Ancient History & Civilisation


The battle of Salamis was fought with triremes, wooden warships. Triremes could be powered either by oar or by sail, but in battle only oars were used, because speed and maneuverability were everything. “Trireme” comes from the Greek trieres, which means “three-rower” ship, referring to the three levels of rowers seen in profile when looking along each side of the ship. The trireme represents an innovation in shipbuilding, probably dating to the century before Salamis. In 480 B.C., the trireme embodied state-of-the-art naval technology in the Mediterranean. For two centuries, the trireme would reign as the queen of the seas; Salamis was its greatest battle.

Our information about the trireme is plentiful if incomplete. Unfortunately for the student of Salamis, most of that information comes from the period ca. 430–320 B.C., that is, at least fifty years after the Persian Wars. Fortunately, what little indications we have suggest that what was true of triremes in the later period was, by and large, true of the earlier period as well.

Triremes were sleek ships. A Greek trireme was about 130 feet long and about 18 feet wide (or about 39 feet wide with the oars extended) and sat about 81/2 feet above the waterline. The bottom two levels of oarsmen rowed on oars that extended through openings in the hull and gunwale, while the top level rowed on oars that extended through an outrigger—that is, in the late fifth century B.C., when the outrigger was well established. It is plausible that Greek triremes in 480 B.C. had outriggers as well.

The prow was tipped with a ram, a squat wooden structure encased in bronze and armed with three cutting blades in the fore. The ram sat on the waterline and extended about seven feet off the stem.

The Phoenicians prided themselves on being the greatest sailors in the Mediterranean and followed their own boat-building traditions. Phoenician triremes were about the same length as their Greek counterparts but were wider. Some historians argue that Phoenician triremes were higher than Greek triremes and lacked an outrigger. To carry extra marines, Phoenician triremes had wide decks, lined with a bulwark to protect the tightly packed men from falling overboard. Along the outside of the deck hung a row of shields. The Phoenician ram was long and tapered instead of short and pronged. Both Phoenician and Greek triremes were decorated but in different ways.

It is estimated that a Greek trireme under oar would normally travel at a speed of five or six nautical miles per hour or an average of seven or eight nautical miles an hour when in a hurry. For short bursts of speed, for example during battle, it is estimated that the rowers could move a trireme at a rate of nine or ten nautical miles per hour.

A trireme was narrow for its length, which made the ship as fragile as it was fast. So trireme fleets avoided the open water and hugged the coast. They preferred not to spend the night at sea.

In Athens, whose ships we know most about, a trireme usually contained a crew of 200: 170 oarsmen, 10 marines, and 4 archers, as well as various seamen and petty officers, including the rowing master, the purser, the bow officer, the shipwright, the piper, and men to work the sails. Each trireme had a captain (in Athens called the trierarch), who was usually a wealthy man and sometimes a mere figurehead. The single most important man aboard was the helmsman, also known as the pilot, who worked the double rudders in the stern. A skilled pilot could steer a ship to victory.

Oarsmen were unarmed. They probably had no uniforms and, in the hot, relatively airless space below deck, often wore only a loincloth. Archers carried bows and arrows, while Greek marines wore bronze helmets and breastplates, carried large, round shields, and fought with javelins and swords. Most of the marines in the Persian fleet were similarly equipped, but others used a variety of weapons, from sickles and axes to daggers and long knives.

Experienced crews fought by means of maneuver: they used the ram to strike the enemy and then quickly retreated before he could fight back. Inexperienced crews often preferred to board the enemy and have the marines and archers fight it out. Fleets that used boarding tactics rather than ramming tactics might increase the number of fighting men on deck, sometimes carrying as many as forty per ship.

In the Greek fleet of 480 B.C., it appears that each trireme held ten marines and four archers. In the Persian fleet, each trireme carried forty marines and archers, including a mixed group of thirty Iranians (Persians or Medes) and Sacae (a nomadic people of Central Asia). All of the ships in the Greek fleet were Greek, but none of the ships in the Persian fleet was Persian: every Persian ship had been supplied by a Persian subject state, including Phoenicians, Egyptians, Carians, and Greeks, among others. The Persians supplied only marines, archers, and admirals. The Phoenicians were considered to have the best squadrons in the Persian fleet, followed by the Carians and the Ionian (eastern) Greeks.

