Some Questions of Medieval Nautical Technology in Kameniates’ “Sack of Thessaloniki” (904AD)

Some Questions of Medieval Nautical Technology in Kameniates’ “Sack of Thessaloniki” (904AD)

By G.K. Livadas

Tropis Symposia Proceedings, Vol. 3 (1989)

Introduction: The chronicle of loannis Kameniates which recounts the sackof Thessaloniki by the Arab fleet of Leo of Tripolis in 904 AD provides valuable information on Byzantine and Arab nautical technology of the early tenth century. The questions raised by Kameniates’ narrative concern the type, size, and rig of the ships used by Byzantines and Arabs as well as the methods of warfare employed by the two adversaries.

The tenth century is one of the best documented periods in the history of the Byzantine navy and Kameniates’ chronicle is on the whole a reliable guide on contemporary nautical technology. Some doubt has been cast on the authenticity of the chronicle as a genuine tenth century source. However, even if we accept the view that the chronicle is a later (perhaps fifteenth-century) reworking of an earlier story, the text as it has come down to us contains a number of eye-witness observations that are unmistakably authentic tenth-century information and are invaluable as such. For example, the mention of the use of greek fire and the absence of any reference to cannon or gunpowder (both common since the fourteenth century), the detailed description of Arab and Sudanese warriors, the accurate reporting of the itinerary of Leo of Tripolis through the Aegean Sea, who exhibited particular care in avoiding confrontation with the Byzantine fleet, show that at least a core of the narrative must be an authentic tenth century work.

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