The “ISIS” Trireme from the Nymphaion fresco assumed to be 60 m long (width and height: around 15 m). The Isis Ship of Ptolemy II Philadephus.
In the wars of the Diadochi (322 – 281 BC), the successors to the empire of Alexander the Great built increasingly bigger and bigger galleys. Macedon in 340 BC built sexiremes (probably with two men on each of three oars) and in 315 BC septiremes, which saw action at the Battle of Salamis in Cyprus (306 BC). Demetrius I of Macedon (reigned 294 – 288 BC), involved in a naval war with Ptolemy of Egypt (reigned 323 – 283 BC), built eights (octeres), nines, tens, twelves and finally sixteens! Later Ptolemies continued this trend of expansion, creating twenties and thirties and, during the reign of Ptolemy IV, a monstrous forty over 400 feet long that was probably intended as a showpiece. According to a detailed description of the forty, the ship had two prows and two sterns, and this and other evidence has led some to believe that the forty, and probably the twenties and thirties, were constructed like huge catamarans with enough space between the hulls for the rowers in the middle to operate. The deck above them, stretching across the two hulls, could accommodate a couple of thousand marines.
She was the plaything of kings, admirals, and empires, saved a life and allowed a horrible war. She was stolen, cast aside, captured, prized, marvelled at, and commemorated in the Roman forum. For nearly two decades, she was the undisputed queen of the Western Mediterranean, and finally a captive of war. We do not know how she met her final fate, and we do not even know her name. But she is not forgotten, and she has much to teach us…
A new combination of primary sources allows a new understanding of how technological innovation spread in the Hellenistic World. The accounts of Plutarch, Diodorus, and Polybius all include references to a large war vessel that played a pivotal role in the history of the 3rd. Century B.C. In succession, the authors describe how knowledge of the most advanced achievements in large ship construction passed from Macedonia, to Epirus, to Carthage, to Rome in a period of thirty years. These references allow us to observe a repeated transfer of technology during one of Antiquity’s few eras of technological innovation.
Demetrius Poliorcetes spent his life trying to be the next Alexander, but a Darius was lacking among the rest of Alexander’s would-be successors. What distinguished Demetrius was his use of innovative technology to achieve his victories. His exploits with his new weapons had made this Macedonian monarch the terror of the Greek East. Plutarch makes it clear that Demetrius’s new weapons became subjects of intense interest and emulation on the part of his rivals and potential targets. More than just the kings were affected. The shores were crowded with onlookers when his new vessels sailed past. Whether the Greeks were wondering or trembling at the capabilities of the new monsters is open for debate. Plutarch’s qamazon allows such speculation (Plu. Dem. 220.3- 5).
At the very start of his career, Demetrius’s investment in maritime innovation paid him a handsome return. The size and the strength of his new breed of warships allowed him to defeat the fleet of Ptolemy I off Cyprian Salamis in 306. So heavily-built were Demetrius’s vessels that they could mount catapults capable of firing both bolts and stones at the Egyptian vessels. The devastating bombardment was quite possibly the first use of shipborne artillery at sea.
Demetrius prevailed in a battle reflecting a clear departure from the older tradition of warships fighting by maneuver and speed. A wall of heavy vessels battered the Egyptians with missiles and crushed them into the shore (Diod. 20.49.4). And Demetrius would build vessels larger than those at Salamis.
Demetrius’s faith in large warships again justified itself after his and his father Antigonus’s shattering defeat at Ipsos in 305. With all the other Successors united against him, Demetrius nonetheless had a place to go. Due to his vessels’ size and seakeeping qualities, he was able to retreat, in effect, into the Mediterranean itself. With his monsters Demetrius menaced every coast. In the end, he was invited back into the Successors’ game when Seluecus Nicator offered alliance. Again the size of Demetrius’s ships availed him. Demetrius entertained Seleucus and his court comfortably at a royal banquet on board his massive ‘thirteen’ (Plu. Dem. 30.1-32.2) while negotiations proceeded with that continental ruler. After a rather amazing set of events tossed him onto the throne of Macedonia, Demetrius soon began to build again. At least 500 of the largest and most advanced ships ever constructed were outfitting or germinating in Demetrius’s shipyards by the year 288. By then, however, his weary subjects had finally decided, after fifty years of trying, that they had enough of world conquest (Plu. Dem. 43). Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, and Lysimachus of Thrace were welcomed by the Macedonian people when they invaded Macedonia from the east and west. Demetrius fled as his subjects deserted him, and soon afterwards Pyrrhus and Lysimachus divided Demetrius’s kingdom and possessions between them. (Plu. Pyr. 12.7)
That Demetrius’s collection of dreadnoughts were a major objective of the conquerors is not to be doubted. Lysimachus’s hatred of Demetrius was legendary. He had previously had help in restraining his antipathy. Demetrius had treated him to a demonstration of his fleet and siege train while besieging Cilician Soli. (Plu. Dem 20.4). One manifestation of Lysimachus’s admiration was his own behemoth, the Leontophoros, a subject of scholarly inquiry even to the present day. (Memnon 13 = Jacoby, FGH no. 434, 8.5, vol. III B, p. 344). Another was appropriation of the originals that inspired the counter. That Demetrius’s ships were employed by the conquerors is well known. Ptolemy Keraunos was the ultimate inheritor of Lysimachus’s fleet. The Leontophoros and Demetrus’s warships defeated Demetrius’s son Gonatas, in 280 (Memnon 14; Just. 24.1.8).
