The trireme seems to be the most intriguing type of ship built and used in the ancient world. It was in fact the most dangerous and effective warship of its time, built for mobility and speed. We know that
had a fleet of triremes when they attacked Alexander to hamper him working on the causeway to connect the island to the mainland. Arrian clearly states that he “took the quinqueremes and five triremes” he quickly assembled to meet the Tyrians and eventually “rammed the majority and made them unsailable”. Tyre
Triremes were meant to be used as a ramming weapon and were powered by 170 oarsmen arranged in three rows. The bottom row of oarsmen sat hardly
18 inches above the water level, meaning that the ship was not fit to be used in rough weather or to be handled in open ocean. Yet they were ideal for short battles as they were very fast and maneuverable, a huge advantage during critical encounters. They are known to have been the decisive weapon during the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC when the 371 Greek ships defeated the much larger Persian fleet of 1207 ships.
The first trireme was invented around 700 BC by Ameinocles the Corinthian. It could move fast and under sail under favorable conditions could even reach a speed of 10 knots. So it is not surprising that these triremes were favorites and were optimized over time to be the fastest ship in antiquity. They were used all over the eastern
Mediterranean and the practical Romans sailed them until the 4th century AD.
In the past thirty years or so, there have been a lot of discussions about their shapes, the three levels of oars and their overall measurements. All we could go by were vase paintings, coins and pictures on different sculptures as no wreck was ever found. A few construction details were revealed in ancient texts, like the performances of the rowers or the fact that each oar was handled by one single man. Some building sheds however seem to have come to us, providing us with at least the maximum length and beam of a trireme. The length of the oars was a main subject of debate, since they plunged into the water from different levels. In the end, a general agreement has been reached to establish the length of a trireme at
120 feet ( 37 meters). They were manned by 170 oarsmen of which 31 sat on the top row, 27-29 on the middle and bottom rows.
By the end of last century, the debates flared up and eventually a Trireme Trust was created in 1982 to rebuild a full-size ship. It took about five years to launch the prototype which was baptized gallantly as Olympias. I like to believe that was in honor of Queen Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great but I couldn’t find any evidence to support my assumption. The modern replica was born in the shipyards of Piraeus using Oregon pine since adequate Greek pine had declined and was not expected to stand up to the strains. Some 20,000 wooden wedges were used to connect the hull planks, which according to tradition were made of beech wood, while the required 25,000 bronze spikes were all hand made. The ramming front was made of cast bronze in two separate pieces. The sails on the other hand were made of linen in
, the only place capable of making such sails. Scotland
By 1987 sea trials were carried out in the Saronic Gulf around the island of Poros (1 day), in 1988 with a voyage to Methana and the subsequent circuit of Poros (1 day), in 1990 around the coast to Porto Heli when speed records were reached (5 days), in 1992 the first trireme passage through the Canal of Corinth was achieved and the longest voyage to Corinth, via Aegina and Salamis (6 days) and in 1994 the Olympias was used for public relation purposes with several Greek film crews. Remarkably, the ship even sailed up the River Thames in 1993 to mark the 2,500th anniversary of Greek democracy (I wonder why democracy had to be celebrated in
All these trials led to interesting conclusions in spite of the opposition by the purists who thought that any reconstruction should be based on an archeological wreck, of which none exist. The Olympias sailed under favorable conditions in a sprint under oar at a speed of 9 knots (very close to the 10 knots mentioned above), while she was rowed continuously for more than
The story of the Olympias has been dormant since, but all of the sudden I hear that scientists believe to be close to tracing the wood from which these ancient triremes were made. They are actually focusing on the Macedonian fir and pine tree of the Olympus in the Pieria area, southern
Macedonia, , because their wood locally known as “liacha” has no knots but is very resistant to salt water. This theory is based partly on Theophrastus, Aristotle’s successor, who recorded that these trees were used in the construction of paddles and ships, and partly on the results of archaeological excavation that were carried out in Methone in 2003. Since 2011 scientists from Greece Greece are being joined by those from the USA, Britain and in a collective effort to discover pure pieces of wood from the 8th century at the excavation site of Methone. I can hardly await the results of this study, especially since this city is part of Alexander’s homeland! Ireland
Meanwhile more exciting news comes from recent diving expeditions off the east cost of
Sicily near the Egadi Islands where ten bronze ship-rams have been discovered together with a variety of arms and utensils. The site is where the last battle of the First Punic War (241 BC) was fought between Carthage and which was won by the Romans thanks to their smart planning. The ten rams, each weighing as much as Rome 125 kg, were mounted on the bow of the triremes or quinqueremes to be used to simply ram the enemy ship to pieces. This find is quite significant considering that till now only four rams had been recovered for all antiquity. Follow the latest developments on The Archaeology News Network. Another interesting article appeared lately in the Daily Mail.