Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Battle of the Masts - 655 AD

At the Battle of the Masts in 655, a fledgling Arab fleet from the Levant crushed the mighty Byzantine navy (Cyclopedia of Universal History, 1885).


The popular view of the Roman Empire falling in 476 AD has always been wrong.  The Western half of the Empire did indeed fall.  But the Eastern Empire, the Emperor, the Senate, the bureaucracy, Imperial Army and Navy went on.

From 476 on the Empire fought a staggering and endless stream of foes coming from all possible directions:  Vandals, Goths, Slavs, Persians, Arabs and more.  More than once the Empire nearly ceased to exist and held on only by its' fingernails.

Up to this point in the 600s the Romans had finally come out on top.  They has totally crushed their ancient enemy the Persian Empire.  After decades of war there was a badly needed peace.

But that much needed peace was shattered almost at once by the sudden rise of Islam.  An exhausted and almost bankrupt Empire fought an endless series of major battles with the Arabs resulting in the loss of the Roman provinces in Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Libya.

No matter how badly the Empire needed peace to re-build their military and economy, the Arab invasions just would not stop.


Constans was the son of Constantine III and Gregoria. Due to the rumors that Heraklonas and Martina had poisoned Constantine III he was named co-emperor in 641. Later that same year his uncle was deposed and Constans II was left as sole emperor.

Constans owed his throne to a popular reaction against his uncle and to the protection of the soldiers led by the general Valentinus. Although the precocious emperor addressed the senate with a speech blaming Heraklonas and Martina for eliminating his father, he reigned under a regency of senators
Eastern Roman Emperor
Constans II

Under Constans, the Byzantines completely withdrew from Egypt in 642, and Caliph Uthman launched numerous attacks on the islands of the Mediterranean Sea and Aegean Sea. A Byzantine fleet under the admiral Manuel occupied Alexandria again in 645, but after a Muslim victory the following year this had to be abandoned. The situation was complicated by the violent opposition to Monothelitism by the clergy in the west, and the related rebellion of the Exarch of Carthage, Gregory. The latter fell in battle against the army of Caliph Uthman and the region remained a vassal state under the Caliphate, until the civil war broke out and the imperial rule was again restored.

The Caliphate advance continued unabated. In 647 they had entered into Armenia and Cappadocia, and sacked Caesarea Mazaca. In 648 the Arabs raided into Phrygia and in 649 launched their first maritime expedition against Crete. A major Arab offensive into Cilicia and Isauria in 650–651 forced the emperor to enter into negotiations with Caliph Uthman's governor of Syria, Muawiyah. The truce that followed allowed a short respite, and made it possible for Constans to hold on to the western portions of Armenia.


In building a new navy the Muslim elite, which came from the inland-oriented northern part of the Arabian peninsula, largely relied on the resources and manpower of the conquered Levant (especially the Copts of Egypt), which until a few years previously had provided ships and crews for the Byzantines. 
The Arab dhow were between 150
and 250 tons, 85 feet long and 20
feet wide.

There is evidence that in the new naval bases in Palestine shipwrights from Persia and Iraq were also employed. The lack of illustrations earlier than the 14th century means that nothing is known about the specifics of the early Muslim warships, although it is usually assumed that their naval efforts drew upon the existing Mediterranean maritime tradition.

The centuries-long interaction between the two cultures, Byzantine and Arab ships shared many similarities. This similarity also extended to tactics and general fleet organization; translations of Byzantine military manuals were available to the Arab admirals.


The Byzantine navy was the naval force of the East Roman or Byzantine Empire. Like the empire it served, it was a direct continuation from its imperial Roman predecessor, but played a far greater role in the defense and survival of the state then its earlier iterations.

With the onset of the Muslim conquests in the 7th century. Following the loss of the Levant and later Africa, the Mediterranean Sea was transformed from a "Roman lake" into a battleground between Byzantines and Arabs. In this struggle, the Byzantine fleets were critical, not only for the defense of the Empire's far-flung possessions around the Mediterranean basin, but also in the repulsion of seaborne attacks against the imperial capital of Constantinople itself.
Reconstruction of an early 10th century
Byzantine bireme dromon

The size of the standing navy varied over the centuries based on the enemy of the monent and budgets.  In 899 the navy numbered 42,000 men with 300 ships.

