Olympias, a reproduction of an ancient trireme, was built in 1987 and sailed around the Mediterranean.

This ancient Greek warship ruled the Mediterranean

With a bronze battering ram attached to its prow and a crew of nearly 200 oarsmen, the trireme helped turn Athens into a naval superpower.

Harder than it looks

Olympias, a reproduction of an ancient trireme, was built in 1987 and sailed around the Mediterranean. Its voyages yielded important information on the high levels of strength and skill needed to control these ancient warships.
Mike Andrews/Bridgeman/ACI

Fast, maneuverable, and dangerous, the trireme was the most feared ship in ancient Greece. With powerful bronze rams and the ability to turn on a dime, it would leave enemy ships dead in the water by punching holes in their sides or smashing their oars. In his Histories, Herodotus writes how Greek naval dominance owed so much to the brilliant use of triremes in battle.

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In the fifth century B.C., Athenian shipyards had the capacity for over 300 triremes, the most famous warships of antiquity. The trireme—a term derived from the Greek trieres, “three rows of oars”—was the result of the continuous development of naval technology in the Greek world. The epic poem Iliad (attributed to Homer, and written in the eighth century B.C.) mentions ships called triaconters and penteconters, vessels that were crewed by 30 or 50 men, respectively. Biremes, with two rows of oarsmen, are recorded on eighth-century B.C. reliefs. At the beginning of the seventh century B.C., accumulated experience led to new technical advances, and the much more sophisticated trireme model appeared. Thucydides wrote that the Corinthians were the first to introduce the design to the Greek world, though modern historians think triremes may have first been built in Phoenicia, in the eastern Mediterranean and what is now Lebanon.

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The Greeks considered triremes to be living things, each endowed with a sacred character. For this reason, the ships were given individual names, which were almost always feminine. Their characteristic eyes located on both sides of the prow were used to “find their way through the sea,” the walkways protruding from the prow were their “ears,” and the sails were their “wings.”

Captain and crew

Faster and more stable than their predecessors, triremes were expensive to produce. Manufacturing costs ran as high as more than one talent (6,000 drachmas, or 58 pounds of silver). If a ship were damaged in battle, it could still be put to good use. With proper maintenance, triremes could remain in service for 20 to 25 years before being decommissioned or sold as “war surplus.” History has recorded some that were sailing for more than 80 years.

The ships in the best shape were reserved for the military, while older ones were used mainly for surveillance and transportation. Athens had two prized triremes, the Salamina and the Paralo. Noted for their beauty, these flagships were often used for diplomatic missions or rituals, such as transporting Athenian athletes to the Olympic Games every four years.

The Athenian fleet boasted more than 50,000 oarsmen, few of whom were slaves or foreigners. Most of them belonged to the class of thetes, citizens of the wage-earning class who could not cover the cost of arming themselves, as soldiers were required to do. The development of the navy as a bulwark of Athenian democracy in the fifth century B.C. raised this social class’s influence in relation to the aristocracy. It is no coincidence that Greek philosophers like Plato and Euenus and Athenian citizens began to refer to their leaders as “helmsmen” who guided the “ship of state.”

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Paying the crew was a considerable expense. Wages were about one talent per month, an expense paid by the captain (trierarchos) from his own pocket. Keeping the crew well fed was crucial to their performance. A typical diet included salted fish, oatcakes, wine, cheese, vegetables, and about seven quarts of water per day.

The fleet’s departure, commanded by one or more naval commander (strategoi), was an important event. Their training enabled the crew to get in position and check that the ship, their tools, and weapons were in good working order quickly: within just 30 seconds, according to a modern simulation. A priest officiated at an animal sacrifice before the captain offered a prayer and hymn to the gods. Finally, a cup of wine was poured over the ship’s bow and stern as a libation. 

Under sail, the oarsmen followed the orders of the keleustés, issued by shouting or striking a piece of timber with a mace. When the roar of waves or battle prevented the rowing master from being heard, an aulos, a wind instrument like a double flute, marked the rowing beat. The oarsmen joined in with traditional chants to keep in time.

Triremes did not have much room on board for storage or sleeping, so the boats tended to sail only during the day. At night, the trireme was hauled out of the water, both to protect its hull from shipworms and to allow the crew to eat and rest. While ashore, the hull could also be checked for needed repairs.

Ramming speeds

The trireme’s most feared weapon was a bronze battering ram attached to the prow of the ship. Fierce ancient naval battles were fought by trying to slam into the side of an enemy ship and either puncture the hull or damage the oars to immobilize it. Scholars estimate the maximum ramming speed to be around nine knots (10.4 miles an hour).

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A typical strategy was to ram an enemy ship and retreat quickly to let it sink. In the case of surrender (or when the attackers picked up the survivors before they drowned), captured oarsmen were allowed to change sides (experienced oarsmen were very valuable assets). If an attacking ship rammed a ship and became stuck in its side, each crew would be forced into combat with the goal of seizing the intact ship, while the vessel that had been rammed would be abandoned.

Dozens of triremes would return to Athens in early winter. If dolphins swam off their bows, it was a good omen, as these animals were believed to save sailors from drowning. Each trireme underwent repairs and cleaning in port. The trierarchs presented reports of their missions, while sailors and oarsmen collected their wages.

Reinvention and resurgence

Greece’s naval dominance did not last forever, and the trireme evolved. Modifications to the trireme as a design were spearheaded by various Mediterranean powers, and put to the test in the period when the successors of Alexander the Great fought for dominance in the late fourth and early third centuries B.C. By the time of the First Punic War in the mid-third century B.C., Romans and Carthaginians were fighting at sea using quadriremes and quinqueremes.

When the Romans conquered Macedonia in 168 B.C., they were surprised to discover an ancient trireme, left abandoned in a shipyard for 70 years. They considered it a relic, but so beautifully made that they reused it. History’s final recorded battle relying on the descendants of the trireme was the Battle of Lepanto off western Greece on October 7, 1571—more than 2,000 years after triremes first sailed. The Holy League coalition of Spain and many Italian city-states smashed the Ottoman fleet, killing nearly half their 67,000 men.

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The Battle of Lepanto was one of the last naval conflicts in the West to rely heavily on human-driven galleys; subsequent naval conflicts would be dominated by sail-powered craft. The vast deployment of craft that marked naval battles in antiquity was also becoming a thing of the past. Nearly 700 galleys took part in the Battle of Ecnomus between Rome and Carthage in 256 B.C. A total of around 70 vessels took part in the Battle of Trafalgar of 1805.

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Today archaeologists are keen to find any material remains of fifth-century B.C. triremes throughout the Mediterranean world. Because the ships were made of soft wood and susceptible to shipworms and decay, well-preserved wrecks are difficult, if not impossible, to find in the warm seawaters.

The bronze rams, however, would survive centuries at the bottom of the sea, and archaeologists continue to comb the waters for them. One of the first and most significant discoveries was the so-called Athlit ram, discovered in 1980 near the village of Athlit, Israel. Giving great insight into how these weapons were forged, the heavy bronze ram weighs more than 1,000 pounds. It was found with timbers still attached from what is now believed to be a trireme or quadrireme from around the second century B.C.

One of the most valuable archaeological sites is the military port of Piraeus. Located about five miles from Athens, Piraeus was home to the mighty Athenian fleet at the height of its powers in the fifth century B.C. Archaeologists were thrilled to find the remains of several ancient boathouses (neosoikoi), which helped them better understand not only how triremes were built but also how they were maintained. The hunt continues for these former boats that ruled the Mediterranean and what they can reveal about the shipbuilding culture of ancient Athens.

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