Byzantine navy

Infobox War Faction
name= Byzantine Navy
war= the Justinianic Wars, the Byzantine-Arab Wars, the Rus'-Byzantine Wars, the Crusades and the Byzantine-Ottoman wars


caption=
active= 330 - 1453 AD
ideology=
leaders= Byzantine Emperor (Commander-in-chief)
"Megas droungarios",
"Megas doux" (after 11th century)
headquarters=Constantinople
area= Mediterranean Sea, Danube, Black Sea
strength= ca. 42,000 men in 899.Treadgold (1995), p. 67]
ca. 300 warships in 9th-10th centuries.Treadgold (1995), p. 85]
partof= Byzantine Empire
previous= Roman Navy
allies= Venice, Genoa, Pisa, Crusader states, Emirate of Aydın
opponents= Vandals, Ostrogoths, the Caliphate and Saracen pirates, Slavs, Rus', Normans, Genoa, Venice, Pisa, Crusader states, Seljuks, Anatolian Turkish Beyliks, Ottomans
The Byzantine navy comprised the naval forces of the Byzantine Empire. Like the empire it served, it developed directly from its earlier imperial Roman counterpart, but in comparison with it, its role in the defense and survival of the state was far greater. While the fleets of the Roman Empire faced no great naval threats and operated as a policing force, vastly inferior in power and prestige to the legions, the sea was vital to the very existence of Byzantium, which several historians have called a "maritime empire". [Lewis & Runyan (1985), p. 20] Throughout its history, the Empire had to defend a long coastline, often with little hinterland. In addition, shipping was always the quickest and cheapest way of transport, and the Empire's major urban and commercial centers, as well as its most fertile areas, lay close to the sea.Mango (2002), p. 197] Nevertheless, the nature and limitations of the maritime technology of the age meant that the Byzantines could not develop a true thalassocracy. Combined with the traditional predominance of the great Anatolian land-holders in the higher military and civil offices, this meant that the navy, even at its height, was still regarded largely as an adjunct to the land forces, a fact clearly illustrated by the relatively lowly positions its admirals held in the imperial hierarchy. [Pryor (2003), pp. 103-104]

With the Muslim conquests from the 7th century onwards, the Mediterranean Sea ceased being a "Roman lake" and became a battleground between Byzantines and Arabs. Not only were the Byzantine fleets critical in the defense of the Empire's far-flung possessions around the Mediterranean basin, but they also played a major role in the defense of the imperial capital of Constantinople from seaborne attacks. Through the use of "Greek fire", the Byzantine navy's best-known and feared secret weapon, Constantinople was saved from several sieges and numerous naval engagements were won for the Byzantines. Thus, by the early 9th century, the Byzantine navy, a well-organized and maintained force, was again the dominant maritime power in the Mediterranean. The antagonism with the Muslim navies continued until the 11th century, during which the navy, like the Empire itself, began to decline.

From that point on, the Byzantines were forced more and more to rely on the navies of allied Italian city-states like Venice and Genoa, with disastrous effects on their economy and sovereignty. Several emperors tried to revive the navy during the 12th-14th centuries, but their efforts had only a temporary effect. By the mid-14th century, the Byzantine fleet, that once could field hundreds of warships, was limited to a few dozen at best.I. Heath (1995), p. 17] Nevertheless, the diminished Byzantine navy survived and continued to be active until the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Ottomans in 1453.

History

Early period

4th-5th centuries

The Byzantine navy, like the East Roman or Byzantine Empire itself, was a continuation of the Roman Empire and its institutions. Ever since the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, and in the absence of any external threat, the Roman navy in the Mediterranean performed mostly policing and escort duties. The Roman fleets were therefore composed of relatively small vessels, best suited to these tasks. Massive sea battles, as those fought in the Punic Wars, did not occur, with the exception of periods of civil war. In such an occasion in 324 AD, the Emperor Constantine the Great defeated a fleet of 350 triremes of the Eastern Emperor Licinius with a fleet of 200 liburnians.J. Norwich (1990), pp. 48-49] Nevertheless, by that point the permanent Roman fleets had dwindled to the point that these engagements were carried out mostly by commandeered ships from the port cities of the Eastern Mediterranean.Casson (1991), p. 213] Henceforth, and until the early 6th century, fleets would be gathered in an "ad hoc" basis.

