Ep. 030 – Trireme 101: How to Build, Sail, and Ram and Ancient Greek Warship

Today we have a lengthy primer focused only on the trireme. After a jaunt through some of the evidence related to when the trireme first came into use on the seas of ancient Greece and the Near East we then take a deep dive into the numerous aspects of the ship itself. We discuss the materials used by ancient shipwrights, the process of building and outfitting a trireme, and the design of this ship that set it apart from the oared galleys of archaic Greece. The trireme was essentially an oar-powered maritime missile, so we then outline the various sailors who made up the typical 200-man contingent of each trireme. The trierarch functioned as a ship captain, and from there we meet the other 199 men, 170 of whom were oarsmen. Much of what we know about the trireme has been confirmed via the reconstruction of Olympias and the ensuing sea trials that she underwent. After a bit about Olympias, we conclude with a look at the naval tactics that developed in the wake of the trireme taking over the naval scene in ancient Greece. All in all, what we've got is a 105-minute ode to the most important ship of the ancient world: the trireme.

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  2 comments for “Ep. 030 – Trireme 101: How to Build, Sail, and Ram and Ancient Greek Warship

  1. Dave Cortesi
    August 9, 2017 at 7:54 pm

    Somewhere i read that each oarsman had his own wool cushion that enabled his butt to slide, as with a modern sliding seat, increasing his efficiency. In the Olympias videos I don’t see that, just a simple pad but no room for it to slide.

    “Pads of sheepskin would enable the trireme’s oarsmen to work their legs as they rowed, thus adding to the power of each stroke.” (http://erenow.com/ancient/lordsoftheseaatheniannavy/4.html)

    Wherever it was I read this originally, that source told me that the oarsmen got an occupational nickname from the greek word for the sheepskin pad each carried — but I can’t find that source now. Comment?

    • Brandon Huebner
      August 14, 2017 at 9:18 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Dave! You’re quite right to recall the proposition made by some that the oarsmen used a cushion to slide along the bench. The few clear-cut depictions that show detail of the rowers in a trireme don’t show the bench, so although we know they had bent knees we don’t know if they used a fixed or a sliding cushion. Thucydides refers to the rowers having to carry their own cushion as well.

      I believe that in the case of Olympias, they simply chose to use a fixed cushion because of space constraints. In their book on the reconstruction, Morrison and Coates mention that any cushion sliding in a trireme would be “over a much shorter distance than in a modern racing craft, about 15 cm as opposed to 40-50 cm actual movement on the sliding seats with wheels which are used in today’s boats.” They mention in this same discussion that the available evidence regarding seat cushions in the ancient trireme is equally compatible with fixed-seat rowing, and that in the original trials where the oarsmen used sheepskin cushions one man tried to use a sliding stroke but found it hard to slide on the bench and thought it to be more tiring than a fixed-seat oar stroke.

      Basically, as with many particularities from this far back, we don’t have clear-cut evidence to help us choose a winner between sliding-cushion or fixed-cushion. John R. Hale is famously the historian who argues in favor of the sliding-cushion, so his writing may be where you read about the nickname. I haven’t come across that myself, but I know there a few articles Hale wrote focusing on the seat cushion in Greek triremes specifically, I just can’t find access to those, blasted academic journal paywalls blocking the way again! I’ll follow up if I do come across that nickname though, you’ve got me curious about it now 😉

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