TRIREME FIGHTING IN THE AEGEAN (411–405) I

The type of bow most people are familiar with is the “post Corinthian” bow. Previously, triremes had a ‘hollow’ bow. See Connolly’s reconstruction of this type, p.265 “Greece and Rome at War”, and the coin reverses on p.264 giving a good ‘before and after’ idea of the old and modified bows.

What Thucydides says can be translated thus: “They shortened the bows of their ships and strengthened them;they laid out stout ‘epotides’, and fixed stays from the ‘epotides’ to the ships sides both inside and out” (the ‘epotides’ lit: “ears” were the transverse beams across the hull supporting the ‘paraxereisia’ = outrigger that supported the upper bank of oars, sometimes in English called ‘catsheads’).

The Greek word for ‘fixed’ is the same derivative as the English term ‘hypotenuse’. The stays thus formed a “Y” support to each of the the “T” shapes formed by the ‘epotides’ running at 90 degrees to the ship’s sides. This strengthened ‘epotides’ meant that the opponent’s epotides and paraxereisia would be smashed in a near head-on collision, allowing the scraping off of the opponent’s oar-banks…….

Sparta Builds a Fleet

After the defeat of much of the Corinthian fleet by Phormio in 429, the Peloponnesians had essentially given up the idea of defeating the Athenians at sea, much in the same way as the latter avoided pitched battle with Spartan hoplites. In response, the Athenians were often given a free hand to patrol the empire. They would do so with near impunity for almost the next sixteen years; the Peloponnesians, in contrast, resembled more the smaller German navy of the two world wars, venturing out to terrorize merchants and neutrals only when the British fleet was elsewhere or asleep.

Then, suddenly, the unexpected Athenian catastrophe of 413 in Sicily—216 imperial triremes (perhaps at least 160 of them Athenian) and almost 45,000 men of the empire were lost or captured—gave new impetus to Sparta’s efforts to catch up and build a new Pan-Peloponnesian fleet fueled by Persian money. The vast armada of Athens had always been a fluke beyond what should have been the limited resources of any single city-state. Indeed, its creation in 482 was a result only of a rich strike in the silver mines of Laurium, and it was later sustained by the imperial tribute of hundreds of subject states. In contrast, without mines or tribute-paying subjects, Sparta’s old pipe dream at the beginning of the war of creating a vast armada of 500 ships could be realized only by an unholy alliance with the empire of Persia.

It was not just that Athens had lost two-thirds of its once magnificent imperial fleet or that the roughly 100 reserve triremes that remained in the Piraeus were in various states of unreadiness. Instead, the greater dilemma was that the human losses at Sicily, coupled with the thousands of dead from the plague, had wiped out an entire generation of experienced Athenian rowers, teachers, and students of the sea, all almost impossible to replace at once. In a similar example, after the defeat of Lepanto (1571), the Ottoman catastrophe was not just the loss of almost 30,000 seamen and 200 galleys—or the thousands more sailors who were unaccounted for. Rather, the destruction of thousands of trained bowmen, archers who made Turkish ships deadly but took years to train properly, ensured that even after the hasty reconstruction of their fleet by the next year, the Ottomans would rarely again venture into Italian-controlled waters.

A third to half of the thousands of imperial rowers who were lost at Sicily were probably Athenian citizens and resident aliens. The death or capture of the remaining 20,000 foreigners and allied seamen not only drained the empire of manpower but also created waves of resentment against Athens among bereaved subjects. Long gone was the memory of the festive spectacle of cheering and merriment, and expectations of easy loot and glory on the cheap, when the grand flotilla had sailed from the Piraeus in 415. Sailing with the Athenians could quite literally get you and your sons killed.

Something had also come over the Greeks after Sicily. Perhaps it was the length of the war; it was now almost twenty years since Sparta had invaded Athens, and both desperate sides were beginning to sense that the end could not be too far away. Or maybe the increasing savagery was attributable to the mounting losses and the barbarism unleashed at Scione, Torone, and Melos. In any case, in the Archidamian War one does not sense that Spartans and Athenians hated each other. But in the last phase of the conflict, there is a real feeling of growing fury on both sides, that trireme war in the eastern Aegean was perhaps more like the Japanese, rather than the European, theater of World War II, when most soldiers gave no quarter and harbored a deep visceral and racial dislike of their enemies.

