The ancient ships of Athens

"Oared torpedo", or "floating battering ram", is the name better suited to the vessels which for centuries sailed not only the Aegean but the whole of the Mediterranean - the Triremes as we know them.

Prior to 700 B.C., before they organized their navy, the Athenians used "rounded ships" for marine transportation but also for naval battles. These ships initially used sails to power them. The need for better results meant that the Athenian shipbuilders made substantial changes. The shape of the ships changed from round to slender, sails were replaced with oars, and crew numbers increased.

The design and construction of the first trireme was not by an Athenian but a Corinthian called Amenocles. The trireme was a light, fast, flexible and sturdy ship, which relied chiefly on muscle power (oarsmen) for its motion, and its ram was what enemy ships feared most. The Athenians quickly realized the advantages of the new craft and adopted the technique of building it.

The Athenians took the initial design of Amenocles further and made several adjustments to it. The Athenian trireme was 36 metres long, 5 metres wide, 1.80 metres from the waterline with a draught of 1.2 metres. It had a displacement of 70 to 80 tonnes. With a total crew of 200, 170 were oarsmen. Each oarsman pulled only one oar which was 4.4 metres in length. The remaining crew were the head of the trireme (trirarchos), who was responsible for overall supervision of

the vessel; the captain, who was responsible for navigation, the prowman in charge of the prow, the petty-officer in charge of the crew, two "tiharchs", the flautist who set the rowing pace with his flute, 13 sailors for tasks other than rowing, and finally 10 heavily armed fighters. The speed of the triremes would reach 6-7 knots, and in the event of a naval battle, for a specific time a speed of 10 knots could be reached.

Historians have endeavoured hard to discover the reason for these vessels to be called triremes. Initially, it was thought that the name was due to three oarsmen sitting at each oar. In 1852, however, with the relief depiction found on the Acropolis, it was proven that the name was due to the three different levels in the vessel, the "thrania" as they were called. They were set to a sloped formation, and not vertically. At the top level would sit the "thranites". In the middle, the "zevgites" and at the lower level, the "thalamites". The triremes would also use sails when the winds were favourable, and the crew would thus be able to rest up. The only disadvantage perhaps of these ships was that there was insufficient room to store food and water. The naval fleets were thus followed by commercial ships loaded with supplies.

The Athenians were far ahead of their time in charting a superb naval policy which was based on the strength of their triremes. The other naval states did not perhaps adopt precisely the shipbuilding techniques of the Athenians, but they were inspired by their naval policy. France, for example, 2000 years later, when looking for crews would undertake a regular census and then enlistment of its citizens. This was the method Themistocles used when manning the Athenian triremes with enlisted men. Moreover, no-one can dispute that this pioneering ship contributed substantially to the creation and dissemination of Hellenic civilization.

Manos Roudas

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