Military History Lecture Series
(November 3, 2011)
The Battle of Salamis &
the Ancient Greek Trieres
Zeus the all-seeing grants to Athene’s prayer
That the wooden wall only shall not fall,
But help you and your children…withdraw from the foe…
Divine Salamis, you will bring death to women’s sons.
The ancient Athenians were very good indeed.
They pushed the outer limits of the design, materials, and men.
Dr. Robinson Yost, Assistant Professor, History
Social Sciences Department
OUTLINE: “The Plan”
The War?
o setting the scene
o our main sources
The Battle?
o context
o tactics
o outcome
The Ships?
o the debate
o the reconstruction
o the results
o NYC or bust!
The Mystery: What was a trireme? How was it rowed?
Much literature has been published by many experts as to the appearance
and the exact manner of rowing these vessels. Unfortunately, even the most
erudite can only make educated guesses. We do know that the trireme, as
the name implies, had three banks or tiers of oars…. But just how the
rowers and benches were arranged we do not know. It has been assumed by
some that there was only one rower to each oar, and that the uppermost and
therefore longest oars were the only ones used when going into battle or
where bursts of speed were required. [32]
Soldiers & Warriors: An Illustrated History (1966) by Jack Coggins
The trireme may have been important historically, but it itself remained a
mystery. What exactly was it? Why was it developed? How was it built? How
did it work? What could it do? A reconstruction of an Athenian trireme has now
been built and operated to find out, and a very instructive project it has proved
to be.
“Some Engineering Concepts applied to Ancient Greek Trireme Warships
(2005) by John Coates
Battle of Salamis (480 B.C.)
Main Written Sources
o The Persians (c. 472 B.C.)
o Histories (ca. 440s B.C.)
Non-Written Sources
o Lenormant relief (ca. 410)
o Zea ship sheds
o vases, coins, etc.
o the Argo (mortise & tenon)
o sea trials
o future?
John F. Coates (1922-2010)
John S. Morrison (1913-2000)
Lenormant relief (ca. 410-400 B.C.)
The thalamians were further handicapped by having to row
with slightly more of the oarloom inboard because the carlings
on which the oars were worked had been insufficiently
chamfered inboard of the tholepin.
Challenges for Olympias
o boarding?
o getting moving?
o rowing “blind”
o heat/ventilation
o oars/oarloops
o getting up to speed?
o working a “triad”
o “catching a crab”
o thalamian oar stroke
o top speed: 8.5 knots
o 1990 trials at Poros
62 thranites
54 zygians
54 thalamians
Five sea trials of the Olympias (1987-1994)
The Results:
Since its inception nearly twenty years ago, the Athenian Trireme project has
benefited from the input of historians and archaeologists, naval architects and
shipbuilders, rowers, sailors and seamen, physicists and physiologists, and
many others. Their cooperation has necessitated a considerable willingness
on the part of individuals schooled in widely differing disciplines to understand
each other’s modes of thinking. By the same token, this multi-disciplinary
approach has often made it difficult to convince specialists outside the project
of the validity of some of the evidence and arguments….
Through the process of collecting together the indications from antiquity,
bringing to bear on them the craft of the naval architect which is bound by the
laws of physics, and creating a reconstructed ship, Olympias, which has been
tested at sea under oar and sail, we hope and believe that we have learned a
great deal about the Athenian Trireme. We know that not all questions have
been answered and that there is still much more to learn. But our fascination
with the most famous warship of the ancient world remains. [275]
The Athenian Trireme: The History and Reconstruction of an Ancient Greek
Warship (2000) by John Morrison, John Coates, & N. Boris Rankov

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