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Roman Liburnian

Roman Liburnian

The early days of the Roman Empire were marked by huge naval battles.  The First Punic war saw great fleets of polyremes battling for the Mediterranean and that tradition continued as Rome grew and conquered the Mediterranean and fought civil wars right up until the battle of Actium left one man in control of the entire sea.  Thereafter, in the days of Empire, giant ships were no longer needed for dealing with pirates or policing sea lanes.  The navy of the later Roman Empire consisted principally of liburnians (also known as liburna), small light galleys which were not so swift and giant as the monstrous oared ships of the Republic.

Liburnians of the Danube fleet during Trajan's Dacian Wars (BAs Relief from Trajan's column, 118 AD)

Liburnians of the Danube fleet during Trajan’s Dacian Wars (Bas Relief from Trajan’s column, 118 AD)

Liburnians were named for, um, the Liburnians an Illyrian tribe inhabiting the Adriatic coast of Greece (what is today Croatia).  The Liburnians were pirates and sea raiders.  When the Macedonians conquered Liburnia, the military men were impressed by the lightness, maneuverability, and deadliness of the Liburnian vessels, so they made them part of the navy. Later, in the second half of the first century BC, Rome conquered the Hellenic world and took up this naval design (as well as a huge host of other Greek concepts).

Roman Liburna

Roman Liburna

The original liburnian boat had a single bench of 25 oars on each side.  The Romans refined altered this design to feature dual rows of oarsmen pulling 18 oars per side.  A liburnian was probably about 31 meters (100 ft long) and 5 meters (16 feet wide) wide with a draft of a meter (3 feet).  The Romans also added a prow for ramming other boats.

The liburnian served with distinction for centuries in the navies of the golden age empire and afterwards.  The boats were not used only for military missions but also for cargo and passenger transport. They saw use on the great rivers as well as on the sea. For many more centuries it liburnians were the backbone of the Byzantine navy as well, until the changing ideas of warfare caused the craft to evolve into the Byzantine dromons and the war galleys of the middle ages.

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Ferrebeekeeper has had the same group of topics for a long time, so it is time to experiment with some new ones.  Today’s topic—ancient ships—is not entirely new on this blog.  We have already written about various galleys and longships (including a Greek trireme, an ancient Egyptian reconstruction, and a Viking longboat), however today we concentrate on the greatest warship of the Byzantine navy, the mighty dromon.   The dromon was the mainstay of the Byzantine navy for seven centuries from the 5th century AD to the 12th century AD.  The galley was based on the ancient Roman liburnian, a sort of small galley used for patrols and raids by the Roman navy. Dromons were different from liburnians in that they abandoned underwater rams (which were in declining use in the Empire) for an above-the-water spur.  Additionally dromons featured a full deck, and they were rigged with lateen (triangular) sails by the age of Justinian.

A Lateen-rigged Monoreme Dromon

A Lateen-rigged Monoreme Dromon

The principal feature of the dromon, as with other ancient Mediterranean warships, were the banks of oars which propelled the ship in battle.  Earlier dromons of the sixth century were single-banked (“monoreme”) ships with 25 oars per side, however by the ninth century it seems that dromons were being built with 2 banks of oars divided by a deck.  The top bank held 25 rowers per side and the bottom could have had up to 35 which meant the ships were crewed b 120 rowing men.

An Amazing Model of a large late dromon

An Amazing Model of a large late dromon

Dromons were fearsomely outfitted with weapons.  In addition to their sharpened spike (which was used to sheer off the oars of rival boats) they had great companies of marines—armored soldiers who boarded enemy vessels to fight their crews by hand.  A grand spout on the prow was used to spray Greek fire, a sticky napalm-like flaming liquid which was extremely hard to douse (the exact nature of which has been lost to history).  Large dromons had wooden castles at fore and aft from which marksmen could fire bows, crossbows, or scorpions.

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Dromons were the principal craft which the Byzantines used in their many wars against barbarian invaders like the Vandals and the Rus and then against successive Muslim dynasties hellbent on taking the empire.  These naval battles must have been horrifying and grand to watch.  Greek fire gave the Byzantines some advantage (although it was treacherous stuff) but eventually the ships would become entangled.  The marines would snatch up their shields from where they hung along the sides of the dromon and together with all the oarsmen (who were not slaves but fighters) would participate in brutal pitched battles.

Dromon Model

Dromon Model

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