The presence of so many Iranians and Sacae on every ship probably reflected Persian unease. Persia was a land power. Persian nobles had a horseman’s contempt for sea people. With their marines and archers, they attempted to turn naval battles into land battles at sea. Their armed presence also made it difficult for restive allies to switch to the Greek side.

The three levels of rowers on an Athenian trireme were known as follows; the top level of rowers was called thranitai (in English, thranites), “men on the beams”; the middle level was called zygitai (in English, zygites), “men on the transverse benches”; and the bottom level was called thalamioi (in English, thalamians), “men in the hold” or, equally, “men in the bedroom.” The latter may refer to the practice of using the hold to nap or sleep in. A fully manned rowing crew of an Athenian trireme consisted of 58 zygites and 52 thalamians, divided into groups of, respectively, 29 and 26 rowers per side; plus 60 thranites, in two files of 30 rowers, for a total of 170 rowers.

Marines, archers, the pilot, the captain, and the lookouts all sat on deck. All these men had to remain seated as much as possible, especially in battle, because even small movements could unbalance the boat and upset the rowing. On Greek triremes in 480 B.C., the deck was a flimsy affair, a narrow, wooden canopy open in the center for a gangway that ran from bow to stern. There was no deck rail. The trireme’s deck also served as a sunscreen for the rowers below.

Athenian triremes in 480 B.C. had been built for “speed and wheeling about.” Nonetheless, at Salamis they were heavier than triremes in the Persian fleet. This seems odd, given the large number of marines and the bulwarks on Persian triremes, but it may reflect a conscious Athenian decision to build heavy ships in order to counterbalance the Persian fleet’s superiority in numbers and experience. Heavier ships outperform lighter ships under certain conditions; if Athens could manage to fight under those conditions, it had a chance of prevailing. The weight differential might also reflect the greater opportunity of the Persians in the weeks before Salamis to beach their triremes and dry out the hulls in the sun. Athenian triremes might have been relatively more waterlogged and hence heavier.

Since triremes, under battle conditions, were powered by human beings, victory depended in large part on training and toughening the men, on giving them plenty of food (salt fish and barley groats were staples), water (an estimated 1.85 gallons per man per day), and rest on shore (commonly at midday and at night). Morale mattered, and the successful leader had to be as much a coach and psychologist as he was a naval commander.

It was essential to keep all 170 men rowing in unison. The difficult task of keeping time fell on each boat to the rowing master. He stood in the gangway, midway between prow and stern, and called out instructions to the men. They could barely hear him, given the din of the oars and the absorption of sound by so much human flesh. So the rowing master had the help of the bow officer, who faced him and, following the rowing master’s signals, called out to the men in the bow. Another man might have done the same thing in the stern.

Meanwhile, a piper kept time by playing on a shrill double pipe. Sometimes the entire crew would join in a rhythmic cry, repeating it over and over, to mark time. The cries O opop, O opop and ryppapai, each one mimicking the rhythm of the oar stroke, are both attested for Athenian crews. It is also possible that the crews marked time by humming. Each stroke consisted of a quick, hard pull and a longer recovery. The comic writer Aristophanes compared the beat to a chorus of croaking frogs: “Bre-ke-ke-kex, ko-ax, ko-ax.”

With 170 men rowing as one, the view on either side of a trireme under oar—if you were sitting in the stern and looking toward the prow—might have been hypnotic. And yet a trireme was not very big. At 130 feet long, it was just over twice the length of an eight-oared rowing boat used by today’s athletes. That makes a trireme roughly the length of a modern schooner or an oceangoing tug; a little more than half the length of a World War II German U-boat; about one-fourth the length of an early-twentieth-century armored cruiser; about one-seventh the size of a World War II American aircraft carrier. In short, a trireme crowded two hundred or more men in a small space.

It required ingenuity to maintain control of so many men crowded onto one ship, and it was even harder to keep order within a fleet of hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of men. Advance planning, visual and auditory signals, and constant training were all required.

Every trireme depicted on its prow a pair of eyes and a name, although the name might have been denoted only by a symbol rather than by writing. Some triremes were lavishly outfitted and ornamented. So if triremes sometimes seemed as complicated as human beings, it is no wonder. The following pages will have a great deal more to say about triremes and their intricacies. For now, we need note the presence of only one other kind of oared ship in both fleets of 480 B.C.: the penteconter. This was a fifty-oared ship with twenty-five men on each side, arranged on one or two levels. It played only a very small role at Salamis.


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