Syropoulos, in his description of the journey and of the ships which transported the Byzantine delegation to Venice, mentions the three ships sent by the Pope, the Emperor’s personal ship, three Venetian ships and one ship sent by Florence. These ships, according to Syropoulos, combined oars and sails and were carrying both cargo and passengers (Laurent 1971, 196).


Some indications about the type of ships used in that journey can be found in the terminology used by Syropoulos to describe them; he uses interchangeably the words: τριήρις, κάτεργον and ναυς. Although these words are generic terms to indicate the word ship, it is likely that they could also specifically indicate a galley. The word τριήρις refers to an ancient Greek type of ship, allowing scholars to assume that Syropoulos is using an ancient Greek term, a common occurrence in Byzantine authors. However, his narrative style is usually more colloquial, and the use of classic terms is not extremely common in his work. In addition, the choice of the word τριήρις is possibly not random; rather it could refer to the resemblance of the ancient Greek τριήρις to the Venetian great galley, which by the 15th century had three oarsmen in each row (Morrison 1947, 122). The word κάτεργον, usually a generic term in Byzantine authors and popular in the late centuries, indicated a sizeable ship, perhaps a galley as its Greek meaning – worked – implies (Bryer 1966, 7). Additional evidence comes from a later source, an Ottoman imperial ship, dated in the 15th – 16th centuries, called the Kadirga (Basch 1974, 133-136, Basch 1979, 39-50; Arcak, 2000 15-19). This ship is a galley and its name – without any meaning in Turkish - is a corruption of the Greek word κάτεργον used in Ottoman times to describe galleys.


(image from Lane 1973; 1975;


Based on Syropoulos' descriptions and our knowledge on the different types of ships and of ship functions for this period, it is more likely that all of the ships, apart from the Imperial ship, that took part on the voyage were galleys. The 13th c. galleys were made primarily for war and not for trade, but were nevertheless used to escort the merchant ships which traveled in caravans to Syria and Constantinople (Lane 1963, 185; Lane 1966, 172). In the 14th c., different arrangements and the desire to adapt the war galleys to make them suitable for trade, led to this new category of merchant galley and most importantly it led to the introduction of the great galley which was designed for trade (Lane 1975, 7).  The disadvantage of the merchant galleys was that these ships were quite big, needed large crews, and so it was expensive to build and operate them. Thus the only way to make a profit was to use them for the transport of low-bulk and yet precious and expensive goods such as spices, finished cloth and precious metals (Casson 1995, 124). These cargoes acquired security and protection from pirates and enemies, and the large crews of the galleys provided sufficient armed forces to defend the galleys’ cargoes. Another advantage was that the use of sails and oars allowed regularity in the journey and its schedule, which was a benefit for the merchants (Lane 1975, 6; Soon the security of the cargo plus the regularity of schedule that a galley could offer made it more attractive and more widely used.  



Between 1290 and 1540 the standard Venetian galleys were triremes with 25-30 benches on each side and three men in each bench pulling a separate oar (Lane 1975, 9). A galley had only one deck, which was divided in 3 parts: a fighting platform in the bow, a larger and high stern castle, and between them the rowing space with a gangway down the centre. The side of the galley was not the top clamp of the hull, rather there was a parapet built for the protection of the oarsmen (Lane 1975, 4, 9). Great galleys were six times as long as their beam, they had two masts (in the 15th c.), and were able to carry more sail than other types of ships.  In the 15th c. the great galley had two masts (Lane 1975, 15, 22). The kind of sails used, were traditionally triangular lateen sails, set on extremely long yards. The lateen rig was preferred although it was difficult to operate, because it allowed the ship to sail closer to the wind (

(image from Lane 1973; 1975;


According to their destinations and the cargo, there were these main categories of Venetian great galleys: The galleys of Flanders, which were the largest (able to carry about 140 tons below deck), the galleys of Trebizond and the galleys of Alexandria (Lane 1966, 7, 180-90; Lane 1975, 15; Casson 1995, 124, Alertz 1995, 158). A slightly longer and narrower galley with a capacity of 150 tons below deck was designed for voyages to Constantinople. Michael of Rhodes mentions the galleys of Romania, which was the type of ship used to transfer the delegation to Venice and back to Constantinople. This type of galley was slightly smaller that the galley of Flanders, while their main difference must have been the shape of their hull (



image from Lane 1973; 1975;


The Venetian state played an important and extensive role in the shipbuilding industry but also in the choice of cargo and crew and in decisions regarding the time of sailing, the freight rates and others (Lane 1975, 14). This control and involvement of the state meant that since the state galleys were protected against the competition of privately owned galleys or round ships, soon all the galley building passed to the state’s hands (Lane 1975, 14).

A galley had around 200 men crew, the majority of which were oarsmen. The oarsmen of the Venetian galleys were free men, not slaves, who were also in a position to fight (Lane 1975, 6). The rowers were not expected to row at all except in emergencies and when entering and leaving a port, but when oars had to be used, they contributed significantly to the safety and speed of the ship (Lane 1975, 14, 24). The entire crew of a galley could participate in the defence of the ship as soldiers if there was need, with arms supplied by the Arsenal. Twenty out of the 200 were bowmen, and if there was any reason to believe that special danger might arise in a specific journey another 10-20 bowmen would board the ships by the order of the Senate (Lane 1975, 24).


(image from Lane 1973; 1975;


Since shipbuilding was the most important industry of Venice, there were also dynasties of celebrated foremen shipwrights found in the city. This was not a close group and any ship carpenter was allowed to be chosen to build a ship and thus rise to the position of a foreman (Lane 1975, 55). In the first half of the 15th c. the native foremen of Venice were confronted by the rise of Greek masters, especially of Theodore Bassanus or Baxon, his nephew Nicolo and Nicolo’s son Giorgio; the first two masters specialized mainly in the light galleys and Giorgio in the great galleys (Lane 1975, 56- 59). In 1409 Venice even decided to order eight galleys made by Theodore to be conserved and studied for imitation.  When Venice defended the Lake Garda in 1439 against Milan it was Giorgio who prefabricated the galleys which when then carried in pieces over the mountains and assembled at the lake by Zorzi de Zane (Hocker and McManamon 2006, 9). And finally when in 1442 it was decided that new galleys for the journeys to Constantinople should be built, Giorgio was selected to build them by the direct intervention of the Senate (Lane 1975, 59).

One of the most valuable sources of the period on shipbuilding and galleys in general but also for the specific ships used by Venice and the Pope in the journey of the Byzantine delegation to Venice is Michael of Rhodes. Michael left Rhodes and went to Venice to pursue a career in the Venetian navy. Starting from a simple oarsman, he rose in the ranks, attaining a number of different offices. In his journal he claims that his proudest moment in life was accompanying the Byzantine Emperor John VIII in his voyage from Constantinople to Venice and back ( Michael gives us two valuable pieces of information: Firstly that the majority of ships that participated in the expedition were Venetian, including the ships of Commerce (της Πραγματείας) and the papal ships, which were hired by the Pope from Venice for this mission. Secondly, during these journeys, Michael of Rhodes held the title homo di conseilo (Man of the Council), which is a title only used in reference to commercial Venetian galleys (McManamon 2001, 24).


Although the ships with oars and sails that transported cargo and passengers according to Syropoulos are great galleys, there is much doubt and uncertainty on what kind of ship was the Imperial ship in which John VIII traveled. Firstly it is uncertain if this ship belonged to Venice at all. Syropoulos mentions that John bore all the expenses for his travel and used his own money for his personal travel to Venice. Thus it is certain that his ship was not one of the ships that Venice or the Pope had sent to transfer the delegation. It is possible that John could have nevertheless hired a Venetian ship at his own expense. It could also perhaps be possible that John traveled on a Byzantine ship, which could be used by the Emperor or high officials. Although the Byzantine army navy at that period was virtually non existent, it might be possible that a small number of ships were still maintained and used (Ahrweiler 1966, 386, Bryer1966, 4). At the same time there were still Byzantine merchant ships owned by Athonite monasteries and Patmos to transfer cargo, as well as by individuals who went on partnerships of owning ships or moving cargos (Laiou 1980-81, 190-92,195; Smyrlis 2002, 255-56).



Finally according to Syropoulos’ descriptions, it is likely that John’s ship might not have belonged to the same type of ships as the others. A first indication for this could be the separate description that Syropoulos makes in the beginning of the chapter, distinguishing the Imperial ship from those sent by Venice and the Pope. Moreover during the journey to Venice Syropoulos often mentions the larger speed of the Imperial ship compared to the others (Laurent 1971, 202, 208 212); this phenomenon can be partly explained by the fact that all other ships were also carrying merchandise to sell to Venice, making the vessels heavier and therefore slower to move. On the other hand if there was no intention to carry any cargo in John’s ship, then perhaps another type of ship, such as the light galley, which is fast and also a war galley, ready to defend the life of the Emperor, could be more suitable. Perhaps when the Imperial ship meets the Catalan ships on the journey, the reason that the Catalan ships leave and do not attack might be the fact that John is travelling on a well defended- war ship as a light galley and not the fact that they recognise that this is the Imperial ship, as Syropoulos claims.

V.A. & F.K.


(image from Lane 1973; 1975;







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The Bucentaur was a very specialised kind of flat-bottomed rowed vessel which was used as the ducal ship (Lane 1973, 47; Hibbert 1988, 357). This was a ceremonial ship used for the feast of the Sensa and reception of foreign princes and kings (Fortini-Brown 1990, 140).

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Its name suggests that it was a ship of gold although other opinions about the origin of the name include the possibility that the name derived from the Virgilian Centaurus and perhaps a figure of the centaur could adorn the prow (Hazlitt 1900, 431-2; Hibbert 1988, 357). The ship is first mentioned by its name in the 13th c., although the existence of a ducal boat must be dated earlier (Fortini-Brown 1990, 140). The 13th c. source describes the decoration of the ship, and the embellishment of the sides of the ship dispatched to the Serenissima with silk taffeta hangings (Hazlitt 1900, 431-2).


The Bucentaur was famous for its lavish decoration, interior and exterior; it had decorated superstructures and it was adorned with carved and gilded ornaments and figures and with red and gold banners (Lane 1973, 47; Hibbert 1988, 357). According to J. Evelyn who saw the Bucentaur in 1646 in the arsenal, there was an ample deck so the galley slaves were not visible and on the poop there was the throne of the Doge (Hazlitt 1900, 431-2). Other accounts include descriptions of the upper deck, which was pierced with arched doorways, surmounted by a canopy of crimson velvet, embroidered with gold. The sides of the vessel were enriched with figures of Justice, Peace, Sea, Land and other allegories (Hazlitt 1900, 432-3).


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The last Bucentaur was constructed in 1729 by Michele Stefano Conti, being 100 feet long and 21 in breadth, with and upper and lower deck adorned with symbolical figures, bas reliefs and elaborate gilding (Hazlitt 1900, 431-2; Hibbert 1988, 357). This final ship was destroyed in 1824 after having served as a gunboat and a prison (Hibbert 1988, 357).








The Translation is © Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, IAA, University of Birmingham 2008


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Last updated 19 June 2008