Sunday, March 13, 2016

A Viking Battle at Sea: The Battle of Nisa




The Viking Naval Battle of Hafrsfjord 872 AD



Map 2.5. The Battle of Nisa, 1062.
(a) Phase I: From his 70-oar drekkar, King Harald III Hardrada leads a 300-ship Norwegian fleet to an appointed location to battle King Sveinn Estridson’s Danish fleet.
(b) Phase II: The Danes fail to arrive at the rendezvous at the appointed time, leading Hardrada to believe they have refused the challenge. He orders half of his fleet, containing his militia troops, to return home (1). The Norwegian fleet, reduced in number but crewed by Hardrada’s finest warriors, continues on (2).
(c) Phase III: As half of Hardrada’s fleet sails out of sight, the Danes suddenly appear, 300 strong (1). Hardrada prepares to fight, ordering most of his remaining longships to be lashed together side by side (2). Two groups of vessels remain untethered to protect the Norwegians’ flanks (3).
(d) Phase IV: Estridson follows the Norwegian lead and orders the Danish fleet to close up and rope together (1). The Danish king seizes the initiative and orders his fleet to row towards the enemy (2). Hardrada orders his force to follow suit (3), and the two sides slowly close with each other as daylight begins to fade.


(e) Phase V: The opposing lines clash, and the air is filled with arrows as Danish and Norwegian archers ply their deadly trade. The fight continues through the night, and neither side is able to gain a decisive advantage.
(f) Phase VI: The deadlock is broken when one of the Norwegian flank elements under the command of Earl Hakon Ivarsson sails around the main battle and drives off the smaller Danish vessels (1). Several hours later, Hakon reinforces a failing flank (2) and drives back the Danes. The Norwegians offer no quarter and begin to clear the Danish vessels (3), boarding Sveinn Estridson’s flagship last (4). By dawn, seventy of the tethered Danish longships are cleared of opponents and the Norwegians are victorious, though Sveinn Estridson is able to escape.


The primary instrument of Scandinavian overseas aggression was the longship. Long, narrow-keeled and flat-bottomed vessels with beautifully carved arched prows, the first longships carried around thirty-five warriors. They were made of oak using clinker construction (overlapping planks held together with clinch bolts) with a mast amidships and one bank of oars on each side. Controlled with two steering oars, these vessels had shallow draughts making it possible for them to navigate up rivers and along coastlines, giving the Vikings unprecedented strategic mobility. The Gokstad ship, built in the second half of the ninth century, was over 76 feet long and 12 feet wide, and drew less than 34 inches of water, giving it the ability to sail up rivers and estuaries into shallow waters only 3 feet deep. Longships were also easy to beach and portage over short distances using rollers and manpower.

After 1000, the Scandinavians built larger warships, known as drekkars or ‘dragon ships’, capable of carrying perhaps as many as eighty warriors on raiding expeditions, invasions and, curiously, large naval engagements against rival Viking fleets. These larger, taller vessels were particularly suited for the last purpose because, unlike longships, drekkars had high, planked decks fore and aft, from which arrows and spears could be rained down on their opponents’ decks. Apparently difficult to manoeuvre in battle, these medieval dreadnoughts were sometimes lashed together ‘stem to stem and stern to stern’ to create large, floating battlefields of oak, canvas and rope. Often dozens of Viking ships were tied together, with the larger drekkars placed in the middle of the line as a command post for kings and commanders, while unfettered longships protected the flanks of the tethered vessels. A contemporary historian, Saxo Grammaticus, explains the benefits of lashing ships together for combat:

Having ordered the ships in a line, they joined them together with grapples, so that being bound together the fleet might easily ride down any enemy in its path. And when they were brought together for this purpose, they were joined together solidly, for flight or victory, as it would not be possible for anyone to break free from his colleagues. Thus they planned to make their weakness strong by this tactic.

Not built for ramming, Viking ships could not duplicate the tactics of the ancient triremes, and so medieval sea battles usually consisted of closing on an opposing vessel, grappling the two ships together and then fighting in close quarters until one side was defeated, the enemy ship captured or, if damaged, scuttled. In the case of large engagements, one side chose to take the defensive by lashing their ships together, while the attacking navy either moved in on the tethered flotilla as individual ships, grappling, clearing and cutting away ships one by one, or attacked as a tethered armada itself. In these ship-to-ship battles, the Vikings attempted to match larger ships to smaller and favoured missile fire from bows and spears over hand-to-hand shock combat. Because of the nature of this attrition warfare, Viking sea battles tended to drag on far longer than engagements fought on land, often taking hours to conclude.

One such long sea battle took place at Nisa on 9 August 1062 between the fleets of King Harald III Hardrada of Norway and King Sveinn Estridson of Denmark. This was the second battle between the two rival monarchs and seems to have been joined by mutual consent. Hardrada, unhappy about being unable to conquer Denmark despite successful annual raids, hoped for a large decisive victory over Estridson. Having raised a large army from the whole of Norway, Hardrada placed the men on 300 ships, leading the armada from his own seventy-oar drekkar (Map 2.5(a)). He sailed to the appointed spot at the prearranged time and waited for his Danish foe to arrive, but Estridson’s fleet was not there. Believing the Danes had refused battle, Hardrada dismissed the half of his ships containing the militia to return to their farms and prepared for another year of raiding (Map 2.5(b)). Those warriors who remained were the veterans of numerous raids, and some may have fought at Hardrada’s side during his days in Russia and Byzantium. One of the Varangian Guard’s more distinguished soldiers, Hardrada spent most of his twenties in the Byzantine emperor’s employment, rising to become the ‘leader of all of the Varangians’ and then returning to Norway to become king in 1047.

But as half of the Norwegian navy sailed out of sight, the Danish fleet appeared, 300 ships strong (Map 2.5(c)). Refusing to flee from his numerically superior enemy, Hardrada ordered his remaining ships lashed together, placing his own ‘dragon ship’ in the centre of the line. Unfettered longships protected the flanks, including the warships of Earl Hakon Ivarsson. Mirroring the Norwegians, Estridson ordered his warships roped together in a line, his own ship in the centre, and seizing the initiative, rowed against the enemy (Map 2.5(d)). As the tethered Danish line slowly rowed forward, Hardrada ordered his own Norwegian fleet to meet the advancing Danes. The two bound Viking armadas clashed as the sun began to set.

According to both Danish and Norwegian sources, the battle lasted into and throughout the night, with both sides evenly matched (Map 2.5(e)). The prominent role of missile warfare in ship-to-ship combat is evident from a poem written about Hardrada’s prowess as an archer:
Norway’s king was bending
His bow throughout that night,
Raining a shower of arrows
On the white shields of Denmark,
Bloody spear-points opened
Holes in iron armour;
Shields were pierced by arrows
From Harald’s deadly dragon.

Hardrada’s prowess with a bow was not unusual, and Viking sources tell us that numerous Viking heroes died by missile fire, including Harold Bluetooth, King Hakon and, ironically, perhaps Harald Hardrada himself.

The turning point came hours into the battle when Earl Hakon Ivarsson ordered his warships from their flanking position to sail around the main battle group and prey on smaller and weaker Danish vessels (2.5(f)). Hours later, Hakon’s warships buttressed a failing flank, forcing the Danes back. Sveinn Estridson’s warship was the last boarded. No quarter was given and those Danes not killed jumped overboard. By dawn Estridson’s fleet was defeated and no fewer than seventy of the Danish king’s tethered ships had been cleared.

Estridson escaped the slaughter by jumping into the water and swimming for Hakon Ivarsson’s ship. Donning a disguise, the Danish king was brought on board and inexplicably led to shore on Hakon’s order, eventually escaping back to Denmark. Though initially recognized as the hero of the battle, the earl was quickly condemned by the Norwegian king and exiled. Ultimately, the battle of Nisa proved indecisive. Two years later, in 1064, the two kings signed a peace treaty ending years of Norwegian raiding, and King Harald Hardrada looked to the west for new lands to conquer. In 1066 a massive Norwegian fleet set sail for England in the last great invasion of the Viking age.

Book Review: The Age of dromon: The Byzantine Navy, ca. 500-1024.


Before reading this book, I was expecting a survey of the navy's role in Byzantine history along with discussions of administration and perhaps a few words on the ships and sailors themselves, in other words, something along the lines of Helene Ahrweiler's classic, Byzance et la mer: la marine de guerre, la politique et les institutions maritimes de Byzance aux VIIe-XVe si├Ęcles (Paris, 1966).

While The Age of the dromon is indeed this, it is quite a lot more. As the title indicates, center stage is occupied not by the navy itself, but by the dromon, the Byzantine war galley. As the authors write, "Our primary objective has become an attempt to elucidate the meanings of terminology as used by contemporaries and how such meanings may have varied from time to time or from author to author" (4). The focus is on terminology and on reconstructing the actual warship: "what did contemporaries intend their terminology to signify and what can we know of the physical objects to which they referred?" (4).

The two authors bring different skills to the work. John Pryor has contributed a quarter century of research on medieval seafaring in the Mediterranean and demonstrates a practical knowledge of sailing. Elizabeth Jeffreys is best known as a Byzantine philologist who has edited (and translated) a wide array of Byzantine texts. As stated in the preface, Pryor was responsible for researching and writing the text (parts of which have appeared over the years in other publications), while Jeffreys edited and translated the Greek texts in the appendices, assisted with philological matters, and provided context for the literary sources. The collaboration was quite successful.

The book begins with an array of introductory material including a gazetteer of historical toponyms, thirteen maps, a glossary of Greek, Latin, and Arabic terms, and a glossary of English nautical terms (the latter absolutely essential for us landlubbers). The book is then divided into six chapters, the first (7-122) being a detailed survey of naval affairs from late antiquity through 1204, the primary virtue of which is that it interweaves Byzantine, Arab, and Latin naval history. Chapter 2 (123-61) deals with the origins of the dromon, tracing naval technology from the Roman period through the age of Justinian. After a brief chapter (163-73) dealing with the relative lack of information about the Byzantine navy from the later sixth through the later ninth centuries (the Byzantine dark age), we reach the heart of the work, a long chapter (175-406) on the dromon during the Macedonian period (886-1025). Chapter 5 deals with the demise of the dromon (407-21) and Chapter 6 with the triumph of the western European galea (423-44). After a brief conclusion, there are a number of appendices which make up a quarter of the book: texts and translations of the ninth-century(?) Naumachiai of Syrianos Magistros; the Naumachika of Emperor Leo VI (as extracted from his larger Taktika), along with a brief text on naval strategies by this same emperor (who had in fact never been to sea); an anonymous treatise on naval warfare commissioned by the parakoimomenos Basil; the naval inventories from Constantine VII's De ceremoniis for the 911 and 949 expeditions to Crete; and Nikephoros Ouranos' paraphrase of Leo VI's Naumachika. There is also an appendix on Greek fire (607-31), an analysis of the galley illustrations in the Madrid manuscript of Skylitzes' history, and the text and translation (by Ahmad Shboul) of the portions of two Arabic treatises by Ibn Mankali that paraphrase Leo VI's Naumachika. The volume concludes with a bibliography and useful indices.

Pryor explains that he began his study of the Byzantine galley in the traditional manner: gathering references to the navy from literary and pictorial sources, and attempting to reconstruct the nature of the warships based on these references and aided by previous scholarship. Yet, after long study, he concluded that it was difficult to reconcile contradictory evidence and that the major sources for dealing with naval matters could not be taken at face value: e.g., the anonymous treatise on naval warfare commissioned by the parakoimomenos Basil (958-59) is dismissed as "little more than an exercise in classicizing philology" (4), and much of the Naumachika of Leo VI (dated to 905-06), Pryor concludes, reads as though "conceived by an arm-chair sailor" (181). The paraphrases of Leo VI's work by Nikephoros Ouranos (composed 1000-1011) and Ibn Mankali (fourteenth- century), while correcting or clarifying many of Leo's observations, present their own difficulties. Even the inventories of men, equipment, and finances supposedly for the Cretan expeditions of 910- 12 and 949 and to Italy in 934 and 935, inserted in De cerimoniis and completed in final form under Nikephoros Phokas, are infected by bureaucratese and do not necessarily reflect reality (446). Pryor carefully explains how, in his view, previous scholars were misled by these sources and arrived at incorrect conclusions.

After Pryor is through questioning the reliability of most of the sources dealing with naval warfare, what is one left with? Interestingly enough, Pryor's reconstruction of the standard dromon of the tenth century is based less on textual, pictorial, and scant archeological evidence, than on calculations and deductions based on logic and parallels with ancient, other medieval, and more recent data. For example, for his estimate of the length of the dromon, he estimates the minimum longitudinal space occupied by each oarsman (1 meter) and multiplies this by 25.5 (adding a half meter to account for the staggering of the oarbanks). Then he estimates the length of the poop and prow by comparison with thirteenth-century Sicilian galleys, and concludes the standard Byzantine bireme was about 31 or 32 meters long (287-92). Similarly, the calculations for the amount of fresh water the dromon needed to carry are based not on any Byzantine evidence but on later medieval and early modern parallels, as well as the 1988 sea trials of the Olympias, the reconstructed ancient Athenian trireme (356- 58). Some readers might find Pryor's dismissal of most of the Byzantine textual evidence as cavalier, but his arguments, clear and quite detailed, generally seem persuasive. Nevertheless, the reader who simply jumps into the middle of the book to learn something about rowing techniques, or horse transports, or the speed of warships needs to be aware of Pryor's methodology.

The word dromon itself probably derives from dromos "race" and the verb dromao "to run," emphasizing the speed of the ships (125) which surpassed that of the standard late Roman liburnae war galleys. The earliest securely-dated references to the word dromon appear in the sixth century, at the same time references to liburnae wane. Pryor suggests that there were three areas which distinguished the dromon from the liburna: the dromon was originally a smaller, fully- decked galley of fifty oarsmen (vs. the half-decked bireme and trireme liburnae); square sails were replaced by triangular lateen sails; and the classical waterline ram was replaced with an above water wooden spur (127). Pryor argues that the purpose of the spur was not to fracture the hull of an enemy ship (like the ram) but to disable the enemy ship by riding up and over its oars (144). The earliest conclusive evidence of the spur is from a late fifth-century manuscript illustration (135). The introduction of the spur, Pryor writes, was probably connected to the evolution of hull construction in late antiquity as shell-first construction with hull planks connected by tight mortise and tenon joints was superceded by frame- first construction with caulking between planks and a coating of pitch which rendered the traditional ram less effective.

While the term dromon originally was applied to a monoreme of fifty oars, by the tenth century it referred generally to any war galley (monoreme, bireme, and possibly trireme). However, the standard tenth-century Byzantine dromon was the bireme galley of one hundred or more oars (120-160 crew members in all) with one bank of oarsmen above deck and the other below (173, 192, 260), though it is possible some larger dromons may have had much larger crews. The bireme galley is the subject of Chapter 4, the heart of the book. Pryor discusses hulls and the shift from shell to skeletal construction; the prow with its flame thrower(s), fortified forecastle, and spur; anchors; rigging; officers, helmsmen, and other personnel; and the poop with housing for the captain and rudders on each side of the stern. He writes that dromons must have had more than one mast, a foremost and another amidship, with the largest toward the bow (238). The masts with their lateen sails were lowered for battle, necessitating the castle (located toward the bow) to be split in half. He discusses the oarage system; horse transports which were modified dromons originally called chelandia (holding no more than twelve horses each), though this term could later be used to denote other ships as well; logistics including water needs; and a host of other topics such as ventilation, speed, armaments aside from Greek fire and the spur, and tactics and strategy. Naval encounters, we read, began with an exchange of various types of missiles followed by the use of Greek fire at closer range. At this point Byzantine tactics called for coupling the enemy ship to theirs so that it could be boarded. In the absence of any ship-killing weapons, naval battles were won by degrading the enemy's ability to resist boarding.

During the eleventh and twelfth centuries the dromon was evidently replaced by the bireme Latin galea. Like the dromon the galea was fully-decked and tended to have two banks of oars, stern ornaments, and a pronounced bow spur. But unlike the dromon, the two banks of rowers sat side-by-side above deck (the alla sensile system) and utilized a stand-and-sit rowing technique in which the oarsman, from a standing position, fell back on his bench, evidently producing greater thrust than the fully-seated oarsman of the dromon.

Pryor concludes that there never was a single dromon; rather, the term was applied to galleys as they evolved over the centuries from the late fifth through their heyday in the tenth century. During this time the primary reference of the term changed from a monoreme of fifty oars to a bireme of 100 to 108. As the new galea of the west was adopted by the Byzantine fleet in the twelfth century, the use of the terms dromon and chelandion became anachronistic and were replaced respectively by katergon and taretes. Yet, "the terminology of Byzantine texts is a maritime historian's minefield," filled with classical anachronisms and impractical advice based, he repeats, on "arm-chair sailoring," and "what is actually known about the galleys called dromones remains frustratingly little" (445-46).

The Age of the dromon is a long and detailed book. Perhaps the eyes of some readers will glaze over as they read nineteen pages on rams and spurs (134-52) or twenty-nine pages on the oarage system of the dromon (276-304), but these sections, like the book overall, read remarkably well and certainly kept my interest. Thoughtfully, at their first appearance Greek terms are printed in both the original and transliterated. There are sixty-one figures, mostly manuscript illustrations of ships, plus many drawings by Pryor, though the numerous schematic drawings of ship plans are not always understandable even after reading the text. And, alas, Brill continues to exhibit some of the worst proofreading of any major publisher. Some errors are inexcusable: "gazetteer" is misspelled throughout, "accommodate" is usually misspelled, and words are occasionally omitted or repeated. In a gaffe where political correctness trumps accurate chronology, the very first line of the first chapter assigns the battle of Actium to "43 B.C.E." (7).

Even though experts in medieval maritime and military affairs will find much to argue with in this volume, The Age of the dromon will remain the standard reference on the Byzantine navy for a long time to come. No one interested in medieval seafaring can afford to ignore it.

The Medieval Review 07.03.14

Pryor, John H. and Elizabeth M. Jeffries. The Age of dromon: The Byzantine Navy, ca. 500-1024. The Medieval Mediterranean: Peoples, Economies and Cultures, 400-1500. vol. 62. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2006. Pp. lxxvii, 754. $213.00 (hb). ISBN: 90-04-15197-4.

Reviewed by:

Mark Bartusis
Northern State University
bartusis@nothern.edu