trireme n : ancient Greek or Roman galley or warship having three tiers of oars on each side
EtymologyFrom triremis, from tri- + remus.
- In the context of "History|Nautical|archaic": A galley with three banks of oars, one above the other, used mainly as a warship.
Trireme ( sing., τριήρεις pl., sing., triremes pl.) refers to a class of warships used by the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean, especially the Phoenicians, ancient Greeks and Romans. In English, no differentiation is made between the Greek triērēs and the Latin triremis. This is sometimes a source of confusion, as in other languages these terms refer to different styles of ships.
The trireme derives its name from its three rows of oars on each side, manned with one man per oar. The early trireme was a development of the penteconter, an ancient warship with a single row of 25 oars on each side, and of the bireme (), a warship with two banks of oars. As a ship it was fast and agile, and became the dominant warship in the Mediterranean from the 7th to the 4th century BC, when they were largely superseded by the larger quadriremes and quinquiremes. Triremes played a vital role in the Persian Wars, the creation of the Athenian maritime empire, and its downfall in the Peloponnesian War.
OriginThe exact origin of the trireme is uncertain and debated, as our evidence comes from literary sources and depictions in reliefs and pottery fragments, which are open to misinterpretations. Depictions of two-tiered ships (biremes), with or without the parexeiresia (the outrigger, see below), are common in 8th century BC vases and pottery fragments, and it is at the end of that century that the first references to three-tiered ships are found. According to Thucydides, the trireme was introduced to Greece by the Corinthians in the late 8th century BC, and that the Corinthian Ameinocles built four such ships for the Samians. Although this was interpreted by later writers, like Pliny and Diodorus, to mean that triremes were invented in Corinth,, it is likely that the earliest three-tiered warships originated in Phoenicia. Fragments from an 8th century relief at the Assyrian capital of Nineveh depicting the fleets of Tyre and Sidon have been interpreted as depicting two- and three-level warships, fitted with rams. The 2nd century Christian scholar Clement of Alexandria, drawing on earlier works, explicitly attributes the invention of the trireme (trikrotos naus, "three-tiered ship") to the Sidonians.
Early use and developmentHerodotus mentions that the Egyptian pharaoh Necho (610–595 BC) built triremes on the Nile, for service in the Mediterranean, and in the Red Sea, but this reference is disputed by modern historians, and attributed to a confusion, since "triērēs" was by the 5th century used in the generic sense of "warship", regardless its type. The first definite reference to the use of triremes in naval combat dates to ca. 525 BC, when, according to Herodotus, the tyrant Polycrates of Samos was able to contribute 40 triremes to a Persian invasion of Egypt. Thucydides meanwhile clearly states that in the time of the Persian invasions, the majority of the Greek navies consisted of (probably two-tiered) penteconters and ploia makrá ("long ships").
In any case, by the early 5th century, the trireme was becoming the dominant warship type of the eastern Mediterranean, with minor differences between the "Greek" and "Phoenician" types, as literary references and depictions of the ships on coins make clear. The first large-scale naval battle where triremes participated was the Battle of Lade during the Ionian Revolt, where the combined fleets of the Greek Ionian cities were defeated by the Persian fleet, composed of squadrons from their Phoenician, Carian, Cypriot and Egyptian subjects.
Persian and Peloponnesian Wars
Partly as a result of Athenian support to the Ionian Greeks, the Persian Great King Darius started moving against metropolitan Greece. The Persian fleet roamed the Aegean Sea unopposed, but the first invasion force was defeated at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. The second invasion, under Xerxes, included a massive land army and a large navy, which were to cooperate closely.
Athens was at that time embroiled in a conflict with the neighbouring island of Aegina, which possessed a formidable navy. In order to counter this, and possibly with an eye already at the mounting Persian preparations, in 482 BC the Athenian statesman Themistocles used his political skills and influence to persuade the Athenian assembly to start the construction of 200 triremes, using the income of the newly discovered silver mines at Lavrion. The first clash with the Persian navy was at the Battle of Artemisium, where both sides suffered great casualties. However, the decisive naval clash occurred at Salamis, where Xerxes' invasion fleet was decisively defeated.
