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Mare Nostrum

The Ancient Greek Trireme and its Modern Equivalent

by J. Kapost

The Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE was the decisive momentum shift that the Greek military had been looking for. Before the battle it appeared that the Persian military machine would march across Greece; after the battle, the Persian military machine, particularly its navy, lay in shambles. It was the Greek trireme that proved to be the defining weapon of the battle. Functioning similiarly to a modern frigate, the trireme was one of the most dangerous and effective weapons of its time.

The Trireme

The ancient Greek navy was one of the most powerful at the time. While the ancient Greek trireme would be no match for today's cruisers, frigates and destroyers, at the time they represented the best that naval technology had to offer. The trireme was built for speed and mobility. The triremes were 120 feet long, small by today's standerds, and were powered by 170 rowers arranged in three rows. They were built low to the ground, the bottom row of rowers were just 18 inches above the waterline, and very narrow which meant that the triremes were not built to handle open ocean. The rough seas would make short work of a trireme because of its very low weight. The triremes were built for short, close in, battles. They were not made to handle long, open ocean campaigns. However, the triremes were very fast and maneuverable which gave them a critical advantage in the close-in battles that were typical of ancient naval engagements. (Thubron 44)

The Crew

The crew of a trireme usually consisted of 203 men, about two-thirds that of a modern destroyer. Obviously, most of the crew were rowers, 170 in all. Most of them were poor Greek citizens of the city-state or hired rowers from elsewhere in Greece. Besides the rowers, a trireme's crew consisted of the following:

  • 14 Spearmen
  • 4 Archers
  • 25 Officers and Sailors

The captain of a trireme was usually a political appointee who knew very little about naval warfare. This meant that the actual command of the ship usually fell to the "kybernetes", or helmsmen. Next came the "proreus", the lookout who was in charge of the foredeck. The lowest ranked officer on a trireme was the pentecontarchos who was in charge of wages and the administrative duties of running a ship of war. In addition, the trireme had a crew of 25 highly trained sailors, including a carpenter, a necessity on a wooden ship. (Thubron 44)

Triremes of Today

The triremes equivalent in the modern world would be the US Navy's Oliver Hazard Perry class frigate. Like the trireme, the Perry class frigates are built for speed and mobility and like the trireme many sacrifices were made to make the Perry class frigates fast and mobile. The most obvious is the ship's armor. Both the trireme and the Perry class frigates have a relatively thin coat of armor. The trireme's had wood, good enough to stop arrows and spears but not the battering ram of another ship. The Perry class has a sheet of steel, good enough to stop naval gunfire, small mines or topedoes but not strong enough to withstand a hit from one of today's sea-skimming cruise missiles. This is because armor is a "double-edged sword." On one hand armor makes a ship less susceptible to damage in battle, but it is also significantly increases a ship's weight. The Perry class frigates are also rather small for a warship, 445 feet long and weighing 3973 tons, (Naval Register).

The Technology of War

While technology has changed the weapons of war quite drastically since the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE, the basic needs that these weapons fulfill is still the same. The archers have been replaced by missiles, the spears are now guns. The oarsmen are now massive oil-burning boilers. The real change in naval warfare has come in tactics. Today, cruise missiles can obliterate targets hundreds of miles away. But as recently as the 1940s and 1950s the missile technology that makes the US Navy the most powerful in the world did not exist. It was the gun that was the main weapon of a ships arsenal. And because even the most powerful gun cannot reach far beyond the horizon, close in engagement was necessary. The same was true at the time of the Battle of Salamis, arrows and spears were the weapons at the time which meant that it was necessary to get very close to one's opponent in order to fight. The common tactics of the time were to ram one's opponent. Most ships at the time were equiped with a large battering ram at the bow which was used to crush the sides of an opponent. Another common tactic was to brush along the sides of the opponent's ship and snap all of the oars off. Once the ship was disabled and floundering in the waves then the over ship could move in and finish its opponent.

The Battle of Salamis

The Battle of Salamis occured when the Greek and Persian naval fleets met near the small island of Salamis. Herodotus, (301), who is considered one of the first historians listed the fleets in his book History of The Greek & Persian War:
  • The Greeks engaged in the sea sevice were the following. The Athenians furnished a hundred and twenty-seven vessels to the fleet, which were manned in part by the Plataeans, who, though unskilled in such matters, were led by their active and daring spirit to undertake this duty; the Corintheans furnished a contingent of forty vessels; the Megarians sent twenty; the Chalcidians also manned twenty, which had been furnished to them by the Athenians; the Aeginetans came with eighteen; the Sicyonians with twelve; the Lacedaemonians with ten; the Epidaurians with eight; the Eretrians with seven; the Troezenians with five; the Styeans with two; and the Ceans with two triremes and two penteconters. Last of all, the Locrians of Opus came in aid with a squadron of seven penteconters (another type of warship).

The Persians had very little coast and almost no navy. They relied on the people living in their empire for their navy. The Phoenicians, Egyptians, Cypriotes and the Greeks of Asia minor all supplied vessels to Persia. At the battle of Salamis they had amassed more than 1200 warships and many more transports and other auxilary ships, (Thubron 46).

The Persian King Xerxes had invaded Hellas in 480 BCE and had taken most of the land. The Persians had destroyed most of the villages and had even taken Athens. All that was left of the Greek military was its navy whcih was anchored in the Bay of Salamis. The Persians attacked the Greeks and suffered a horrible defeat:

  • 200+ Persian ships lost
  • 40 Greek ships lost

How had the Greeks, vastly outnumbered, defeated the great Persian military machine? Simply put, the Greek triremes were better fighting vessels than the Persian war galleys. King Xerxes was disillusioned by the defeat and left Hallas, never to return (Warfare in Hellas).

Salamis in Detail

Events leading to the battle began when the Persian King Xerxes decided to invade the Greek states. The Greeks were vastly outnumbered, and the Persians marched across Greece towards Athens. The Greeks knew that Salamis would be their last chance to "right the ship" and turn the war around. However, they would be horribly outnumbered. Against the over 1200 Persian ships, the Greeks could only muster a force of some 450 triremes! But with their homes and their lives at stake, Greek patriotism burned inside each and every soldier and sailor. However, no amount of patriotism could change the fact that they were badly outnumbered. The Greeks knew they could not stand head-to-head against the Persian Navy in open waters. It would take a brilliant piece of naval strategy by Thermistocles, their chief strategist, to defeat the Persian Navy.

The Greek Navy lay in wait near the mouth of the Salamis channel. In order to draw the Persians in, Thermistocles claimed to be a traitor and transmitted false information to the Persian commanders. Believing they now had an easy victory, the Persain navy sailed into the Salamis channel. The narrow channel provided the perfect place for an ambush. Persian ship after Persain ship sailed into the channel only to be annilated by a Greek trireme. As previously mentioned, the trireme has superior manueverability which gave it a major advantage in the narrow waters. For hours the Greeks sent persai nships entering the channel to the bottom. Realizing victory was within their grasp, the Greek navy lashed out violently at the Persians. The Persian navy tried to flee, only to be run down by the quicker triremes. The battle was a Greek rout, only about 40 Greek losses to over 200 Persian ships sunk and amny more captured. Thousands of Persian sailors and their ships lay at the bottom of the Salamis channel. The Greek navy ahd pulled off a seemingly impossible feat and had beaten the Great Persian war machine, (Thubron 55-71).

Today

The Greek triremes have long passed into lore. Very few of these fine vessels remain and even it's modern equivalent, the Perry class frigate, is on it's way to the scrapyard. However, the trireme is arguably the forefather to today's modern frigates, destroyers, and cruisers plying the world's oceans today. Just another example of anciant Greece's impact on today's world.

Works Cited

History and Thought of Western Man
Rich East High School * Park Forest, IL 60466

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