Ancient Oared Warships

“… cuius omne consilium Themistocles est. Existimat enim qui mare teneat eum necesse esse rerum potiri” -Cicero, Letters to Atticus

Indeed, he (Themistocles) estimates that he, who holds the sea, is essentially becoming the master of things. These words, from the 1st century BC latin poet Cicero, referencing Themistocles, the general and historian of 4th century Athens, remark the importance of sailing in the ancient to classical world. This blog post will outline the early history of sailing in the mediterranean and the development of warships.

The maritime origins of the mediterranean in ancient period is hard to pin down to a certain date. I propose, due to evidence, I have gathered, that Egypt was one of the first users of boat technology. This can be seen in the Abydos boats discovered in Abydos, Egypt. While they were designed to be river boats, its design highlights an understanding of shipbuilding way ahead of its time. On the site, they found a planked hull, disintegrated rope, and reed bundles. The way in which these were assembled, however, is far more interesting. Rope was not used a main structural integrity component for the boat. Instead, they relied on the Mortise-Tenon joint, which was heavily used in Greek and Phoenician warships at least a couple of millennia later. This technology was transferred north to the Nile Delta through the Egyptian empire. This can be seen in the Khufu ship, uncovered in the Giza pyramids. The boat boasted a long, narrow hull with a row of single decked oars. It also is an example of the earliest use of pitch, tar, and caulking methods for ships, which would directly be used in the mediterranean soon after. While not allowing for enough space for carrying military equipment, it showed the Egyptians were geared towards something greater.

This something greater can be seen under the ruler of pharaoh Pepi I (2332–2283 BC). Egyptian ships would transport ships containing soldiers that would raid the Levantine coast and, subsequently, bring back slaves and timber. This is important because it shows the changing perception of ships by the Egyptians. Old, Egyptian ships probably carried goods up and down the Nile and, when Egypt had outer-territorial ambitions, they could emulate what was known and just make it larger to fair the sea. In addition, travelling via coast allowed Egypt to bypass the lengthy desert between the two places and not deal with a land army. The navy would have also allowed by Egypt to control the coastline of the Levant far more easily than the occupation of a land army.

The early warships followed suit in the fact they were made for transporting troops. Through trial and error, the ancients found that the sleeker and less bulky a ship was, the faster it would go. So, the ancient warships would typically be slender and very long so as to transport a lot of cargo. With these being military ships that had lots of men readily available, designs with more oars and less sails would seem more feasible. This was the typically the design of warships until the 8th century, when the ram was introduced.

The ram would have heavily shaped naval warfare in the Mediterranean. Before, the huge, elongated hulls would typically be the scene for boarding and hand to hand fighting to capture or incapacitate the enemy vessel. The ram, however, would have allowed for one, calculated strike to completely obliterate the hull of another ship. This meant that, in the new naval combat, the faster and more agile ship would deal the deadly strike first. In this type of combat situation, it would make less sense to rely on sails over oars. The sails only allowed for maneuverability with certain angles to a wind while the oars could move the boat in all directions in essentially the same speed. So, the optimal design for warships in the era of rams would have had to include as many oars as possible.

This led to the rise of multi decked warships in the 8th century, where oars would be placed. The engineers couldn’t place more oars on the side of the ships like in outcroppings because that would have made the ship wider and that was not desirable for maneuverability. Also, they couldn’t stack decks upwards without fear of the boat becoming dangerously top heavy. So, they built a deck downwards, allowing for the galley to have a lower profile and, thus, have the same, if not more, maneuverability. The design idea to place the rowers lower in the ship probably was most likely influenced by paying attention to the pivoting oar structure that was first noticed by modern-day archaeologists the in the Minoan people’s settlement in Santorini, whose food stemmed heavily from the sea. Again, this is another example of known concepts building upon each other.

Another deliberate design choice that influenced warships in this period was the outrigger, which is a projection from over the side of the boat or ship. This could allow the fulcrum of the oar to be moved 60 centimeters away from the gunwale, meaning 2 sailors could man a singular oar and get even more power from it. This allowed for a slightly larger deck size, where projectile weapons like catapults, ballistae, and archers can be utilized.

So far, the commentary on the warship’s development in the 8th century has been broad. However, from this time on, the designs can be seen to differ by nation. The nations differed by rower placement. Greece, in their quadremes, added another bank of rowers. This meant that rower placements would have been shifted due to ranging and more apparent difficulty due to oar angles. The Phoenicians and the Carthaginians, who was more influenced by the former’s design due to its history, had four rowers abreast instead of three or two due to their desire to keep a long and beamy hull. Slight alteration allowed for Hellenistic warships to range from quinqueremes to even septiremes to coax even more power from each individual man or throw more men into the vessel with it being tumpt over.

Eventually, in the race to have the greatest speed and maneuverability, the ancients realized they have built larger boats than ever before. This allowed for even more projectile weapons or soldiers to be placed on the boat in safety. More and more nations opted for slower boats because it allowed for versatility in the navy instead of a bunch of ramming ships. Now, as the Romans did, they could place 120 marines on the deck of a quinquereme and board a smaller boat very easily. In a ship to ship encounter, it was quickly becoming more important to have more marines overwhelm the other, lesser boat. There were even boats that had up to twelve-hundred men for this reason.

Of course, this still begs the question of why a bunch of nations switched to larger, less maneuverable boats. For example, a well placed trireme hit could easily not out a quinquereme. Or, there could be a swarm of triremes all gunning for a large ship. The answer lies in the catapult/ballista. A meaty projectile that could smash a smaller ship easily, it allowed larger ships to be more tanky rather than glass cannons. Most boats weren’t built with armour at the time and these catapult arrows could pierce a foot of solid oak easily. So, to compensate, there was another revolution in design where ships were made to resist catapult fire. This, of course, just meant rearranging the men so the effect wouldn’t be as great. However, by rearranging the men, this would subsequently men that the ships would have to become less maneuverable, which is another reason why nations switched to larger ships like quinqueremes. Overall, catapults could neutralize the terror of ramming and bring boarding back into favor.

Warships, in the end, became a short lived icon of the ancient and classical eras. There was a revolution in application of known physics but, in the end, newer inventions made the previous ones less important. Greek fire, for example, could be carried on smaller rafts to be thrown from closer to a quinqareme. Or, small rafts could fit inbetween the huge ships to knock out oars, crippling the main method of propulsion.

The necessity of warships is shown through the nations that used them. Carthage needed to protect its coastal cities, the Phoenicians needed fast ships to link trade routes, the Greeks needed all kinds of ships for territorial expansion and reflected their republic status, and Roman ships were used to squash pirating ships and transport troops for deployment on land in another territory. No matter the design of the ship, the ancients had learned this design from their forefathers and improved upon it.

Also, a cool fact I learned about the designing process for Athenian warships was the any person that leaked the plans were put to death.

2 thoughts on “Ancient Oared Warships

  1. Matthew Lyman says:

    I enjoyed reading your summary on Ancient Oared Warships. It was very in depth and you provided a lot of specific details such as sizes of parts on ships or the amount of people the ships could hold. I find the progression of warships interesting. They went from the smaller more maneuverable ships to the larger ships. Then once Greek fire was introduced the smaller ships had the advantage again. I like how you talked about the engineering processes that the ships went through. Different designs of ships were tested, some wider, some sleeker. Then they started to build multi-deck ships, but realized that the ship couldn’t be too tall or it would be top-heavy. Now with today’s Warships, each ship usually serves its own purpose. Some ships are smaller and can move more quickly, and others are bigger with more firepower. It’s cool how in ancient times the warships roles worked in a similar way as they do now.

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