Ancient History & Civilisation

The world before you has two realms open to human enterprise,
land and sea,
and over the whole of the sea you are lords.

—Pericles to the Athenians



THE ATHENIAN NAVY FIRST FLOATED INTO MY CONSCIOUSNESS on a winter afternoon in 1969, when I encountered Donald Kagan walking down College Street in New Haven. Across the snowbound expanse of the Yale campus his prizefighter’s stance and rolling gait were instantly recognizable. I knew him well as the formidable professor of my Introduction to Greek History course but had never worked up the courage to speak to him. On the first day of class Kagan had marshaled the front row of students into an improvised phalanx of Greek warriors, with notebooks for shields and pens for spears, to demonstrate military maneuvers. Though like me a new arrival, Kagan already ranked as a colossus among the faculty. I tacked across the icy sidewalk to let him pass, but he stopped, asked my name, and inquired what I was doing at Yale. I stammered a few words about majoring in archaeology and rowing for the freshman crew. Kagan lit up at once. “Ha! A rower. Now you can explain something to me. In autumn 429, after Phormio beat the Peloponnesians in the gulf, they sent their crews overland to launch a sneak attack on the Piraeus. Thucydides says each rower carried his own oar and cushion. But why on earth should they need cushions? They certainly didn’t have very far to row.”

We talked for an hour of ships and oars and naval heroes, oblivious to the cold. I fished up a recollection of rowing pads that had been used by nineteenth-century American rowers so that they could work their legs during the stroke. Kagan enlarged upon the tactical genius of the little-known Athenian commander Phormio. He went on to speak of the many unexplored issues that obscured the story of the mighty navy of Athens, bulwark of liberty and engine of democracy. As the great man got under way again, he told me that I should investigate Athenian history from the vantage point of a rower’s bench. It was an assignment, I found, for life.

Over the next four years I delved into the evidence for ancient rowing techniques, hoping to explain the phenomenal speed of ten knots over a full day of rowing that was attested for Athenian triremes. I also became immersed in Phormio’s extraordinary career, and his string of naval victories against seemingly impossible odds. As a counterpoint to these marine interests, during my last semester the students of the Yale Drama School produced an extravaganza in the swimming pool of the Payne Whitney Gymnasium: an updated version of Aristophanes’ Frogs. The ancient original featured many comments on the Athenian navy, some satirical, some patriotic. Most were cut in this new version, with songs by Sondheim and a cast that included the young Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver. But the high point of the comedy was still the chorus of noisy Frogs, now played by the Yale swimming team, who shouted the old rowing chant Brekekekex ko-ax ko-ax! as the god Dionysus rowed a little boat across the River Styx. Those were heady days.

At Cambridge in England, during doctoral research into the evolution of the Viking longship, I was drawn deeper into the world of the Athenian navy by a meeting with John Morrison. At that time his classic Greek Oared Ships was my bible. Morrison had been diverted from his early studies of Plato when he learned that nobody could explain various naval terms that punctuated the philosopher’s dialogues. Ultimately he produced the first working model of an Athenian trireme with its complex three-tiered array of rowers. Morrison’s reconstruction achieved nationwide notoriety when it was cited in the longest-running correspondence ever to appear in the letters column of The Times. The subject of the hot debate was the maximum speed of an ancient trireme.

Enthusiastic backers decided to build a section of a trireme in Morrison’s garden. I had the good fortune to be among the Cambridge rowers who cycled out to Great Shelford and pulled an oar in this trial model. We dipped our blades into a plastic swimming pool set up next to the hull. There I also met John Coates, a royal naval architect who was devoting his retirement to the trireme project. Eventually the Greek navy made the vision a reality by constructing a full-scale replica according to Morrison’s theories and Coates’s plans. It was a happy day when, years later, I clambered aboard the trireme Olympias in dry dock near Athens, sat down on one of its 170 rowers’ thwarts, and gazed across the shining bay to Salamis.

Even after Cambridge, when I returned home and took up a post as archaeologist at the University of Louisville, the siren song of the Athenian navy continued to haunt me. Digging at an ancient villa in Portugal, I saw Roman mosaics depicting the mythical hero Theseus, legendary slayer of the Minotaur and founder of the Athenian navy. When I was surveying the site of the Delphic Oracle in Greece, the dark tunnels through which I squeezed brought me close to the spot where the famous “Wooden Wall” oracle had been pronounced—the cryptic prophecy that foreshadowed the rise of Athenian naval power and the Greek victory over the Persian armada at Salamis. Lecturing in Finland, I encountered modern Vikings who seemed to have reinvented ancient Greek rowing technique complete with rowing pads. They had matched the legendary feats of Athenian triremes by crossing the Baltic Sea in a single day at—yes—an average speed of ten knots.

