Thursday, April 8, 2010

History: One, Two, Three

The history of ships and shipping, and therefor pirates and privateering, began with our friends the Sea Peoples. Known now as the Phoenicians, they were the first to build wooden boats, fit them out with sails and a row of oars on each bow, and head out into the blue water of the Mediterranean. Bless them.

Technology is not a modern invention, however, and neither is the improvement of existing technology. Ships, like everything else, improved and each culture that adopted the basic design added their own innovations as time went on.

The original monoreme ship of the Phoenicians, Egyptians and early Greeks was a wonder of technology for it's time. Slim and seaworthy, the ship sat close to the water and could initially carry 10 oarsmen on either side. In the 6th century BCE the Phoenicians added a pointed ram at the bow. This established the way in which the three incarnations of the monoreme would be used. Set the sail and head for the battle, strike the sail and move under the power of oars in battle with the goal being to ram an enemy broadside and then back water, disengaging your ram so the enemy ship would sink.

The ship shown above is not technically a monoreme but is the famous galley of Khufu in the Cairo Museum. This ship is the most intact ancient vessel yet discovered. It does give a good idea of how oars would have been shipped in a monoreme: the long pieces of wood were held in thole pins along the gunwales rather like that little rowboat at the lake. Of course, speed and agility are always necessary whether your goal is sinking an enemy in battle or taking a fat prize. Speed meant adding more oars, but in the monoreme the only way to do that was to lengthen the ship. There goes your agility. The solution was dreamed up around 700 BCE probably by the Phoenicians again but some scholars believe the Greeks were the innovators. The bireme was built with two tiers of oars, one above the other.

The men on the lower tier worked their oars through ports in the ship's side and sat close to the waterline. The men above were on deck, as they had been in the monoreme. This allowed the ship to double it's oarsmen and speed without increasing it's length. Biremes fully manned with 40 oars could reach speeds of 6 to 7 knots. Considering that a pirate sloop during the Golden Age would have averaged 5 knots, that's pretty impressive. Of course the speed could not be sustained for any extended time, but it got the job done when facing an enemy.
Ship builders are never really satisfied, though, and innovations continued into the Classical era. Some time in the 600s BCE the Corinthians struck on a feat of engineering that allowed a third row of oarsmen to be incorporated. The trireme was born.

As you can see from the Greek stamp pictured above, a trireme required an outrigged section of the hull to make seating all the oarsmen and functioning oars feasible. The first and second tier of men would work in the outrigging while the lowest tier would be in the hold proper, sometimes only a foot above the waterline. Greek triremes carried up to 170 oarsmen. Rome went big, as usual, and eventually developed triremes that could carry up to 230 oarsmen along with soldiers, commanders and so on. These ships, when rowed properly, topped out at an amazing 9 to 10 knots in quick bursts.

Trireme construction in Greece followed this general plan. The ship was approximately 120 feet in length. She was 12 feet across at the waterline increasing to 18 feet on the upper deck of oarsmen and by Classical times the ram at her bow had developed three or four prongs instead of the one prong typical on a monoreme. She was a formidable opponent. So formidable, in fact, that it was the Athenian triremes under the command of Themistocles that finally beat back the threat of Persian invasion at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC. Thanks for holding the Hot Gates, Spartans. The seaman will take it from here.

The innovations that led from monoreme to trireme improved seafaring, and particularly naval, capability in the Mediterranean 100 percent in a relatively short span of time. The trireme became the workhorse of sea battle, much like the frigate would in the distant future. It's probably safe to say that without these seafaring innovations by our ancient ancestors, the ships we know today would be quite different indeed.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Another informative and interesting post about our innovative ancestors. Needless to say, the guy you didn't want to be on one of these ships was one of the oarsmen, particularly in the hold... "We keep you alive to serve this ship. Row well and live, 41." Oh well, that's what slaves are for (slavery: it gets sh*t done!) right, Pirate Queen?

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! I know that slave were used to row galleys but I wonder about warships like a trireme. It seems like an aweful lot of training would be necessary to get the rhythm down and not end up with all the oars smashing into eachother and busting into useless toothpicks. More reasearch and another post on that one, I think.

And being what was known in old New Orleans as an octoroon, I have a little issue with slavery in all it's incarnations. But you knew that.

Charles said...

Ahoy, Captain. The Greek sailors were citizens, not slaves. This is why Athens developed democracy. Men who fight make the rules. Aristophanes was an oarsman. He mentions the olfactory disadvantage of being on the bottom row. Pay was 1 drachma a day.
Here is a good discussion of Greek Triremes. After the Peloponnesian War quinquaremes came into use. In the middle ages some European nations had as much as 16 banks of oars I think. Love your Blog

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Charles and thank you for your encouragement.

Thank you, too, for the info on our ancient ancestors. Of course, slavery is an issue in most ancient cultures but the employment of freemen to row warships makes perfect sense. Particularly in Athens.

Also, right you are about later galleys. Some Medieval cogs were sprouting oars right and left; one wonders how they handled them in practice. Even Captain Kidd's "Adventure Galley" had oars.

Keep the comments coming.