Front Page Titles (by Subject) 10. THE BYZANTINE NAVY — ( P. 248 , 351 sqq. ) - The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 9
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10. THE BYZANTINE NAVY — ( P. 248 , 351 sqq. ) - Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 9 
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. J.B. Bury with an Introduction by W.E.H. Lecky (New York: Fred de Fau and Co., 1906), in 12 vols. Vol. 9.
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THE BYZANTINE NAVY — (P. 248, 351sqq.)
The history of the Byzantine sea-power has still to be written. The chief sources (up to the tenth century) are Leo’s Tactics, c. 19 (περὶ ναυμαχίας); the official returns of two expeditions to Crete in the tenth century, included in “Constantine’s” de Cerimoniis, ii. c. 44 and 45; and (on naval commands under Basil I. and Leo VI.) Constantine, De Adm. Inp. c. 51. The chief modern studies that treat the subject are: Gfrorer, Das byzantinische Seewesen (c. 22 in his Byzantinische Geschichten, Bd. ii. p. 401 sqq.); C. de la Roncière, Charlemagne et la civilisation maritime au ixe siècle (in Moyen Age, 2e sér. t. i. p. 201 sqq., 1897); C. Neumann, Die byzantinische Marine; Ihre Verfassung und ihr Verfall. Studien zur Geschichte des 10 bis 12 Jahrhunderts (in Hist. Zeitschrift, B. 45, p. 1 sqq. 1898). Add G. Schlumberger, Nicéphore Phocas, p. 52-66.
In the 6th century, after the fall of the Vandal kingdom, the Empire had no sea-foes to fear, and there was therefore no reason to maintain a powerful navy. The Mediterranean, though all its coasts were not part of the Empire, was practically once more an Imperial lake. This circumstance is a sufficient defence against the indictment which Gfrorer1 brought against Justinian for neglecting the navy. The scene changed in the second half of the seventh century, when the Saracens took to the sea. The Emperors had to defend their coasts and islands against a hostile maritime power. Consequently a new naval organisation was planned and carried out; and we must impute the merit of this achievement to the successors of Heraclius. We have indeed no notices, in any of our authorities, of the creation of the Imperial navies, but it is clear that the new system had been established before the days of Anastasius III. and Leo III. Under Basil I. and his son the naval organisation was remodelled and improved; the settlement of the Saracens in Crete, and their incursions in the Aegean, were facts which urgently forced the Emperors to look to their ships. From this time till the latter part of the eleventh century, the fleets of the Empire were the strongest in the Mediterranean.
There were two fleets, the Imperial and the Provincial (Thematic). Until the time of Basil, the Imperial fleet seems not to have been organised as a standing force. A system seems to have been established whereby, in case Constantinople itself were threatened, a squadron of vessels could be got together for its defence without much delay. This was managed by an arrangement with the shipowners of the capital; but as to the nature of this arrangement (it seems to have been a sort of “indenture” system) we have only some obscure hints.2 On the other hand, the several contingents of the provincial fleet, supplied by the themes of the Cibyrrhaeots, Samos, and the Aegean,3 were always ready for action, like the thematic armies. A standing Imperial fleet seems to have been created by Basil, and to him we may probably ascribe the institution of the Imperial Admiral (δρουγγάριος τω̂ν πλοΐμων).4 This admiral, the great Drungarios, was strictly commander of the Imperial fleet, but on occasions when the Imperial and Provincial fleets acted together he would naturally be the commander in chief. The admirals of the three divisions of the Provincial fleet had the title of drungarios, when they were first instituted.5 But they were promoted to the title of stratêgos, which they continued to hold, after Basil had raised the name drungarios to new honour by conferring it upon the commander of the Imperial fleet. There can be little doubt, it seems to me, that τὰ πλόιμα in this connection means the Imperial fleet, and not (as Gfrorer maintained) both the Imperial and Provincial fleets.6
The Imperial fleet in the tenth century was larger than the Provincial. Thus in the Cretan expedition of 902 — for which Gibbon gives the total figures (p. 354) — the contingents of the fleets were as follows: —
But, though the provincial squadrons formed a smaller armament, they had the advantage of being always prepared for war.
The causes of the decay of the Byzantine navy in the eleventh century have been studied by C. Neumann, in the essay cited above. He shows that the antimilitary policy of the emperors in the third quarter of that century affected the navy as well as the army (cp. above, vol. viii. p. 282, n. 67). But the main cause was the Seljūk conquest. It completely disorganised the themes which furnished the contingents of the Provincial fleet. In the 12th century the Emperors depended on the navy of Venice, which they paid by commercial privileges.
