Saracen Fleet against Crete

Byzantine manuscript of the eleventh century describing the invasion of Crete by the Saracens in 820

HISTORY (324-1453):
The Byzantine Navy was born with the schism between the Roman Empire of the East and the West. At that date it was composed of the local Roman fleet in charge of the eastern Mediterranean, which had evolved since the decisive battle of Actium in 31 BC; giving the Roman Empire its full control of the "Roman lake". The Roman fleet in 300 AD was a relatively light force destined for escort and piracy missions. The bulk of his forces consisted of Liburnes, a fast and modest tonnage ship, whose specificity was to have double swims, like Illyrens pirate ships of the same name. They had evolved, moving to two rows of superimposed swimming, and had grown elongated and weighted significantly, while remaining very fast. Until the adoption of the redoubtable Greek fire, balistes formed the bulk of embarked armament. Having an open bridge, these galleys had only reduced troops. It was, in a sense, a return to the frail triremes whose speed and capacity of ramming supplemented the lack of combatants on board. These fleets were nevertheless under the direction of great admiral vessels, heirs of the fifth.

The only confrontation to which these fleets took part was the battle of the Hellespont in 324 AD between Constantine the Great and Licinius, won by the first in spite of lower forces, but better maneuvered in the narrow defile of the Dardanelles, and allowing him to land his troops in Asia Minor in order to lead the final battle of Chrysopolis and become emperor undisputed. As a result, the Byzantine fleet stationed at Mysene became the most powerful in the Mediterranean. The Roman empire of the West saw its naval forces quickly weakened by the indirect effects of the barbarian invasions (notably the lack of manpower and funds to maintain it, reserved for land-based clashes). A threat came from 420, that of Genséric, the sovereign Vandale installed in Carthage, whose naval forces dominated the west of the Mediterranean. A large expedition of more than 1100 ships and 100,000 men under Basiliscus failed sharply, putting the empire almost bankrupt, forcing it to a humiliating and very costly peace. The situation improved after the death of Genseric in 477.

The first uses of naval incendiary siphons date from the confrontation between Admiral Marinus for the fleet of Emperor Anastasius I and his rebellious Magister Militum, Vitalien, which brought together a fleet of 200 ships in 513. It was not not in all likelihood of the siphons with Greek fire, but of another system precursor. It should be noted that the pots (amphorae filled with bitumen or inflamed pitch) were used from the Hellenistic period. 20 years later, Bélisaire was sailing in North Africa with the head of 15 000 men transported by 500 ousiakos with the support and the escort of 92 Dromons. The latter had become the spearhead of the Byzantine navy, which became the most powerful in the Mediterranean. In 550 under Justinian, it crushed the Goths who had mastery over the Adriatic and the Tyrrhenian Sea, and in 626 intercepted and destroyed the invading fleet Avar, which was preparing to cross the bosphorus to lend a helping hand to the Goths. siege of Constantinople, and the passage of the Sassanid Persian armies.

From 640 however, a new threat came with the advent of Arab Muslims in Syria and Egypt. The Arabs had access to the ports, ships and manuals of the local Byzantine fleets and copied their organization on the latter. This threat resulted in a crushing defeat of the Byzantines at the battle of the masts in 655, which followed the capture of Cyprus. Byzantium lost most of its fleet, 500 ships. The years that followed were crucial for the survival of the empire. The constantinople seat of 674 was raised by the use of a handful of buildings equipped with flame-throwing siphons, projecting the famous "Greek fire" or "Greek fire" whose nature remained a mystery for a long time.


The "Greek fire" in action. It was undoubtedly the most amazing weapon of the Middle Ages

This famous Greek fire was a highly flammable substance contained in a kind of large "syringe" of metal actuated by a Syphonarios. The latter, fighting on land, had their "portable" armament, a reduced version, but capable of projecting flames at more than ten meters. The naval version was much heavier and vast so as to have reserve, and a very long tube. The dromons that were equipped with it were called "Siphonophoros Dromon"; the tube passed through a dragon or lion's geule. The Greek fire was able not only to fire the enemy ship, but also the water around it. Attempting to extinguish it with more water only exacerbated the fire. It was the best kept secret of the empire. Grenades filled with sharp points and this liquid were also projected by catapults, like incendiary bombs. These weapons and general quality, the perfect organization of the navy, especially reorganized under Justinian II, allowed the empire to survive the Muslim maelstrom.

