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The Greek trireme.

The European nations had to defend themselves several times during the course of history against an invasion from the south or the east. One time a large part of Europe got conquered. This was in the fifth century when the Goths invaded Italy and ended the Roman empire. The other times the enemy armies could be stopped. In 732 the French stopped the from Spain invading Moors at Poitiers. And in 1529 and 1683 the Turks could be stopped at Vienna. Everybody knows this, but there has been another moment when a foreign nation threatened to conquer a large part of Europe.

This happened in 480, when the seabattle at Salamis took place. The Persian king Xerxes invaded Hellas in that year. The Persians burned the villages and cities of northern Hellas, and even managed to take Athens. The only weapon that the Greeks had left was their fleet, which was anchored in the bay of Salamis. Xerxes sent his fleet to Salamis, hoping to defeat the Greeks once and for all. At the beginning of the seabattle he installed his throne on the top of a hill where he could see the battle. But what happened changed his mood from a victorious one into a frightened one. After a short time the bay of Salamis was filled with the remains of ships and dead men, mostly of Persian origin. The Persians lost 200 ships, while the Greeks only lost 40. Xerxes returned to Persia disillusioned and never returned to Hellas.

With their victory the Greeks ended for now the threat of the Persian empire invading Europe. Their fleet had been much smaller than the vast Persian fleet, but they did have a very special ship which had the leading role of this battle. This ship was the trireme, a superfast galley which could be seen for the first time in the Mediterranean during the sixth century BC The trireme completely changed war at sea. In former days seabattles were mostly fought out by soldiers who jumped from one ship onto the other. But with the introduction of the trireme the emphasis came on the battle between the ships.


The concept of the trireme.

For this the trireme had a battering-ram, or rather, the trireme was a battering-ram with around it a ship with oarsmen. The keel was 40 metres long and stuck out 3 metres at the front, where it was armoured with bronze plates. For a maximum blow a maximum speed was needed, and this was achieved because its special streamline and revolutionary position of the oarsmen. The length-width ratio was 10:1, and ensured a minimum of resistance in the water. To get as many oarsmen in the small ship as possible the designers placed three benches above eachother in a sloping way. Because of this a trireme of 37 x 5,5 metres was big enough for 170 oarsmen, who rowed the ship to the astonishing speed of 10 knots (around 18 kilometres per hour). The lowest level consisted of 54 rowsmen who were called thalamioi, above them 54 zugioi, and the upper level was formed of 52 thranitai. The thranitai were the most important as only they could see how and where their oars touched the water. The rhythm and speed were decided by the rowmaster who got his orders from the captain and shouted them through the ship.

The large amount of rowsmen did give a problem. The men only had one metre of space between eachother. When one of them did not row in the correct rhythm then he would hit another rowman, causing a dominoes- effect, and suddenly one side of the ship would not able to row for a while. Not only did this reduce speed, but also the manoeuvrability which can be disastrous during a battle. One of the Greek tactics was based on this fact. Instead of ramming the ship right ahead they first sailed very close past the enemy ship, destroying all the oars of one side. The helpless ship was then an easy target, and the ship itself was rammed. Of course the enemy ship must have been hit hard, but not too hard as then there was the chance that the ships got entangled in eachother while the idea was to batter one ship and sail off to the next one. One unhappy slave could mean a disaster, and that is why the rowsmen were recruited among the civilians, instead of using slaves. They came mostly from the poor layers who could not afford the expensive suit of armour of a hoplite. As a rowman they got paid pretty well.

Speed is power.

Modern calculations show that a trireme with a trained crew could reach its topspeed in 30 seconds. After 8 seconds it reached half of this speed, and after 2 seconds it must have done a quarter. A trireme at full speed must have been a fearful sight. The copper battering-ram was often shaped as the nose of a boar, while at both sides of the front often huge eyes were painted and the top of the sides were often covered with pelts. All this together, and the oars which went up and down like huge wings must have given the trireme the look of a gigantic mythological bat. Its fast acceleration made the trireme a feared weapon in seabattles. It was built for the sprint, followed by a blow to the side of the enemy ship. The rowsmen had to do an enormous effort to get and keep the ship at its maximum speed, and this could not be maintained for longer than 10 minutes. However, that the trireme could be used as a messenger for the long distances shows the report of a journey from Athens to Lesbos, over 350 kilometres, in the year 427 BC

In this year on the island Lesbos a colony of Athens, the city of Mitylene revolted. Soon the Athenian garrison suppressed the revolt, but the Athenians decided that the Mityleans had to pay for this and sent out a trireme to order the garrison to kill every citizen of Mitylene. However, the crew did not hurry to deliver this horrible order and rowed approximately 4 to 5 knots (8 km/h). The next morning the Athenians gathered again, and now they cooled down some more they realised that they made a mistake. The ambassador of Mitylene quickly sent out another trireme, about 24 hours after the first one left. This second trireme did hurry, and the crew rowed all through the night in gangs. The ship reached Mitylene in the afternoon, just after the first one had arrived. It took about 24 hours to cross the 350 kilometres at a speed of about 8 knots (14,6 km/h). It takes modern ferries 14 hours nowadays.

Evolution of war-galleys.

The trireme was the highlight, but not the last step in the development of Greek galleys. About 100 years after the first trireme ships were built with even more than 170 rowsmen. These extra men were not placed at extra benches, as the oars for this extra bench would have been much too long. Instead more than one oarsman were placed at each oar. According to a Greek writer this would have resulted in a ship of which was 122 metres long and 15 metres wide, with 4000 oarsmen and 3000 warriors.


Trireme comes from the Latin word triremis which means "with three benches". The older Greek word trieres means "made for three", but this can also be explained as "three rowsmen for an oar". This caused a lot of confusion, but most experts agree that the oarsmen were situated in three levels with each a single oar. Most things about the trireme are not sure as all the information about the Greek ships, from trireme to the described humongous ship were assembled from small pieces text, potsherds, and excavated carpenter's yards. The story of the giant-ship most likely only existed in the imagination of the writer, the biggest ships probably carried 1000 oarsmen. These ships were not anymore built as a battering-ram, but as a stable platform for catapults. In the time that they ruled the waves (from 300 BC) battles were no longer ship against ship, but again fights between infantry. This was in fact a setback to the time before the trireme arrived...

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