Monday, January 14, 2013

GREEK NAVY | How Triremes Were Built and Paid For

January 14, 2013–During the last two weeks, after the sun went down here in Florida, I read Ancient Greek Warship by Nic Fields, with illustrations by Peter Bull (Osprey, 2007).

When I was a college freshman in 1958, with six years of Greek behind me dating from my student days in Britain, I took a course in Greek history with Professor Sterling Dow, who died in 1995. He encouraged me to research the Greek trireme and sent me to musty issues of the Mariner's Mirror in Widener Library.

At that time the conventional wisdom is that no one really understood how the Greek trireme worked. When a businessman-Hellenophile financed a model of it, the ship went straight down into the sea. What this proved, I think, is that the trireme did not have three levels like a building; it had to have had a middle level that was a half-level in some way, by staggering the oars.

The trireme must have worked because it was the warship of choice in the sea battle at Salamis between the Greeks and the Persians. Xerxes set out in the Second Persian Invasion in 480 BC with perhaps 1,200 triremes, and by the time he confronted the Greek allies at Salamis he had 600-800 triremes at his disposal, against fewer than 400 triremes among the allies. The Greeks, led by the Athenians under Themistocles, won a decisive victory that is viewed as the turning point in the invasion. Had the Persians not been routed, the flowering of Athenian literature and culture might never have happened.

Nic Fields's book shows how much more we understand the triremes today than we did in 1958. A working model of a trireme was built, the Olympias, based on evidence assembled by John Morrison, former President of Wolfson College, Cambridge. It was commissioned by the Greek Navy in 1987 and went through five sea trials. It floated.

Triremes were 120 feet long, with a 12-foot beam, with the outriggers extending another three feet on either side. The oarsmen were arrayed in three staggered banks, with about 25 on each side for the bottom two banks and 30 on the top bank. The trireme usually had a mast available for sailing in transit to the locus of battle, but it could be removed and their main power during battle was from the oarsmen.

Compared with modern rowing shells, the problem with the ancient triremes is that they are presumed to have had fixed benches, which made it very hard to use the legs for propulsion. The volunteer rowers (the Greeks did not use slaves for this function) were constrained in movement. They must have required a great deal of water on board since a rower requires a liter per hour. Salt may well have been added to the water. The lowest deck of the trireme is assumed to have used a leather casing to prevent water coming through the porthole.

The trireme had a battering ram at the front end, which was made of wood in the shape of a snout, with bronze sheathing. The usual goal of the warship was to put a hole in the opposing ship, which would make it impossible to steer or advance. To avoid being trapped in an embrace with the ship being rammed, the oarsmen would try to back away at the moment of impact. The trireme was not very seaworthy and was not meant for long distances. It was primarily a defensive navy although it was used to attack nearby ports.

Some heavier triremes were used to transport a greater number of hoplites (soldiers, marines), who would board the opposing ship.This was the tactic used by the ships from Chios. This approach became more common as time went on and then the decks were made suitable for carrying catapults, or more marines, or archers.

At Salamis the victory over the the Persians has been attributed to the Greeks maneuvering the Persian fleet into a situation where they could not utilize their greater numbers–much as a small number of Spartans at Thermopylae were able to hold off the Persian army by defending a pass where only a few Persian soldiers could pass at a time. By some accounts the Persian triremes were better built than the Greek ones and the crews were well trained, able to do the complex maneuvers that the triremes were capable of with the right helmsman.

Each city-state paid for the oarsmen and the rest of the crew and hoplites. The trireme itself was financed and outfitted by one of the wealthy people in the community. In Athens about 400 people qualified to pay for a trireme. It was a great honor, comparable today with breeding a prize-winning horse. The person so honored and sponsoring a ship served as a trierarch for one year. This great honor in time became a burden, and Athenian citizens would try to finance a single trireme jointly, the way two yachtsmen might buy a boat together.

This is a very useful book, in the proud tradition of Osprey Publishing, which seems to have a book on every significant battle ever fought.

However, I missed seeing in the book any discussion of the the trihemiolia, the lighter triremes that were used to go after pirates in the post-Peloponnesian war era, when the enemy were privateers (filibusters) and faster ships were required with fewer soldiers aboard. From other sources, and from two visits I have made to Lindos on the island of Rhodes, the trihemiolia was lighter and used two rowers per oar to dispense with one of the banks of oarsmen. The idea was that as the needs changed from having two battle lines of hundreds of ships to pursuing isolated pirates, a different type of ship was needed.

That might be a metaphor for what the Department of Defense is facing as the world moves into a post-Cold-War, post-nuclear-weapons phase of hunting down irregular soldiers and rogue privateers.