If an islander were to row in the future, it might be wiser to enlist for higher pay in the new and larger Peloponnesian fleet, which was likely to patrol in greater numbers in the eastern Aegean, which was now increasingly empty of the old Athenian triremes. As the war heightened in the eastern Aegean and the limits of Greek manpower became clear after some two decades of steady combat losses, the final sea fights became as much a bidding war for mercenary oarsmen as a test of seamanship. In other words, the war would descend into a one-sided financial contest between the limitless gold of Persia and an impoverished Athens.

Athens started the war with 5,000 talents in reserve. But after Sicily it now had less than 500 in its treasury, scarcely enough to build 100 triremes and keep them at sea for even four months. The special emergency reserve of 1,000 talents to guarantee the safety of the Piraeus was suddenly not so sacrosanct. Thucydides concluded that besides the absence of men to make up the losses and the few triremes left in the ship sheds, there was also “no money in the treasury.” In addition, the two traditional sources of Athenian naval financing—silver from Laurium and tribute from the Aegean—were now imperiled by Spartan ravagers and ships. Most Greeks thought that after Sicily “the war was over.” Thus, should Sparta somehow find the capital to build a fleet and pay for its new crews, there was a good chance that by 413 its rowers would be no more inexperienced than most Athenian replacement oarsmen.

After a few years of valuable help to the Peloponnesian navy, the Persians decided to take a far more active role when the maverick Spartan admiral Lysander and the renegade teenaged Achaemenid prince Cyrus struck a partnership of convenience in 407, one that meant the Peloponnesians would have a nearly unlimited supply of capital to build ships and hire crews. With overwhelming numerical superiority, the Spartans could afford to keep challenging the Athenians at sea, backed up by the assurance that their losses would be made good as they wore down the Athenian fleet in a theater vital to the continuance of imported food and precious tribute.3 Even earlier, after the defeat at Cyzicus in spring 410, the Persian satrap Pharnabazus had encouraged the demoralized Spartans to remember that there was plenty of timber for ships in Persia, and lots of replacement arms, money, and clothing to reequip any sailors who survived the defeat.

In the immediate aftermath of the Athenian catastrophe at Sicily, when it came time to pony up for Peloponnesian triremes, the Boeotians, Corinthians, Locrians, Phocians, Megarians, and the states of the Argolid sent out no more than 75 ships. Along with the Spartans’ own paltry 25 triremes, that still made up a combined fleet of only about 100 ships. The Sicilian allies proved an equal disappointment. Despite having been saved by the timely arrival of a Peloponnesian fleet in the harbor at Syracuse, in recompense they added little more than 22 vessels to the Spartan cause—given their worries over a nearby aggressive Carthage. So there loomed the chance that in 412 the Peloponnesians might soon achieve numerical parity at sea, a situation in the short-term that meant Sparta could at least engage the green reconstituted Athenian fleet with an equal number of ships and crews no more inexperienced.

The inclusion of seasoned naval officers from Syracuse and Corinth who long had organized fleets might account for some sharing of nautical experience among the high command of the grand Peloponnesian fleet. At times, for example, there is special mention of skilled navigators like Ariston the Corinthian, who was “the best pilot of the Syracusan fleet.” He had devised a stratagem for feeding his seamen rapidly on shore and getting their triremes back in action as quickly as possible. The same innovator was most probably responsible for attaching shorter and lower rams to the Syracusan ships, to ensure that they struck below the waterline and with greater force.

Nevertheless, what has never been adequately explained is how a landlocked reactionary state like Sparta, one that not only had little experience with the sea but openly loathed the entire social cargo that accompanied naval power, in the space of less than a decade turned green crews and brand-new triremes into a formidable and seasoned opponent of the great fleet of Athens. The creation of an eastern Aegean Spartan flotilla, alongside the Roman armada during the Punic Wars and the Japanese imperial fleet at the beginning of the twentieth century, ranks as one of the great naval achievements in history.

Ancient observers remarked on the sheer audacity of Spartan naval power, usually through acknowledgment by Spartans themselves that they had no real idea of what they were doing. “Sending out men who had no experience with the sea” to replace “men who were just beginning to understand naval matters” summed up Spartan policy in the eastern Aegean—as if one Spartan hoplite on deck was as good as another. Contemplating Spartans out in the middle of the Aegean on rocking triremes, one might paraphrase Samuel Johnson and wonder not that it was done well, but that it was done at all.

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