Very Early Warships

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Piracy was an ancient custom in the eastern Mediterranean. But none of this normally involved fighting at sea. Pirates rarely pursued merchants on the open sea because all ships carried both sails and oars and were therefore difficult to catch. (Pure sailing ships did not appear until the late sixth century BC.) The standard piratical procedure was doubtless that described in the Odyssey: the raiders beached their boats in the vicinity of a coastal town and then captured the place by land. Raiders could also blockade harbours by intercepting ships at the harbour mouth, and we hear of Levantine ports in the Bronze Age being blockaded in wartime, but as no ship could stay out to sea for very long this strategy required prior control of the coast so that the port could be besieged by land and sea simultaneously. In all these cases it would obviously have been desirable to cut off and board enemy ships at sea, but for the reason already mentioned this was difficult to do. The relief at Medinet Habu shows Egyptian ships intercepting the invading Philistines; but that was in the mouth of the Nile, and even there the feat must have required good timing.

None of the ships in the Medinet Habu relief have rams, so this device did not exist around 1200 BC. But the evidence of Greek vase paintings shows that by around 800 BC the practice of fixing bronze rams to the prows of ships so that they could be used as weapons against other ships had become standard in the Mediterranean. Owing to the lack of pictorial records from the intervening centuries we cannot say with certainty when or where this device was invented, but it seems likely that it appeared within a century or so after 1200 BC, for much of the sacking of cities at that time was the work of coastal raiders, and there was urgent need for some method of coastal defence. It is unlikely to have been invented by the raiders, as it is not in the interest of pirates to sink their prey; but after coastguards had rams, pirates of course acquired them too. The likeliest inventors of ramming were the Phoenicians, the leading seafarers of the time.

The standard warship of the early Iron Age was the penteconter, a 100-foot galley propelled by fifty oarsmen, twenty-five on each side; the word ‘warship’ is somewhat misleading, as there was no distinction between ships of war and merchant vessels, and the penteconters were equally useful for transporting trade goods (which were of small bulk at this time) and protecting them. In such ships the Phoenicians, followed by the Greeks, opened up the whole of the western Mediterranean to trade and colonization. Originally penteconters were built with only one bank of oars. The next step was the bireme, a shorter and more seaworthy vessel with its fifty oars arranged in two superimposed banks. This was in use by 700 Be; an Assyrian relief of that date shows the king of Tyre embarking in a bireme.

None of this amounted to much ‘sea power’ in the modern sense of that term; it was more like coastal power. We do not hear of sea battles before the seventh century, not even between Phoenician cities, and no big battles until the sixth, which suggests the fifty-oared galleys were for defensive purposes, to guard harbours and repel pirates. It is doubtful there were any naval tactics, which would require concerted action by a number of galleys. Real sea power had to await the invention of the trireme, a highly specialized ship with 170 oars in three banks, with more than three times the propulsive power of a penteconter, and useful for nothing but warfare. These expensive technological marvels were probably beyond the reach of a city state. They did not become common until the late sixth century, when the Persian Empire became a Mediterranean power, and the Persian king Cambyses, according to Herodotus, became the first man to aspire to command of the sea.

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