The Byzantine warships and their tactics

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Reconstruction of an early 10th-century Byzantine bireme dromon by John H. Pryor, based on references in the Tactica of Emperor Leo VI the Wise. Notice the lateen sails, the full deck, the fore- and mid-castles, and the Greek fire siphon in the prow. The above-water spur is evident in the bow, while the captain’s tent and the two steering oars are located at stern.

The typical high-seas elite warship of the empire in the period was the dromon (from the Greek dromeas, meaning `the runner’). This was a two-masted fully decked bireme with two banks of oars, one rowed from below the deck and one from above it. There were twenty-five oarsmen on each side of each deck, thus raising the total number of oarsmen to a hundred, all fully seated. The marines and the officers of the ship numbered around fifty men, while the ousia, the standard complement of a war galley (its crew excluding the marines and the officers), totalled 108 men. Another type of warship that had the same features as the dromon was the khelandion; both Ahrweiler and Pryor consider these two types of vessel to be almost identical. However, although the Greek primary sources used these two terms indiscriminately, it is interesting to mention that Theophanes identifies the khelandia primarily as horse transports. The Arabic primary sources, however, use only the term khelandion to describe Byzantine warships.

A smaller but much faster type of ship compared to the dromon and the khelandion was the galea. It derived from the same design mentality for a war ship and it had two sails (the one amidships being smaller by a third) and probably one bank of oars on the deck. Because of its speed, however, this type of ship was used primarily for courier service and, during campaigns, for the transport of orders. There is also mention of galeai being used in espionage. Other types included the supply and carrier ships like the pamphylos, which was `like a baggage-train, which will carry all the equipment of the soldiers, so that the dromons are not burdened with it; and especially in time of battle, when there is need of a small supply of weapons or other materiel, [these] undertake the distribution’.

In the non-tidal waters of the Mediterranean war galleys, like the dromons and the khelandia, would have been suitable for any sort of landing on a hostile beach, unlike the heavy and round-hulled pamphylos, which required a dock. The horse-transport units of the Byzantine fleet had been equipped with a climax since at least the early tenth century, which was a ramp used for the loading and unloading of the horses from the ship’s gunwales, either from the stern or usually from the bow. This term is mentioned in the De Ceremoniis for the Cretan expeditions of 911, 949 and 960/126 and reveals the necessary modifications to the ships when they had to carry horses, such as hatches not just to the sides but also on the decks, leading down into the holds, while further modifications would have been engineered in the hulls of the ships concerning the stabling of the horses. According to Pryor, the khelandia were indeed specialised horse transports, able to carry between twelve and twenty horses. But these must have been built differently from dromons when it comes to the dimensions of the ship’s beam, which would have been much wider to accommodate both the lower bank oarsmen and the horses. A significant structural difference between the tenth-century Byzantine transport ships and their Italian counterparts in the twelfth century was that the latter placed both banks of oarsmen on the upper deck, thus making more room for the horses in the ship’s hull.

Turning to the battle tactics of the Byzantine navy, the existence of an above-water beak in the larger warships reveals a fundamental difference between the ancient Greek and Roman naval tactics and those used by the Byzantines, at least after the early tenth century. This beak, replacing the below-water ram, possibly as early as the sixth century, indicates a change in the objectives of naval engagements, from penetrating the enemy ship’s hull below the water line to damaging the ship’s oars and upper hull and bringing it to a stop in order to board it and capture or burn it.

What is obvious in all contemporary treatises of naval warfare is the same spirit of avoidance of battle at all costs, identified as Vegetian strategy by modern historians, which characterised the Byzantine attitude towards warfare on land. The basic idea of Byzantine warfare at sea follows the simple dicta by Syrianus Magister (c. 830-40s) that `if the enemy is overwhelmingly stronger than us and a great danger hangs over our cities, then we should avoid war and overcome the enemy by wisdom rather than might’. Leo VI also strongly urges an admiral that:

You must indeed deal with the enemy through attacks and other practices and stratagems, either with the whole of the naval fleet under you or with part of it. However, without some urgent compelling reason for this, you should not rush into a general engagement. For there are many obstacles [in the workings] of so-called Tyche [Luck] and events in war [are] contrary to expectation.

When a decision to engage the enemy was taken by the senior officers, then the fleet would deploy its squadrons in several formations depending on a series of factors such as `time, by attacking the enemy at a moment when we have the winds as allies, as happens frequently with off-shore winds; place, [by using] the sea between two pieces of land, or a river, [areas] in which the numbers of the enemy are useless because of the narrowness of the sea’. The author of the Taktika provides his readers with a variety of naval formations to engage the enemy (§§50-6); the two most commonly used were the crescent-shaped and the straight line:

Sometimes [you should draw up] a crescent-shaped or sigma-shaped [i. e. C-shaped] formation in a semi-circle, with the rest of the dromons placed on one side and the other [i. e. of the flagship] like horns or hands and making sure that the stronger and larger [ships] are placed on the tip. Your Gloriousness [should be positioned], like a head in the deep of the semi-circle [. . .] The crescent arrangement should be such that, as the enemy attack, they are enclosed within the curve. Sometimes you will form the ships on an equal front in a straight [line], so that, when the need calls, [you can] attack the enemy at the prow and burn their ships with fire from the siphones.

The tactical objective of the crescent-shaped formation was for the stronger ships on the sides of the formation to overwhelm the enemy ships and then turn around and attack the rest of the formation on their exposed flanks where they were most vulnerable. Once the opposing units came into close proximity with each other they would attack the enemy ships and their crews with bows and arrows, snakes, lizards and other dangerous reptiles, pots with burning lime or tar and, of course, with Greek fire, projected either through the ship’s siphones, through small hand-siphons or thrown against the enemies in a form similar to small hand-grenades. The importance of the proper management of the preliminary missile phase was indicated by the emperor’s insistence on using the projectiles effectively, not wasting them against an enemy protected by shields, and ensuring that neither supplies were exhausted nor the crews exhausted themselves in hurling them. When the ships were close enough, boarding detachments were sent to the enemy ship and the result of the naval battle largely depended on the courage and the fighting abilities of the boarding teams. For that reason,

apart from the soldiers or the upper oarsmen, [all others] however many there might be, from the kentarkhos down to the last [man], should be kataphraktoi – having weapons such as shields, pikes, bows, extra arrows, swords, javelins, corselets, lamellar cuirasses, helmets, vambraces – especially those engaged in fighting hand to hand in the front line of attack in battle.

Finally, if we follow the writings of Leo VI, a potentially decisive weapon that came to the fore at this point of the naval engagement were the `gerania [cranes] or some similar contrivances, shaped like a gamma [A], turning in a circle, to pour either wet flaming pitch or the processed [fire] or anything else into the enemy ships when they are coupled to the dromons when the manganon is turning over them’. This technique was coupled with the thrusting of pikes from the lower bank of the dromons through the oarports, a tactic that Leo claims had only recently been devised.

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