The standard Byzantine warship that employed both sails and oars. A typical 10th-century dromon had two banks of oars employing 200 rowers, in addition to a battering ram on the prow, and enough heavily armored marines to board an enemy ship if necessary. In other words, it looked and acted very much like the bireme of classical Greece. However, from the late seventh century on, the prow was a bronze-tipped siphon for discharging Byzantine napalm, the famous Greek Fire that proved decisive in so many battles. Hides and lead sheathing protected the ship’s sides against enemy incendiaries. Also new was a wooden tower amidships that allowed catapults and archers to launch stones, arrows, and other antipersonnel devices.
Behind this conventional presentation lie two intellectual assumptions which have underpinned the historiography. The first is that specific ship types, known by different names, existed in different chronological periods, or in different civilizations, and that these had distinctive construction features which either can be ascertained or, if they cannot be ascertained, would be able to be ascertained if sufficient evidence were available. The second assumption is that when the writers of ancient and medieval texts used terms such as trieres, liburna, dromon, or galea, they actually intended to refer to such specific ship types because these names were applied to the ship types by their contemporaries. Therefore, if a new name began to be used in the texts from a certain period, this reflects the fact that a new type of ship appeared in that period. Conversely, if a name faded from use in the texts in a certain period, then this indicates that the type of ship to which it referred had disappeared. It has been assumed that there were definite relationships between the words and the physical objects to which they referred, relationships which were both stable over long periods of time and also consistent in usage from place to place and person to person at any one time.
In certain periods Byzantines certainly referred to galleys by the term dromon, and also by chelandion and other terms, but did they always really intend that their use of these terms should actually designate specific galley types with distinctive design characteristics?
We have then approached the reality of “the” Byzantine dromon from alternative perspectives. On the one hand, from the sixth to the twelfth centuries, Byzantines and others certainly referred to some kinds of war galleys by the name dromo2n. On the other hand, real war galleys certainly existed. But, what did contemporaries intend their terminology to signify and what can we know of the physical objects to which they referred? Beyond that, with what degree of confidence can we use their texts to research the construction characteristics of the galleys and the ways in which they may have evolved over time?