Trireme

trireme

(Photos, rendering courtesy www.ancientathens.org)

Here’s the story:

“Between 489 and 480 BC Athens expanded their fleet from 40 to 200 triremes, funded by a new silver mine discovered near Laurion. This investment by the city, and the maintenance of each ship funded by wealthy citizens, would make Athens the dominant naval power in the Mediterranean for much of the next century.”

And, continuing:

“The trireme was a fast and maneuverable ship that earned its name from its three rows of oarsmen. It was a natural progression from bireme, which held two rows of oarsmen.

The trireme, however, wasn’t simply a bigger is better version of the bireme. The steep angle between each of the three tiers of oarsmen allowed them to dramatically increase the ratio of rowing power to ship size. A trireme held 170 citizen oarsmen (as opposed to slaves, used in some other contemporary navies), 31 in the top file, and 27 each in the middle and lower files. They sat one per oar, spaced approximately 2 cubits (2 feet, 9 inches) apart. The oars varied in length from 13 feet to 13 feet and 8 inches, depending on their placement at the ends or in the middle of the ship. As Aristophanes pointed out, the advantage of sitting in a higher tier wasn’t just a better view; there was no doubt an unpleasant odor in the bowels of the ship on long voyages.

At sea, with its square sail unfurled to compliment the rowers, a trireme could maintain a speed of approximately 7.5 knots. However, when stripped down for battle the sail was left ashore, and the highly trained oarsmen supplied all of the propulsion and maneuverability that made these ships deadly. Sitting just beneath the waterline was the key to the trireme’s military purpose: a bronze battering ram weighing over 400 lbs. Under full oar the trireme was a waterborne missile, capable of inflicting fantastic damage on its target, in some cases even shearing another ship in half.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been fascinated by ancient Greece. I suspect this is  because of my early reading of Homer, as bloodthirsty as it all is.  And I still read him today.

Trireme2

Loyal readers of WoodenBoat will recall that we covered the replica in Issues 75 and 173.

Again, from the website:

“No shipbuilding manuals or documentation survived from ancient Athens or her sister cities in Greece. The trireme, a ship that ruled the Mediterranean, defeated the uncountable armies of Xerxes, and left its mark on naval technology for hundreds of years, seemed destined never to be seen again.

But was it? Historians painstakingly searched through ancient art and literature for information about the specific dimensions and construction of the ship that changed the course of naval warfare. In 1985 construction began on the Olympias, a full size, seaworthy trireme, and in 1987 the Olympias became the first trireme to sail in approximately 2,000 years. With a crew of 170 inexperienced volunteers she achieved a speed of 9 knots, and executed 180 degree turns in under a minute. The legendary speed and agility of the Athenian warship was proven to be no exaggeration.

The domination of the trireme wasn’t a coincidence. The Greek navy, particularly the Athenians, had found a near perfect balance of engineering, skilled and proud crewmen, and tactics that capitalized on the ship’s advantages.”

Trireme3

For more on the triremes’ place in history, please go to the website:

I hope this is of interest to you?  Please comment below.
Thanks, Carl
This entry was posted in My Wooden Boat of April 2013 and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Trireme

  1. Nate Franzen says:

    Pretty interesting — I went searching ’round the web to find out where this replica is now, and discovered the restoration effort, http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1895671035/voyage-of-a-legend-trireme-olympias-restoration-fi Which looks like it is falling a bit short at the moment.

  2. The trireme was so-called because of the arrangement of rowers in three lines down the length of each side of the ship. Concrete archaeological evidence is lacking and scholars debate the exact arrangement, however, from depictions on ancient carvings and pottery and references from classical authors such as Homer, Thucydides and Apollinus of Rhodes , a wide consensus has been reached. As many as thirty oars, each with a single oarsman, ran the length of the ship in three tiers. Consequently, the total number of rowers could have been between 170 and 180, allowing a speed of as high as 9 or 10 knots in short bursts. Each oarsman had a fixed seat (and leather cushion) and oars were attached to a tholepin (fixed vertical peg) with a leather oar-loop. Archaeological remains of boat houses, most notably at Piraeus, indicate that the maximum length of the ship would have been around 37m with a beam of 6m.

  3. Triremes were ancient war galleys with three rows of oars on each side. They originated with the Phoenicians and are best known from the fleets of Ancient Greece . The trireme was a development of the pentekonter, an ancient warship with a single row of 25 oars on each side. The trireme’s staggered seating permitted three row of oarsmen, and an outrigger above the gunwale, projecting laterally beyond it, kept the third row of oars out of the way of the first two. Triremes were the dominant warship in the Mediterranean from the 7th to the 4th century BC .

  4. The most prominent fighting ship of this time was the trireme. The Greeks started using the trireme extensively around 500 B.C. . The trireme was better than the pentekontor because it had three times as many oarsmen. Trireme is an English version of the word trieres, which means “three-fitted.” Archaeologists have debate over the exact interpretation of “three-fitted,” but most agree it means the trireme had three tiers of oars with one man to an oar. The trireme used this arrangement of oarsmen instead of just one tier of oarsmen like the pentekontor. Greek vases actually depict triremes with oarsmen in this arrangement of three tiers. The trireme was a very quick warship and could have reached speeds of up to 14 knots in good weather. Triremes were approximately 118 feet long, 18 feet wide, and 8.5 feet tall. 170 oarsmen propelled the trireme, but the trireme only carried about 14 soldiers. This is because at this time warships were no longer used just for transporting soldiers, warships were also used in naval battles. Since gunpowder wasn’t invented yet, the Greeks used this military vessel to ram into the enemy’s hull. This would disable the ship or sink it. This tactical maneuver was called diekplous, or in English “break through and ram.” The main weapon for ramming into enemy ships was the bow of the ship. This was covered with a bronze ram. For more information on how the trireme was used to ram enemy ships, see Naval Tactics below.

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