Barbarians at sea: Naval Warfare in the Dark and Middle Ages
Although the barbarians that brought about the fall of the Roman Empire operated mostly by land, the infamous Vandals were a notable exception. These barbarians moved down through modern-day Spain where they began to build a large fleet. In 429 80,000 Vandals crossed to North Africa where they took the city of Carthage. From this base, one of the most excellent deep water Mediterranean ports, they conquered Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearic Islands, attaining a virtual stranglehold on Mediterranean trade. Despite becoming a sea-faring superpower of the dark ages, the Vandals were not primarily a mercantile empire as the Carthaginians had been but instead conducted piratical raids on trading vessels of more civilized empires.
As the political landscape began to become more settled following the fall of Rome, new seafaring powers took to the seas, most notably the Byzantines and the Arabs who fought many heated battles in the 7th and 8th centuries for control over the Mediterranean and its valuable islands, especially Sicily. The Byzantine vessels of this period were greatly feared because of their use of “Greek fire” which they could shoot from the bow of their ships in the first known flamethrower.
In the 8th century the Norsemen made their first appearance as a naval power, adopting a tactic of a surprise attack from the sea, raiding and plundering a target then retreating with their bounty before reinforcements could arrive. This tactic would prove devastatingly effective for centuries.In the 10th century Arab naval dominance of the Mediterranean began to wane along with the rise of the great mercantile empires of Italy: Genoa, Pisa and Venice. These mercantile powers achieved dominance over the Arabs and Norsemen before fighting with one another over control of Mediterranean trade. These conflicts continued until the 14th century when Venice finally gained the upper hand and controlled Mediterranean trade for a century. Outside of Mediterranean during this period, use of sea power was restricted to the Norsemen and the use of ships to ferry troops across the English Channel during the seemingly endless conflicts between England and France during the early Middle Ages.