In 718, a second Arab seat of constantinople failed, once again thanks to the Greek fire. A last great confrontation opposed in 747 the Byzantine fleet, though inferior in number, to the combined fleets of Syria and Alexandria of the Umayyad Caliphate. The victory ensued the naval mastery of the Eastern Mediterranean and was accompanied by very severe restrictions on Arab maritime trade. Beginning in the 820s, the Byzantine navy slowly pereclitered. After 859, after a series of defeats, the Byzantines and Christians were on the defensive, and the Arabs had control of the sea. The Byzantine revival was to take place during the reign of the Macedonian emperors, from 867 to 1056. Despite the loss of several thematic fleets in the Mediterranean, the Byzantine navy was going to try and partially succeed in the reconquest of the Mediterranean. One of the most famous episodes occurred when attempts were made to retake Crete, the advanced base of Muslim pirates in the Aegean Sea. No fewer than 20 Dromons escorting 64 Chelandes and 10 galleys were sailing towards the island in 949 with 4,000 men on board but failed, countered by the army of the Emirate of Crete. In 960, a new expedition led by Nicéphore Phocas, taking 100 Dromons, 200 Chelandes and 300 transports with 77,000 men, succeeded this time to disembark and crush the Muslim forces, and marked a decisive turning point. Thanks to this advanced base, the Byzantines succeeded in subjugating Cilicia, resuming Cyprus, and settling in the north of Syria on a solid line of defense, averting the Muslim peril in the eastern Mediterranean.



A reconstruction of Dromon of the tenth century, according to the manual Tactica of Leo VI the wise. The very fine spur of the front is nothing more than an ornament, the Latin sail and the orientation of the yards, the size and position of the masts would become a standard, the position of the "castles" before and on the flanks, intended to receive the siphon (at the front) of the smaller siphons on the flanks or of the light jet weapons. The gallery at the back and the plating ending in two volutes to the antique is characteristic. The width is large, a central bridge is relatively spacious for the fighters, the rowers were a level below. the hull is not a large bacquet almost parallelepipedic like the old heavy antique galleys, but affects a marine and tapered form, inheritance of the pirates navitres, with a reduced draft.

This ship was the battle-horse of the Byzantines, and was copied as much by the Arabs as by the nascent Italian cities-Genoa and Venice, which improved them. They introduced the triple scaloccio swim, and cannons into the forecastle. There is no evidence that the Byzantines belatedly adopted cannons on their galleys ...

It was undoubtedly the last glorious ages of the navy. Under the Comnenes, in the eleventh century, lack of consideration, funds, competent officers, corruption and negligence, she was no more than the shadow of herself. It was deplorable that it was limited to the transport of goods, avoiding fighting if possible... If the Arab threat had passed, a new power in the west threatened the Byzantine naval dominance in the Mediterranean, that of the Nromands installed in Sicily. The latter attempted to invade Greece but were held at bay by the Venetian fleet then in full swing, generously funded by a Byzantine empire on the brink of ruin. The exclusive commercial agreements between the Serenissima and Constantinople were the starting point of the Venetian naval dominance, a veritable thalassocracy. Alexis Comnene, however, attempted to trace a modest fleet that was plainly effective, which he bequeathed to John II, who took care of it without strengthening it. the land army had priority, as in the rest of imperial history. Manuel I was more ambitious and succeeded in rebuilding a powerful fleet. With this instrument of naval projection in the modern sense of the word, he built a real amphibious fleet which in his time was the admiration of William of Tire. Several operations were launched. Corfu and several Ionian islands in the hands of the Normans were taken over by a fleet of 500 galleys and 1000 transports in 1148. In 1155 another expedition allowed the Byzantines to regain their footing in southern Italy. In 1169 another expedition was launched by Andronicus Kontostephanos in coordination with the King of Jerusalem, mobilizing 20 large Chelles carrying siege weapons to resume footing in Egypt, 60 chellers transporting horses and 150 Dromones. Despite the impressive device, the invasion failed and a large part of the fleet was annihilated in the heavy weather on the way back. The last expeditions in 1171 against the Venetian fleet of chios, and against Egypt in 1177, failed, and again the Byzantine navy was in decline, bound up with the rise of piracy.

Under the dynasty of the Angeloi, the fleet struggled to reunite a hundred galleys to launch various operations of reconquest. From 1185 to 1196, all these operations were rarely crowned with success. The finances were such that in 1196, only about thirty galleys were able to survive. In fact, the Venetians had mastery over the sea. Venetian and Genoese galleys were also rented at the price of new commercial exclusives. Under the Palaeologists, efforts were again concentrated on the navy, which never reached the previous level. The only recorded success was the reconquest of a few islands from the Aegean sea to the Latin. The bulk of the fleet, which reached nearly 80 ships in its paroxysm, consisted of private galleys operating under the Byzantine colors. A "naval mercenary" often of Genoese origin, the traditional enemies of the Venetians. From Byronikos II Paeologus, in 1282, the Byzantine fleet was considered expensive and was dissolved in favor of the punctual rental of Genoese galleys. But it was insufficient in the face of the growing power of the Turks.

His little son Andronikos III attempted to rebuild the fleet in 1330, but it did not exceed 200 buildings, mostly mixed (merchants). During the civil war of 1341-47 the fleet took an important part of the operations, and John VI Kantakouzenos was not more fortunate to reconstitute a fleet, built elsewhere in Venice. A naval battle combined with the Venetians against Genoa was another sharp failure. From then on, the Byzantine "fleet" comprised only a handful of galleys. It was of no help during the Turkish siege of Constantinople in 1453...

Ships Organisation
The sometimes dubious and divergent sources on the Byzantine navy do not allow a clear and reliable description of the Byzantine fleet. It is towards 911 that it is best described. It is at this time that it is experiencing its strongest growth, with nearly 34200 rowers for about 4000 "marines". The latter are troops embarked by trade, "Tagmata" very trained and efficient. In the ancient tradition, rowers were not slaves, but free men of low social status, spared, trained, and touching the pay. For the Crest expedition, the fleet consisted of nearly 300 ships. But the composition of these fleets was varied, and some of these ships, more fit for transport than for war. The local fleets were organized in Themes, like the army, and were subordinate to them. They were commanded by a Drungarios, assisted by two imperial officials, in charge of the Thematic administration. The protomandator was the commander-in-chief, right arm and military career, assisting the Droungarios, often appointed by the emperor. This Protomandator directed the Kometes or "Counts", the subdivisions of the Theme or squadrons commanded by Tourmarches, and the squadrons by drungariokomes. Each ship was commanded by a kentarchos ("centurion"). The crew itself was dissected according to the size of the vessels in units of about 110 men, the Ousiai. The rowers of the upper row were also equipped for combat and had to leave their oars in the event of a collision. The officers were Bandophoros or second, assisted by two protokaraboi, more or less equivalent to quarters-masters. The chief officer was the Proreus. There were also spacialists like the Siphonatores in charge of the flamethrowers.

This organization ended with the reforms of Alexis Komnene, which dissolved the themes and unified the fleet. The hierarchy only included the Megas Doux, assisted by the Megas drungarios of the fleet, and later of Amiralios for the squadrons. Under Michel VIII Paleologue, a new reform was based on Greece itself, to equip a local fleet which was not of foreign composition (Geno-Venetian). The "Marines" were a separate unit, composed of "Tzakones", "Lakones", and "Gasmouloi". The rowers were also grouped into "proselontes" units, all of them small landowners granted by the empire in exchange for their service, and stationed in Byzantine settlements.