The dromon (from Greek δρόμων, dromōn, i.e. "runner") was a type of galley and the most important warship of the Byzantine navy from the 6th to 12th centuries AD. It was indirectly developed from the ancient trireme and was usually propelled by both oars and sails, a configuration that had been used by navies in the Mediterranean Sea for centuries.

The dromon would come in different sizes.  Crews could run from 100 to 200 men.  The larger ships could carry 50 Marines.

The dromons had a central tower (xylokastron – Greek: "wooden castle") near the main mast, from which the marines could use their bows and arrows or throw spears and other projectiles. Dromons were frequently equipped with catapults capable of hurling 10 kg projectiles up to 250 meters.

Roman Emperor Constans II personally commanded a fleet of 500
ships.  He sailed south meeting the smaller Arab fleet off of the province of
Lycia in the southern portion of Asia Minor.


Konstans II recognized the danger posed by Muawiya’s success at sea, since it meant that the Byzantine heartland of Asia Minor was being caught in the “pincers” of a double threat from the Arabs: attacks by land and a surrounding movement to the south by sea. The emperor organized and personally commanded a fleet that set off to challenge the Arab navy, and the two powers met at the “Battle of the Masts” at Phoenix (modern Finike) in Lycia, off the southern coast of Asia Minor, in 655.

Word reached Constans that Arab ships had attacked the islands of Rhodes, Kos, and Crete in the southern Aegean. Clearly, they meant to sail up the Aegean, through the Dardanelles, and into the Sea of Marmara. Constantinople, Constans's home and the Byzantine capital, was being threatened again, this time from the sea. The emperor set out to destroy these upstarts once and for all. His navy of 500 ships was the greatest in the Mediterranean, its galleys crewed by the finest sailors and marines in the empire.

When it caught the Arab fleet of 200 ships north of Cyprus, near the modern Turkish port of Finike, Constans attacked without hesitation. The emperor did not bother to bring his ships into formation. The Arabs knew nothing of naval warfare, and he expected to crush them in a single assault. Sailing straight into the Arabs, the Byzantines engaged so closely the clash was called the Battle of the Masts. 

Very little information is available on the battle.  But it appears the Byzantine's suffered from poor generalship, while the Arabs had better than expected leadership.  The fighting lasted more than a day; according to one account, "the sea ran with blood and the waves piled up the bodies on the shore.

Though outnumbered, the Arabs cut the Byzantines to pieces.  According to the 9th century chronicler Theophanes the Confessor,  Constans escaped only by putting on the garb of an ordinary seaman and having himself thrown bodily onto another ship. As the Byzantines fled, a storm decimated what remained of their shattered fleet.

Although the Arab fleet retreated after its victory, the Battle of the Masts was a significant milestone in the history of the Mediterranean, Islam and the Byzantine Empire, as it established the superiority of the Muslims at sea as well as on land. For the next four centuries, the Mediterranean would be a battleground between Byzantines and Muslims. In the aftermath of this disaster, however, the Byzantines were granted a respite due to the outbreak of a civil war among the Muslims.

The Eastern Roman Empire in 650 A.D under Constans II.  By 650 The Romans had lost their
provinces in Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Libya to Arab conquest.


Anonymous said...

In "The Age of the Dromon", Pryor talks about a shift away from classical ramming beaks to a kind of spur on the front of the ship that aided in raking the opponents' oars. Any idea if the transition was already complete by the time of the Battle of the Masts? And which side had them?

Gary said...

Don't know. I am but an amateur historian and the navy is not my area of study.

I have friends who could talk for hours about obscure areas of history like this.

Thanks for coming by the site. I am always interest in people's thoughts or corrections of any errors on my part.

Anonymous said...

Hi there,

I am a Muslim from Syria , and I read about history alot.

your problem is you never bother to look into the Arab history books.

the Arabs won that battle using the "Big island" tactic.

they connected their small ships together using ropes . making their ships like a huge one big ship.

using this method gave them freedom of moving and jumping into enemies ships.

also the Islamic hostory books says there was no wind that day.

the Muslims used to throw chains into Byzantine ships and pull them to the big island , jump in and finish them ship by ship.

