“The heavens appeared to weep in sympathy…” Ancient and Medieval Naval Power

A few weeks ago, I published an article that looked at the logistical constraints faced by the Crusader armies and the Muslim Sultanate during the Third Crusade. It was while researching this that I became fascinated with the subject of ancient and medieval naval power. Lacking all but the most rudimentary navigation and communication capabilities, the navies of ancient and medieval kingdoms nevertheless were capable of incredible military feats and breathtaking displays of power and brutality.

Ancient Naval Power

Die Seeschlacht bei Salamis – 1868 (by Wilhelm von Kaulbach)

With naval forces of the ancient world largely littoral in nature, there were some similarities between naval strategy and tactics with those of ground forces. However, the unique requirements and capabilities of naval power were appreciated as well. Naval forces were far more expensive and required a certain level of specialized training to be effective. As with land warfare, coordination of efforts between large numbers of forces was critical, and that would seem to be even more so for naval vessels spread out across a wide sea.

Looking at the famous Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C., Greek city-states that did not normally fight together somehow worked well enough as a cohesive force to defeat the invading Persians and her allies. This indicates that there was likely a commonality in their training on which these forces based their tactics. In addition, although vessels could be positioned in the darkness of night, actually fighting appeared to be impossible outside of the day. Consider that Xerxes was eager to crush the remaining Greek forces, but had to wait upon reaching them because the day “was too far spent for them to begin the battle, since night already approached.”[1]

In The History of Herodotus, the historian provided a convincing description on why the Athenian Themistocles wanted to

The Greek Trireme dominated naval warfare for centuries in the central Mediterranean.
The Greek Trireme dominated naval warfare for centuries in the central Mediterranean.

confront the Persians close to Salamis.[2] The Greeks took advantage the narrow sea lanes formed by the straits at Salamis to draw the Persian forces into a choke point that deprived them effective use of their superior numbers.[3] For the Athenians, there was both a combat advantage to battling close to the island, as well as command and control consideration (fighting closer to the isthmus would potentially tempt some of the non-Athenian Greeks to flee so they could defend their home cities). Plus, there were additional considerations that needed to be addressed, such as access to land and allies for the crew if a vessel sank.[4]

Polybius’ description of fleet formations in The Histories some 200 years later during the First Punic War were also incredibly detailed, and indicated significant communication and training requirements.[5] He painted an impressive picture of the battle, from the “six-banked galleys” of the Roman commanders, to the increasing spacing between the following vessels to form a wedge. He included the number of vessels, how they were arrayed, and the effects of the nearby terrain and open ocean on tactics and strategy.

As one seeks to understand Carthaginian or Persian tactical decisions and strategic objectives, however, additional sources from those sides would be much more valuable. Not too many historians would likely ascribe Xerxes’ decision to face off with the Greek navy at Salamis to the prophecies of ancient oracles. So why then did he? If Herodotus’ writing somehow accurately captured the words of warning from Artemisia, did Xerxes truly believe his presence alone would carry his forces to victory? [6] The play The Persians, written by Aeschylus, has something to offer in aiding our understanding of the events that took place at Salamis (“how hateful is thy name!”). Like all primary sources, this play does provide the identification of men and women, their placement in relation to the events of the battle, and the types of weapons and the outcomes of battles.[7] But as when Polybius and Herodotus get into the minds of the enemy, with no clear idea of the sources used to do so, once should question the veracity.

The Eastern Mediterranean seemed to be uniquely shaped to encourage the development of naval warfare. The comparatively calm, land-encircled Mediterranean Sea, rich in natural harbors and clear sea lanes proved to be an ideal laboratory to develop naval warfare.[8]

Medieval Naval Power

Embarquement of King Philipp II of France for the Third Crusade (1190)
Embarquement of King Philipp II of France for the Third Crusade (1190)

Although naval capabilities, particularly in ship-design and navigation, had advanced significantly since the days of the Romans, naval warfare was still mostly littoral during this period, and usually directly associated with land warfare. Weather, that spoiler of the best laid plans of ground commanders, had an even greater impact on naval operations. The weather and tides in the Mediterranean Sea were somewhat predictable and more advantageous in some respects to European powers than to Arab and Muslim powers on the south coast.[9] Yet, with that said, weather could and did surprise medieval navies. The account King Richard’s conquest of Cyprus even begins with weather woes: “Richard’s ships had been dispersed by the uneven winds and were making for Cyprus.” As they did so, a number of ships were wrecked on the coastline because of this weather.[10]

The effects of prolonged voyages also had a negative effect on the forces being transported. One could imagine this being

Richard the Lionheart at sea
Richard the Lionheart at sea

particularly true for soldiers simply being ferried to an expected land war (as the Crusaders were) who were not experienced with sailing. When Richard landed at Cyprus, his forces were reduced because many of his troops “were exceedingly fatigued from the continual tossing of the sea.”[11] This degradation was not confined to just the soldiers, however. When Richard’s army pursed the fleeing Emperor of Cyprus, they were conscious of the fact that the horses had been “tossed about at sea for a month,” and therefore did not drive the beasts hard.[12]

In regards to actual sea combat, the accounts of medieval naval battles captured the brutality of this warfare. Writing of the Battle of Sluys in 1340, John Froissart observed “Combats at sea are more destructive and obstinate than upon land, for it is not possible to retreat or flee – every one must abide his fortune and exert his prowess and valour.”[13] And though Salimbene de Adam, in writing of the naval battle between Pison and Geona in 1147, did not make direct comparisons to land warfare, the particular manner of combat he describes makes it clear that combatants either fought or died: “[T]hey tied their ships together in the usual fashion of a naval battle. And there was such great slaughter on both sides at that place that the heavens appeared to weep in sympathy.” Even taking into account expected hyperbole, Frossart’s observation that one had nowhere to run away to during a naval battle makes the likelihood of excessive casualties, compared to land warfare, quite plausible.

[1] Herodotus, The History of Herodotus, Book 8, trans. George Rawlinson, chapter 70, http://classics.mit.edu/Herodotus/history.html

[2] Herodotus, Ibid, chapter 60.

[3] Herodotus, Ibid. 60.

[4] Herodotus, Ibid, chapter 49

[5] Polybius, The Histories, Vol 1, Trans W.R. Paton, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979)26.10-27 http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Polybius/1*.html

[6] Herodotus, Ibid. 68.1-68.3

[7] Aeschylus, The Persians, trans. Robert Potter, http://classics.mit.edu/Aeschylus/persians.html, 390-432

[8] Stephen Morillo, Jeremy Black, and Paul Lococo, War in World History Society, Technology. And War from Ancient Times to the Present, vol. 1, To 1500 (New York: McGraw Hill, 2009) 78-79.

[9] Stephen Morillo, Jeremy Black, and Paul Lococo, War in World History Society, Technology. And War from Ancient Times to the Present, vol. 1, To 1500 (New York: McGraw Hill, 2009) 279.

[10] Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, ed. William Stubbs, Rolls Series, (London: Longmans, 1864) II, 9-29 (150-83), translated by James Brundage, The Crusades: A Documentary History, (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1962), 166-74

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] The Chronicles of Sir John Froissart, Chapter L, The naval engagement between the king of England and the French before Sluys, Ref: http://www.maisonstclaire.org/resources/chronicles/froissart/book_1/ch_026-050/fc_b1_chap050.html.