The warships of the Byzantine navy were originally derived from the frail Roman Liburnes, "monoremes" having two rowers per side. The first Byzantine liburns were merely enlarged derivatives, but always with two rowers per bank. By shifting the benches and adding a third rower, these vessels evolved into galleys with two rows of oars, the famous "Dromons", which spearheaded the Byzantine navy. They were described as heavier and bigger than the liburnes, and much faster and more agile than the old quinqueremis. They formed the basis of the future Italian and Arab galleys in the Mediterranean. The Dromons remained open-bridge ships, and consequently their troops were limited. On the other hand, the upper rowers were equipped to take part in the collision fighting. Liburnes and Dromons formed the bulk of the fleet, the troops embarked by merchant ships requisitioned. The latter were small cargo ships sailing alone, and therefore tributary to the winds unlike the large military galleys. Being no more a sea people than the Romans, the Byzantines had moreover to face maritime losses as great by sea fortunes as in combat.

By 920-960 the Byzantine fleet reached its golden age, and the maximum of its development. In addition to the dromons, two other smaller galleys were set up to replace the Liburnoi, the Ousiakos, manned by 108 men, a "ousia", hence their name, and the Pamphile, having 120-150 men on board. A derivative later made its appearance, the "Khelandion-Pamhpylos", or Chelande-pamphyle of 200-250 men. A new type of large war-ship had indeed appeared, the Chechen or Khelandion, much more armed than the Dromon, and having more than 300 men on board. These large galleys were also used for the transport of powerful jet weapons, and were used for sieges. Very modern "amphibious" derivatives appeared, like the "Chelandes-huissières", true LST before the letter, since in their flanks they transported between rows of rowers, troops, equipment and horses for a campaign. The galley ran aground on the sand from the front, and two flaps were simply opened at the prow. Lateral footbridges had also been developed for the Dromons, which also served as troop transports. The Ousiakos, literally "servants", were small galleys of load carrying all the supplies and were included in the convoy, arriving last when the page was taken and secured. Another type of amphibious building was developed, known as "hippagoga".

the dromons were fully decked, with a Xylokastron or forecastle, the top in which the siphon was mounted, and two lateral docks on which were added additional light siphons. This fellow was later kept on the galleys of the Middle Ages. The word "galley" was derived from the small "galea", a monorem with only one rower per bench, used as a scout, liaison ship and despatcher. These vessels were initially propelled by square sails, but gradually the Levantine sail appeared and supplanted it, giving the Latin sail, with mixed rigging that survived until the 19th century on derivatives of galleys like the polacre. Codes of tactics and manuals were long used as references, and were studied and translated by the Arabs. The use of flags and lanterns in order to pass orders was prescribed, a usage which persisted throughout the history of the sailing-ship. Various tactics were established, but since the spur was no longer a weapon, but present as an ornament and protective element of the prow, naval battles were carried out in attempts to break the enemy line, with maneuvers, followed by shots. weapons of throw, and finally of boarding. Although "Greek fire" is a scary weapon, it was not the decisive weapon expected: The siphons did not equip all ships and were only effective in calm weather. More "classical" sproectiles launched from mangana (catapults) and Toxoballistrai (balistes), tiles, arrows, stones, lead blocks, tripointes (triboloi) were used more readily, according to some authors, snakes and scorpions in pots of terracotta... The "Marines" were experienced fighters, heavily equipped with lamellar cuirasses and armed with short pikes, sword, launching of javelins if necessary. It was a melee cobat infantry, assisted by lightly armed rowers of the first rank and wearing cuirasses and leather chapels, while sailors posted in the masts and huns threw javelins, frond stones, and arrows. From these fights depended the outcome of the battle ...

Sources: Wikipedia, admiral J.J. Antier, Treadgold, Gardiner, Norwich, D. Nicolle, Lewis and Runyan, Jenkins, L. Casson, Mac Comick, Haldon, Tougher, Bartusis, and several Byzantine and Arab sources.