The ancient Greeks and Romans built ships for two specific reasons: for transporting goods and for waging war. Because traveling by land was slow, difficult, and costly, ancient people built merchant ships to carry bulky goods, such as grain, wine, and olive oil. Beginning in the Archaic* period, the Greeks established naval forces to defend themselves or to attack their enemies. The navies of classical* and Hellenistic* Greece and of the Roman Empire included ships that required dozens of rowers.
Merchant Ships. Because the number of rowers needed to propel a ship was great and rowers took up valuable cargo space, most merchant vessels were sailing ships. Weather conditions and the direction of the wind greatly affected when and how fast a sailing ship traveled. A ship that took five days to sail from the city of Constantinople to the city of Gaza took twice as long to return because it was sailing against the prevailing winds on the return trip. Sailing ships rarely sailed in bad weather, and they did not move at all when the weather was calm. For these reasons, galleys made short trips transporting goods. A galley was a shallow ship that was powered by oarsmen as well as by wind. Whenever possible, a galley raised its sail to take advantage of the wind.
In order to carry as much cargo as possible, merchant ships were deeper than galleys. By the 300s B.C., the average Greek merchant ship carried about 100 tons of freight. Merchant ships increased in size during the Hellenistic age. Off the coast of France, archaeologists* have discovered part of a merchant ship that sank in the first century B.C. The ship, which measured 135 feet long and 30 feet wide, was capable of carrying more than 400 tons of cargo. The Romans once shipped a 400-ton stone obelisk, or square pillar, from Egypt to Rome. Because of the great weight on the deck of the ship, the ship also carried twice that weight in lentils* in the hold below deck to prevent the ship from capsizing. That Roman ship, at least, was capable of carrying 1,200 tons of cargo.
As the Roman empire expanded, river commerce increased on the Nile in Egypt and on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Mesopotamia. The Nile was especially suitable for river commerce. The river flowed from south to north, and the usual wind direction was from north to south, which enabled ships to sail upstream and float downstream. Most ships that sailed the Nile had tall, narrow sails placed high to catch the upper breezes, because in certain places the Nile flows between high cliffs.
Warships. The greatest danger to warships was being rammed by other ships during battle. Therefore, these ancient vessels were built for speed and mobility. Most were long and narrow. Early Greek warships had a single bank of oarsmen on each side. During the classical period, Athens had the most powerful navy in the region largely because of the effective use of a warship called a trireme. The trireme had three banks of rowers on each side. The Romans developed a five-banked warship—called a quin- quereme—during the Punic Wars with Carthage. However, the Romans preferred to use their warships as platforms from which their troops boarded enemy vessels. These ships were more rounded and heavier than Greek warships. They often had metal beaks for ramming ships and grappling hooks to join ships together. Once the ships were joined, a “land” fight took place on the decks.
* Archaic in Greek history, refers to the period between 750 B.C. and 500 B.C.
* classical in Greek history, refers to the period of great political and cultural achievement from about 500 B.C. to 323 B.C.
* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.
* archaeologist scientist who studies past human cultures, usually by excavating ruins
* lentil round, flat, edible seed harvested from the pod of the lentil plant, similar to a bean or pea
Shipbuilding. Most ancient ships were made from wood. Shipbuilders began with the keel, which is a strong beam of wood that runs the length of the ship’s bottom and provides the main support for the vessel. They then constructed the outer shell of the ship with planks raised up from the keel. Frames were inserted into this shell to strengthen the structure. (Modern European builders of wooden ships first constructed the frame before wrapping the shell around it.) Most merchant ships had a layer of lead that covered underwater surfaces and protected the ships from the marine life that could destroy the wood.
Most sailing ships had one large square sail in the middle of the ship, but many also used small triangular sails in the front and back to catch the side winds. Sails were usually made of linen and were dyed and decorated. Leather was sometimes used to strengthen the edges and corners of the sails.
The Greeks and Romans built harbors and lighthouses to aid sailors. By the 400s B.C., most Greek ports had stone landings for loading and unloading ships, and some had stone breakwaters that enabled ships to approach the land safely. The Romans developed a type of concrete that could solidify under water, enabling them to build harbors in places that lacked natural protection. Beginning in the Hellenistic period, lighthouses were constructed to direct ships toward port. The first and most famous was the lighthouse of Alexandria, which could be seen from a distance of 30 miles. Ancient writers regarded this impressive structure as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. (See also Naval Power, Greek; Naval Power, Roman; Piracy; Trade, Greek; Trade, Roman; Transportation and Travel.)