It is not, then, difficult to determine where Pyrrhus had obtained the pride of his fleet; the subject of this treatment. With her and his elephants he planned to cow and then unite the Greeks of Italy and Sicily behind him for use against his rivals in the East. She would fail him in that purpose, but this unnamed monster warship saved his life at the very start of his invasion of Italy in the very year of Gonatas’s defeat. The Ancients never noted Epirus and the Illyriote coast for the construction of any but pirate vessels. This ship was something entirely different, a fact made clear by the terrible storm that bore down on the Epirote fleet in the Ionian. The tempest sank or scattered all of Pyrrhus’s ships but one. The flagship held her course and her own in the pounding seas, taking the seas broadside and ramming her massive prow into the Italian shore. Plutarch is quite positive that it was only the strength and size of the royal galley (basiliks) that allowed the king to reach the land. Pyrrhus and his crew survived to give the Romans and the heirs of Alexander their first and costly lessons in each side’s military prowess. (Plu. Pyr. 15.2-3) It is seldom that a single vessel can play so decisive a role in world history, but with Pyrrhus would have drowned his dream of conquest in Italy, and it took a great deal more besides to kill that.
After his celebrated ‘victories’ against the Roman army prompted him to seek conquest elsewhere, Pyrrhus’s huge flagship bore him next to Sicily. We may have an occluded reference from a local source to her size. Diodorus ‘the Sicilian’ refers to a ‘Royal Nine’ among Pyrrhus’s vessels at Syracuse, although his language could imply that the ship was Syracusan (Diod. 22.8.5). Once again, the ship’s size seems to have had a role in influencing the course of events. She and her other sisters inadvertently contributed to Pyrrhus’s spectacular failure to unite the Greeks of Sicily under his banner. The large ships required large crews, and it was Pyrrhus’s demands for men to man his fleet for a planned descent upon Carthage that finally alienated the Sicelote Greeks from their would-be liberator. (Plu. Pyr. 23.3) With no ability to take his war to Africa, Pyrrhus’s hopes for subduing Carthage in Sicily and North Africa collapsed in ruin. (Diod. 22.8.5) Worse yet, the Carthaginians were swift to retake ground lost, and the huge ship still lacked men when the avenging Carthaginian armada fell upon Pyrrhus and his fleet as he made his retreat from Sicily in 274. The Carthaginians ended up with many of Pyrrhus’s vessels. (Plu. Pyr. 24.1)
Polybius provides the last chapter of the flagship’s story. So impressed were the Carthaginians with the monster’s construction that ‘the ship of King Pyrrhus,’ as Polybius calls her, became the pride of their navy. She was the command ship sent against Duilius’s Roman squadron at Mylae in 260, under the command of yet another Carthaginian Hannibal. Disaster followed when the Romans deployed their own celebrated bit of maritime technological innovation. Most of the fleet and the admiral’s vessel was there taken by the victorious Romans. (Plb. 1.23.1-7) Even then, for a final time her size may have availed her commander. As the corvus struck home, Hannibal managed to make his escape in the ship’s tender (skf) (Polyb. 1.23.7) It may have been the vessel’s age alone that proved her undoing, for another Carthaginian flagship proved too big, too well-crewed, and too fast for the Roman squadron that took her nine consorts off Tyndaris in 257. (Plb. 1.25.3)
Honesty compels me to note that the ship may have been re-rigged, or, less possibly, she may have been a sister vessel from Demetrius’s yards, for Polybius and the Latin inscription refer to her as an ptrhs/septeres/seven. Duilius’s pride in his prize has an enduring monument. An Augustan reconstruction of the his columna rostrata still commemorates the victory and ‘he who took the seven.’. (CIL 12.25, 6.1300, line 11) ‘When in doubt, emend, is NOT my motto, or sound practice, but nnrhs for ptrhs isn’t much of a stretch. I will save someone the trouble of saying that the Latin is unambiguous.