After Salamis and another Greek victory over the Persian fleet at Mycale, the Ionian cities were freed, and the EWSF Delian League was formed under the aegis of Athens. Gradually, the predominance of Athens turned the League effectively into an Athenian Empire. The source and foundation of Athens' power was her strong fleet, composed of over 200 triremes. It not only secured control of the Aegean Sea and the loyalty of her allies, but also safeguarded the trade routes and the grain shipments from the Black Sea, which fed the city's burgeoning population. In addition, as it provided permanent employment for the city's poorer citizens, the fleet played an important role in both maintaining and promoting the radical Athenian form of democracy. Athenian maritime power is the first example of thalassocracy in world history. Aside from Athens, other major naval powers of the era included Syracuse, Corfu and Corinth.
In the subsequent Peloponnesian War, naval actions fought by triremes featured prominently, and despite numerous land engagements, Athens was finally defeated through the destruction of her fleet during the Sicilian Expedition and finally, at the Battle of Aegospotami, at the hands of Sparta and her allies.
Construction of the triremeNo surviving written source gives complete information on the construction or form of the trireme. Already in the 4th century, the writer Zosimus laments the loss of the information concerning the trireme's construction.
Because the triremes had positive buoyancy, no remains of the ship have been found on the seabed, and scholars have had to rely on indirect evidence in texts, depictions on monuments and amphorae, as well as indirect archaeological evidence, most prominently the ship sheds of Piraeus. Most of it concerns the "classical" type of the 5th century, especially as used by Athens. Valuable further information as to the validity of past assumptions was provided by the trireme reconstruction project (see below).
DimensionsExcavations of the ship sheds (neōsoikoi) at the harbour of Zea in Piraeus, which was the main war harbour of ancient Athens, were first carried out by I. Dragatsis and Wilhelm Dörpfeld in the 1880s. These have provided us a with general outline of the Athenian trireme. The sheds were ca. 40 m long and just 6 m wide. These dimensions are corroborated by the evidence of Vitruvius, whereby the individual space alloted to each rower was 2 cubits. With the Doric cubit of 0,49 m, this results in an overall ship length of just under 37 m. The height of the sheds' interior was established as 4.026 metres, leading to estimates that the height of the hull above the water surface was ca. 2.15 metres. Its draught was relatively shallow, about 1 metre, which, in addition to the relatively flat keel and low weight, allowed it to be beached easily.
ConstructionConstruction of the trireme differed from modern practice. The ancient Mediterranean practice was to build the outer hull first, and the ribs afterwards. To secure and strengthen the hull, ropes (hypozōmata) were employed, fitted in the keel and stretched by means of windlasses. Hence the triremes were often called "girded" when in commission.
The triremes were made of softwoods, primarily pine and fir, with the latter preferred, according to Theophrastos, for its lightness. Larch and plane were used for the ship's interior parts. The large requirements of timber for ship construction led not only to the deforestation of much of southern Greece, but also to imports of timber from Macedon and Thrace, or even from as far as Lebanon. but also that the hull soaked up water, which adversely affected its speed and maneuverability. The ship had therefore to be beached regularly for maintenance. The ship also had two masts, a main (istos megas) and a small foremast (istos akateios), with square sails, while steering was provided by two paddles at the stern.
Classical sources indicate that the trireme was capable of sustained speeds of ca. 6 knots at a relatively leisurely pace. There is also a reference by Xenophon of a single day's voyage from Byzantium to Heraclea Pontica, which translates as an average speed of 7.37 knots. These figures seem to be corroborated by the tests conducted with the reconstructed Olympias: a maximum speed of 8 knots and a steady speed of 4 knots could be maintained, with half the crew resting at a time.
CrewThe total complement (plērōma) of the ship was about 200. Unlike other states, the Athenian crews were not composed of slaves, but entirely of citizens.