During the 5th century, Rome's naval hegemony in the Mediterranean was threatened by the powerful navy of the Vandalic Kingdom of Carthage (428-534). Under the capable king Geiseric, the Vandals carried out devastating raids against the coasts of Italy and Greece. The Western Empire was impotent, its navy dwindled to almost nothing, [MacGeorge (2002), pp. 306-307] but the eastern emperors could still call upon the resources and naval expertise of the Eastern Mediterranean. A huge expedition was assembled under Basiliscus against the Vandals in 468, reputedly numbering 1,113 ships and 100,000 men, but it failed disastrously. About 600 ships were lost, and the financial cost of 130,000 pounds of gold and 700 pounds of silver nearly bankrupted the Empire.J. Norwich (1990), p. 166] This forced the Empire to come to terms with Geiseric, signing a peace treaty. After Geiseric's death in 477 however, the Vandal threat receded.

6th century

In 513, the "magister militum per Thracias", Vitalian, revolted against Emperor Anastasius I. The rebels assembled a fleet of some 200 ships, but after a few successes, they were destroyed by admiral Marinus, who employed an incendiary substance (possibly an early form of Greek fire) to defeat them."Age of the Galley", p. 90] In 533, an army of 15,000 under Belisarius was transported to Africa by an invasion fleet of 92 dromons and 500 transports (the entire fleet was manned by 30,000 men),J. Norwich (1990), p. 207] beginning the Vandalic War, the first of Justinian's Wars of Reconquest. These were largely made possible by the control of the Mediterranean waterways, and the fleet played a vital role in carrying supplies and reinforcements to the widely dispersed Byzantine expeditionary forces and garrisons. This fact was not lost on the Byzantines' enemies, and the Ostrogoth king Totila created a fleet of 400 warships with which to deny the seas around Italy, then in the throes of the Gothic War, to the Empire. In 545, General Belisarius personally commanded 200 ships against the Gothic fleet that blockaded the mouths of the Tiber, in order save Rome.J. Norwich (1990), p. 77] In 550 Totila invaded Sicily, and in the next year, his fleet captured Sardinia and Corsica, and raided Corfu and the coast of Epirus. However, a defeat at Sena Gallica marked the beginning of the final Imperial ascendancy. With the final conquest of Italy and southern Spain under Justinian, the Mediterranean once again became a Roman lake.

The only major naval action fought for the next 80 years was during the Siege of Constantinople by the Sassanid Persians and Avars/Slavs in 626. The Slavs' fleet of "monoxyla" was intercepted by the Byzantine fleet and destroyed, denying the Persian army passage across the Bosporus and eventually forcing the Avars to retreat.J. Norwich (1990), pp. 259-297]

The struggle against the Arabs

The emergence of the Arab naval threat

During the 640s, the Muslim conquest of Syria and Egypt created a new threat, as the Arabs not only conquered significant recruiting and revenue-producing areas, but, after the utility of a strong navy was demonstrated by the short-lived Byzantine recapture of Alexandria in 644, they took to creating a navy of their own. In this effort, the Arabs used the manpower of the conquered Levant, which until a few years ago had provided ships and crews for the Byzantines. As a result, and because of a shared Mediterranean maritime tradition and mutual interactions in the subsequent centuries, the Arab ships were very similar to their Byzantine counterparts. ["Age of the Galley", pp.94-95] This similarity also extended to tactics and general fleet organization, with translations of Byzantine military manuals being available to the Arab admirals."Age of the Galley", p.98]

After seizing Cyprus in 651, the young Arab navy decisively defeated the Byzantines under the personal command of Emperor Constans II in the Battle of the Masts of 655, destroying 500 Byzantine ships, and began a centuries-long series of naval conflicts over the control of the Mediterranean waterways. [Lewis & Runyan (1985), p. 24] During this period, the Byzantine fleet proved instrumental to the survival of the Empire: through the use of its feared secret weapon, the "Greek fire", the first Arab Siege of Constantinople ended in failure when the Byzantines defeated the Arab navy in the Battle of Syllaeum, saving the Empire and halting the Muslim advance. In the 680s, under Justinian II, great care was shown to the navy, which was strengthened by the resettlement of over 18,500 Mardaites in the Empire, where they were employed as marines and rowers. [Treadgold (1995), p. 72]

Nevertheless, the Arab naval threat intensified as they gradually took control of North Africa. [Lewis & Runyan (1985), p. 27] The last Byzantine stronghold, Carthage, fell in 698, although a Byzantine naval expedition managed to briefly retake it. The loss of Africa meant that soon, Byzantine control of the western Mediterranean was challenged by a new Arab fleet operating from Tunisia.J. Norwich (1990), p. 334]

The Byzantine counter-offensive

In 718, the second and last Arab siege of Constantinople failed, again through the use of Greek fire, which caused great losses and fear to the besiegers. In its aftermath, the retreating Arab fleet was decimated in a storm, after which Byzantine forces launched a counteroffensive.J. Norwich (1990), pp. 352-353] For the next half-century, naval warfare featured constant raids from both sides. In 727, a revolt of the thematic fleets, largely motivated by resentment against the Emperor's iconoclasm, was put down by the imperial fleet through use of Greek fire.Treadgold (1997), p. 352] Despite the losses this entailed, twenty years later, aided for the first time by ships from the Italian city-states, the Byzantines decisively defeated the combined Syrian and Alexandrian fleets, breaking the naval power of the Umayyad Caliphate. Together with the collapse of the Ummayyad state shortly thereafter, this victory ushered the second period of complete Byzantine naval superiority in the Mediterranean."Age of the Galley", p.91] The resurgent Byzantine navy inspired respect and fear in its opponents: to stand watch on the coasts of Syria, guarding against a raid by the Byzantine fleet, was deemed by the Muslims more pious an act than a night of prayer in the Kaaba. [Bashear, Suliman: "Apocalyptic and Other Materials on Early Muslim-Byzantine Wars: A Review of Arabic Sources," JRAS, 1991, pp. 173-207] This supremacy was further ensured by the destruction of the North African flotillas, and coupled with severe trading limitations imposed on Muslim traders, which, given the Empire's ability to control the waterways, strangled Muslim maritime trade. [Lewis & Runyan (1985), p. 27]

These successes enabled Emperor Constantine V to shift the fleet from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea during his campaigns against the Bulgars in the 760s. In 763, a fleet of 800 ships carrying 9,600 cavalry and some infantry sailed to Anchialus, where he scored a significant victory, but in 766, a second fleet, allegedly of 2,600 ships, again bound for Anchialus, sank "en route". [Mango (2002), p. 141]

Renewed Muslim ascendancy

As far as ships are concerned, according to numbers provided by Constantine Porphyrogenitus, in 949 the Imperial Fleet alone mustered 100, 150 or 250 ships (the numbers depend on the interpretation of the Greek text). [M. MacCormick (2002), pp. 413-414] Accepting a number of 150, historian Warren Treadgold extrapolates a total, including the four naval themes, of ca. 240 warships, a number which was increased to 307 for the Cretan expedition of 960-961. The latter number probably represents the approximate standing strength of the entire Byzantine navy (including the smaller flotillas) in the 9th and 10th centuries.

Rank structure

Naval themes were organized much the same way as their land bound counterparts: the "droungarios" stood at the head, assisted by a deputy called "topotērētēs" and the "prōtonotarios", who headed the civilian administration of the theme. Further staff officers were the "chartoularios" in charge of the fleet administration, the "prōtomandatōr" ("head messenger"), who acted as chief of staff, and a number of staff "komētes" ("counts"), including a "komēs tēs hetaireias", who commanded the bodyguard of the "droungarios".Treadgold (1995), pp. 104-105] Squadrons of ships were commanded by a "komēs" or "droungarokomēs", and each ship's captain was called "kentarchos" ("centurion"), "nauarchos", or, more archaically, "triērarchos" or "kybernētēs"."Age of the Galley", p. 97] The marine infantry ranks followed those of the army.

Each ship's crew, depending on its size, was composed of one to three "ousiai" (polytonic|ούσίαι, sing. polytonic|ούσία) of ca. 110 men each. The rowers of the upper level were also expected to fight in a boarding action, and were therefore specially picked and equipped with light armor. Under the captain, there was the "bandophoros", who acted as executive officer, two helmsmen called "prōtokaraboi" ("heads of the ship") and a bow officer, the "prōreus". There were also a number of specialists on board, such as the two bow oarsmen and the "siphōnatores", who worked the siphons used for discharging the Greek fire.

Late period (1080s – 1453)

The reforms of the Komnenoi

After the decline of the navy in the 11th century, Alexios I rebuilt it on different lines. The thematic fleets vanished, and their remnants were amalgamated into a unified imperial fleet, under the new office of the "megas doux". The "megas droungarios" of the fleet, once the overall naval commander, was subordinated to him, acting now as his principal aide. [Plakogiannakis (2001), p. 244] The "megas doux" was also appointed as overall governor of southern Greece (the old "themata" of Hellas and the Peloponnese), which was divided into districts ("oria") that supplied the fleet. [Haldon (1999), p. 144; Magdalino (2002), pp. 234-235] Under John II, the Aegean islands also became responsible for the maintenance, crewing and provision of warships, and contemporary sources took pride in the fact that the great fleets of Manuel's reign were crewed by "native Romans", although use was made of mercenaries and allied squadrons. [Haldon (1999), p. 96; Magdalino (2002), p. 233]

Later, in the 13th century, another high rank, that of "amiralios" (polytonic|ἀμιράλιος or polytonic|ἀμιράλης) was introduced, being third in the hierarchy after the "megas doux" and the "megas droungarios". [Plakogiannakis (2001), pp. 245-246]

The navy of Michael VIII Palaiologos

With the decline of the Byzantine fleet after 1185, the Empire increasingly relied on the fleets of Venice and Genoa. Alongside the mistrusted Italian city-states, with whom alliances shifted regularly, mercenaries were increasingly employed in the last centuries of the Empire, often rewarded for their services with fiefs. Most of these mercenaries, like Giovanni de lo Cavo (lord of Anafi and Rhodes), Andrea Moresco (successor of de lo Cavo in Rhodes) and Benedetto Zaccaria (lord of Phocaea), were Genoese, to whom the Byzantines were often allied. Under Michael VIII, for the first time a foreigner, the Italian privateer Licario, became "megas doux" and was given Euboea as a fief. [Bartusis (1997), p. 60]

After regaining Constantinople in 1261, Michael VIII initiated a great effort to rebuild a "national" navy, forming a number of new corps to this purpose: the "Gasmouloi" (Polytonic|Γασμοῦλοι), who were men of mixed Greek-Latin descent living around the capital; and colonists from Laconia, called "Lakōnes" (Λάκωνες, "Laconians") or "Tzakōnes" (Τζάκωνες), were used as marines, and formed the bulk of Byzantine naval manpower in the 1260s and 1270s. [Bartusis (1997), pp. 44-45] Michael also set the rowers, called "Prosalentai" or "Prosēlontes", apart as a separate category. [Bartusis (1997), p. 46] All these groups received small grants of land to cultivate in exchange for their service, and were settled together in small colonies. [Bartusis (1997), p. 158] The "Prosalentai" were settled near the sea throughout the northern Aegean, [Bartusis (1997), pp. 46-47] while the "Gasmouloi" and "Tzakōnes" were settled mostly around Constantinople and in Thrace. These corps remained extant, albeit in a diminished form, throughout the 14th century (the last mention of the "Prosalentai" is in 1361, and of the "Gasmouloi" as late as 1422).I. Heath (1995), p. 17]

hips

The main warship of the Byzantine navy was the dromon (δρόμων). A derivation of the light liburnian galleys of the imperial Roman fleets, the term first appeared in the 6th century, during the wars of Justinian, to describe fast ships with a single row of oars. During the next few centuries, as the naval struggle with the Arabs intensified, heavier versions with two or possibly even three banks of oars evolved."Age of the Galley", p. 102] Eventually, the term was used as a general reference for "warship", and in a specific sense as an alternative name for the heaviest class of warships, the "chelandion"."Age of the Galley", p. 94]

