Wednesday, April 24, 2013

NAVY BUDGET | Greece, 3rd Cent BC–Trihemiolia, Not Triremes

Photo of Trireme Model
A Fully Rigged Trireme During the Bi-Polar 5th Century BC.
As the U.S. Congress and President attempt to rebalance the FY 2014 military budget to address the challenges posed by terrorists and rogue governments, the evolution of the trireme to the trihemiolia shows how the ancient Greeks did it.

The trireme was the Greek equivalent of a 20th-century destroyer. It was well-adapted to the head-on conflict that this warfare at first entailed in the 5th Century BC in the era when the Greeks faced the Persians and then Athens faced Sparta.

Building of triremes was largely financed by wealthy Greeks who hired the captains and crews. It was a matter of pride and honor for them to do this.

During the 4th Century BC, the enemy changed. Instead of a bipolar world, the enemy of the Greek city-states became smaller-scale pirates. The trireme had to be adapted to travel faster and to switch quickly between a sailing ship and a human-powered ship. So the trireme was modified and became the more agile trihemiolia.

My work on this began in 1958, when Greek History Professor Sterling Dow sent me to the Widener Library to look at old issues of the Mariner's Mirror. In Rhodes for a few weeks in 2007, I picked up the theme, consulting the sailing museum libraries, especially proceedings of conferences or themed issues of journals on the subject of ancient technology.

I have also researched the Dodecanese Archaeological Services in Rhodes and the Sackler Library of the Bodleian at Oxford. Scott Bushey has recommended as a source the UK Nautical Archeology Society based in Portsmouth, UK. Another good published source is a 2007 book by Nic Fields published by the great military-history publisher Osprey Publishing (

Why Didn't Triremes Sink? 

As mentioned, my interest in Greek triremes started in 1958 when I was a first-semester Harvard freshman taking a course with Prof. Dow. He gave my paper on triremes an A despite my handing it in late ("lateness disregarded", he noted), which pleased me no end. I tried to answer the question - "Why Didn't Triremes Sink?" I'm still interested in the question. Here are some answers:

1. If the oarsmen were stacked as shown in some drawings, the triremes would indeed have sunk. Put one row of oarsmen on top of the each other like cabins are stacked on a ship, and the ship would indeed sink. Not only that, but the top oars would be too far from the water to handle. Anyone who has rowed would know that the geometry and the physics wouldn't work. In fact Professor Dow told me that a full-scale model was once made of a trireme and sank upon launching. (The experiment was repeated more recently with much greater success.)

2. The three layers of oars had to be staggered.  Most of the articles in the Mariner's Mirror and similar academic publications and books that discuss triremes are focused on how the oarsmen must have been staggered, not one on top of the other. In other words, instead of three floors, there must have been one floor and two mezzanines or half-floors, above them.

Why Were Triremes Important in 5th Century BC?

Judging by the frequency of mention of triremes, especially at the time of the battles between the Persians and the Greeks, 499-386 BC, triremes were important. Why?

1. Oared boats prevailed over boats with sails. Oared boats always had an advantage over boats under sail because they were not dependent on wind direction. The "wind over power" rule prevails because a boat with sails has less control over direction - so the powered boat gives way except in time of war. Warships could have sails, but they could not be under sail at time of battle.

2. With limited launching ability, ramming was the main tactic. The ship itself was the main weapon because the Greeks and Persians didn't have guns.  They had archers and soldiers (hoplites). The ships had to get up close and personal. Ideally, the trireme would ram the other ship and would then try to back off to let the other ship sink without being dragged down as well. Sometimes the plan would be to board.

3. Triremes were maximum power, the nuclear weapons of their day.  Because the course of a ship with sails could be predicted by their opponents, a ship with oars would always outflank and win over a ship without oars. The next step was to increase the amount of power on the boat and since it was based on the number of oarsmen, the job was to get the maximum number of oarsmen on the ship. Often a naval engagement would be over without any boarding, if the trireme could ram the other boat and sink it. The danger already mentioned is that in sinking the other boat one is dragged down with it. (Digression:  This has an analogy to negative campaigning. One can ram the other side but in going negative "semper aliquid haeret" - something always sticks - and that applies to both sides of the exchange.).

4.Triremes were the main battleships of the 5th century BC. Triremes were numerous on both sides of the Battle of Salamis, with the Athenians providing the largest contingent from among the city-states and Xerxes arriving with many more ships of which a large number were triremes. The strategy of the Greeks was to lure the Persians into a narrow channel where the superior numbers of Persian ships would not be of an advantage. This was the same strategy as the Spartans adopted at Thermopylae.The last major battle using oared galleys was at Lepanto in 1571, when the Austrian-led Holy League defeated the Ottomans. In that battle, the galleys on both sides were manned by slaves.

Triremes, 5th Cent. BC to Trihemiolia, 2nd Cent. BC

Photo by John Tepper Marlin
Marker for Trihemiolia. The aspiration, "h", after the
"Tri" prefix is not shown in the Greek. Photo by JT Marlin.
Photo by John Tepper Marlin
Trihemolia Relief on Stone. 
Photo by JT Marlin.
Although the rule in the 5th Century seems to have been - the bigger the trireme the better - by the 2nd century BC, the main enemy was not another superpower, but small pirate ships operating off the coast of Asia Minor.

The traditional triremes were therefore downsized to deal with the threat of pirate ships rather than an invading Persian fleet. 

A bas relief at Lindos on the Island of Rhodes shows the smaller and more maneuverable variety of trireme that was developed to defend against and chase after pirates, the terrorists or guerillas of their day.

The stone bas-relief appears near the midway point up the hill to the Lindos Acropolis. The Rhodian shipmakers trimmed their sails to fit the likely problem and a scaled-down trireme did the trick. (U.S. military procurement is facing the same issues.)

The smaller trihemiolia operated off Rhodes, close to Asia Minor and subject to periodic raids as a Greek outpost. Lindos was one of the three main cities of ancient Rhodes and had its own trihemiolia fleet. On October 21, 2008, I visited Lindos for the second time in my life.

Digression on Lindos: My previous visit was in 1959. Tourists at that time were few in number. I was there at the same time as Aristotle Onassis, Maria Callas, and Winston and Clementine Churchill. I have some good photos of Lady Clementine on a donkey riding up the dirt path to the Lindos Acropolis. The area has changed totally. It was a remote rural area that I had to reach by hiring a taxi for most of the day. (It wasn't very expensive then for someone with dollars.  The old dirt path is now paved and there are 20 times as many donkeys on hand. The donkeys don't like the paving - they prefer to walk on the side. I didn't use a donkey either time. The walk up the hill was more laborious than I remember it being when I was 17. Surprise.)

Why Were the Trihemiolia Smaller in the 2nd Century BC?

1. The nature of the enemy had changed - was now smaller and faster.  By the 2nd century BC, the main enemy was not another superpower, but small pirate ships operating off the coast of Asia Minor. The traditional triremes were downsized to deal with the new threat of pirate ships rather than an invading fleet. The bas relief at Lindos shows the smaller and more maneuverable variety of trireme that was developed to defend against and chase after pirates, the terrorists or guerillas of their day.

2. The trihemiolia were versatile. They could have a mast up for ordinary sailing, then convert to oars when a battle was in the offing, The mast would be removed and left in the aft of the ship.

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