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The Age of the Dromon: The Byzantine Navy, ca. 500-1204, by John H. Pryor & Elizabeth M. Jeffreys

Leiden/Boston: E.J. Brill, 2011. Pp. lxxvii, 758. Illus., maps, diagr., tables, appends., notes, biblio., indices. $49.50 paper. ISBN: 900420590X.

Heirs to the Roman Empire, the Greek Orthodox Byzantines dominated the Mediterranean world from the fifth to the twelfth centuries.  Sea power was a big part of that dominance, but except for a handful of obscure manuscripts, passing references in other sources, and tantalizing bits of nautical archaeology, we know very little about how the Byzantines actually practiced naval warfare.  With The Age of the ΔΡΟΜΟΝ, medieval maritime historian Pryor and Byzantine philologist Jeffreys make a major contribution toward understanding Byzantine naval power.

The dromon or “runner” was the standard oared warship of this period.  With 54 oars on each side, arranged in two banks, above and below deck, it could manage about 4 knots under ideal conditions.  Two masts carried auxiliary triangular sails on long yardarms that crewmen could lower to the deck and stow before battle. The 108 rowers were professional paid mariners, not slaves, and they were expected to fight in battle as well as pull an oar.  Unlike Greek and Roman galleys, dromons did not carry a heavy bronze ram below the waterline. Instead, the bow carried a projecting wooden “spur” above the waterline, designed to break or tangle the oars or an opposing vessel, by running along its flank.  Armament included catapults (ballistae) firing stones, bolts, or fire-pots.  In addition, at the bow a swiveling bronze pressure pump, the siphon, could discharge the famous “Greek Fire” – a secret incendiary weapon whose composition is still not understood.  The ramming tactics of the classical era were replaced by a standoff exchange of missile fire to demoralize enemy crews, followed by grappling and boarding by armored marines.

Byzantine writers tried to show off their classical learning by deliberately writing in an archaic style imitating Athenian Greek of the 4th century BC.  Since nautical technology had changed so much in the intervening centuries, their seafaring terminology was a total mess.  Pryor and Jeffreys manage to untangle this can of worms in a dazzling display of scholarship and logic.  Selective glossaries of English, Greek, Latin, and Arabic nautical terms make this book invaluable to anyone interested in medieval naval history.

The Age of the ΔΡΟΜΟΝ consists of five chapters, plus ancillary material.  

Chapter One, “The Operational Context” provides a naval history of the empire in five phases:   

  • 400-560 - Germanic assault and imperial recovery.
  • 560-750 – Muslim assault and imperial recovery.
  • 750-875 – "Equilibrium of chaos”. 
  • 875-1025 – Byzantine ascendancy.
  • 1025-1204 – Triumph of the Latin West.       

The second chapter, “The Origins of the Dromon,” examines how changes in hull construction and the invention of the triangular (“lateen”) sail transformed the late Roman liburna into the Byzantine dromon.  Chapter Three, “From the Sixth to the Ninth Centuries” briefly attempts to fill in a dark period where no detailed nautical texts or pictorial representations of warships survive.  Chapter Four, “The Dromon in the Age of the Macedonian Emperors” (867-1056) is a detailed exploration of the surviving sources, with special attention to the parts of a ship, crewing, and oarage, and the problems of horse transport, water supply, weapons, fleet tactics and strategy.  Chapter Five, “The Demise of the Dromon”, and  Chapter Six “The triumph of the Galea” explain how single-decked Western galleys, with two or three men pulling each oar gained ascendancy in the thirteenth century.  The fitting of gunpowder weapons to galleys, which marked the rise of Venice as the dominant Mediterranean power, was an innovation for another era, well after the period considered in this book.

Appendices include translations (with original text on facing pages) of four important Byzantine Greek manuscripts, the remarkable detailed inventory lists for the Imperial expeditions against Crete in 911 and 949, and Muhammad ibn Makali’s fourteenth century Remarks on Sea Warfare, which preserves many details of Byzantine naval practice, as seen through the eyes of their Muslim adversaries.   

When the hardcover edition of this massive scholarly work was published in 2006, the list price of $210 put it well out of reach of many readers who eagerly wanted to read it.  The new paperback edition should reach a wider audience.

Readers unfamiliar with Byzantine history might be intimidated by the profusion of Greek text, and the massive scholarly footnoting in Age of the Dromon.  But that would be a mistake.  Although this is by no means an easy book to read, it contains a wealth of well-organized data and careful analysis.   

The Age of the ΔΡΟΜΟΝ will stand for many years as a landmark in our understanding of a little-known, but very significant era of naval history.    

Our Reviewer: Mike Markowitz is a D.C. based defense analyst, who writes for several defense related journals and Defense Media Network, including, The Year in Special OperationsHe is the co-designer, with John Gresham, of Supermarina 1 and Supermarina 2, both from Clash of Arms.  His previous
reviews for StrategyPage include To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940 and The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire.



Reviewer: Mike Markowitz    

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