A ‘fleet’ of Greek triremes is illustrated in a multiple image of the reconstructed ship ‘Olympias’, a faithful recreation of the ancient Greek trireme that enabled Athens to become a great power. Credit: EDSITEment-reconstructed / Perseus / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; Project./Public Domain

Few things on this earth are as beautiful as a wooden boat with its sails out, sailing on the open sea; Ancient Greece’s trireme ships are no exception to this rule, but of course they were once such deadly warships that they made Athens a great power.

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

The trireme gets its name from its three rows of oars, with a man working each oar. The first 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 rows of oars, from Phenicia.

Grecian Delight supports Greece

Trireme was instrumental in the rise of Athens as a great power

Known for its speed and agility in combat, the trireme was the dominant warship in the Mediterranean from the 7th to 4th centuries BC.

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 fall in the Peloponnesian War.

Modern scholarship is divided over where the trireme came from – albeit Greece or Phenicia – and the exact time at which it became the oldest fighting ship. The Greek writer Clement of Alexandria, drawing inspiration from earlier works, explicitly attributes the invention of the trireme in the 2nd century AD to Sidon, the great Phoenician city.

According to the great historian Thucydides, the trireme was introduced to Greece by the Corinthians at the end of the 8th century BC. the Corinthian Ameinocles has been recorded as building four of these ships for the Samians.

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

The first definitive reference to the use of triremes in naval combat dates back to around 525 BC.

Thucydides, on the other hand, makes it clear that in the days of the Persian Wars the majority of Greek navies consisted of penteconters (probably two-tiered) and ploia makrá (“long ships”). In any case, at the beginning of the 5th century, the trireme was becoming the dominant type of warship in the eastern Mediterranean,

The first large-scale naval battle in which the 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, made up of squadrons of their Phoenician, Carian subjects. , Cypriots and Egyptians.

It was however in 483/2 BC.

The decisive tactic involved a gigantic fleet of Persian triremes

The decisive naval clash of the Second Persian War occurred at Salamis only two years later, in September 480 BC.

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

Much like the previous battle at Thermopylae, the feats of the Battle of Salamis became legendary, as the allied Greek city-states used around 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 large number of Persian ships, used this fact against the enemy, drawing the Persians into the narrow Strait of Salamis, where the Greek ships waited.

As the massive Persian fleet could not enter the strait, they quickly disorganized, opening up the possibility of a Greek victory.

Triremes enabled the creation of the Thalassocracy of Athens

The source and foundation of Athens’ enduring political power was its mighty fleet, which historians say was made up of more than 200 triremes. It not only ensured control of the Aegean and the loyalty of its allies, but also protected the very important trade routes and grain shipments of the Black Sea, with the help of its permanent fleet of triremes.

Athenian maritime power is the earliest example of what historians call a “thalassocracy”, or complete rule over the seas, in world history.

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

Thinking of these gigantic manpower-propelled ships, we can all remember the iconic scene of the slaves maneuvering the oars of a Roman galley in the movie Ben Hur, with men struggling to keep up with the frantic pace that was required to crush other warships during battle.

And indeed, many of the men in these Roman galleys were actually slaves – but that was absolutely not the case with Greek triremes. In fact, serving on such a ship was considered an honor and the rowers came from all ranks, the rich and the poor rowing side by side.

Historian Victor Davis Hanson argues that it “served the broader civic interest to acculturate thousands of people as they worked together in cramped conditions and dire circumstances.”

Service on Athenian ships was an integral part of 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 outfit ships, these were deliberately released, usually before they were employed.

Experts say the design of the trireme most likely pushed the technological boundaries of the time. The three rows of rowers on either side worked as one, with each man outside the other and straddling the other.

While well-maintained triremes lasted up to 25 years, during the Peloponnesian War Athens had to build almost 20 triremes per year to maintain its fleet of 300.

Athenian triremes had two large cables called hypozomata (sublayer), extending across the centerline of the hull just below the main beams, adding the support needed for ramming during battle .

Triremes adorned with evil eyes, sculptures of deities

Her draft was relatively shallow, around 1 meter, which, in addition to the relatively flat keel, made it easy to beach a trireme – a big advantage in invasions. The construction of a trireme was expensive, requiring about 6,000 man-days of labor.

The three main types of wood used were fir, pine and cedar. Oak was mainly used for hulls so that they could withstand the force of being carried 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 and to intimidate. the enemy and, perhaps surprisingly, to attract the best rowers.

The triremes made for a frightening and magnificent sight, as we can see from the ancient representations and reproductions of the ships of today. They were heavily decorated with representations of the evil eye, or mati, and had nameplates, painted figureheads.

These decorations served both to show the wealth of the patrician and to make the ship frightening to the enemy. The home port of each trireme was represented with pride by the wooden statue of a deity placed above the bronze ram at the bow of the ship.

The resurrection of the trireme in Greece

Triremes had two masts, a large (histos megas) and a small foremast (histos akateios), with square sails, while steering was provided by two steering oars aft, one on port and one on starboard .

Conventional sources indicate that the trireme was capable of sustained speeds of about 6 knots at a relatively slow rowing rate. There is also a reference by Xenophon of a single day trip from Byzantium to Heraclea Pontica, which translates to an average speed of 7.37 knots.

In Athens, the ship’s captain, known as the trierarchos, is said to have been a wealthy Athenian citizen. He alone was responsible for the outfitting, outfitting and upkeep of the ship for at least his liturgical year; the ship itself belonged to Athens.

During the Hellenistic period, the relatively light trireme was supplanted by larger warships in the dominant navies, particularly the penter / quinquereme, while the triremes continued to be the mainstay of all small navies.

Although the Hellenistic kingdoms developed the quinquereme and even larger ships, most of the navies in the Greek homeland and small colonies could only afford triremes. They were used by the Diadochi empires and maritime powers like Syracuse, Carthage and later Rome.

In 1985-1987, a Piraeus shipbuilder, advised by historian JS Morrison and naval architect John F. Coates and informed by evidence of underwater archeology, built an Athenian-style trireme, Olympias.

The work was also advised by Professor of Classics Charles Willink and drew on evidence from Greek literature, art history and archeology above and below the ‘water.

The bronze arch ram from Olympias, a copy of an original ram now in the Archaeological Museum of Piraeus, weighs 200 kg. The vessel was constructed from Douglas fir and Virginia oak while her keel is from iroko hardwood.

During its most epic sea trials in 1987, the Olympias was piloted by 170 volunteer rowers. It reached a speed of 9 knots (17 km / h). These results, obtained with an inexperienced mixed crew, suggest that ancient historians like Thucydides did not exaggerate on the abilities of triremes.

Olympias was transported to Britain in 1993, to participate in events celebrating 2,500 years since the beginning of democracy. In 2004, it was used to ceremoniously transport the Olympic Flame 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 on display in a dry dock at Palaio Faliro Naval Tradition Park, Athens, Greece.

In the years 2016 to 2018, many trips to the Saronic Gulf were organized, using both amateur rowers and passengers.