The Age of the Dromon. The Byzantine Navy ca. 500-1204
Leiden: Brill, 2011. 754 pp. $49.50 [PB]. The Medieval Mediterranean 62 ISBN 978 90 04 15197 0 [HB]; ISBN 978 90 04 20590 1 [PB]
When this hefty tome appeared in 2006, in hardback, it carried a price tag of $250 that dissuaded purchase by hard-pressed libraries and under-paid scholars. Its appearance now as a paperback at a fifth of the original price merits a brief commentary. Since its initial publication, The Age of the Dromon has been complimented by works such as Salvatore La Mantia’s Il Dromone (VII-X secolo) Ipotesi Recostruttiva, which was completed as a dissertation in Cultural Heritage Preservation at the University of Bologna in December 2008 and did not incorporate Pryor and Jeffreys into its text. In addition to specialist works appearing since 2006, more general accounts have attracted attention, such as Edward Luttwak’s The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire (2009; 2011 [PB]).
As De Re Militari readers well know, interest in the military history of the Byzantine Empire has increased substantially over the last decade. Non-specialists draw eagerly from secondary sources about Byzantium. While the history of land warfare is documented substantially in English language sources (by Haldon, Treadgold, Bartusis, McGeer, Kyriakidas, and others too numerous to cite here), much of the best interpretation of Byzantine naval warfare is in French, German, and as the above-mentioned work by La Mantia so amply demonstrates, Italian. Scholars writing on Byzantium have long demonstrated how proficiency in a multitude of languages enhances a program of study in history. Those of us in tangential fields doff our caps in genuine awe. The simple fact is that historians of Byzantium know more languages than the rest of us, so we are dependent upon them to synthesize scholarship not available in English and elaborate upon salient features of the Byzantine civilization. Pryor and Jeffreys distill and synthesize much of that literature in this magnum opus. At the same time, visual primary sources are distributed liberally throughout its pages. A paperback edition of this work is quite handy, packed as it is with all sorts of fascinating detail, particularly in the appendices.
If one has incorporated Byzantine history into university lectures, then one has almost certainly fielded the inevitable and ubiquitous question about the nature of “Greek fire”. Somehow trebuchets and Greek fire exercise a hypnotic spell upon bright-eyed undergraduates, who love military history because it features so many lethal gadgets. Pryor and Jeffreys devote a 25-page appendix to the subject of Greek Fire, including visual and literary evidence. Pryor does not presume that his is the definitive account of the subject, but rather presents “observations on Greek Fire which we have made in the course of our research into the Byzantine navy and which may be useful to others or which inform our discussion elsewhere.” That sharing of sources and notes is emblematic of the approach of Pryor and Jeffreys, and shows why the book is a rich source of material. That includes the philological contributions of Jeffreys. Non-specialists may try their skills in comparing the Greek text with Jeffreys’ translations. A half dozen or so treatises and documents by Syrianos Magistros, Leo VI and others are appended. The present writer, for example, was elated to find in the appendices translations of the inventories for the Cretan expeditions of 911 and 949. Horse transports are another fascinating subject, and the authors give us 29 pages on the subject, garnished with contemporary illustrations of transports and Pryor’s expert schematic drawings. Oarage systems, water supplies, rigging and other features of “poop desk history” receive serious consideration and illustration.
What else could a non-specialist want? Well, narrative remains a useful avenue for getting at a subject. The authors provide what is in essence a campaign history ranging from 500 to 1204, cast as “operational context”. If one needs to anchor oneself in chronology when reading the analytical chapters of the book, then one can go back to the “operational context” and reacquaint oneself with the broader picture. If one finds the unfolding of events in the Byzantine Empire to be a bit slippery, these hundred or so pages (complimented by chronological tables) sort it all out. And then there is the dromon itself, the star of the show, the several sections on that topic replete with all sorts of delightfully antiquarian technological features. One suspects that had Pryor not become a historian, he would have pursued a vocation in engineering. Pryor’s drawings are remarkably detailed yet abundantly clear to the reader. These schematics are buttressed by pictorial evidence, drawn most frequently from illuminated manuscripts.
In sum, the volume is both groundbreaking monograph and reference work. Uncharacteristically of the trends in academic publishing, Brill gave Pryor and Jeffreys an opportunity to expound upon some of the key problems at length and in an almost nineteenth-century intricacy. Thus we should thank the publisher as well as the authors for making available an affordable paperback edition.
Mark Charles Fissel
The Augusta Arsenal <firstname.lastname@example.org>