.85 metres at the deck amidships and the beam at the floor
of the hold only about 1.20 metres, i.e. wide enough, they suggest, to accommodate only
a single file of horses on the centreline (Dromon pp.324, 448 etc). This is debatable.
Italian horse-transports of the 13th century were up to five metres in beam at the deck
beams, and up to 2.2 metres deep in the hold amidships. If they could carry up to 30
horses in three files (10 x 3) (Gardiner 2004: 115), then quite possibly so could Byzantine
horse-transports in the 900s.

Depth and Height

In Byzantine galleys the height of the deck above the floor at midships was probably
about a man’s height, i.e. 1.75 metres; perhaps higher in horse-transporting chelandia: say
1.95 metres. The below-decks rowers of course sat on benches to row, but the deck was
high enough that they could traverse the hold without having to crouch severely.
The higher of the two wooden masts for the lateen sails rose to perhaps 18 metres (55
ft) above the gunwale (Dromon pp.193, 205, 325). This compares with 30+ metres of
carbon-fibre on a modern maxi-yacht.

Speed and Range


By “outwards” and “inwards” we mean in the directions respectively away from, and to,
Constantinople.

The maximum speed of a dromon was perhaps 10 knots or 18 km/h: 300 metres per
minute; but this was the ‘fighting dash’ that rowers could maintain for no more than about
20 minutes (Pryor 1988: 71).
Pryor & Jeffreys p.449 state that the average routine speed of a standard dromon under
oars in all conditions was probably around four knots [7 km/h]; Makris’ says “five”
knots. But on extended voyages they could maintain an average speed of no more than
around two knots, calculated around the clock: a 24 hour period which of course included
down-time for sleep. In other words, in 12 hours they could travel some 24-48 nautical
miles* (nm) or up to 90 km.
As noted below, the fastest speed recorded by the various ships on which the Spanish
14

trader Benjamin of Tudela travelled outwards in the late 1110s was 35 nm [65 km] per
day. A good week’s journey, if there were no rest days, was 336 nm; but 200 nm or about
375 km per week must have been more typical if rowing the whole way. When using the
sails in a fair wind, outwards speeds of up to 150 km per day were not thought
exceptional (see the Appendix to this paper).
For comparison, it is 178 nm from Constantinople to Smyrna, modern Izmir, as the
crow flies, but by sea more like 270 nm.

(*) Nautical mile (nm) = 6,080 feet = 1.15 standard miles, i.e. about 1.85 km.

Benjamin of Tudela recorded that his journey outwards from Constantinople made from
13 to 35 nm [24-65 km] per day. Along the NW coast of the Sea of Marmara from
Constantinople to Rhaidestos [some 80 miles or 70 nm] it took his ship two days, i.e. 35
nm per day. Plainly there was either calm weather or a wind from behind. It was then two
days from Rhaidestos to Kallipolis which is our Gallipoli [about 50 miles or 43 nm]: 22
nm per day. Then two days from ‘Kilia’ (Koila?) to Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, and
three days from Mytilene to the island of Chios [under 50 miles, say 40 nm]: 13 nm per
day. That looks like hard very going: perhaps rowing into the wind. Then two days (slow)
from Chios to Samos, three days (faster) from Samos to Rhodes, and four days from
Rhodes to Cyprus. Total: 18 days outwards. This compares (see Appendix) with a fast
inwards passage of 14 days in the 16th century.
Earlier, in the 9th century (around 880), the Muslim writer Haroun ibn Jahya (Yahya)
was captured by the Byzantines off Ascalon [Ashkelon] in Palestine in about 880 and
taken away to the Empire. His memoirs reveal ‘inwards’ travel times: in his case the
journey by ship from Palestine to Attalia [Antalya] in Asia Minor, capital of the
Cibyrrhaeot theme, i.e. a nearly straight ocean crossing via Cyprus, took just “three” days
(Avramea 2002: 33). As the crow flies, this represents an exceptional speed (see
benchmarks in the Appendix, e.g. the 16th century record of three days from Rhodes
outwards to Alexandria).
The imperial fleet conveying Ibn Yayha ‘inwards’ travelled so much faster than
Benjamin’s ‘outward’ maximum of 65 km per day that we must imagine that there were
very favourable winds allowing the sails of the ships to be used all the way from Ascalon
to Attalia. Similarly good rates are known from other medieval sources, e.g. Idrisi’s
“two” days outwards from Cyprus to Syrian Tripoli [12th century] and Gregoras’s “five”
days outwards from Rhodes to Alexandria [14th century], i.e. over 100 km per day
(Avramea loc. cit.) It would seem that the ships conveying Benjamin sometimes idled
along in no great rush or often had to row against the wind.