The final fate of the aging vessel in Roman hands is uncertain-but one thing is. By 257 the Roman navy was using vessels of greater size than it had ever previously constructed. (Plu. 1.26.10) A monopoly of the largest ships was yet another thing that could not be left to the Carthaginians.
What happened each time the vessel changed hands need not be argued. Our records of such early American warships as the U.S.S. President and the Chesapeake are filled out by measurements taken by their British captors, who routinely ‘took off’ the lines of captured enemy ships in the event their construction offered useful innovation to the Royal Navy. There were no journals of maritime architecture in those days, but an experienced shipwright could learn a great deal from the simple inspection of a new kind of vessel. Polybius, of course, offers in the very narrative of Mylae his account of a Punic wreck providing the pattern for Roman construction (Polyb. 1.20.15). The details are probably apocryphal, but at the least, the account suffices to demonstrate that the concept of emulation in maritime architecture antedates considerably the War of 1812. (Polyb. 1.20.15) And it was at such a time, as Duilius gloried in his prize, that the Italian or Italiote shipwrights got their chance to examine a product of their Eastern counterparts, the men Demetrius had employed to build his creations.
The sources for the facts themselves exist to show an explosion of maritime technology at the time Pyrrhus’s great ship so profoundly affected the affairs of Italy. As noted, at the start of his career, Demetrius had defeated the Ptolemaic fleet at Cyprian Salamis and by the reign of Ptolemy II, the Egyptian fleet would contain the most terrifying agglomeration of monster galleys ever seen in the Mediterranean (Athen. 5.203d). Outright defeat was a strong impetus to innovate, or match, at least. By the end of the great siege of 305, the Rhodians had a more intimate acquaintance with Demetrius’s advancements in engineering of all varieties than either side might have wished. Several of Demetrius’s vessels were among the Rhodians’ legacies when the Besieger finally received his father’s instructions to quit.
Pyrrhus and Lysimachus divided up Demetrius’s fleet in 288 and Antigonus received at least some of his inheritance before his dynasty prevailed in Macedonia. Pyrrhus delivered at least one large warship into the emulous hands of the Carthaginians and Romans, both of whom began to build large vessels. Hiero of Syracuse had been the nervous spectator of the first Punic War. That dynast commissioned Archimedes to build a huge ship with weapons enough to be proof against any conceivable attacker (Athen. 5.206d-209b). This 3rd century B.C. Great Eastern proved too big for Hiero’s harbors, but when Hiero loaded the Syracusia with fish sauce and presented her to the Ptolemies, the technology had changed directions. For this last of the behemoths was built as a grain carrier.
And so, we have the eventful biography’ of the leviathan Pyrrhus looted from Demetrius’s shipyards, and her genealogy. There is also, however, a significance to her story that transcends even her roles in the Romans’ war with Pyrrhus; the struggle between Greeks and Carthaginians in Sicily; and even the First Punic War. She was not the only large vessel capable of surviving in rough seas and delivering an important freight. Rhodes’ deep harbors had hindered that island’s earlier development as a trading port, but deep harbors were exactly what monsters such as the Syracusia, renamed Alexandris, required to hold themselves and their vast cargoes. Rhodian freighters transported Egyptian and Black Sea grain from Cilicia to Massilia, efficiently enough to ensure legendary profits and a reputation for dependability.
The changes did not stop at the water’s edge. Populations in urban centers could now hold more people than local agriculture could ever conceivably support, and Rome began the final phase of its urban development. Rome, and later Constantinople, would come to depend on the overseas shipment of large amounts of grain from the wheat fields of the Black Sea and the Nile. Politicians and voters began to appreciate the possibilities of large scale routine grain shipments and the need for their routine and safe arrival. Claudius and Trajan converted Ostia into a fit haven for the large grain ships to make sure the panem arrived and the population stayed fed at the circenses. One such monster freighter was, in fact, converted into an island for the new harbor’s lighthouse with a final cargo of hydraulic concrete. From the 2nd Century A.D. survives Lucian’s amazed description of the Isis, a vessel the size of the U.S.S. Constitution. After his inspection of the ship, blown off course to Athens, Lucian provided a litany of her size, design and refinements, as wells as her ability to survive adverse seas (Luc. Nav. 4-14). Such was the legacy of the Hellenistic age. Demetrius’s catapults, rams, and even his famous siege tower were only of pressing interest at specific sieges at specific times. Large capacity marine transport, however, played an important role in the later history of the Mediterranean. As far back as King Pyrrhus’s doomed effort to conquer Italy, that single large warship demonstrated to all in contact with her-and they were many-the size and seakeeping potential of the latest stage of maritime architecture.
Rob S. Rice
1996 APA Convention Session on Naval History