(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.”
“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.
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.”
For more on the triremes’ place in history, please go to the website: