Ancient History & Civilisation


Mariners of the Golden Age [MID-FIFTH CENTURY B.C.]

We must add to our knowledge of the countryside, both animals and plants, knowledge of the sea, for we are in a way amphibious, no more land dwellers than sea dwellers.


AN ATHENIAN SERVING ON ONE OF HIS CITY’S TRIREMES commanded a wide view of the world, and the world teemed with wonders. Great fin whales forged through the Aegean, leviathans that were guided on their way (or so the Greeks believed) by cunning pilot fish. At the opposite end of the scale, the delicate paper nautilus scudded along by spreading a translucent membrane to the breeze, a miniature ship under full sail. Dolphins leaped and sported alongside the triremes, encouraged by whistling and singing from the mariners. Sailors believed that dolphins brought good luck and at times even carried castaways to shore. Solitary sea turtles basked on the surface or plied their powerful forelegs like pairs of oars. Elsewhere a migrating school of tuna might suddenly appear, snaking across the sea’s surface in a turbulent stream of flashing fins and frothing water. These big blue and silver fish were worth a fortune. When fishermen spotted the migrating tuna, they would corral them within a ring of nets, then kill them with clubs or spears.

Steersmen navigated by the stars on clear nights and by landmarks during the day. The archipelagoes of the Aegean were drowned mountain ranges with peaks rising high above the sea, and the mainland coasts were mountainous also. In the watery realm of the Athenian navy, a lookout on a mast top was seldom beyond sight of land. The mountains brewed winds, however, and through most of the summer stiff northerlies ruffled the sea from midday till sunset. The Greeks called them etesian or “seasonal” winds. When they were blowing, the triremes plowed through choppy waves or stayed in port. Occasionally the mountains created violent down-drafts called katabatic winds, cold gusts that hit the sea and fanned out in a rushing wall of white spume. Then the rowers would hear a curse from the lookout followed by a shout of “Squall! Squall coming!”

At day’s end the evening star Hesperus appeared above the western horizon, herald of the great wheeling pageant of moon, stars, and planets. Winds dropped after sundown, and triremes could make good time by rowing through moonlit nights. Sometimes the dark sea was lit by a phosphorescent glow, and balls of greenish-white fire burned at the ends of the yardarms. Like the dolphins, these lights meant good luck. They signified the presence of two divine guardians of seafarers, the twin heroes Castor and Pollux. As dawn approached, the celestial fires faded until only one remained. It was the morning star Phosphoros, the “Light Bearer,” bringing up the sun to start another day.

During these years of peace Athenian ships ventured far beyond their home waters. A sacred trireme carried Athenian envoys to Libya, where they consulted the oracle of Zeus Ammon at Siwa in the Sahara Desert. In the north Athenian emissaries negotiated with the local Scythian and Thracian tribal chiefs for access to wheat, salt fish, and other resources. One diplomatic mission went west as far as the Bay of Naples in Italy and the famous Greek colony at Neapolis (“New City”). There the Athenian crews saw a high conical mountain called Vesuvius, quiet for so long that the world had forgotten it was a volcano.

The same voyage took them past the famous rocks of the Sirens off the Amalfi coast, where a pair of beautiful seductresses once tried to lure Odysseus from his ship with their irresistible song. The general in command of the mission to Neapolis was Diotimus. On another occasion Diotimus’ service to his city took him two thousand miles east of Athens as an envoy to the Great King at Susa. Expeditions like these left their mark on the Athenian character, breeding citizens who were active, adventurous, restless, and proud of their exploits.

The experiences of the common Athenian in seafaring and fighting were beginning to rival those of the aristocrats. He might not know Homer by heart, or trace his ancestry back to a warrior who had fought in the Trojan War. But the average thete had now seenTroy with his own eyes, a small hill off to the south as one rowed into the Hellespont on the run to Byzantium. During his naval service the ordinary citizen would follow the sea routes hallowed by the legends of Odysseus, Theseus, Jason, and Cadmus to Asia, Africa, Europe, and the islands between. Although he cut a modest figure ashore in foreign parts, carrying his rowing pad as his only weapon instead of shield and spear, a mariner from Athens was the Odysseus of his time, widely traveled, many-minded, facing dangers on the deep in the struggle to bring himself and his shipmates safely home.

As winter approached and the seafaring season drew to its close, the widely scattered triremes returned like homing pigeons to the Piraeus. While still far out at sea, they were greeted by a flash of light on the summit of the Acropolis, four miles inland. It was the sun reflected on the shining spear tip and crested helmet of a colossal bronze statue of Athena, one of the first great masterpieces of the Athenian artist Phidias. The statue had been nine years in the making and stood thirty feet tall. As the triremes approached the end of their voyaging, the crews strove to look their best with perfect timing and oarsmanship. There was a popular saying, “As the Athenian goes into the harbor,” for any task done with utmost precision. The mariners knew well that thousands of critical eyes were watching and judging their performance.

The two small harbors on the east side of the Piraeus promontory, Zea and Munychia, were entirely devoted to the navy, while the large Cantharus Harbor on the west was both naval and commercial. At the start of an expedition triremes from the other two harbors of the Navy Yard rowed around to the jetty at Cantharus for inspection before setting out, and at times of extreme urgency the Council actually moved down from Athens and held its meetings on the jetty until the fleet was at sea.

Around the rims of all three harbors curved long rows of shipsheds, built at a cost that would ultimately reach a thousand talents. Each returning trireme was assigned to a berth in one of these sheds and hauled up the sloping ramp till it rested high and dry for the winter. The ship was then stripped of its gear, and the sails and rigging were carefully dried before being put into storage. Trierarchs accused of losing naval equipment or mariners condemned for breaches of discipline might choose to slip away furtively through the streets and seek asylum in the sanctuary of Artemis on Munychia Hill. Strict security ruled at the Navy Yard, as hundreds of guards kept watch for everything from outbreaks of fire to the stealing or smuggling of pitch and cordage.

An Athenian mariner’s first stop outside the gates of the Navy Yard was likely to be the barbershop. In Athens haircuts and hairstyles had social and political implications. Aristocratic horsemen still wore long braids and gold hairpins. The common man (and the politicians who spoke for him) preferred a short cut, though not quite a crewcut. The customer sat on a low stool, his body draped in a sheet to catch the shorn locks. The barber then cropped and curled the hair, anointed the head with scented oil, and trimmed the beard to a neat point. (At Athens any man with a long unkempt beard ran the risk of being mistaken for a philosopher.) Dyes were available to hide gray patches. Along with hairdressing and manicures, the barber dispensed a ceaseless stream of anecdotes and observations. The mariner just arrived in port could catch up on all the latest news and add an account of his own voyage to the barber’s store of information. Greek barbers were notoriously talkative. On being asked how he wanted his hair cut, one wit was supposed to have told his barber, “In silence.”

From the barbershop the Athenian mariner emerged neatly trimmed and fully up to date. Flush with pay, he was now ready to plunge into the roiling marketplace of the Piraeus, located just beyond the perimeter of the shipsheds at Zea Harbor. Here the returning mariner could indulge in the luxuries that had been denied him during months of hard service with the fleet. Athenians of the Golden Age never tired of enumerating the seaborne imports that flowed into the Piraeus. From Libya came ivory, hides, and the medicinal plant and dietary supplement called silphium. Egypt provided papyrus and sailcloth. Cretan cypress wood was good for carving images of the gods, and Syrian incense could be burned at shrines in thanksgiving for a safe return.

The food vendors provided fare fit for the Great King himself. An Athenian feast could include salt fish from the Black Sea, beef ribs from Thessaly, pork and cheese from Syracuse in Sicily, dates from Phoenicia, raisins and figs from Rhodes, pears and apples from Euboea, almonds from Naxos, and chestnuts from Asia Minor. The rounds of flat bread, often dressed with relish or fish sauce, were usually made from Russian, Egyptian, or Sicilian wheat. As they enjoyed these delicacies, Athenians could rest their feet or elbows on brightly colored carpets and cushions from Carthage. If the dinner lasted into the night, a bronze lampstand of Etruscan manufacture from central Italy might light the convivial scene. In the words of the comic playwright Hermippus, who wrote a catalog of imported goods to be found in the markets of Athens:

Tell me, now, Muses dwelling on Mount Olympus
Ever since Dionysus has sailed on the wine-dark sea,
All the good things he has brought hither to men on his black ship!

Some unlucky Athenian seafarers, however, were seeking not a grocer but a doctor. Rowing and maritime service involved certain occupational hazards. Among the doctors who treated such conditions were disciples of a revolutionary medical practitioner named Hippocrates. He was born on the small island of Cos in the eastern Aegean, a member of the Athenian alliance, but his teachings had spread far and wide. Hippocrates created a school of medicine patterned after the schools of philosophy. His disciples and successors swore the sacred “Hippocratic” oath, but they based their scientific work not on piety but on observation of symptoms, experimentation with different treatments, and careful recording of case histories.

The journals kept by Hippocrates and his followers provide glimpses of the dangers that beset Greek mariners of their time. “On Salamis, the man who fell on the anchor received a wound in the belly. He had great pain. He drank a drug but there was no evacuation below, nor did he vomit.” It was not merely blistered hands and sore rumps that afflicted the rowers of the navy. Despite the fleecy rowing pads that aided their legwork, Greek oarsmen suffered a particular occupational malady from the hard service on the wooden thwarts: fistula of the anus.

If the rower put off treatment, the fistula might penetrate the wall of the rectum. Now the matter was serious. Once the physician had taken the measure of the problem, the fistula was treated over a period of days with linen plugs and suppositories made of powdered horn. Other medicines included root of hartwort pounded fine, water mixed with honey (a good antibacterial agent), burnt flower of copper, fuller’s earth, and alum. The rectum of the miserable rower was anointed continually with myrrh until the fistula healed over. Without a doctor’s care the prospects were bleak: “Any patients that are left untreated die.”

Hippocrates’ disciples brought the same orderly, intellectual approach to medicine that was revolutionizing many other fields at that time, from history to urban planning. They studied the patterns of winds, rain, and stars as assiduously as any mariner, for it was a tenet of their belief that the weather and the seasons had a powerful influence on health and sickness. In eastern Greek cities the arts and sciences had withered under Persian rule. Now the liberal outlook of the Athenians was bringing about a scientific renaissance. Ease of travel throughout the maritime empire helped the rapid spread of new ideas and techniques.

As the role of the navy and maritime trade expanded, the Piraeus became a great city in its own right. To create a home worthy of the Athenian navy, the Assembly hired the world’s first professional urban planner, Hippodamus of Miletus. He too was an eastern Greek, but Hippodamus’ patrons were not individuals seeking cures; rather they were entire populations desirous of new cities. Athens was willing to pour out vast sums on such itinerant consultants, be they prophets, astronomers, architects, or engineers. Hippodamus’ home city of Miletus had been rebuilt on a grid plan after Xerxes’ troops razed it to the ground. The success of this huge reconstruction project encouraged Hippodamus to travel around the Mediterranean to spread the gospel of modern urban design. As befitted a pundit much in the public eye, Hippodamus cut a colorful and eccentric figure. His hair was long, his coiffure expensive. Even his clothing was peculiar. Winter and summer, he wore the same odd costume of cheap fabric.

No mere surveyor of streets, Hippodamus was in fact a utopian theorist. His quest led him in search of a physical setting for the perfect human community: social, spatial, and spiritual. Along with his own mastery of philosophy, meteorology, and architecture, Hippodamus seemed to see threefold divisions everywhere. In his ideal city the population would be divided into three classes: craftsmen, farmers, and warriors. Land should also have its tripartite division: sacred, public, and private. Hippodamus even proposed that juries should be able to choose from not two but three possible verdicts: guilty, not guilty, and not sure. How his heart must have leaped when he caught his first glimpse of the three natural harbors at the Piraeus!




Behind the harbors, however, lay a difficult site, one with no springs and little flat land. It would be no easy task to impose order on the land within Themistocles’ circuit of fortifications. In addition to the rough and waterless terrain, the site was already encumbered with various fortifications, shipsheds, shrines, roads, and an ancient fishing village that had stood on the Piraeus promontory for thousands of years. Extensive areas, however, were still virgin terrain. The site even provided its own building stone. Quarries at the seaward end of the promontory would provide porous yellowish-gray limestone and soft marl. It was not a glamorous stone like the white marble from Mount Pentelicus, but it was serviceable and convenient, like the Piraeus itself.

The old city of Athens had grown organically through the centuries, its streets and neighborhoods radiating out from the Acropolis like blood vessels from a heart. Private homes, shrines, public facilities, and industrial workshops all jostled side by side along its twisting lanes. The confusion had its defenders. Many Greeks believed that a town plan should be illogical and hard to follow. If the streets were straight and orderly, then enemy invaders who broke into the city would be able to find their way around as easily as the residents. Certainly the mass of Athenians had stoutly resisted Themistocles’ suggestions for change when they rebuilt the city after Salamis. The Piraeus, child of modernity and enlightenment, would be different.

Hippodamus’ assignment was described as dividing or cutting up the Piraeus. First he chose as his axis the long saddle of land that ran from the foot of Munychia Hill, the acropolis of the Piraeus, southwest to the Akte Hill and the quarries. On either side of this central spine Hippodamus marked out the boundaries of the sacred, public, and private areas. Inscribed boundary stones proclaimed the function of each zone. There were also markers for the sanctuaries of the gods, the quarters for foreign merchants, and even the station where one could catch a ferryboat to Salamis or one of the other islands.

In the center was the Agora, with its own council house and public offices. On the expanse of level ground north of Zea Harbor Hippodamus laid out this civic center, ever after known as the Hippodamian Agora. Near the edge of Zea Harbor the Agora widened out into an open area where the crews of triremes could assemble at the start of a naval expedition.

Cross streets connected the Cantharus port on one side of this ridge to the Zea naval harbor on the other. Marking off the streets, Hippodamus embedded a mathematical ratio of 3:5:9 into his grid. Alleys around blocks had a width of 15 feet, main streets around districts a width of 25 feet, while the major arteries were a majestic 45 feet wide. All were straight. The Athenians were so well satisfied with his work at the Piraeus that they later entrusted to Hippodamus the task of laying out a new colony called Thurii in southern Italy.

Uniformity of housing reinforced the message of democracy and equality. Hippodamus divided each residential city block among eight dwellings, all of which were only variations on a uniform “Piraeus house.” The long and narrow lots, 40 feet by 70 feet, accommodated in one half a flagged courtyard equipped with outdoor ovens and a deep bell-shaped cistern to provide the household’s water. The house itself included a family room with a hearth, with bedrooms on an upper floor above it. No one in the Piraeus was ever very far from the water. Thanks to the sloping terrain, the houses rose in tiers like the seats in a theater. Almost every roof or upper story commanded a view down to the nearest harbor and out to the blue sea beyond.

The andron or men’s meeting room opened directly off the courtyard. Here the master of the house entertained his friends. The andron in a Piraeus house was designed to accommodate seven couches around its square perimeter: two couches on three sides and one sharing the fourth wall with the door, which was placed in the corner. After dinner, when the sun cast a shadow longer than a man was tall, was the time for wine. The symposion or drinking together was the crown of every Athenian feast. To accompany the flow of stories, speculations, and poetry, a fleet of earthenware pots were carried into the banqueting room. All had been fired a distinctive glossy black and red, and all were made in Athens of good Attic clay. Familiar mythical scenes were painted on the vessels. One cup showed Odysseus tied to the mast of his ship, listening to the songs of the Sirens. But there were contemporary scenes, too, celebrating the exploits of the men who would be drinking from these very cups: warriors rowing across the sea to battle; warships cruising in convoy; archers shooting from ships at sea; pirates stealthily attacking unsuspecting freighters. The most beautiful of these ship paintings showed long sleek galleys rowing around the inner surface of a pot. When the vessel was brimming with wine, the ships appeared to be floating on its surface: warships reflected in a sea of wine, reflecting the “wine-dark sea” of the beloved poet Homer.

Sometimes the host of the party provided sexual pleasures along with wine, music, and conversation. The men might also seek more straightforward relief, free from civilized frills, at one of the many brothels in the Piraeus. Exercising untrammeled sexual freedom carried few consequences for Athenian citizens. Sexually transmitted diseases were as yet unknown, and few societies in history have granted to free adult males such extremes of sexual license.

It was perhaps inevitable that Athenian men, who enjoyed thinking, talking, and joking about sex when they were not actually engaged in it, should have at times viewed sex organs and sex acts as extensions of their experiences at sea. A woman’s vagina could be described as a kolpos or gulf, like the Corinthian and Saronic gulfs, where a happy seafarer could lose himself. As for the penis, a modest man could claim to have a kontos or boat pole, an average man a kope or oar between his legs, and a braggart a pedalion or steering oar. Inevitably too, the erection poking against an Athenian’s tunic was referred to as his “ram.” Sexual intercourse was likened to ramming encounters between triremes, but the men did not always take the active role. The popular Athenian sexual position in which the woman sat astride her partner gave her a chance to play the nautria or female rower, and row the man as if he were a boat. A man who mounted another man might claim to be boarding him, using the nautical term for a marine boarding a trireme. Sexual bouts with multiple partners were sometimes dubbed naumachiai or naval battles.

These were private pleasures. But with its lively market, religious festivals, and two open-air theaters (Athens itself only had one), the Piraeus also provided public entertainment throughout the year. A colorful element in the life of the port city was the presence of shrines and temples to foreign gods. Each one served as a religious center to a group of expatriate merchants who had come to roost in the Piraeus. In honor of their northern goddess Bendis the Thracians held relay races on horseback, with a burning torch passed from rider to rider. Egyptian merchants carried Isis with them from the banks of the Nile, just as the traders from Asia Minor brought Cybele the Mother Goddess and the Syrians imported Astarte. The Phoenicians introduced to the Piraeus not only the cult of Baal but also a mysterious divinity with the body of a man and a head like the prow of a warship, complete with ram. On the tombstone of a Phoenician resident of the Piraeus, this strange ship god was shown wrestling with a lion for possession of the corpse.

In the maritime world of the Piraeus a happy tolerance reigned among all religions, and the idea of killing a man for worshipping the wrong god was unknown. Only godlessness and impiety were condemned. In Athens ideological strife was a feature of the philosophical schools, not the temples. So popular were the foreign festivals that Athenians often walked the four miles down to the Piraeus to watch some new and exotic celebration in the streets.

The democratic spirit of Athens and its navy found its fullest embodiment in the sacred trireme Paralos. The name was mythical: the sea god Poseidon had fathered a hero called Paralos (“Man of the Shore”) who was credited with inventing the galley or long ship. Each year the crew of the sacred trireme, who were known as the Paraloi, held a festival and offered sacrifices to his memory. The ship’s name was continually passed on through the years as one sacred trireme retired and a new vessel took its place. It was also the only masculine name in the fleet: all other Athenian triremes had feminine names and were referred to as “she.” Ardent democrats to a man, the crew of the Paralos opposed any proposals that smacked of oligarchy or tyranny. Pericles chose to show his commitment to the navy by naming his second son Paralos after the ship and the legendary hero.

The Paralos took on the role of flagship for the entire navy. At times the Paralos served as a ship of war, but it also carried important dispatches, conveyed embassies on diplomatic missions, provided scouting reports to the rest of the navy, or served as a sacred ship to take priests and celebrants to rites and festivals overseas. Every four years the ship transported the city’s Olympic athletes and their entourage around the Peloponnese to Olympia for the prestigious games celebrated in honor of Zeus.

Closer to home the crew of the Paralos would row their ship southwest to the Isthmus, where the Corinthians sponsored games to honor Poseidon. The athletic events of the Isthmian games were held beside the pine trees in the sanctuary where Themistocles and the other Greek delegates had planned the resistance to Xerxes. At the stadium the Athenian contingent was traditionally allowed as much space in the grandstand as could be covered by the sail of the Paralos, set up as an awning. Unlike the Olympic games, the Isthmian games included races for ships, so the crew of theParalos had the chance to compete against contenders from Corinth, Megara, Sicyon, and many other Greek cities. The victor’s crown at the Isthmus was woven from twigs of pine, the wood most useful to shipwrights and therefore the sea god’s special tree.

Every member of the Paralos’ crew was an Athenian citizen. The ship had no trierarch: the democratic crew was in command. The highest-ranking officer on board was the treasurer, known as the Tamias Paralou. The selection of this treasurer was considered so important that the entire Assembly voted on it and also assigned to the treasurer the funds needed to keep the sacred ship in constant readiness. At times the Paraloi served in a body as Athenian ambassadors abroad. Crew members who performed exceptional services were rewarded with gold crowns, an honor normally reserved for the aristocratic trierarchs.

The experiment in democracy ensured that the fruits of naval victories were shared by all Athenians, transforming the life of even the poorest citizen. The age of the common man had dawned. For the first time anywhere on earth, a mass of ordinary citizens, independent of monarchs or aristocrats or religious leaders, was guiding the destiny of a great state.

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