They were smart and innovative !

we Muslims KNOW what happened in Muslim battles. but your historians hide it in shame !

Anonymous said...

Continue :

The Muslims changed the sea-battle field into a Land-Battle field by connecting ships together. and further more connecting the enemy ships to them..

the nullified the Sea Experience Advantage of the Romans, plus they were outnumbered (200 ships VS 500-600) .. they turned this against the Romans as well.

and they were smart also , they noticed there was no wind that day.

I think no wind nullified the possibility of using Fire against them.

Anonymous said...

continue 2

The characteristics of a Muslim Soldier back then :

1- He is an Archer.
2- He can swim
3- He is an knight he can ride horses.

The Prophet peace be upon him said : "throw weapons , your father Ismail was an Archer "

and the Caliph Omar said "teach your sons Swimming , Throwing (archers and ranged weapons) , and riding the horses "

if you compare this today .. those are special forces lol. imagine the whole army can shoot, swim and ride a horse.

and foot soldier can take the place of a dead Knight !

and every knight can shoot arrows!

and all can swim !

Gary said...

Thank you so much for your post. I am so sorry for all the pain in Syria. May you all find peace.

I would love to read any history written from the Muslim point of view. One of the main problems is the language barrier.

The other problem in both Christian and Muslim "histories" is they were often written many, many years after the events. These are not proper history books as we know them. In many cases they are legend and oral tradition set down in book form.

In my article the "Battle of Ad Decimum" I can read the first person history written by Procopius who marched at the side of General Belisarius. The detail on events both large and small is staggering.

But other battles and events have next to zero information available. In those cases I use what knowledge I have and try to piece together what happened.

Anonymous said...

I recommend three papers on this topic. They show how contradictory and confusing the sources are, but also summarize the information available:

"The naval engagement of Dhat as-Sawari A.H. 34/A.D. 655-656 a classical example of naval warfare incompetence", Vassilios Christides, Byzantina, V 13, N 2, 1985, pp 1329-1345

Andreas N. Stratos, "The Naval Engagement at Phoenix", in: Angeliki E. Laiou-Thomadakis (ed.), Charanis Studies. Essays in Honor of Peter Charanis, New Brunswick 1980, pp. 229-247

And, for a Muslim view:

Dr. Yusuf Abbas Hashmi, "Dhatu's-Sawari; A naval engagement between the Arabs and Byzantines", Islamic Quarterly, 6:1/2 (1961:Jan/Apr) pp 55-64

As for whether either/both sides uses spurs - it is certainly possible. I think Pryor hints that the process was already complete by this time. Who knows, maybe this battle (the last major head-to-head large naval battle for centuries) accelerated the change.


Anonymous said...

i dont think that the tactics that have been used in the battle of the masts were the same as described by any historians even muslims beacuase simpily to conect all the ships in one huge mass would make them unmobile and easy pics for byz ships there is an chinece example of that in the period of three kingdoms

Anonymous said...

muslim historians wright that the romans(byzantians) in the battle of the yarmouk were so many that every muslim soldier stood against ten romans so i dont think that these resources are to be trusted

Gary said...

From ancient times to today soldiers and politicians cannot count.

If a defeated enemy had 5,000 troops they will often claim they defeated 20,000.

All you can do is try to be honest and bring a little order to the confusion of history.

Unknown said...

I thought the battle was off the shores of Alexandria, Egypt. The Arabs had suggested to their enemy to take the battle on land but that was refused.

Gary said...

Only those who were there know the true location. But with Egypt under Muslim control I doubt the Byzantines would have ventured that far south for a battle and allow Muslim war ships to come in behind them.

BueatyBelle said...

I'm working on history coursework and it is a very interesting post.
Do you have any primary sources that could aid my coursework?

Anonymous said...

Thank you all who contributed to these comments. I find the island very convincing as this is what many armies at sea did. Try to turn it into a land battle.

Anonymous said...

The Republican Romans also turned naval engagements to land battles during the Punic Wars against Carthage.