‘The Truth About Triremes: Ancient Naval Warfare Re-examined’ Dr Philip De Souza Review

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Lured away from the warmth of their fireplaces or pounding the streets in search of an early Christmas bargain on a cold November night, a fantastic crowd (we might have to start thinking about booking a bigger room in future!) packed the Old Staff Common Room to hear Dr Philip de Souza (UCD) speak on ‘The Truth About Triremes: Ancient Naval Warfare Re-examined’.

After a CANI update from convenor Helen McVeigh and an introduction from Dr John Curran, Dr de Souza launched into the warrior-raider culture of archaic Greece, using perhaps its most famous son – the wandering, crafty Odysseus. The cover story he told on his return to Ithaca as a Cretan raider reads very much like he is describing his own actions and merely substituting his origins. This almost certainly reflects the raiding nature of sea power at the time of the coming together of the Homeric story, also depicted on vases.


“I had nine times led warriors and swift-faring ships against foreign folk, and great spoil had ever fallen to my hands.” Homer, Odyssey XIV.230

The appearance of naumachia – sea battles – required the growth of states like Persia, Athens, Carthage and Rome to a size and influence required to project power across the sea and build/man ships of war (Van Wees (2004), 232-236; de Souza (1999), 25-36). Perhaps the only exceptions were city-states who were able to unite entire islands and then use its resources to equip and train a capable fleet like Rhodes or Samos, with the Polycrates of Samos “the first of the Greeks whom we know to aim at the mastery of the sea ” (Herodotus III.122.2)


The aspiration of Polycrates to master the waves was facilitated by the invention of the first specialised warship in c.550BC: the three-banks of oars of the trireme.

The main thrust of Dr de Souza’s talk was to expound the challenge that he and other academics such as Professor Han van Wees (UCL) have issued to the conventional view of the trireme being primarily “a man-driven torpedo armed with a pointed cutwater for puncturing an enemy hull” (Casson (1995), 49) and oarsmen being too valuable or perhaps unreliable to be used for any other purpose other than rowing.


The  challenge is that the prevalent modern view of ancient sea power is anachronistically skewed by perceptions of early modern naval warfare with the ram essentially replacing guns and that while triremes and their rowers were extremely expensive, the accepted overspecialisation of such warships implies a significant waste of manpower.


If they were just ‘man-driven torpedoes’ and their oarsmen only rowed the ship, then each trireme would only be able to carry about thirty hoplites, as it needed a rowing crew of about 170 out of the 200 men it could carry. To consider that 170 oarsmen would be essentially non-combatants in any land engagement they deposited their soldiers for leads to the rather ridiculous notion that tens of thousands of Athenian rowers just sat and watched as their soldiers fought a battle while being perhaps significantly outnumbered (Hale (2009), 78-79 suggesting that 30,000 Athenian rowers just sat watching the Battle of Mycale).


Dr de Souza also highlighted that this modern view also underestimates the continued use of maritime raiding even in vast thalassocratic empires like that of Athens and Carthage. While capable of fighting at sea, the trireme remained primarily a way to transport soldiers; it just so happened that 170 out of the 200 soldiers on each ship also happened to row the ship to its destination before disembarking to take their place in the battle/raid. Each of these oarsmen likely had a knife and could arm himself with a sling or a stone to be classified as a light/missile troop. Essentially then, ancient rowers should be seen more like an amphibious strike force.

Even famous examples like the Persian invasions of Greece of Darius and Xerxes demonstrate this continued preference for amphibious strike forces or merely transporting men rather than naval engagements.

The Delian League/Athenian Empire was originally founded for the Greeks to compensate themselves “by ravaging the territory of the King of Persia” (Thucydides I.96), while the Athenian attack on Cythera in 424BC involved a “scattered crowd of light armed troops” (Thucydides IV.56.1-2). The piratical spirit of the warrior-raider culture which spawned Odysseus was still alive and well in the mid-fifth century BC.


Dr de Souza also expounded on why these soldier-sailors, while remembered in some quarters for the service they had rendered during the Persian Wars (Aristophanes, Wasps 1112-1121) might have had such a poor reputation. While the hoplites were regarded as the rich, upper class ‘heroes’ with their ability to kit themselves out as heavy infantry, there was an identifiable prejudice against the poor, low class, foreign or unfree sailors, with Isocrates, On the Peace 79 going as far to say that the nautikos ochlos – the naval mob – manning of Athenian triremes were “the worst scum of the Greeks.”

After some brief comments on Hellenistic ‘monster fleets’ and the Roman imperial navy, Dr de Souza fielded a dozen questions and comments from an audience suitably warmed up by the depth of the talk (and the available mulled wine).

20171130_201351We at CANI would like to thank all of those who took the time to attend, listen and contribute to what was a fantastic event.

A special thanks to Dr Philip de Souza for provided such a fascinating talk and fielding so many questions not just at the event but afterwards.

Further Reading

Casson, L. Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World. Princeton (1995)

de Souza, P. ‘War at Sea,’ in Campbell, B. and Trittle, L. (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Warfare in the Classical World. (2013) 369-394

de Souza, P., Arnaud, P. and Buchet, C. (eds.) The Sea in History. Vol I: The Ancient World. (2017)

Hale, J.R. Lords Of The Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy. New York (2009)

Van Wees, H. Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities. Bristol (2004), 232-236

You can see some more photos from Dr de Souza’s talk HERE in our Gallery.

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