Provisions

Modern studies show that a rower needs to drink about a litre of water (one US quart) an
hour when rowing (Rautman p.212; Gardiner 2004: 220 note 12). Allowing for 12 hours
rowing [12 litres], eight hours sleeping [nil] and four hours other activity [say 4 x 0.5
litres = 2 litres], each man will need 14 litres per day. For 100 rowers: 1,400 litres. Three
days: 4,200 litres.
A standard Roman amphora contained 39 litres (41 quarts), so this level of
15

consumption would have represented the carrying of over 100 amphorae. Pryor 1988: 77
thinks that in practice the typical galley carried up to 1,500 gallons or about 6,000 litres,
i.e. up to 146 amphorae. Gardiner 2004: 220 offers an upper limit of “5,700” litres.
If the amount of water and/or wine carried was enough for three or four days, then
Byzantine galleys had a range of around 330 kilometres under oars before needing to go
to shore to replenish their water (Dromon p.449). In practice, galleys usually put in to
shore every night whenever the geography allowed (Gardiner 2004: 220).

Before we look at food on board ship, it is convenient to consider army rations from the
early period of the Empire. In seventh century Egypt land troops were given 327 gms
(one Roman pound) of meat [mutton or salt pork] and/or 654-981 gms (two-to-three
Roman pounds) of bread. Adding 327 to 654 we have 981 gms. Presumably bread was
standard, rather than hardtack biscuit, because this was a garrison army. In the sixth
century, troops elsewhere received hardtack for two days in three, bread for one day in
three, mutton for two days in three, salt pork for one day in three, and wine and sour wine
( - an additional source of joules) on alternate days (Haldon 2006a p.148).
A sea-traveller’s food in the later Byzantine period was made up as follows (averages
per day from several sets of data): 42 gms of cheese; 91 gms of pork or other salt meat*;
106 gms** of legumes; and 756 gms*** of hard, dry “biscuit” (bucellatum, hard tack):
total 995 gms. The equivalent Venetian figures from about 1320 are broadly similar: half
a litre (536 ml) of wine, 40 gms cheese, 52 gms salt pork, 98 gms beans and other
legumes and 715 gms of ‘ship biscuit’: food total 905 gms (Gardiner 2004: 221; Pryor &
Jeffreys 2006: 11). Cf also provisions for the crews of ‘French’ (Angevin Provençal) war-
galleys of the late 1200s: 2.3 litres of wine, only 20 gms legumes, 40 gms cheese, 50 gms
salt meat, and 733 gms ships’ biscuit: food total 843 gms (Pryor in Gardiner 2004: 111;
calculated using a 30 day month).

(*) Typically consumed with the legumes in the form of soup. For comparison, the beef
patty in a McDonalds Quarter-Pounder weighs 113 gms (4 oz) before cooking and 85
gms (3 oz) prepared.

(**) Equivalent to one small serve. A typical Australian can of baked beans contains 425
grams. The smallest can one encounters, e.g. Edgell’s 125 gm ‘Four Bean Mix’, sized 5.5
x 5.5 cm, fits into the palm of one’s hand.

