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

Monday, October 1, 2018

The Byzantine Marine Corps

A still of Greek Fire from the game Assassin’s Creed Revelations.
Byzantine Marines would have been used to operate projectile weapons, use Greek Fire, to defend the ship and to board enemy ships.

The Byzantine Marines
"From the Halls of Asia Minor
to the Shores of Sicily"

There is a near total lack of proper military histories of the Eastern Roman Empire from those who were witness to the great events of the time.

I use the example of the battle the Little Bighorn in 1876. Literally mountains and mountains of excruciatingly detailed information has been published about what was (historically) an extremely minor frontier dust up with about 300 American casualties.

By comparison we have 1,000 years of Eastern Roman Empire military history with close to zero meaningful detail of events.

That brings us to the Byzantine Marine Corps.

The fact that the Eastern Empire even had a Marine Corps may rank as one of the best kept secrets in military history.

Roman marines storm a Carthaginian galley during the Battle of Mylae, 1st Punic War 260 BC - Giuseppe Rava

Early Empire Marines

The Roman Legions get all the historical glory.  The Roman Navy? An afterthought if even that. The Roman Marines? No one cares.

But the fact of the matter is all navy ships require fighters on board to attack enemy ships, protect their own ships and to enforce the will of the officers on the crew.

During the early Principate, a ship's crew, regardless of its size, was organized as a centuria. Crewmen could sign on as marines (called Marinus), rowers/seamen, craftsmen and various other jobs, though all personnel serving in the imperial fleet were classed as milites ("soldiers"), regardless of their function; only when differentiation with the army was required, were the adjectives classiarius or classicus added. 

Along with several other instances of prevalence of army terminology, this testifies to the lower social status of naval personnel, considered inferior to the auxiliaries and the legionaries.

Emperor Claudius first gave legal privileges to the navy's crewmen, enabling them to receive Roman citizenship after their period of service. This period was initially set at a minimum of 26 years (one year more than the legions), and was later expanded to 28. Upon honorable discharge (honesta missio), the sailors received a sizable cash payment as well.

Eastern Empire

In 395 AD the eastern and western Empires broke away from each other. Except for the Vandals in North Africa the eastern Mediterranean was a Roman lake with little combat and no real need for Marines.

The re-conquest of Vandal North Africa was a huge amphibious operation. But the historian Procopius makes no mention of Marines on the invasion ships. The regular infantry provided security. With the fall of the Vandals and the re-conquest of Italy the entire Mediterranean once again became a Roman lake. The Roman navy and Marines, if any, had little to do except to transport and then supply the troops.

That started to change in 629 AD with the Muslim Arab invasions of the Middle East and then North Africa.

For years the Muslim forces were land based. In the 600s the Byzantines used their command of the sea to organize counter attacks against newly Muslim conquered Alexandria and and Carthage.

In the 600s and 700s there was still not much need for Marines. As we move into the 800s we see the growth of an Arab navy and Arab pirates raiding Byzantine controlled southern Europe.

Eastern Empire Marines
Marines were organized to help fight in the endless Arab naval attacks against southern Europe, the Greek islands and Asia Minor.

By the end of the 7th century, with the Umayyad conquest of North Africa, the Muslims had captured the port city of Carthage, allowing the Arabs to build shipyards and a permanent base from which to make more sustained attacks against Byzantine Italy.

Attacks on Sicily from Muslim fleets repeated in 703, 728, 729, 730, 731, 733 and 734, the last two times meeting with a substantial Byzantine resistance.

As we move into the 800s we see Arab naval attacks spreading all over the Mediterranean.

The Muslim invasion of Sicily began in 827.  The suburbs of Rome itself were raided in 846 and Malta captured 869. Other areas attacked were:  Fraxinetum (see map below) in southern France, cities all over southern Italy, Crete, Rhodes, cities in Greece and Asia Minor.

There were at least 28 major naval engagements across the Mediterranean from 800 to 1000 AD. Again battles with little to zero information. The Byzantines and Italians won 16 of the battles. The Muslims won 12. But strategically the contest went to the Muslims because they took control of most of the key islands along the sea lanes of antiquity.  By 700 east, west trade had virtually ceased.

By the late 800s the naval war began to change in favor of the Byzantines.

Renewed prosperity allowed the Emperors to build up the fleet. Between 842 and 900 the number of oarsmen enrolled in the navy more than doubled from 14,600 to 34,200. To arm the additional ships more Marines were recruited.

In AD 870 the Imperial Central Fleet based in Constantinople received its own dedicated troops in the form of 4,000 new Marines.

Byzantine naval battle against the Turks

Oarsmen were salaried professional or semi-professional seaman. They were not amateur volunteers or slaves.

Marines (polemistia) and ordinary oarsmen were paid nine nomismata (gold coins) per year.

Marines, like land soldiers, also had other income. They were often holders of tax-free military lands. Typically they had a good sized holding of 432 modii or 35 hectares which they sub-let to tenant farmers.

A Marine was more of a soldier than a farmer. His holding was large enough to afford him to have his relatives, tenants and hired hands run it for him when needed. This would allow the Marine or his son to devote a large part of the year to military training, military exercises or fighting in naval expeditions.

