AT DAWN, WHEN THE AEGEAN SEA LAY SMOOTH AS A BURNISHED shield, you could hear a trireme from Athens while it was still a long way off. First came soft measured strokes like the pounding of a distant drum. Then two distinct sounds gradually emerged within each stroke: a deep percussive blow of wood striking water, followed by a dashing surge. Whumpff! Whroosh! These sounds were so much a part of their world that Greeks had names for them. They called the splash pitylos, the rush rhothios.Relentlessly the beat would echo across the water, bringing the ship closer. It was now a throbbing pulse, as strong and steady as the heartbeat of a giant.
Soon other sounds would become audible, always in time with the oar strokes: the reedy skirling of pipes, the rhythmic shouts of the coxswain as he urged the crew onward, and in answer the deep chant of the rowers. The ship’s own voice joined the din, with tons of timber and cordage creaking and groaning. As the trireme hurtled forward, the steering oars and the bronze ram hissed like snakes as they sliced through the water. In the final moments, as the red-rimmed eyes set on the prow stared straight at you, the oar strokes sounded like thunder. Then the ship either ran you down or swerved aside in search of other prey.
This fearsome apparition, black with pitch, packed with men, and bristling with oars, was an emblem of liberty and democracy but also of imperial ambition. It was a warship of Athens, one vessel in a navy of hundreds that served the will of the Athenian people. At the height of their power they ruled a great maritime empire, almost forgotten today. This vast realm embraced more than 150 islands and coastal city-states and extended from the southern Aegean to the far reaches of the Black Sea. To patrol its seaways and defend its frontiers, the Athenians required fast and formidable ships. The answer was the trireme.
Built for speed, this torpedolike wooden ship measured some 120 feet from the nose of the ram at the bow to the curve of the upward-sweeping stern. The trireme was so slender and its construction so light that it had to be held together with gigantic girding cables that served it as tendons. When the winds were fair, the mariners unfurled the big square sail, but the prime means of propulsion was oar power. The Greek name trieres means “rowed by three,” a reference to the three tiers in which the 170 oarsmen were arrayed. Rowing crews could maintain an astounding ten knots over a full day, a speed unknown to anything else that moved on the sea. Greeks classified the trireme as a naus or long ship. From that linguistic root we derive an entire constellation of marine terms: navy, navigator, nautical, astronaut (“star mariner”), chambered nautilus, and even nausea—the Greek word for the “feeling of being on a ship.”
Athenians were a people wedded to the sea or, as one blustering Spartan crudely put it, “fornicating with the sea.” The city staked its fortunes on a continuing quest for sea rule. Greek historians coined a term for this type of power: thalassokratia or thalassocracy. Throughout history fleets have clashed repeatedly on the enclosed sea that stretches from the coast of Lebanon westward to the Rock of Gibraltar. As Alfred T. Mahan observed in The Influence of Sea Power upon History: “Circumstances have caused the Mediterranean Sea to play a greater part in the history of the world, both in a commercial and a military point of view, than any other sheet of water of the same size. Nation after nation has striven to control it, and the strife goes on.”
Athenians were early and eager contestants in the struggle. For more than a century and a half their city-state of some 200,000 inhabitants possessed the strongest navy on earth. Athenian thalassocracy endured, with ups and downs, for exactly 158 years and one day. It began at Salamis on the nineteenth day of the month Boedromion (roughly equivalent to September) in 480 B.C., when Athenians engineered the historic Greek naval victory over the armada of King Xerxes. It ended at the Piraeus, within sight of Salamis, on the twentieth of Boedromion in 322 B.C., when the successors of Alexander the Great sent a Macedonian garrison to take over the naval base. Between those two dates stretched the Golden Age of Athens.
Without the Athenian navy there would have been no Parthenon, no tragedies of Sophocles or Euripides, no Republic of Plato or Politics of Aristotle. Before the Persian Wars Athens produced no great traditions of philosophy, architecture, drama, political science, or historical writing. All these things came in a rush after the Athenians voted to build a fleet and transform themselves into a naval power in the early fifth century B.C. As for the cities of their maritime empire, they may have resented Athenian rule at times, but they also took part in the dynamism of the age. Herodotus of Halicarnassus invented history as we know it with his vast work on the Persian Wars. Hippocrates of Cos established a medical tradition that still flourishes today, along with the “Hippocratic Oath” attributed to the founder. Hippodamus of Miletus established a reputation as the world’s first known urban planner. His most famous project was the Piraeus, and one can still trace his street grid throughout much of the modern port.