(***) A typical loaf of bread in Australia today weighs 700 grams. One present-day
pound translates to 454 grams. The Roman pound, however, was smaller, namely 327
gms.

Fleet Sizes

As early as 852-53—before the navy was enlarged—Byzantium was able to deploy three
separate fleets totalling "300" vessels for a major naval attack on the coastal towns and
forts of Muslim (Abbasid) Egypt. This would have included a large number of
requisitioned private ships, any probably skiff-sized. Of the 300, only “100” were
(Arabic:) marakib or larger galleys (Norwich 1991: 57; Dromon p.47, citing the Arab
16

writer al-Tabari).
Again in 859 the emperor sent a large imperial fleet of “300” Ar. shalandiyyat, Gk:
chelandia: large ‘combat-transport’ galleys, under Constantine Kontomytes or
Contomites to aid his subjects in Sicily. The army landed, but was utterly defeated by
Abbas’s Sicilian Arabs, who marched from Panormos (Palermo). Then the Muslims
defeated the Greek fleet off Syracuse. The Byzantines are supposed to have lost “more
than 100” ships (Rodriquez; also Ahmad p.13).

As with the army, there was a central force, the Imperial Fleet, supplemented by
provincial fleets maintained by the several maritime Themes or regional commands.
Archival documents quoted in the De Ceremoniis of emperor Constantine VII, acc. 945,
indicate that in AD 911 the navy had about 20,000 oarsmen and 4,000 marines in the
central Imperial Fleet and about 14,000 oarsmen in the Themes (total oarsmen: “34,200”:
Treadgold 1995: 67; Haldon in Harris 2005: 75). To produce a guesstimate of the total
number of ships, let us imagine that one-sixth of the rowers maned small 50-ora galleys
(galaia), two-thirds manned the common 100-oar types and one-sixth again rowed in the
large-crew types (150 oarsmen per 100 oars). This give us 114 galaiai, 228 normal
dromons and 38 heavy dromons for a total of ‘380’.

Treadgold proposes that the Navy probably deployed a maximum of about 300 major
ships during the 9th and 10th centuries (1995: 85 note 94). This may indicate that there
were few ships of the largest type, or more likely that in specific campaigns some civilian
vessels were requisitioned and converted to fighting craft.

Nikephoros Phocas’s successful Cretan expedition of AD 960-61 was said to have


comprised a most unlikely “3,308” (sic!) vessels of all sizes, including troopships, horse-
transporters and supply boats. Treadgold 1995: 85n reads this as “307 ships” supported
by “hundreds” of small craft.
The earlier Cretan expeditions of 911 and 949 are stated to have numbered fewer than
200 ships. The sources are somewhat unclear about the number of fighting men (marines
and land-soldiers) in the 949 expedition, by they totalled at least 10,097 (4, 697 marines
and 5,400 from the Tagmata and Themes: Whittow p. 186). If we use 70 per ship as an
average, transporting them would have required 144 ships. Allowing for the escorts and
transports that have to be added, “307” is credible.

The supposed ‘3,308’ sea craft included “1,000” combat vessels of all sizes, each armed
with Greek Fire: “siphonophores”, ‘pump-bearers’. Or Pryor and Jeffreys say: 1,000
dromons, i.e. pure combat vessels [29% of the fleet]; 2,000 chelandia (fighting-
transports) also equipped with Greek Fire [60% of the fleet]; and 360 karabia or unarmed
transports [11% of the fleet] in a total of “3,360” (Dromon p.408). Warren Treadgold
guesses that most of the ‘1,000’ siphonophores were requisitioned private ships and boats
converted to military purposes (the “merchantmen” of Leo Diac. 65.20). And no doubt
the non-combat vessels included many pure sail-boats as well as oars-and-sails galleys.
Large bronze siphon-pumps were fixed in the prows of the siphonophores, and in
17

addition the marines used small cheirosiphona (“hand-pumps”) or hand-held piston-


siphons (Toynbee p.331; Partington p.15).