The dromonds or biremes were of different sizes and builds. Thus the largest size might be manned by a crew of 300 or 290. Those of a medium size might hold, like the old Greek triremes, about 200 men. There were still smaller ones, which, besides a hundred oarsmen who propelled them, contained only a few officers, steersmen, &c. (perhaps twenty in all). Then there were a special kind of biremes, distinguished by build, not by size, called Pamphylians, and probably remarkable for their swiftness. The Emperor Leo in his Tactics directs that the admiral’s ship should be very large and swift and of Pamphylian build.7 The pamphylians in the Cretan expedition of 902 were of two sizes: the larger manned by 160 men, the smaller by 130. The importance of these Pamphylian vessels ought, I think, to be taken in connection with the importance of the Cibyrrhaeot theme (see above, Appendix 8), which received its name from Pamphylian Cibyra. We may suspect that Cibyra was a centre of shipbuilding.
Besides the biremes, ships with single banks of oars were used, especially for scouting purposes. They were called galleys.8 The name dromond or “runner” was a general name for a warship and could be applied to the galleys9 as well as to the biremes; but in common use it was probably restricted to biremes, and even to those biremes which were not of Pamphylian build.
Gibbon describes the ξυλόκαστρον, an erection which was built above the middle deck of the largest warships, to protect the soldiers who cast stones and darts against the enemy. There was another wooden erection at the prow, which was also manned by soldiers, but it served the special purpose of protecting the fire-tube which was placed at the prow.
The combustible substances on which the Byzantines relied so much, and apparently with good reason, in their naval warfare, were of various kinds and were used in various ways; and the confusion of them under the common name of Greek or marine fire has led to some misapprehensions. The simplest fire weapon was probably the “hand tube” (χειροσίϕων),10 a tube full of combustibles, which was flung by the hand like a “squib” and exploded on board the enemy’s vessel. The marines who cast these weapons were the “grenadiers” of the Middle Ages.11 “Artificial fire” — probably in a liquid state — was also kept in pots (χύτραι), which may have been cast upon the hostile ships by engines. Such pots are represented in pictures of warships in an old Arabic MS. preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale, and reproduced by M. Schlumberger in his work on Nicephorus Phocas.12 But there was another, and more interesting, method of hurling “artificial fire.” This method anticipated the principle of later firearms: gunpowder was used to propel the missiles of destruction through a tube (σίϕων). This is the only reasonable inference from the two certain facts that gunpowder was one of the artificial explosives used by the Byzantines in their naval warfare (see above, p. 248, note 22), and that combustibles which exploded when they reached the enemy’s ships were propelled through tubes, which were managed by a gunner (siphonator). Thus the Byzantines just fell short of revolutionising warfare, by failing to apply their propelling powder to leaden missiles.
[1 ]Op. cit. p. 402-4.
[2 ]Theophanes, suba.m. 6302, p. 487, ed. de Boor.
[3 ]Hellas also supplied naval contingents sometimes (as in the Cretan expedition, 902), but was not one of the fleet themes proper
[4 ]Cp Cedrenus, ii p. 219, p. 227; Gfrorer, op. cit. p. 433.
[5 ]Cp. Leo, Tactics, 19, § 23, 24.
[6 ]Gfrorer (p. 415) has misunderstood the passage in Leo’s Tactics referred to in the preceding note.
[7 ]19, § 37, τὸ δὴ λεγόμενον πάμϕυλον. Gfrorer attempted to prove that the pamphylians were manned by chosen crews, and derived their name from πάμϕυλος (“belonging to all nations”), not from the country. But the passage in the Tactics does not support this view. The admiral’s ship is to be manned by ἐξ ἅπαντος τον̂ στρατον̂ ἐπιλέκτους; but this proves nothing for other pamphylians. But the large number of pamphylians in both the Imperial and the Provincial fleet (cp. the numbers in the Cretan expedition, given above) disproves Gfrorer’s hypothesis.
[8 ]Tactics, 19, § 10, γαλαίας ἢ μονήρεις.
[10 ]Tactics, 19, § 57.
[11 ]Some Arab grenades (first explained by de Saulcy) still exist. Cp. illustration in Schlumberger, Nicéphore Phocas, p. 59.
[12 ]P. 55, 57.