Oared warships, lie at the heart of the Hellenic civilization's history of which the Trireme is the most famous. In the seventh and sixth centuries BC they transported the colonists from their mother cities to all parts of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. In 480 BC the Greeks won possibly their most significant battle against the much larger Persian fleet in the narrow waters of Salamis. Athens supremacy at sea was founded upon the crucial role that she played in the victory. The skilled use of the triremes enabled her to win, and maintain for some decades, supremacy over some of her former allies. But who were the ancient Greeks and what is the Hellenic civilization?
When talking about ancient Greece we think of a civilization of warrior peoples who excelled at military combat both on land and at sea. A people who revolutionized the way man thought about himself and about the world around him. Whether through science, art, philosophy or athletics the Greek frame of mind was geared in the pursuit of excellence. The Greek/Hellenic civilization has survived from roughly 1600 B.C. up to present day, where its history is still taught today in high schools and universities. Its legacy can be seen in many forms today as in athletics and the Olympic games and also politically, the Western world's adoption of the democratic form of government. However Greece in ancient times was not the unified Greece of modern day although Greeks did share a common language and cultural practices. Greece back then was a collection of city states or polis with his or her own citizens, laws and constitutions. The community was sovereign. Nonetheless when a foreign ruler such as the Persians came to invade Greece, the Greek city states primarily Athens and Sparta united for a common cause to expel the invaders. The main defeat of the Persian forces came at the battle of Salamis where the Athenian navy heavily outnumbered, decimated Xerxe's fleet in close quarters. After the repulsion of the Persians the naval forces under Athenian command liberated the Greek cities of Asia Minor and the offshore Islands, part of Cyprus and even invaded Egypt. Naval warfare had become the choice selection of warfare and the trireme was its most potent instrument.
So how did the trireme contribute to the Hellenic civilization? Through the invention of the trireme, Greeks, primarily the Athenians revolutionized naval warfare battle tactics. The tactics were used against the Persians at the Battle of Salamis (480B.C.), which stopped the enemy from taking over and collectively unified the Greek poleis against a common cause. Furthermore the trireme through its supremacy at sea propelled Athens into a maritime super-power ensuring its legacy in history.
A trireme is best described by an examination of its name: tri meaning three and reme meaning the Latin word remus. These ships were made to take up sails for swift traveling when the winds were favorable. However, when the winds were not favorable or weak; when the water was shallow; or if there was some tight navigating to perform, the ship could move with man-powered oars. Triremes were warships; cargo and passengers were usually transported across the seas by different types of ships built according to principles similar to those of the trireme. The historian Herodotus writes that the average crew of a trireme was two hundred men not counting the trierarch. This includes 170 rowers, the ships officers, sailors and soldiers. The common tactics of the time were to ram one's opponent. Most ships at the time were equipped with a large battering ram at the bow, which was used to crush the sides of an opponent. Advances in Greek warship design were aimed at achieving the speed necessary for successful ramming without loss of stability.
The chief offensive maneuvers in the tactical doctrine of fifth century Greek navies were: (1)...
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1. J.S. Morrison and others, The Athenian Trireme (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000) 1
3. Joseph R. O 'Neill, Triremes Versus Pentaconters (Monmouth College:2001) available on-line from
4. William Roberts, Jack Sweetman, "Some Aspects of Fifth-Century Naval Tactics" Ninth Naval History Symposium (Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1989.) 9
8. J.S. Morrison and others, The Athenian Trireme (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000) 62
9. William Roberts, Jack Sweetman, "Some Aspects of Fifth-Century Naval Tactics" Ninth Naval History Symposium (Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1989.) 12
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