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Byzantine Navy

Under the early Empire, as Rome had no rival in the Mediterranean, it was natural that the navy and naval theory should be neglected. When Constantine the Great decided to besiege Byzantium by sea, both he and his opponent Licinius had to create fleets for the struggle. Even when the Vandals in Africa made transmarine conquests and became a naval power, the Romans did not seriously address themselves to building an efficient navy and securing their own thalassocracy; the Vandals harried their coasts; their expeditions against Africa failed. And even when the Vandal power was in its decline and Belisarius set forth on his successful expedition of conquest, his fears for the safety of his squadron in case he should be attacked at sea allow us to suspect that the fleet of the enemy was superior to the Roman.

The conquest of Africa secured for Justinian the undisputed command of the Mediterranean, but he did nothing for the naval establishment. It was not till the Saracens, aspinng to conquer all the Mediterranean coastlands, became a naval power that the Roman Empire was forced, in a struggle for its being, to organize an efficient fleet. This was the work of Constans II. In this first period (c. 650-720) the naval forces, designated as the Karabisianoi, were placed under the command of an admiral, with title of strategos. They consisted of two geographical divisions, each under a drungarios: the orovince of the Cibyrrhaeots {probably named from the smaller Cibyra in Pamphylia) which included the southern coast districts of Asia Minor, and the Aegean province, which embraced the islands and part of the west coast of Asia Minor. The former was the more important; the marines of this province were the hardy descendants of the pirates, whose subjugation had taxed the resources of the Roman government in the last years of the Republic. It was a new principle to impose the burden of naval defence on the coast and island districts.

Distinct from these fleets, and probably organized on a different principle, was the naval contingent stationed at Constantinople. Leo III changed the naval administration, abolishing the supreme command, and making the Cibyrrhaeot and Aegean provinces separate independent themes under strategoi. The change was due to two motives. There was a danger lest a commander of the whole navy should become over powerful (indicated in the political role played by the navy before Leo's accession); but apart from this, the general reform of Leo, which united civil and military powers in the same hands, naturally placed the commanders of the two branches of the navy on a new footing, by making them provincial governors.

In this and the following reigns, the tendency was to neglect the fleet; the interest of the government was concentrated on the army. For a time this policy was prosecuted with impunity, since the Omayyad dynasty was growing weak, and then under the Abbasids, who transferred the capital from Damascus to Bagdad, the sea-power of the caliphate declined. But the neglect of the fleet was avenged in the 9th century, when Crete ana Sicily were wrested from the Empire, the loss of south Italy was imminent, and Moslem squadrons sailed in the Adriatic - losses and dangers which led to a reorganization of the navy under Basil I and Leo VI.

After this reform the navy consisted of two main contingents: the imperial fleet (stationed at Constantinople), and the provincial fleets, three in number, of (a) Cibyrrhaeot theme, (b) Aegean theme, (c) theme of Samos. A small distinct contingent was supplied by the Mardaites who. natives of Mt. Lebanon, had been transplanted (partly to Pamphylia, partly to Epirus, the Ionian Islands, and Peloponnesus). The imperial fleet seems to have consisted of about 100 warships manned by 23,000 marines (the same men fought and rowed); the provincial fleets of 77 warships manned by 17,000. When the fleets acted together, the admiral in supreme command for the time was called the "drungarios of the naval forces." The warships ("dromonds") were mainly biremes, but there were also uniremes, built for speed, called "galleys". Pyrotechnic was an important department in the naval establishment; the manufacture of the terrible explosive known as liquid or marine fire (Greek Fire) was carefully guarded as a state secret.

The navy, active and efficient in the 10th century, is described by a military and therefore unprejudiced officer of the 11th as the glory of Romania. But towards the end of the 11th century it declined, the main cause being the disorganization of the naval provinces of Asia Minor, which was a result of the Seljuk conquest of the interior. This decline had important indirect consequences; it led to the dependence of the Empire on the Venetian navy in the struggle with the Norman power, and for this help Venice exacted commercial privileges which injured Byzantine commerce and opened the door to the preponderant influences of the Venetians in eastern trade. In the period of the Palaeologi the imperial navy, though small, was active; and the importance which it possessed for the state is illustrated by the high rank at court which the admiral (who in the 11th century had received the title of Great Duke, then occupied; the only minister who was superior to him was the Great Domestic.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:52:23 ZULU