Marines, Soldiers and Armed Oarsmen

Both our best sources, emperor Leo VI, fl. 900, and Nikephoros Ouranos, fl. 995, make
clear that the rowers also doubled as soldiers, or at least that 150 of the 200 rowers on the
large type of dromon should be able to fight (Dromon p.255).
As we have said, the Naumachica of Leo VI, d. 912, describing “very large” dromons
with 200 men, says that “50 are oarsmen at the lower level, while 150 armed men are
stationed above, ready to do battle with the enemy” (quoted in Gardiner 2004: 142). We
also hear of crews totalling 300. This deos not meean ther were extar owars to be rowed.
There were still only four banks of 25 oars (22 x 2 x 2 = 100). The bottom two banks of
25 oars was rowed by 50 unarmed men (one man per oar); while in the upper banks there
were three armed rowers per oar (150 men). The remaining 100+ men were marines,
fire-siphoners, helmsmen and officers (or so says Hocker, in Gardiner 204: 94-95).

In the expedition of 911 to Crete, the largest dromons had 200 or 230 rowers and 70
specialist combatants (marines: polemiston, polemistai) for a total per ship of up to 300
men. Compare the figure of ‘220’ men [108 x 2 = 216 + 4, or 100 x 2 = 200 +20] , i.e.
two ousia, per Thematic (provincial) dromon in the expedition to Crete in 949 (Toynbee
1973: 332; Heath 1976: 13; Dromon p.261). This was probably made up of 200 rowers
and 20 officers, officers’ aides and servants, i.e. not including any marines. A fully-
manned large dromon probably had as many as 270 men on board. As we have said,
however, sometimes a ship’s complement reached 300.
Noting that in 949 the crews are referred to as “oarsmen, that is soldiers” (ploimoi
kopelatoi etoi kai polemistai), Pryor & Jeffreys argue that they doubled in both roles:
rowers and fighters (Dromon p.261).

The number of marines participating in the 911 expedition to Crete is presented thus by
Mark Whittow, 1996: 185:

Marines:
Mardaïtes*, from the Themes of
Epirus, Nicopolis [the Ionian 5,087
Islands] and the
Peloponnese:
Imperial [central] Fleet, marines 4,200
Kibyrrhotai [Asia Minor] fleet 1,190
Rus’ or Rhos, i.e. Norsemen from
Russia (Imperial Fleet) 700
Samos flotilla 700
Hellas flotilla 700
Aegean flotilla: 490
Subtotal 13,067
18

(*) The Mardaïtes were ‘Greeks’ 13,067 / 70 per ship =


(Rhomaioi) whose forefathers 187: This figure nicely
originated in the Levant. In AD 809 equates with the “187”
emperor Nicephorus I created new ships said to have sailed.
Themes in the Peloponnese and the
Ionian Islands by resettling 4,000
Mardaïte marines there (Treadgold
1995: 72).

In the case of the 949 expedition, we can perhaps calculate the number of fighters per
ship using emperor Constantine VII’s enumeration (see below) of the equipment carried
by a dromon of the central fleet (Gk basilikon ploimon). We assume here that the ship is a
4 x 25 bank dromon (100 oarsmen). Counting the mail hauberks (22 for those fighting at
the bow, at and above the fire-siphon); the padded surcoats (50: presumably all for
oarsmen-fighters, those manning the top banks); and the lamellar corselets (70: one per
marine), it would seem that at least 142 men, or over 3/4 of the ship’s complement of
about 180, were expected to fight in Constantine’s time.

Only 100 shields, 100 swords and 90 helmets were supplied, indicating that close-in
fighting was not undertaken by everyone. We may guess that the shields were allocated to
the marines (70), bow-fighters (22) and officers (8). If so, then the 50 oarsman-fighters
probably fought without shield or helmet, protected only by a padded surcoat
(bambakion). The bambakion, along with a thick felt turban, was the normal body-
armour of land infantry at this time.
It is not clear who used the “50” bows and “10,000” arrows (200 per bowman). The
arrows would be fired while the ship was still being rowed, indeed precisely when it was
charging to engage. So we may guess that the marines fired them, rather than the top-
bank rowers. One imagines the latter would have used the javelins and heavy pikes.
As against this, Leo and Nikephoros Ouranos state that on a larger dromon the oarsmen
of both upper and lower oar-banks (or 150 of them) were all soldiers (stratiotai), but only
those above deck (100 men) were armed as kataphrakatoi, i.e. wearing mail corselets
called lorikia and/or cuirasses of lamellar armour called klibania. By implication the
marines may have been light-armed archers.

Armament of Ships

Greek Fire, the napalm of the Middle Ages, was used for about 500 years: from AD 673
to about 1185. The last mention I have seen comes in 1173 in the aftermath of the anti-
Venetian pogroms, when Kinnamos says that the Byzantine fleet that pursued fleeing
Venetian ships across the Aegean was equipped with it. Then after 1185 the navy was run
down and effectively disbanded. The weapon was not deployed in 1203-04 against the
Venetians and Franks when they besieged Constantinople.
‘Greek Fire’ is the Western term: the East Romans called it “wet fire” or “liquid fire”
(hygron pyr), “sea fire” (pyr thalassion) and “processed” or “artificial fire” (pyr
skevaston) [Theophanes, Chronicle: AM 6164, 6218, AM 6305 etc].
19

First of all in AD 673, having learnt that the Arabs were gearing up to attack
Constantinople itself, emperor Constantine IV ordered the construction of a large fleet,
both large biremes (the chronicler Theophanes calls them “two-storied warships”) and
smaller swifter dromons, and he equipped them with metal tubes or siphons for ‘Greek
Fire’. There were small hand siphons as well as large fixed nozzle-points; and Greek Fire
was also launched from catapults and in earthenware grenades (Theophanes AM 6164,
Nicephorus and Const. Porphyr., cited by Tsangadas 1980: 111, 126, 295, cf Partington
1960).
There is an illustration of a hand-siphon in a 10th century redaction of Heron’s
Parangelmata. It shows a soldier on a flying bridge attacking the top of the walls of a
town with a hand-held flame-thrower described in the text as a “swivelling, fire-throwing,
hand-held (instrument)” (Dromon p.620).

On naval ships the main bronze siphon or force-pump for Greek Fire was placed in, or
rather above, the point of the bow. The prow had a fortified foredeck above the main
siphon (Leo Diac., cited by Toynbee 1973: 331; Partington p.18; Dromon pp.448, 611
etc).
Dromons equipped with fire-pumps had to be carefully ballasted, no doubt because
stability was essential for accuracy and safety. Leo Diaconus says they had to be
“securely steadied with ballast” (Leo Diac. 65.19 and 126.23; also Haldon 2006b).
Also in the bow was the calcar or ‘trampler-down’, a long iron or iron-clad spur or
beak, 6.6 m long in Angevin-Sicilian galleys of the 1200s. It was used primarily as an
offensive oar-breaking weapon and secondarily by the ship’s marines as a boarding ramp.
The spur was not used as a ram to directly sink the enemy ship but to ride up and over the
oars of an enemy ship, smashing them and thus disabling its power sources (Dromon
p.143). This contrasted with Antiquity when ships had blunt rams low in their noses,
designed to sink enemy galleys.
Further back there were raised wooden platforms or small “castles” (Gk xylokastro,
‘timber forts’)—say one metre high—on both sides amidships, or rather: slightly forward
of amidships, with a clearway between them. They were placed on either side of the
foremast. From these ‘castles’ the marines could shoot catapults, fire their crossbows and
arrows, and throw pots of Greek Fire etc (Dromon pp.205, 235, 448 etc). In smaller
single-masted ships, the castles may have been located in the bow (Aleertz in Gardiner
2004: 156).
The large catapults or bow-ballistae were presumably fixed on swivel-mounts of some
sort so they could be aimed. The smaller cheirotoxobolistrai or “hand-bow-ballistae”
were apparently a type of crossbow (Dromon pp.380 ff).

