Byzantine naval warfare, siege weapons, battle tactics

Posted by Powee Celdran 

The Greeks began to fling their fire all around; and the Rusii seeing the flames threw themselves in haste from their ships, preferring to be drowned in the water rather than burned alive in the fire.” -Liutprand of Cremona on Greek Fire, 941

As I have written a long post on Byzantine military units, this time I’m again on Byzantium though on their navy an battle tactics this time. Just as they had an interesting, powerful, and multi-cultural army, their navy was quite fascinating too and their siege weapons even more. The Byzantines though had ordinary warships, mostly small in size as they did travel that far, though they had extra-ordinary siege weapons compared to the rest of Medieval Europe. Part of their extremely powerful and unimaginable siege weapons was the naval cannon, or Greek Fire which blew out liquid fire, they also had more powerful siege weapons to think of.


The Byzantine Empire mostly had everything based on what their predecessors, the Romans had and made different versions of them including the army, the navy, and architecture. Just as the Romans did, the Eastern Romans or the Byzantines who followed them after the fall of the western empire took some of Rome’s influences and great works they’ve done in the past. Part of the Roman world which Byzantium took was the navy, the Byzantines made a different versions of the Roman navy building different types of ships. The Byzantine ships were however not large but small and powerful. The Byzantines too need to have a strong navy as their empire which lasted for more than 1000 years controlled the seas. The Byzantine navy controlled the many different seas such as the Mediterranean, Aegean, Bosporus, Adriatic, Ionian, and Black seas and the navy was most needed in protecting the trade routes at sea by making sure the enemy ships were kept away to make travel and trade by sea safe. For the many years of Byzantium’s wars and military campaigns, the navy was overall needed to transport armies and fight the fleets of the many different enemies of theirs, which included the Sassanid Persians, the Germanic tribes, pirates, Slavs or Bulgars, Muslims, Russians, Mongols, Venetians, Crusaders, and Ottomans. For so many years, the Byzantine Empire had a successful navy keeping the empire strong.


mosaic of Byzantine ship
mosaic of Byzantine ship
Dromon warship
Dromon warship
sample Byzantine warship
Sample Byzantine warship
ships using Greek fire
Ships using Greek fire


There were actually only a few types of Byzantine war ships though most of them were not large in size but effective. Some of the Byzantine ships included an evolved version of the Roman trireme, the basic warship boarded with archers and spearmen ready to attack the enemy ship, it also had an ability to ram the enemy ship or let soldiers board it. Most of the Byzantine warships were however small with 2 or 3 sails, these were also used as trading ships too. The common but most effective Byzantine warship was the Dromon, a 2 or 3 sailed galley powered by oars and a pointed edge. Its main ability was launching a powerful siege weapon, Greek Fire which was fire blown out from the ships that scared the enemy ships. Throughout the naval history of Byzantium, Greek fire was the effective weapon that burned down many enemy ships and scared enemy soldiers. Byzantine ships however did not carry much siege equipment, though some carried scorpion though most carried soldiers firing missiles or the ship itself was the weapon.

my sketch of Byzantine siege weapons
Byzantine siege weapons
soldiers operating Greek fire
Soldiers operate Greek Fire
Greek fire blowing out fire
Greek fire in action (AC Revelations)
Greek fire grenade
Greek fire grenade


At both land and naval battles, the Byzantines used quite a set of siege weapons. Their siege weapons included some Roman based siege weapons and some advanced Medieval siege weapons. Part of Byzantine siege weapons that were Roman based were was the scorpion, a smaller version of a ballista firing out a series of bolts either with flames or without. The scorpion the Byzantines used was the same as the Roman mounted crossbow, it was used on both land or on ships as its bolts could damage or burn enemy ships. Other Byzantine siege weapons included the same Medieval siege equipment for sieging castle walls such as the trebuchet or mangorel, a tall and heavy-supported catapult throwing large rocks or flamed hay balls to damage or burn walls. Other of their siege weapons than catapults were battering rams and siege towers which were useful to make soldiers invade the walls. The most effective and popular Byzantine siege weapon was Greek fire, a cannon used both on land and sea blowing out flames to quickly bun enemy ships and armies. The Greek fire was developed as early as 672, by the Byzantines Greeks giving it its name, it was first used in defending Constantinople from the Arab invasions, true enough it was successful in defending them. The Greek fire was mostly used for warships, its edge had a spout where the cannon was located blowing out liquid fire, it was highly effective in burning several ships. Its main weapon was the liquid fire most possibly consisting of naphtha and quicklime, however its formula is a mystery only kept to the Byzantines- and died with them with the fall of the empire in 1453- but it was extremely powerful. The Greek fire used different grenades and caltrops powering them, overall it was an incendiary weapon. The ingredients for the liquid flame of this flame thrower include combinations of pine resin, naphtha, quicklime, calcium phosphide, sulfur, and niter. This flamethrower was either a large cannon mounted on a warship or even portable being carried when sieging towers, it took 2or 3 soldiers to operate this weapon. This weapon was is also highly popular for its effectiveness in naval battles, it is mentioned in movies, series, literature and games like Assassin’s Creed Revelations (2011). The Byzantines overall used powerful siege weapons not for invading other cities although they did and were highly effective when conquering other lands to the north and east, though they used these weapons more in the defence of their empire.

Byzantine units at the middle of battle
Byzantine units at the middle of battle
Byzantine cavalry charge
Byzantine Cataphract cavalry charge
Byzantine army units sieging
Byzantine siegecraft (Madrid Skylitzes)

Aside from siegecraft, army units were important in controlling the siege craft and were the main part of the battle. The Byzantine empire had several different military units and each ad a different function. For example, Cataphract cavalry units formed a wedge formation performing a shock charge, first by shooting arrows from riding then charging straight at the enemy. The cataphracts however were more for land battle and not for siege or defence. The lighter units such as the archers and foot soldiers handled the defence, the archers were more important units of defence and sieging walls by firing either regular and incendiary arrows at the enemy above or below or with great effect lighting the oil or hay to burn down the enemy. The foot soldiers on the other hand were more of use operating siege weapons like the Greek fire, scorpion, trebuchet, and battering ram and were the first line of defence when sieging or being sieged. The Varangian guard units were mostly used when at full battle mode especially when the battle becomes intense, these units fought with their superior strength and advanced battle tactics.

early Byzantine army units
Early Byzantine army units
Byzantine and Varangian forces
Byzantine and Varangian forces
fall of Constantinople, 1453
Fall of Constantinople, 1453


Throughout Byzantium’s history, from its beginning as the Eastern Roman empire after dividing from Rome in the 4th century until its fall in 1453, its military has evolved. At the beginning days, the Byzantine army was very much similar to the Roman army, from the time of Emperor Constantine the Great until Justinian I when the western empire fell and the east rose as the Byzantine empire. In Emperor Justinian’s time, the army evolved with more units but more on foot soldiers, the army expanded too as Justinian fought wars conquering lands far beyond which were once part of the Roman empire, which he succeeded retaking from Barbarian Vandals, Ostrogoths, and Visigoths. The next series of wars the Byzantines fought with were with the Sassanid Persians then the Islamic Arabs, here they invented new siege weapons such as Greek fire to defend their cities from invasions. At the same time they defended their cities from Muslim invasions, the Byzantines expand their territories north by fighting the Slavs and the Russians (The Rus‘), afterwards allying themselves an using their warriors as Byzantine forces, which were the Varangians. The Byzantines too invented the Cataphract cavalry when fighting the Turks at the east but at times they lost greatly but when fighting land and naval battles wight the Russians, they had won. At the latter part of their empire’s history, they fought defending their empire from the Seljuk Turks, Crusaders, Venetians, then finally the Ottoman Turks. From so much battles, the Byzantine army began to decline beginning the 1200’s, so did their empire’s size. It all came to an end at the final battle in 1453 where they were defeated by the Ottomans besieging Constantinople itself. Here the Ottomans developed highly-powered cannons that the Byzantines with their’s capital’s thousand year old walls had no chance to stand against. On May 29, 1453, the Ottomans took over Constantinople and the last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI was killed and the rest of the city fled and the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II took over making Constantinople the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The Byzantine Empire then ended as the Ottoman Empire began to grow in place of them while the Renaissance began too.


Well, this was a lot more again about Byzantium, anyway this is it, hope this was interesting. After all, Byzantium has many different parts of it history, warfare, art, architecture, and civilisation unexplored.. watch out for more posts!

Published by The Byzantium Blogger

Powee Celdran, currently majors in Entrepreneurial Management, a Byzantine scholar and enthusiast, historical military sketch and bathroom mural artist, aspiring historical art restorer, Lego filmmaker creating Byzantine era films and videos, and a possible Renaissance man living in modern times but Byzantine at heart. Currently manages the Instagram account byzantine_time_traveller posting Byzantine history related content.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: