What could be more exciting than ancient warships? The great monsters that prowled the ancient seas, who spread fear and exuded power with deadly grace. Nation’s fortunes were both made and destroyed by the success or failure of their fleets, and here are a few of the types that used to rule the seas…
The classic Trireme first appeared during the eight century BC, as part of the Greek city of Corinth’s great fleet. It would take a dominant role in the seas of the Mediterranean for the next thousand years and beyond. The name derives, not from its oar decks, although it did indeed have three, but instead the number of oarsmen lined in banks of three. The skilled oarsmen were tightly packed, one near the base (thalamois) the next overlapping slight above in the middle (Zygios) and the uppermost (thrantis) on the upper deck. By arranging the oarsmen in this tight formation, which was repeated down the long length of the ship, they could keep the beam of the vessel narrow, thus maximising its power ratio and keeping the design sleek and fast. Typically a Trireme would have twenty five rows of three on each side, the one hundred and fifty oarsmen being able to propel the Trireme at an astonishing turn of speed, making them perfectly equipped to use the bronze ram mounted on the front of the vessel which they would hope to drive into the hull of an opposing vessel at the waterline.
These remarkable ships, that operated as self-propelled missiles in naval encounters, showed their worth in the Persian Wars of the fifth century BC, when the Athenian fleet of two hundred triremes decisively defeated the formidable and far larger fleet of Xerxes at Salamis and again at Mycale.
However, the sleek and fast design of these awesome weapons did have drawbacks, they were of little use carrying cargo, or transporting troops, as all the space was optimised for the oarsmen, and crucially these ships didn’t cope very well with the open sea, the lower oar ports being particularly susceptible to bad weather.
The Romans were so worried when they first encountered the Quinquereme, especially in the hands of their arch rivals in the city of Carthage, that they stole the blueprints for this large sea going monster, so they could copy it. It had the same three levels of oar decks as the Trireme, however each bank now had five rowers – two on the top, two to either side slightly lower down, and the fifth at the bottom lowest level. This gave the ship its name and needed to be far wider of beam to cater for these new rowers. This made the ships far heavier, so they couldn’t compete with the Triremes for speed, but the extra power of the rowers meant that these ships could carry more marines, and weapons such as ballistae or catapults. Later versions even carried giant boarding bridges, so that they could disgorge their superior numbers of troops onto the decks of the opposing ships. This became the preferred fighting technique of the Romans, as they realised with grappling Irons they could attach themselves to enemy craft, and bring their much valued legionary marines into play, rather than rely solely on the seamanship of their sailors, and the use of the ram.
As this ship was far heavier than the Trireme, it was more stable, and so coped better with the open sea and bad weather. However, it would be a mistake to think that the five oared vessel superseded the Trireme, as the latter was still far faster and manned by the right captain and crew, still more than capable of holeing one of the newer Quinqueremes by the use of its ram.
The success of the Quinquereme soon opened up the ambitions of rich and powerful Romans, and these ships began to be scaled up, by adding more rowers, allowing ever larger vessels to take to the seas, such as the Hexareme (six rowers in a bank), Septireme (seven), Octeres (eight), Enneres (nine).
The Liburnian Bireme.
Named after a tribe from Illyria, which first used these vessels, it was a wonderfully versatile ship. Fast and light, what it lack in rowing power – only having two levels of rowers – it made up in manoeuvrability. With only up to fifty rowers per ship, it meant that there was also room for cargo, or marines. The ship still carried a ram at its prow, and was still a deadly opponent to its larger cousins. In fact, the use of the larger ships began to come to an end after the battle of Actium due to this ship. Mark Antony’s fleet, made up of many six’s (Hexareme) and eight’s (Octeres) – bought at great expense by Cleopatra – were soundly outmanoeuvred by Octavian’s forces, whose fleet was comprised of the Liburnian Biremes. The smaller Liburnians managed to set fire to Mark Antony’s great lumbering vessels, with the use of fire arrows and throwing flaming pitch at them. From this point on, the Liburnians became the mainstay of the Roman fleet, the Triremes or larger Quinquereme being held in far smaller numbers, typically as flag ships of various provincial fleets.
Who sailed them?
Who were the oarsmen to the ships of the ancient seas? I’m guessing that some of you out there are presuming it was slaves that rowed the Roman warships? Well, actually no, it wasn’t. Initially the Romans tried manning their warships with galley slaves, but after being soundly thrashed by the superior seamanship of the fleet of Carthage, in the early Punic wars, realised this wasn’t such a good idea. They learnt their lesson, and from the second century BC onwards, the Romans oarsmen were hand-picked men who could be trained in rowing. Admittedly, the odd criminal was sentenced to serve in the fleet as a punishment, but the vast majority of oarsmen were freeborn and highly skilled rowers. They also were trained to fight in case their vessel was ever boarded or they needed to board another’s. So the Hollywood image of rows of chained slaves rowing whilst being whipped by an overseer is erroneous. There was a “Hortator” who banged a drum to urge on the oarsmen, and they were encouraged to sing in tune with the rowing strokes.
The skill of the oarsmen was such that the lighter Triremes or Liburnians could display incredible dexterity, turning breathtakingly tight angles as one side of rowers banked their oars so the other side could assist the quick turning of the ship.
Features of the ships.
The early rams were simple pointed devices that speared an opposing vessel. However, it was soon recognised that this could lead to the rams becoming ensnared by the timbers they pierced. So over time the ram evolved, first becoming blunted at the end, and then adopting three pronged horizontal vanes, alongside one vertical one, that was designed to force the planking apart of the enemy vessal. This made the rams far more efficient and deadly, whilst lessening the chance of the attacker becoming trapped in its victim.
On the larger ships it was common to find timber towers, covered in thick canvas, that could protect archers, or ballista. The larger vessels even mounted catapults that could be adapted to fire the Harpago (hook) that embedded itself in the enemy ship or deck, and could then be hauled in by the attached rope by the sailors. Then the marines could board the enemy ship.
In addition to the oarsmen, the ships were equipped with a square sail that could be taken down and stored in battle conditions. In the early vessels this would have been made of papyrus or flax, but later was made from thick linen, often tinted brown with oak tree bark. The ships also commonly had a small foremast and sail.
The early Greek warships were usually black, due to the water proofing pitch used in their construction. However, the later Roman warships were commonly painted blue and followed the Greek tradition of painting large eyes over the ram on the prow – an intimidating sight for anyone.
Ships would have two wooden figures mounted on them, the first on the prow that represented the name of the ship, such as Parasimon (seahorse), Aquila (eagle) or a figure that represented a Roman virtue, such as Pietas (duty), or Industria (fortitude) that were common ship names.
On the stern, overlooking the deck, would be the tutela – the god that protected the ship, such as Minerva or Mars.