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Setting Ships Afire: Timber Politics of Byzantium

Pliny the Elder wrote that life would not be possible without wood, referring to the countless aspects in which wood sustained daily life in Antiquity (Plin. HN. XVII. ii. 5). Wood has been essential to Mediterranean civilisations: it heated their baths, cooked their food and constructed their houses. This demand created the movement of wood and timber from the forested regions by logging on rivers, rolled down from the mountains or carried by beasts of burden to the coasts where they could be transported to urban centres. A less frequent use of timber however emerges as one of the most regulated item of exchange, timber to build ships and fleets.


Access to shipbuilding timber suitable especially for warships has been a political leverage amongst the Mediterranean civilisations, and this was not different during the naval conflicts between the Islamic and Byzantine navies. Although Helene Ahrweiler has commented that “Wood was mainly a concern for the Arabs”, the timber problem of the Islamic navy has affected the Byzantine Empire severely. Indeed, some regions around the Mediterranean shores controlled by the Byzantines have been abundant in forests leading to the naval conflicts between the Byzantine and Muslim navies starting from the 7th century, as Muslims on the lookout for timber for shipbuilding repeatedly raided the shores. This paper will therefore consider primary textual and archaeological evidence to explain the timber that was required for warship construction and to discuss its political implications in the Eastern Mediterranean from the 7th century onwards.

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