The largest Byzantine dromon warship crew was 300: some 230 crew and 70 Marines. A smaller ship might have a crew of 110 and an additional 50 "others" - a mix of officers, support and Marines.

In 911, a large-scale Byzantine expedition of well over 100 ships was launched against the Emirate of Crete, headed by the admiral HimeriosHere are the number of Marines that participated in the invasion:

  • 5,087 Mardaites Marines from the military Themes of Epirus, Nicopolis and the Peloponnese.
  • 4,200 Marines from the Imperial Central Fleet in Constantinople.
  • 1,190 Marines from Kibyrrhotai (Asia Minor) Fleet.
  • 1,890 from assorted flotillas.
  • 700 Norsemen from the Imperial Fleet.
13,067  total

The Mardaites Marines above were from a new Theme in the Peloponnese where in AD 809 Emperor Nicephorus I resettled 4,000 Marines and their dependents.

Ships show a store of arms in one Byzantine inventory: 22 mail hauberks, 50 padded surcoats, 70 lamellar corselets  - perhaps one per each Marine.  There were 50 bows and 10,000 arrows (200 per archer), 100 javelins, 100 heavy pikes, 80 ordinary helmets, 10 visored helmets, 80 boat hooks etc.

We are not sure who used the bows. Maybe the Marines fired them. The Marines might have doubled as light-armed archers.

Greek Fire 

For 500 years the Byzantine secret weapon was the napalm spraying Greek Fire.

The Byzantines typically used it in naval battles to great effect, as it could continue burning while floating on water. It provided a technological advantage and was responsible for many key Byzantine military victories, most notably the salvation of Constantinople from two Arab sieges, thus securing the Empire's survival.

The Marines were the front line battle troops on ships. They may have been given the task of operating the fire-pumps.

Byzantine Marines threw pots filled with powered
quicklime at the crews of enemy ships.

Late Empire Marines

The Gasmouloi were the descendants of mixed Byzantine Greek and "Latin" (West European, most often Italian) unions during the last centuries of the Byzantine Empire

As the Gasmouloi were enrolled as marines in the Byzantine navy by Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos (r. 1259–1261), the term eventually lost its ethnic connotations and came to be applied generally to those owing a military service from the early 14th century on.

Following the Fourth Crusade, mixed unions between Greeks and Latins occurred to a very limited extent when the Latin Empire and the other Western principalities were established on Byzantine soil. The term gasmoulos itself is of unknown etymology and first appeared in the second half of the 13th century. It is, however, not unlikely that it has some relation with the Latin word mulus, "mule". Although it was generally used to refer to children of these mixed unions, it more specifically designated the children of a Byzantine woman and a Latin (often Venetian) father. 

The Gasmouloi were socially ostracized and distrusted by both the Byzantines and the Latins, who distrusted their ambiguous identity. In the words of a French treatise of ca. 1330, "They present themselves as Greeks to Greeks and Latins to Latins, being all things to everyone...". In a treaty signed in 1277 between Michael VIII and the Venetians, the Gasmouloi of Venetian heritage were considered as Venetian citizens, but in subsequent decades, many reverted to a Byzantine allegiance. As some of their descendants in turn wished to reclaim their Venetian citizenship, the issue of the Gasmouloi would plague Byzantine-Venetian relations until the 1320s.

After the recovery of Constantinople by the forces of Michael VIII in 1261, the Gasmouloi were hired by the Emperor as mercenaries. Together with men from Laconia, they served as lightly armed marine infantry in Michael's effort to re-establish a strong "national" navy. 

The Gasmoulikon corps played a prominent role in the Byzantine campaigns to recover the islands of the Aegean Sea in the 1260s and 1270s, but after Michael VIII's death, his successor, Andronikos II Palaiologos, largely disbanded the navy in 1285. Denied of any remuneration by the Emperor and out of work, some Gasmouloi remained in imperial service, but many others sought employment in the Latin and Turkish fleets, as hired bodyguards for magnates, or turned to piracy.

By the early 14th century, the notion of gasmoulikē douleia ("service as a gasmoulos") had lost its specific ethnic connotations, and gradually came to refer to any service as a lightly armed soldier, both on sea and on land. In this capacity, Gasmouloi served the Byzantines and Ottomans in the 14th century, and the Latin principalities of the Aegean (where the servitio et tenimento vasmulia was hereditary) in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The Byzantine navy, such as it was during the empire's last century, continued to use their services. The Gasmouloi played a role in the Byzantine civil war of 1341–1347, fiercely supporting their commander, the megas doux Alexios Apokaukos, against John VI Kantakouzenos. After the latter's victory, many of the Gasmouloi of Constantinople must have been dismissed. Those of Kallipoli eventually joined the Ottoman Turks, providing the crews for the first Ottoman fleets.

Click to enlarge
A map of the Byzantine-Arab naval competition
in the Mediterranean, 7th to 11th centuries.

(Navy and Marines)      (Gasmouloi)      (marines)      (Byzantine)

(jstor.org)      (Navy Crews)