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Ancient Greek Trireme Ships Enabled Rise of Athens as Great Power

A “Fleet” of Greek triremes is shown in a multiple image of the reconstructed ship “Olympias,” a faithful recreation of the Ancient Greek trireme which enabled the rise of Athens as a great power. Credit: EDSITEment-reconstructed /Perseus /Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License;Project./Public Domain

Few things on this earth are as lovely as a wooden ship with its sails unfurled, sailing on the open sea; the Ancient Greek trireme ships are no exception to this rule, but of course they were once warships that were so deadly they enabled the rise of Athens as a great power.

The graceful ships, which were propelled not only by two large sails but three ranks of men pulling on oars as well, may have originated in Corinth. Wherever they were first created, triremes were used by all the ancient maritime civilizations around the Mediterranean Sea, including the Phoenicians and Romans as well as the ancient Greeks.

The trireme derives its name from its three rows of oars, with one man working each oar. The early trireme was a further development of the penteconter, an ancient warship with a single row of 25 oars on each side, and the bireme, a warship with two banks of oars, from Phoenicia.

Trireme played integral part in rise of Athens as great power

Known for its speed and agility in battle, the trireme was the dominant warship in the Mediterranean from the 7th to the 4th centuries BC, after which it was largely superseded by the larger quadriremes and quinqueremes, with four and five banks of rowers.

Triremes played a vital role in the history of Ancient Greece during the Persian Wars and  the creation of the Athenian maritime empire — as well as its downfall in the Peloponnesian War.

Modern scholarship is divided on the provenance of the trireme — although it was either Greece or Phoenicia — and the exact time it developed into the foremost ancient fighting ship. The Greek writer Clement of Alexandria, drawing on earlier works, explicitly attributes the invention of the trireme in the second century AD to Sidon, the great Phoenician city.

According to the great historian Thucydides, the trireme was introduced to Greece by the Corinthians in the late 8th century BC; the Corinthian Ameinocles was recorded as building four such ships for the Samians.

In the ancient world, naval combat relied on two methods: boarding and ramming. Rams (embolon) were fitted to the prows of warships, and were used to rupture the hull of the enemy ship.

The first definitive reference to the use of triremes in naval combat dates back to approximately 525 BC, when the historian Herodotus wrote that the tyrant Polycrates of Samos was able to contribute 40 triremes to a Persian invasion of Egypt for the Battle of Pelusium.

Thucydides meanwhile clearly states that in the time of the Persian Wars, the majority of the Greek navies consisted of (probably two-tiered) penteconters and ploia makrá (“long ships”). In any case, by the early fifth century, the trireme was becoming the dominant warship type of the eastern Mediterranean,

The first large-scale naval battle in which triremes participated was the Battle of Lade during the Ionian Revolt, where the combined fleets of the Greek Ionian cities were defeated by the Persian fleet, composed of squadrons from their Phoenician, Carian, Cypriot and Egyptian subjects.

It was 483/2 BC, however, that saw the pivotal moment in the development of the trireme, when the Athenian statesman Themistocles persuaded the Athenian assembly to begin the construction of 200 triremes, using the income of the newly discovered silver mines at Laurion.

Decisive tactics involved gigantic fleet of Persian triremes

The decisive naval clash of the Second Persian War occurred at Salamis just two years later, in September of 480 BC, where the fleet under Persian leader Xerxes was decisively defeated.

This naval battle is considered by many historians to be one of the most decisive in history, bringing an end to the threat of Persian invasion of the West.

Much like the earlier battle at Thermopylae, the heroics at the Battle of Salamis have risen to legendary status, as the allied Greek city-states used approximately 370 trireme ships, and the Persians had over 1,000, according to ancient sources.

The Persians planned to crush the outnumbered Greeks with the sheer force of their massive fleet.

The leader of the Greek ships, Themistocles, aware of the great number of Persian ships, used that fact against the enemy, luring the Persians to the narrow Strait of Salamis, where the Greek ships were waiting.

Since the massive Persian fleet could not fit in the strait, they quickly became disorganized, opening up a possibility for a Greek victory.

Triremes enabled creation of Athens thalassocracy

The source and foundation of Athens’ lasting political power was her strong fleet, which historians believe was composed of over 200 triremes. It not only secured control of the Aegean Sea and the loyalty of her allies, but also safeguarded trade routes and the all-important grain shipments from the Black Sea, with the help of its standing navy of triremes.

Athenian maritime power is the first example of what historians refer to as a “thalassocracy,” or complete dominion over the seas, in world history.

For the crew of Athenian triremes, the ships were an extension of their democratic beliefs.

In thinking of these gigantic ships propelled by manpower, we all can recall the iconic scene of slaves manning the oars of a Roman galley in the movie Ben Hur, with men struggling to keep up with the frenetic pace that was called for in order to ram other naval ships during battle.