By the 10th century, there were three main classes of two-banked ("bireme") warships: the "ousiakos" (Polytonic|οὑσιακός), so named because it was manned by an "ousia" of 108 men, the "pamphylos" (πάμφυλος), which was crewed with up to 120-160 men, and the "chelandion" (χελάνδιον), with a crew of up to three "ousiai". ["Age of the Galley", pp. 94-95] The largest known crew comprised 230 rowers and 70 marines."Age of the Galley", p. 106] A smaller, single-bank ship, the "monērēs" (μονήρης, "single-banked") or "galea" (γαλέα, from which the term "galley" derives), with ca. 60 men as crew, was used for scouting missions."Age of the Galley, p. 105] Three-banked ("trireme") dromons are described in a 9th century work dedicated to the "parakoimōmenos" Basil Lekapenos. However this treatise, which survives only in fragments, draws heavily upon references on the appearance and construction of a Classical trireme, and must therefore be used with care when trying to apply it to the warships of the middle Byzantine period.Pryor (2003), p. 84] Nevertheless, it is possible that three-banked versions of the dromons existed.

The exact appearance and evolution of the dromon's design are a matter of debate and conjecture: until recently, no remains of a Byzantine warship had been found and information had to be gauged from literary evidence, crude artistic depictions and the remains of a few merchant vessels. In 2005-2006, archaeological digs for the Marmaray project in the location of the Harbor of Theodosius (modern Yenikapi) uncovered the remains of over 20 Byzantine ships from the 6th to 10th centuries, including galleys. [ [http://www.archaeology.org/0707/abstracts/istanbul.html Under Istanbul, at "Archaeology.org"] ; [http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/court_and_social/article3111023.ece Nautical archaeology takes a leap forward, "The Times", 31 December 2007] ]

The accepted view is that dromons were generally fully decked ships, had one to two masts ("histos" or "katartion"), and used lateen sails. Each oar bank generally had about 25 oars, which extended directly from the hull (unlike ancient Greek and Hellenistic vessels, which used an outrigger), in addition to the two large steering oars in the stern. Overall length must have been between 35 and 40 meters."Age of the Galley", p. 95] The larger ones had elevated wooden castles ("xylokastra") between the masts, and carried one to three siphons, located on the bow or amidships, for the discharge of Greek fire. [Haldon (1999), p. 189]

For cargo transport, the Byzantines commandeered ordinary merchantmen and cargo ships, but there existed also a number of specialized vessels such as
horse-transports (confusingly also called "chelandion" in some sources).

Tactics and weapons

Naval tactics

As with the land army, the Byzantines took care to codify, preserve and pass on the past lessons of warfare through the use of military manuals. The main surviving texts are the chapters on sea combat ("peri naumachias") in the "Tactica" of Leo the Wise and Nikephoros Ouranos (both drawing extensively from the 6th century "Naumachiai" of Syrianos Magistros and other earlier works),Pryor (2003), p. 84] and are complemented by relevant passages in the "De administrando imperio" of Constantine Porphyrogenitus and other works by Byzantine and Arab writers.

The manuals emphasized training of the crews, the acquisition of accurate intelligence, and the maintenance of a disciplined and well-ordered formation. Advice is provided on drawing up a battle plan, but they also emphasized the need for initiative and improvisation on the part of the admiral during the actual battle.

Indeed, because of the nature of medieval Mediterranean naval warfare, which was mostly coastal in nature and depended on a constant barrage of missiles and boarding actions, the main task for fleet commanders was to keep their formations well ordered. Conversely, tactical maneuvers attempted to disrupt the enemy formation, including the use of various , such as feigning retreat or holding back a reserve in ambush. Fleets that failed to keep an ordered formation usually avoided battle.Pryor (2003), p. 100]

