The creation of a navy was an expensive undertaking for any ancient state. Building and maintaining warships was costly, and naval crews had to be paid since they consisted of free men rather than slaves. Navies were important, however. They not only defended the coastlines of city-states* from enemy invasions, but they also protected trade and commerce from attacks by pirates.

The earliest Greek naval vessels were rowed by 30 or 50 oarsmen in a single level. These ships had armed men on deck who stood ready to board enemy ships. Later Greek ships added more tiers of rowers to produce faster, more powerful, and more maneuverable vessels that were capable of ramming enemy ships. The most important type of warship in classical* Greece was the trireme, which had 170 rowers in three levels. In addition to protecting coastlines and commerce, warships also transported army troops, who sometimes rowed the ships themselves. Because of the close coordination between land and sea operations, Greek naval forces were usually commanded by an army general. Sparta was one of the few city-states in classical Greece to have the position of admiral.

Athens had the most powerful navy in the eastern Mediterranean during the 400s B.C. After the defeat of the Persian fleet at the Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C., Greek maritime* states formed an alliance called the Delian League, which was dominated by Athens. The crews of the League’s ships consisted of Athenian citizens and the citizens of allied states. Silver mined in the area around Laurium in Attica helped finance the navy, as did tribute* payments from Athens’s allies and the donations of wealthy citizens. The strength of the Athenian navy protected coastal communities as well as ships on the high seas from attacks by pirates in search of booty*.

During the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.), the Athenian fleet became occupied with military duties. The war sparked widespread privateering* and piracy in the eastern Mediterranean, which continued to flourish for some 30 years after Athens was defeated in the war. Eventually the Athenians were able to rebuild their navy and establish a second maritime league to protect ships from pirate attacks. Despite a lack of manpower and funds, the Athenian navy continued to operate well until 322 B.C., when it was defeated by the Macedonian navy at the Battle of Amorgos in the Cyclades, islands in the Aegean Sea.

* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory

* classical in Greek history, refers to the period of great political and cultural achievement from about 500 B.C. to 323 B.C.

* maritime referring to the sea

* tribute payment made to a dominant power or local government

* booty riches or property gained through conquest

* privateering wartime activity in which a government authorizes privately owned and manned ships to engage in attacks on an enemy

Other Greek city-states also developed powerful navies. During the reign of the tyrant* Polycrates in the 500s B.C., the island of Samos built a strong navy with the help of the Egyptians. During the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, the Persian king helped the Spartans maintain a navy in the Aegean Sea to combat the Athenians. Toward the end of the 200s B.C., the island of Rhodes emerged as the strongest naval power in the eastern Mediterranean. The Rhodian navy freed the region of pirates for almost a century. However, with the decline of Rhodes, piracy returned to the Mediterranean in full force.

The Hellenistic* kings rivaled each other in their attempts to build stronger navies by constructing more and bigger ships. Since these larger vessels could not rely on speed, they required more oars and rowers and more armed men on board for protection. Rather than ramming enemy ships, Hellenistic warships used catapults* and stationed troops on deck to fight against enemies who tried to board. Although the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt used its navies to establish and protect overseas possessions, no single Hellenistic navy dominated the Mediterranean prior to the emergence of Roman naval power. (See also Armies, Greek, Economy, Greek; Naval Power, Roman; Persian Wars; Ships and Shipbuilding; Trade, Greek; Wars and Warfare, Greek.)

* tyrant absolute ruler

* Hellenistic referring to Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.

* catapult military device for hurling missiles, such as stones


Serving in the navy of Rhodes meant fighting the thousands of pirate ships that roamed the Mediterranean. The inscription on a gravestone that once stood over the tomb of three brothers indicates that each was killed in a different battle against pirates. One brother was killed in the strait between Crete and Greece near Cape Malea, a favorite place for pirates to ambush other ships. Greek sailors considered the strait so dangerous that they had a proverb: "Round Malea and forget about getting home."

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