Dromon

The most important warship of the Byzantine navy from the 5th to 12th centuries AD, dromon was highly agile and maneuverable but also dangerously equipped for battle. It had two banks of oars employing 200 rowers, in addition to a battering ram on the prow, and enough heavily armored marines to board an enemy ship if necessary.  However, from the late seventh century on, the prow was a bronze-tipped siphon for discharging Byzantine napalm, the famous Greek Fire that proved decisive in so many battles. Hides and lead sheathing protected the ship’s sides against enemy incendiaries. Also new was a wooden tower amidships that allowed catapults and archers to launch stones, arrows, and other antipersonnel devices.

The dromon ruled the Eastern Mediterranean from the time of the great Byzantine emperor Justinian till the fall of Constantinople, during which period the old square sail almost disappeared from the region.

We have limited information about the dromon.  Literary sources and accounts reveal that there were at least three varieties of dromon. These were, firstly the ousiakon which took its name from one company or ousia of 100 men. This was a two-banked galley with the lower rank rowing only, and the upper rank rowing or disengaging to fight when required. Secondly the slightly larger pamphylos with a crew of between 120-160. Thirdly the dromon proper, which had a crew of 200, 50 on the lower bank, and 100 on the upper bank in two files, together with 50 marines.

The Greek scholar Christos Makrypoulias suggests an arrangement of 25 oarsmen beneath and 35 on the deck on either side for a dromon of 120 rowers, however typically the ship was manned according to its dimensions. The overall length of these ships was probably about 32 meters and the width about 7 meters. Although most contemporary vessels had a single mast (histos or katartion), the larger bireme dromons probably needed at least two masts in order to maneuver effectively, assuming that a single lateen sail for a ship this size would have reached unmanageable dimensions. The ship was steered by means of two quarter rudders at the stern (prymnē), which also housed a tent (skēnē) that covered the captain’s berth. The prow (prōra) featured an elevated forecastle (pseudopation), below which the siphon for the discharge of Greek fire projected, although secondary siphons could also be carried amidships on either side. Also at the prow and stern were fixed mechanical devises known as toxobolistres, firing small arraow (myies) at the enemy. A pavesade (kastellōma), on which marines could hang their shields, ran around the sides of the ship, providing protection to the deck crew.  Larger ships also had wooden castles (xylokastra) on either side between the masts, similar to those attested for the Roman liburnians, providing archers with elevated firing platforms. Dromons were equipped with powerful and heavy catapults with a possibility to throw shells with the weight of 500 kg at the distance of 1000 meters. The bow spur (peronion) was intended to ride over an enemy ship’s oars, breaking them and rendering it helpless against missile fire and boarding actions.

 

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