According to Leo VI, a crescent formation seems to have been the norm, with the flagship in the center and the heavier ships at the horns of the formation, in order to turn the enemy's flanks. A range of variants and other tactics and counter-tactics was available, depending on the circumstance. Once the fleets were close enough, exchanges of missiles began, while the final outcome was determined by boarding actions: the ships grappled each other, and the marines, who included the rowers of the ship's upper bank, engaged in hand-to-hand combat. [Pryor (2003), pp. 102-103]

Armament

Unlike the warships of Antiquity, Byzantine and Arab ships did not feature rams, and the primary means of ship-to-ship combat were boarding actions and missile fire, as well as the use of inflammable materials such as Greek fire."Age of the Galley", p. 99] Despite the fearsome reputation of the latter though, it was effective only under certain circumstances, and not the decisive anti-ship weapon that the ram had been in the hands of experienced crews. [Pryor (2003), p. 96]

Like their Roman predecessors, Byzantine and Muslim ships were equipped with small catapults and ballistae ("toxoballistrai") that launched stones, arrows, javelins, pots of Greek fire or other incendiary liquids, caltrops and even containers of scorpions and snakes, according to some sources. Marines were also armed with bows and crossbows, alongside close-combat arms such as lances and swords. The importance and volume of missile fire can be gauged from the fleet manifests for the Cretan expeditions of the 10th century, which mention 10,000 caltrops, 50 bows and 10,000 arrows, 20 hand-carried "ballistrai" with 200 bolts called "myai" ("flies") and 100 javelins per dromon.Pryor (2003), p. 102] Cannons were rarely used by the Byzantines, who only had a few pieces for the defense of the land walls of Constantinople. Unlike the Venetians and Genoese, there is no indication that any were ever mounted on ships. [I. Heath (1995), pp. 19-21]

Greek fire

The term "Greek fire" was given to the concoction by the Latins (Western Europeans), as they viewed the Byzantines simply as Greeks. The native Greek name was "liquid fire" (polytonic|ὑγρόν πῦρ). Although the use of incendiary chemicals by the Byzantines has been attested since the early 6th century, the actual substance known as Greek fire is believed to have been created in 673 and attributed to an engineer from Syria, named Kallinikos. The most common method of deployment was to emit the formula through a large bronze tube ("siphōn") onto enemy ships. Usually the mixture would be stored in heated, pressurized barrels and projected through the tube by some sort of pump while the operators were sheltered behind large iron shields. Alternatively, it could be launched by catapults. A portable version ("cheirosiphōn") also existed, reputedly invented by Leo VI, making it the direct analogue to a modern flamethrower.

The means of its production was kept a state secret, and its components are only roughly guessed or described through secondary sources like Anna Comnena, so that its exact composition remains unknown to this day. In its effect, the Greek fire must have been rather similar to napalm. Burning fiercely, it could stay ablaze even underwater for a short period. Despite the somewhat exaggerated accounts of Byzantine writers, it was by no means a "wonder weapon", and could not avert some serious defeats. [Pryor (2003), p. 97; V. Christides, "The Conquest of Crete by the Arabs (ca. 824)", Athens 1984, p. 64] Certainly, in favourable circumstances and against an unprepared enemy, its great destructive ability and psychological impact could prove decisive, as displayed against the Rus'. Greek fire was rarely used on land, the last time being the final siege of Constantinople in 1453. The Arabs eventually also fielded their own "liquid fire" after 835, but it is unknown if they used the Byzantine formula, possibly obtained through espionage or through the defection of "stratēgos" Euphemios in 827, or whether they independently created a version of their own.

Citations

References


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coauthors= Jeffreys, Elizabeth M.
title = The Age of the ΔΡΟΜΩΝ: The Byzantine Navy ca. 500-1204
publisher = Brill Academic Publishers
year = 2006
isbn = 978-9004151970

* cite book
first=Shaun
last=Tougher
title=The Reign of Leo VI (886-912): Politics and People
year=1997
publisher=BRILL
isbn=9004097775

*cite book
title=Byzantium and Its Army, 284-1081
last=Treadgold
first=Warren T.
year=1995
publisher=Stanford University Press
isbn=0804731632

*cite book
title=A History of the Byzantine State and Society
last=Treadgold
first=Warren T.
year=1997
publisher=Stanford University Press
isbn=0804726302

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