Nothing might have come of these sporadic reminders had it not been, again, for Don Kagan. In the spring of 2000 he invited me to lecture with him on the subject of “great battles of antiquity” during a Yale alumni cruise. Kagan tackled the land battles when we went on shore at Marathon, Thermopylae, or Sparta, re-creating his unforgettable classroom drills. I recounted the naval battles on the deck of the Clelia II as we voyaged through the home waters of the Athenian navy—cruising through the straits at Salamis, passing the Sybota Islands near Corfu (site of the battle that precipitated the Peloponnesian War), and forging at sunrise up the Hellespont, the strategic waterway that the Athenians had once expended so many men and ships in order to control.

On the long flight back home I told Kagan that he should do the world a favor and publish his history of the Peloponnesian War in a version for the general reader. The suggestion bore fruit for both of us. Some months later I received the message that led to the writing of this book. It came from Wendy Wolf, an editor at Viking Penguin in New York. “We are going to publish Don Kagan’s The Peloponnesian War. He says that we should also publish a book on the ancient Athenian navy, and that you are the man to write it. Are you interested? I think it could be a blast.”

Yes, I was interested. I had been interested for over thirty years. But if by “blast” Wolf envisioned something rocketlike and soon over, she was sadly misled. At a meeting in August 2001 I assured her that the research was complete and that I could finish the book within a year. Wolf prudently recommended that I plan on two. In the event, she has had to wait for seven years. It seemed that the more I looked, the more there was to learn.

Thanks to my editor’s patience, I was able to visit the site of every Athenian naval battle and amphibious operation for which a detailed description survives, from Syracuse in Sicily to the Eurymedon River in southern Turkey, and to identify for the first time the location of Aegospotami (“Goat Rivers”), site of Athens’ most terrible naval disaster. At the Piraeus, headquarters of the ancient Athenian fleet, I looked on as a team of young Danish and Greek archaeologists led by the indomitable Bjørn Lovén mapped the submerged slipways of the shipsheds where the triremes had been drawn ashore when not in use.

Finally, I went in search of triremes on the floor of the sea with my esteemed friends and colleagues Shelley Wachsmann and Robert Hohlfelder. In partnership with Greek oceanographers and underwater archaeologists, our Persian Wars Shipwreck Survey made four expeditions to sites in the Aegean Sea where, according to the ancient historian Herodotus, triremes had sunk in storms or naval engagements during campaigns of the Persian kings Darius and Xerxes to conquer Greece. From the Greek research vessel Aegaeowe scoured the search areas with side-scan sonar, the remote-operated vehicles Achilles and Max Rover, and the submersible The-tis, a real “Yellow Submarine.” The quest turned up items that had probably spilled from triremes, along with a number of ancient wine freighters and even a lost cargo of marble blocks from the time of the Roman Empire. On the island of Euboea we had a mystical encounter with villagers, known locally as the “Whistlers,” who claimed descent from Persians who had succeeded in swimming to shore in 480 B.C., when high winds in the Hollows had wrecked their squadron.

We did not, however, realize our dream of finding the remains of a trireme. The classic warship of the Athenian navy remains as elusive now as it was in 1881, when French classicist Augustin Cartault reflected on the highly perishable trireme and its enduring legacy in his book The Athenian Trireme: A Study in Nautical Archaeology. “The grand monuments that bear witness to the power of Athens, the temples on the Acropolis, the Propylaea, the theatre of Dionysus, still survive; architects and scholars have measured and reconstructed them. But the trireme, without which they would not have existed, was more fragile and has disappeared. It was swallowed up by the sea, broken open by enemy rams, or perhaps demolished in the dockyards after glorious exploits.”

The Athenians in their years of greatness were first and foremost a people bound to the sea. This book is a tribute to the builders and rowers of those long-lost triremes, to the crucial role that they played in creating their city’s Golden Age, and to the legacy they bestowed on the world.

—The Piraeus, June 24, 2008

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