The Golden Age of Athens was also the age of the trireme. In their quest for sea rule the Athenians manned their triremes and fought many rivals: Persians, Phoenicians, Spartans, Sicilians, Macedonians, and even pirate fleets. A naval battle or naumachia had to be fought on a calm sea, in conditions that would have left a sailing vessel helplessly becalmed. Masts and sails were so useless in a trireme battle that they were unloaded and left on the beach before the ships were launched to meet the enemy. Smooth water was absolutely essential, since a trireme’s lowest tier of oars lay just above the waterline. Early morning was the time for naval battles. Combat would be broken off if the wind began to blow. The crews always spent the night ashore, so all trireme battles were fought within sight of land. To be effective, Athens had to control not only the sea lanes but hundreds of landing places with sandy beaches and sources of fresh water.
Unlike round ships such as the holkas or freighter, a heavily ballasted sailing vessel with a deep keel and a capacious hold, triremes spent as much of their time on shore as at sea. Aside from meeting the needs of the enormous crew, the hulls had to be dried out on an almost daily basis to keep the destructive teredo or shipworm at bay. (Freighters could be sheathed with lead for the same purpose, far too heavy for a naus.) A trireme from Athens was thus an amphibious monster, thrashing its way through the seas by day, spreading its sail to the wind like a wing, yet drawn to shore as the sun went down. In the circular harbors at their home port, the Piraeus, the weary crews hauled their triremes up stone slipways into the shelter of colonnaded shipsheds. There the ships slept, stabled like racing stallions, until orders from the Assembly sent them to sea again.
Contrary to popular belief, the rowers in these warships were not slaves chained to their oars. This widespread misconception began with Lew Wallace’s novel Ben-Hur and caught a second wind in Rudyard Kipling’s “The Finest Story in the World,” the tale of an ancient galley slave reincarnated as a London clerk. Ultimately it achieved immortality through a thousand popular cartoons. As with horns on Viking helmets, the error has now taken on a life of its own. But the stereotype of the emaciated, half-naked galley slave belongs not to classical Greece but to European, Ottoman, and Arab fleets of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Jack Kerouac was memo rably poetical but historically off-base in Desolation Angels when he traced his concept of “beat” back to the forced labor of ancient oarsmen.
Everything is going with the beat. It’s beat. It’s the beat to keep. It’s the beat of the heart. It’s like being beat and down in the world and like old time lowdown and like in ancient civilizations the slave boatmen rowing galleys to a beat.
Nor did the experience of Athenian crews have much in common with the shipboard life known to modern readers through the annals of the British navy, whether historical (Horatio Nelson) or fictional (Hornblower; Aubrey and Maturin). Winston Churchill allegedly summed up British naval tradition as “nothing but rum, buggery, and the lash.” With regard to the lash, at least, Athenian rowers would have promptly pitched overboard any officer who tried to ply a whip. Triremes were not pressure cookers of hostility between high-handed officers and resentful crews. There were no press-gangs, and mutinies were almost unheard of.
When the Athenian Assembly manned a fleet for a naval battle, the rowers were free men. Most were, in fact, citizens. They took pride in their navy and welcomed the steady pay and political equality that it offered. At times of supreme crisis, all free adult males in Athens—rich and poor, citizens and aliens, aristocratic horsemen and common laborers—would board the triremes and row to save their city. On one desperate occasion, when the main fleet was blockaded in a distant harbor, the Athenians freed thousands of their slaves so that a new fleet could row to the rescue. All these former slaves received citizenship.
The ancient Greeks knew that building a navy was an undertaking with clear-cut political consequences. A naval tradition that depended on the muscles and sweat of the masses led inevitably to democracy: from sea power to democratic power. Athens was Exhibit A in this argument, and radical democracy would indeed be the Athenian navy’s greatest legacy. In Aristotle’s Politics, written during his years at the Lyceum in Athens, the philosopher classified the constitution of Athens as “a democracy based on triremes.” He traced its origins back to the Persian Wars: “The Athenian democracy was strengthened by the masses who served in the navy and who won the victory at Salamis, because the leadership that Athens then gained rested on sea power.”
The navy was thus the origin of Athens’ extreme form of democracy. It was also a force that fostered new democracies throughout the Greek world and defended Athens against attack by the enemies of democracy at home and abroad. In his Rhetoric Aristotle recorded that a politician named Peitholaus once made a speech in which he called the Paralos, the flagship of the Athenian navy, “the People’s Big Stick.” (Peitholaus was apparently an avatar of Teddy Roosevelt.)
Naval power naturally stimulated and protected commerce. Maritime trade, then as now a field dominated by Greek shippers, helped make ancient Athens the richest city in the Mediterranean. The Piraeus, Athens’ port city, was the hub of an international web of commerce that spanned the eastern Mediterranean, Adriatic, Tyrrhenian, Aegean, and Black seas. At stalls in the Agora sellers offered African ivory, Baltic amber, and Chinese silk. Peacocks from Persia seem to have been strictly diplomatic gifts, like pandas today. Alongside the exotic luxury items ran a large-scale traffic in commodities such as wine, salt fish, building stone, and timber. Thanks to Athens’ seaborne grain trade, the wheat in Socrates’ daily bread was more likely to have grown in Russia, Sicily, or Egypt than in the fields of Attica, just outside the city walls. The far horizons opened up by the navy allowed Socrates himself to say, “Do not call me an Athenian. I am a citizen of the world.”
A life linked to the sea bred an open spirit of experimentation and free inquiry. Unlike many of its neighbors Athens eagerly welcomed foreigners from overseas, whether Greek or “barbarian,” and encouraged them to settle down as residents. So tolerant did the Athenians become that they permitted foreign merchants to build shrines to their own gods within the walls of the Piraeus. Such liberal thinking was rare. Among land powers like Sparta and Thebes the dominance of the hoplite phalanx exerted a stultifying effect. Military regimes in Greece were typically xenophobic, anti-intellectual, and chronically suspicious of change. Sparta was the antithesis—and likewise the sworn enemy—of Athens in its Golden Age
In the long run the Athenian spirit proved more resilient and enduring than the Spartan. Ten years after the so-called Fall of Athens in 404 B.C. and a Spartan victory in the Peloponnesian War, Athenian naval heroes had restored the city’s independence, democratic government, and naval tradition. Within a generation Athens became the leader of a second maritime league and drove the Spartans from the seas. The renewed Golden Age launched by the navy’s revival produced Xenophon’s historical writings, Praxiteles’ sculptures, Plato’s philosophical dialogues, Demosthenes’ orations, and Aristotle’s scientific works. As an institution, the navy itself prospered in the fourth century B.C. as never before. During the final conflict with the Macedonians, when the power of Sparta had been permanently broken by Athens and other Greeks, the tally of triremes in the resurrected Athenian Navy Yard reached almost four hundred—far more than during the Persian or Peloponnesian wars.
In the Golden Age most well-known Athenians were directly involved with the naval effort. Among those who commanded fleets and squadrons of triremes were the statesman Pericles, the historian Thucydides, and the playwright Sophocles, whose election to the post of general was said to have been a public reward for the success of his tragedy Antigone. Aeschylus, a veteran of Salamis, wrote an account of the historic naval battle in his Persians, the oldest surviving play in the world. The orator Demosthenes served the navy both as a ship’s commander at sea and as a political champion in the Assembly. Even Socrates, Athens’ first homegrown philosopher, who is usually pictured with his feet planted firmly in the Agora, led a life touched at many points by the navy. He voyaged on a troop carrier to a distant war, presided over a trial of naval commanders, and enjoyed a long stay of execution while contrary winds prevented one of the sacred ships from returning to the city.
Athenians exposed their naval obsession even in the names they gave their children. You could meet men named Naubios or “Naval Life” and Naukrates, “Naval Power”; women named Naumache or “Naval Battle” and Nausinike, “Naval Victory.” Pericles, architect of the Golden Age, identified himself so closely with the fleet that he named his second son Paralos after the consecrated state trireme Paralos. Another patriotic Athenian father named his son Eurymedon after the Eurymedon River in Asia Minor, where an Athenian naval force won a great victory over the fleet and army of the Persian king in about 466 B.C. It was as if a family in more recent times had named a child Trafalgar or Midway. Perhaps inevitably, young Eurymedon grew up to be a naval commander.
The sea penetrated every corner of Athenian life. Ships and seafaring formed a theme for poets, artists, dramatists, historians, politicians, philosophers, and legal experts. The people described their government as a “ship of state” and its leaders as steersmen. In the academies, scientific thinkers investigated the mechanics of oars and the movements of winds and stars, and the political theorists deplored the navy and its effects on Athenian morals. In the theater of Dionysus nautical scenes cropped up in both tragedies and comedies. (The theatrical properties included a miniature ship on wheels for rowing scenes.) In private houses drinking symposia held in the evenings were described as voyages upon a dark sea of wine, mirror images of actual voyages upon the wine-dark sea. And in the bedroom, nautical terms for rowing and ramming quickly became Athenian slang for sexual foreplay and penetration.
Many “firsts” helped give a peculiarly modern texture to Athenian daily life. Among them were the first maritime courts, the first shipping insurance, and the first recorded political cartoon. (Its target was the naval hero Timotheus in the mid-fourth century B.C.) The first mention of a traveler who passed the time on board ship by reading books comes from Aristophanes’ Frogs. And one of the first known projects in historic preservation required the city’s carpenters to conserve a little sacred galley, claimed by Athenians to be the actual vessel in which the legendary hero Theseus voyaged to Crete to kill the Minotaur.
The wealthiest Athenians took it in rotation to serve as “trierarchs” or trireme commanders, providing gear and acting as captains while the ships were at sea. Their financial contributions to the fleet were the tax required of them by the democratic majority, along with sponsoring dramatic festivals and choral performances. Just as common citizens enlisted willingly for service at sea, many rich Athenians competed to outshine their rivals in the number of their annual trierarchies, the lavish fittings of their ships, and the speed of their crews.
The glories of the Acropolis dominate our modern view of Athens. Ancient Athenians saw their city differently. In terms of civic pride, the temples of the gods were eclipsed by the vast complex of installations for the navy. Near Zea Harbor at the Piraeus stood the largest roofed building in Athens, indeed in all of Greece. It was a naval arsenal, four hundred feet in length. The Athenian architect Philo designed it to house the linen sails, rigging, and other “hanging gear” of the fleet. Philo was so proud of his storehouse orskeuotheke that he wrote a book about it, and the Assembly voted to inscribe its specifications on a marble stele. The Parthenon received no such attention at the time of its construction. Only one contemporary literary reference to the Parthenon has survived to our time, in fragments of an anonymous comedy. Even here the Parthenon takes second place to nautical monuments. “O Athens, queen of cities! How fair your Navy Yard! How fair your Parthenon! How fair your Piraeus!”
The great naval enterprise provided Athens with its unifying principle and cohesive spirit. Like the Vikings and Venetians, Athenians built a civilization on seafaring. Only the Phoenicians and the Polynesian islanders surpassed them in the totality of their maritime enterprise. While the ancient Spartans militarized their entire society, the Athenians navalized theirs. Alongside Athena they revered Poseidon as a patron god.
The odyssey of seafaring Athenians stands as one of history’s great maritime epics. The tale abounds in hard-won victories against overwhelming odds, in crushing defeats, in battles decided sometimes by raw courage, sometimes by tactical genius, stratagems, and surprise. At times Athenian fortunes hung upon a bold escape from a blockaded port, or a desperate daylong chase across the open sea. The shallow draft of triremes encouraged amphibious actions as well. In these exploits marines poured off their ships onto hostile coasts, horsemen launched attacks on enemy soil from seaborne horse carriers, and engineers battered the walls of seaside towns with siege engines mounted directly on the triremes’ decks. Storms and shipwrecks claimed many ships as mariners braved high winds and rough seas. On one extraordinary occasion a tidal wave triggered by an earthquake picked up a trireme and tossed it over a city wall like a toy.
The trireme ushered in a new era of warfare. For the first time battles were being fought where the majority of combatants never fought hand to hand with the enemy—indeed, never even saw the enemy. Sitting behind their protective screens of hide or within the wooden hull, the rowers could see nothing of the battle. They could only sit in silence, waiting for the word of command or the signal from the piper. Raw courage counted less than technique and the orderly execution of mechanical maneuvers. The goal of the fast trireme in battle was to disable, destroy, or capture entire enemy ships with, ideally, a single blow of the ram. Thus the attack was aimed at a piece of equipment rather than at individual fighting men.
In actions between trireme fleets the skill of the steersman was vital to success. Athenians called him a kubernetes. The term was echoed by the Romans in the Latin gubernator and is ancestral to both gubernatorial and governor. The Greek title is also embedded in the acronym of Phi Beta Kappa. Philosophia Biou Kubernetes: “Philosophy, life’s steersman.” One of Plato’s many complaints against the navy was its reliance on the skill and technique of individual steersmen to win battles rather than the virtuous bravery of citizen soldiers fighting in the phalanx.
Athenian naval tacticians favored maneuvers intended to fool the enemy: the use of art and cunning rather than brute force. The same approach to war was being developed during this time at the far end of the Silk Road, in the “Warring States” of China. “Warfare is deception,” declared the Chinese military sage known as Sunzi or Sun-tzu. Athenian naval commanders subscribed wholeheartedly to this creed. Themistocles lured the Persian armada into the narrow straits at Salamis with a false message. Cimon disguised his ships and marines with Persian insignia to take the enemy by surprise. Thrasyllus yoked his triremes together in pairs so as to make his squadron appear a small and tempting target. As Sunzi would have said, “Lure the enemy with a small advantage.” Socrates commented on the practice among leading Athenian families of compiling books of stratagems and handing them down from father to son.
From the beginning the navy was a school for great leaders. The Athenian view of history focused on leaders and attributed both glorious victories and catastrophic disasters to the policies and actions of individual generals, commanders, and demagogues. Ancient writers might at times invoke the powers of destiny, national character, natural forces, or just plain chance. They nevertheless put individuals, especially leaders, at the center of unfolding history. Certainly the Athenian Assembly held its elected leaders fully responsible for the outcomes of their decisions.
Two forces within Athens itself sabotaged the city’s naval adventure. First, the democratic Assembly had a fatal tendency to treat its elected leaders unreasonably and even vindictively, driving many promising commanders to pursue private enterprises rather than public service. Second, a cabal of antidemocratic citizens finally betrayed the fleet and the naval base at the Piraeus to the successors of Alexander the Great. Some Athenian aristocrats had secretly opposed the navy almost from the beginning. Among them was Plato, whose famous myth of the lost continent of Atlantis was an elaborate historical allegory on the evils of maritime empire.
Yet the fires of innovation and genius, even Plato’s own, were fueled by sea power. In legendary times the Delphic Oracle had foretold that Athens would be unsinkable, a city destined to “ride the waves of the sea.” So long as it had ships, commanders, strong crews, and the iron will to take risks and make sacrifices, Athens weathered every storm and recuperated from every disaster. In the end, weakened by a dearth of leaders and undermined by the disaffected upper classes, the Athenian navy and Golden Age ended together in 322 B.C., as abruptly as if someone had put out a light.
Athens was the first truly modern society, ruled not by kings or priests or nobles but by a sovereign democratic Assembly. The Athenians had to wrestle with the same polarities that confront the democratic nations of the modern world. Like us, they were caught up in conflicts that pitted West against East, liberal against conservative, and scientific inquiry against religious faith. They too confronted insoluble political paradoxes. The same navy that made Athens a democracy at home made it an imperialistic power abroad and at times an oppressor of the very cities that it had helped to liberate from the Persians. The Golden Age was funded in part by payments of tribute that Athens demanded of its maritime subjects and allies. As for the Parthenon, that iconic ruin in pure white marble makes today’s world imagine a serene ancient Athens of lofty visions and classical balance. In fact, at the time of its building the Parthenon was a bitterly controversial project, paid for in part with what Pericles’ opponents considered to be misappropriated naval funds.
Time and winter rains have washed the original gaudy colors of scarlet, azure, and gold off the Parthenon. Passing centuries have also washed the blood and guts, sweat and struggle, from the modern conception of Athens. In losing sight of the Athenian navy, posterity has overlooked the vital propulsive force behind the monuments. A living sea creature, all muscle and appetite and growth, generated the glistening shell of inspiring art, literature, and political ideals. Today we admire the shell for its own beauty, but it cannot be fully understood without charting the life cycle of the animal that generated it. The beat of oars was the heartbeat of Athens in the city’s Golden Age. This, then, is the story of a unique and gigantic marine organism, the Athenian navy, that built a civilization, empowered the world’s first great democracy, and led a band of ordinary citizens into new worlds. Their epic voyage altered the course of history.