The trierarchThe ship's captain was known as the trierarch (triērarchos). He was a wealthy Athenian citizen (usually from the class of the pentakosiomedimoi), responsible for manning and maintaining the ship for 35 years, which otherwise belonged to Athens. The triērarchia was one of the liturgies of ancient Athens, and although it afforded great prestige, it constituted a great financial burden, so that in the fourth century, it was often shared by two citizens, and after 397 BC it was assigned to special boards.
The deck crewThe deck and command crew (hypēresia) was headed by the helmsman, the kybernētēs, who was always an experienced seaman and often the actual commander of the vessel. Other officers were the bow lookout (prōreus or prōratēs), the boatswain (keleustēs), the quartermaster (pentēkontarchos), the shipwright (naupēgos), the piper (aulētēs) who gave the rowers' rhythm and 2 toicharchoi, in charge of the rowers on each side of the ship. In addition, there were 10 sailors, handling the masts and the sails.
The rowersThe 170 rowers (eretai) were recruited from the poorer strata of Athenian society (the thētai). As a result of long practice in peacetime, they were skilled professionals, ensuring Athens' supremacy in naval warfare. The rowers were divided according to their positions in the ship into thranitai, zygitai, and thalamitai. According to the excavated Naval Inventories, lists of ships' equipment compiled by the Athenian naval boards, there were:
- 62 thranitai in the top row (thranos means "deck"). They rowed through the parexeiresia, an outrigger which enabled the inclusion of the third row of oars without significant increase to the height and loss of stability, of the ship. Greater demands were placed upon their strength and synchronization than the other two rows.
The marinesA varying number of marines (epibatai), usually 10-20, were carried aboard for boarding actions. At the Battle of Salamis, each Athenian ship was recorded to have 14 hoplites and 4 archers (usually Scythian mercenaries) on board, but Herodotus narrates that the Chiots had 40 hoplites on board at Lade and that the Persian ships carried a similar number. This reflects the different practices between the Athenians and other, less professional navies. Whereas the Athenians relied on speed and maneuverability, where their highly trained crews had the advantage, other states favoured boarding, in a situation that closely mirrored the one that developed during the First Punic War. As the presence of too many heavily armed hoplites on deck tended to destabilize the ship, the epibatai were normally seated, only rising to carry out any boarding action. The hoplites belonged to the middle social classes, so that they came immediately next to the trierarch in status aboard the ship.
TacticsIn the ancient world, naval combat relied on two methods: ramming and boarding. Artillery in the form of ballistas and catapults was widespread, especially in later centuries, but its inherent technical limitations meant that it could not play a decisive role in combat. Rams (embolon) were fitted to the prows of warships, and were used to rupture the hull of the enemy ship. The preferred method of attack was to come in from astern and behind, with the aim not of creating a single hole, but of rupturing as big a length of the enemy vessel as possible. The minimum speed necessary for a successful impact was about 10 knots. Another method was to brush alongside the enemy ship, with oars drawn in, in order to break the enemy's oars and render the ship immobile, to be finished off with ease. Unlike later eras, boarding actions were not very frequent with the triremes. Their small size allowed for a limited number of marines to be carried aboard, and during the 5th and 4th centuries, emphasis was laid on maneuverability and speed, not on armor and firing power, although fleets less confident of their ability in ramming were prone to load more marines onto their ships. In any case, prior to engagement, the masts and railings of the ship were taken down, hindering any attempt at using grappling hooks. The Athenians especially became masters in the art of ramming, using light, un-decked (aphraktai) triremes.
Squadrons of triremes employed a variety of tactics. The periplous (Gk., "sailing around") involved outflanking or encircling the enemy so as to attack them in the vulnerable rear; the diekplous (Gk., "Sailing out through") involved a concentrated charge so as to break a hole in the enemy line, allowing galleys to break through and then wheel to attack the enemy line from behind; and the kyklos (Gk., "circle") and the mēnoeidēs kyklos (Gk. "half-circle"), were defensive tactics to be employed against these maneuvers. In all of these maneuvers, the ability to accelerate faster, row faster, and turn more sharply than one's enemy was very important.
Changes of engagement and constructionDuring the Hellenistic period, the light trireme was supplanted by larger warships in dominant navies, especially the pentere/quinquereme. The maximum practical number of oar banks a ship could have was three. So the numbers did not refer to the banks of oars anymore (for biremes, triremes and quinquiremes), but to the number of rowers per vertical section, with several men on each oar. The reasons for this development was the increasing use of armor on the bows of warships against ramming attacks, which again required heavier ships for a successful attack. This increased the number of rowers per ship, and also made it possible to use less well-trained personnel for moving these new ships to the minimum impact speed of 10 knots. This change was accompanied by an increased reliance on tactics like boarding, missile skirmishes and using warships as platforms for artillery.
Triremes continued to be the mainstay of all smaller navies. While the Hellenistic kingdoms did develop the quinquireme and even larger ships, most navies of the Greek homeland and the smaller colonies could only afford triremes. It was used by the Diadochi Empires and sea powers like Syracuse, Carthage and later Rome. The difference to the classical 5th century Athenian ships was that they were armored against ramming and carried significantly more marines. Lightened versions of the trireme and smaller vessels were often used as auxiliaries, and still performed quite effectively against the heavier ships, thanks to their greater maneuverability.
With the rise of Rome the biggest fleet of quinquiremes temporarily ruled the Mediterranean, but during the civil wars after Caesar's death the fleet was on the wrong side and a new warfare with light liburnians was developed. By Imperial times the fleet was relatively small and had mostly political influence, controlling the grain supply and fighting pirates, who usually employed light biremes and liburnians. But instead of the successful liburnians of the civil war, it was again centered around light triremes, but still with many marines. Out of this type of ship the dromon developed.
ReconstructionIn 1985–1987 a shipbuilder in Piraeus, financed by Frank Welsh (a Suffolk banker, writer and trireme enthusiast), advised by historian J. S. Morrison and naval architect John F. Coates (who with Welsh founded the Trireme Trust that initiated and managed the project), and informed by evidence from underwater archaeology, built a reconstructed Athenian trireme, Olympias.
Crewed by 170 volunteer oarsmen and oarswomen, Olympias in 1988 achieved 9 knots (17 km/h or 10.5 mph). These results, achieved with inexperienced crew, suggest that the ancient writers were not exaggerating about straight-line performance. In addition, Olympias was able to execute a 180-degree turn in one minute and in an arc no wider than two and one half (2.5) ship-lengths. Additional sea trials took place in 1987, 1990, 1992 and 1994. In 2004 Olympias was used ceremonially to transport the Olympic Flame from the port of Keratsini to the main port of Piraeus as the 2004 Olympic Torch Relay entered its final stages in the run-up to the 2004 Summer Olympics opening ceremony.
The builders of the reconstruction project considered that it effectively proved conclusively what had previously been in doubt, that Athenian triremes were arranged with the crew positioned in a staggered arrangement on three levels with one person per oar. This would have made optimum use of the available internal dimensions. However since modern humans are on average approximately 6 cm (2 inches) taller than Ancient Greeks (and the same relative dimensions can be presumed for oarsmen and other athletes), the construction of a craft which followed the precise dimensions of the ancient vessel led to cramped rowing conditions and consequent restrictions on the modern crew's ability to propel the vessel with full efficiency, which perhaps explains why the ancient speed records stand unbroken.
- Hellenic Navy web page for the reconstructed Olympias trireme
- E. J. de Meester's page
- Merchant ships page
- A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890), entry on "Warships"
- The Trireme Trust
- HISTORY AND ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE SHIP - LECTURE NOTES - 26. Triremes, from the Centre for Maritime Archaeology of the University of Southampton
trireme in Bosnian: Trirema
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