What was Greek Fire?

John Haldon (2006b) has carried out experiments aimed at reconstructing and testing
siphons using medieval methods and materials.
He proposes that the hand-siphon was little more than a single-piston syringe: a bronze
tube with a piston of wood and leather, probably supplied with liquid from an attached
small tank or tube-shaped reservoir.
He and his colleagues also built a large fire-projector for naval warfare in the form of a
20

two-man double-cylinder force-pump, with a reservoir for the oil (petroleum), and a
swivel nozzle of bronze that could be operated by a single individual. They found that a
fierce flame could be directed for some seconds at a target up to 15 metres away. This fits
with the tactic of ramming the enemy ship in the stern and then pumping fire over it, as
related in Anna Comnena’s Alexiad (Partington p.19).
The constituents of Greek Fire have been much debated. Being a state secret, the
ingredients were not a matter of common knowledge. One who could have known was
Anna Comnena, the historian daughter of emperor Alexius I, d. 1118. She said, without
mentioning petroleum, that “the readily combustible rosin [resin] is collected from the
pine and other similar evergreen trees and mixed with sulphur” (Alexiad XIII. 3: trans
Sewter p.402).
Haldon used unrefined crude oil (petroleum) mixed with wood resin. He found that
pre-heating the oil (while inside the reservoir) using a brazier produced a more effective
weapon because it reduced the viscosity of the oil; but this is a speculative solution as the
sources are silent on this point.
According to the 10th century manual De Administrando (DAI), the Empire drew its
supplies of petroleum from the northern foothills of the Caucasus, specifically the north-
western and Georgian districts of the Azov-Kuban sub-field of the North Caucasus field.
In the 7th century, this was Khazar territory. In what is now Georgia, a tiny Abasgian
kingdom emerged after 750. Later the region came within a larger kingdom of Iberia. By
1030 the region was divided between the pagan Alans, Christian Georgians and Jewish
Khazars – all usually Byzantine allies.

Illustrations

Various reconstructions of Byzantine ships and a hypothetical sketch by Haldon of a


push-pump can be found at: http://www.mlahanas.de/Greeks/Medieval/warfare.htm;
accessed 2009.

Fighting Equipment used by the crew of a Dromon

Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, d. 959, details the equipment carried by a


dromon of the Imperial Fleet as listed below. He also states that each dromon should
carry 70 marines in addition to oarsmen-fighters.
Here we assume that it is a 4x25 (100-oar) dromon. Adding 70 marines and 10 officers
and others, the total complement would be some 180 men.
We noted earlier that if we count the mail hauberks (22 for those fighting at the bow),
the neurikia or padded surcoats (50: presumably all for oarsmen-fighters) and the
lamellar corselets (70: one per marine), we have as many as 142, or 79% of the ship’s
complement of about 180, able to fight in Constantine’s time. On the other hand, as
noted, there were shields for only 100 men.

As we have seen, Leo and Nikephoros Ouranos record that, on a larger dromon, the
oarsmen of both upper and lower oar-banks were all soldiers (stratiotai), or at least 150
were, but only those above deck (100 men) were armed as kataphrakatoi, i.e. wearing
mail corselets called lorikia and/or lamellar cuirasses called klibania. The fighters who
21

were not fully armoured, including archers, wore padded felt jackets called neurikia
(Dromon pp.381 ff).
A ship was equipped with 70 lamellar klibania and 50 padded neurikia. The marines
would have been specialist missile-troops, perhaps wearing lamellar armour (20
crossbowmen plus 50 ordinary archers = 70). And perhaps all of the 100 shields were
used by the oarsmen-fighters, 50 of whom were allocated neurikia.