And indeed many of the men in such Roman galleys in reality were slaves — but this was emphatically not the case with the Greek triremes. In fact, serving aboard such a vessel was seen as an honor and the oarsmen were from all ranks of life, with rich and poor rowing alongside each other.

Historian Victor Davis Hanson argues that this “served the larger civic interest of acculturating thousands as they worked together in cramped conditions and under dire circumstances.”

Service on Athenian ships was an integral part of the military service although hired foreigners were also accepted. A typical Athenian trireme crew during the Peloponnesian War consisted of 80 citizens, 60 metics (freed slaves) and 60 foreign hands. Indeed, historians say that in the few emergency cases where slaves were used to crew ships, these were deliberately set free, usually before being employed.

Experts say that he design of the trireme most likely pushed the technological limits of the time. The three files of oarsmen on each side worked as one, with each man outboard of, and in height overlapping, the other.

While well-maintained triremes would last up to 25 years, during the Peloponnesian War, Athens had to build nearly 20 triremes a year to maintain their fleet of 300.

Athenian triremes had two great cables called hypozomata (undergirding), stretching from end to end along the middle line of the hull just under the main beams, adding the needed support for ramming during battle.

Triremes decorated with evil eyes, sculptures of deities

Its draft was relatively shallow, about 1 meter, which, in addition to the relatively flat keel allowed a trireme to be beached easily — a great advantage in invasions. The construction of a trireme was expensive, required approximately 6,000 man-days of labor.

The three principal types of wood used were fir, pine, and cedar. Oak was primarily used for the hulls in order that they could withstand the force of being hauled ashore.

In the case of Athens, since most of the fleet’s triremes were paid for by wealthy citizens, there was a natural sense of competition among the patricians to create the “most impressive” trireme, both to intimidate the enemy and, perhaps surprisingly, to attract the best oarsmen.

Triremes made a fearsome and beautiful sight, as we can see from ancient depictions and reproductions of the ships today. They were highly decorated with representations of the evil eye, or mati, and had nameplates, painted figureheads.

These decorations were used both to show the wealth of the patrician and to make the ship frightening to the enemy. The home port of each trireme was shown with pride by the wooden statue of a deity placed above the bronze ram on the front of the ship.

The resurrection of the trireme in Greece

Triremes had two masts, a main (histos megas) and a small foremast (histos akateios), with square sails, while steering was provided by two steering oars at the stern, with one at the port side and one to starboard.

Classical sources indicate that the trireme was capable of sustained speeds of about 6 knots at relatively leisurely pace of rowing. There is also a reference by Xenophon of a single day’s voyage from Byzantium to Heraclea Pontica, which translates as an average speed of 7.37 knots.

In Athens, the ship’s captain, known as the trierarchos, would have been a wealthy Athenian citizen. He alone was responsible for manning, fitting out and maintaining the ship for his liturgical year at least; the ship itself belonged to Athens.

During the Hellenistic period, the relatively lightweight trireme was supplanted by larger warships in dominant navies, especially the pentere/quinquereme, while triremes continued to be the mainstay of all smaller navies.

Although the Hellenistic kingdoms did develop the quinquereme and even larger ships, most navies of the Greek homeland and the smaller colonies could only afford triremes. They were used by the Diadochi Empires and sea powers like Syracuse, Carthage and later Rome.

In 1985–1987 a shipbuilder in Piraeus, advised by historian J. S. Morrison and naval architect John F. Coates  and informed by evidence from underwater archaeology, built an Athenian-style trireme, Olympias.

The work was also advised by the classics teacher Charles Willink and drew on evidence gained from Greek literature, history of art and archaeology above and below water.

The Olympias’ bronze bow ram, a copy of an original ram now in the Piraeus archaeological museum, weighs 200 kg. The ship was built from Douglas fir and Virginia oak while its keel is of iroko hardwood.

During its most epic sea trials, in 1987, the Olympias was crewed by 170 volunteer oarsmen and oarswomen. She achieved a speed of 9 knots (17 km/h). These results, achieved with an inexperienced, mixed crew, suggest that ancient historians like Thucydides were not exaggerating about the capabilities of triremes.

Olympias was transported to Britain in 1993, to take part in events celebrating the 2,500 years since the beginning of democracy. In 2004 she was used to transport the Olympic Flame ceremonially from the port of Keratsini to the main port of Piraeus, as the Olympic Torch Relay approached Athens for the 2004 Summer Olympics.

Olympias is now an exhibit in a dry dock at the Naval Tradition Park in Palaio Faliro, Athens, Greece.

In the years 2016 to 2018, a number of trips in the Saronic Gulf were organized, using amateur rowers and passengers.

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