Items from most to least numerous:

a) 10,000 arrows, i.e. 200 per bowman;


b) 10,000 caltrops – small spikes laid out to cripple horses or men;
c) 200 smaller arrows (“mice”) to sting horses;
d) 100 shields, i.e. 70 sewn­leather shields and 30 ‘Lydian’ shields [one shield per 
fighter];
e) 100 javelins (Gk rhiptaria) or about one each per fighter;
f) 100 heavy pikes (menualia, menavlia);
g) 100 swords [presumably not used by archers];
h) 80 ordinary helmets; plus the 10 visored helmets listed below: total 90.
i) 80 boat­hooks or trident pikes; 
j) 70 corselets of lamellar armour (klibania) [possibly one per marine] and 22 other
corselets (12 light ones, of mail, for the siphon operators, the helmsmen and bow-
hands; and 10 others, possibly the officers: subtotal 22): total 92 corselets;
k) 50 neurikia or thick or padded surcoats [perhaps one per archer];
l) 50 Roman or ‘Byzantine’ bows;
m) 20 crossbows and spare parts; subtotal: 70 bows and crossbows.
n) 20 long-handled scythes or ‘lance-sickles’ to cut enemy rigging;
o) 10 visored helmets;
p) eight pairs of ‘vambraces’: armour to protect the forearm; and
q) four grapnels with chains.
From the De cer. of Constantine VII, cited by Heath 1976: 13; Dromon pp.285, 557.

Tactics

Naval tactics are not much discussed in the chronicles and other sources. It is clear,
however, that the standard or default formation was the line abreast in a shallow,
crescent-moon semi-circle. The stronger and larger dromons were placed in the middle of
the line. Lines of two or four deep were usual in Antiquity (Gardiner 2004: 59); but what
the practice was in AD 950, we do not know.
One of the classic battle tactics was to disorganise an enemy’s formation by feigning
flight until the enemy’s ships in pursuit became strung out. Then further reinforcements
would be sent in, or the line would turn around in formation and overwhelm the
disorganized enemy ships one by one (Dromon p.400).
The initial phase would be a missile exchange at a distance. First they would fire the
large catapults, then crossbows, ordinary bows and finally javelins. As noted, in the
Cretan expedition of 949, some ships carried 20 crossbows or ‘hand-held bow-ballistae’,
22

50 bows, and 100 javelins.


Greek Fire had a limited range and required both calm conditions and a following
wind. As we have noted, the spur in the ship’s bow was not designed to puncture a hull
and sink an enemy ship but rather to destroy its motive power by smashing its oars. Thus,
rather than manoeuvering to obtain a position to ram and sink as in Antiquity, in
Byzantine times the aim was to degrade an enemy ship’s ability to resist. Then it could be
grappled, boarded and captured. It was hand-to-hand combat with pike and sword that
finally decided the outcome (Dromon pp.384, 403 etc).

* * *

Appendix: Ship Speeds in Antiquity and the Middle Ages

‘Inwards”: in the direction of Constantinople.

Route Miles Kilometres Days Km Per Day

Favourable
conditions:

Alexandria to Ephesus: 475 765 4.5 170


inwards

Messina (Sicily) to 830 1,335 6 or 7 days 190


Alexandria:

Average runs in
Antiquity:

Rhodes to Alexandria: 325 525 3.5 150


outwards

Byzantium = 445 715 5 145


Constantinople to
Rhodes: outwards

Unfavourable
conditions:

Gaza to Byzantium 855 1,375 20 70

Rhodes to Gaza 410 660 7 95

16th century record


crossings:

Rhodes to Alexandria: 325 525 3 (good 175


outwards Levantine
winds)
23

Cyprus (Nicosia) to na na 14 days


Constantinople: (poor Aegean
inwards winds)

Sources:

Lionel Casson, Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World Princeton 1971, pp. 220 ff.

Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean . . . in the Time of Philip II NY 1972 I, pp. 358 ff.

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-ends-