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Ancient Greek Trireme

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Trireme, ancient Greek warship with three files of oarsmen on each side, as well as sails, 38 meters/115 foot long. It was mentioned by Thucydides during the 8th century BC. It evolved from the early Phoenician and Greek armed merchant ships.

Remus is latin for oar and tri meaning the three tiers.

Trireme Development

The earliest galleys were probably of single banks of oars, but the larger ones mentioned in the Iliad (with 120 rowers) were probably two-banked ships. The three-banked galleys first appeared about 700 BC.

The Athenian trireme was a galley of about 38 meters in length, a beam of 6 meters, a depth of 3 meter, and a draft of 1 meter. Although they had a square sail, the main method of propulsion was by three tiers of oars.

The lowest tier consisted of 27 oars per side and was called thalamites, the middle tier also had 27 oars per side and was called zeugites, and the oars on the top were called thranites. Unlike the other galleys all 170 oarsmen on the Greek trireme were freemen. They could row the galley at speeds of about 7 knots (13 km/h). The main weapon of the galley was the ram, an extension forward of the keel designed to penetrate enemy ships. A small number of soldiers were also carried.

As a war vessel the galley had many limitations. It was long and slender and therefore not particularly seaworthy. It had to be long so that enough oars could be put into each bank to give the vessel its essential speed. It operated best in calm water. In rough water the rowing beat of the oarsmen was thrown off and the ship rolled its lower oar parts under. Too great a length made them both weaker and easier to ram. The oars of a trireme were therefore arranged in three rows one above the other. That gave them greater strength and more speed for less length.

Romans constructed their trading vessels of pine or cedar, and reserved oak for their vessels of war. From the constructional viewpoint, there occur at this time the first examples of the various members of the hull which are in use today. The keel, ribs, planking and thwarts, which serve to brace the boat transversely as well as providing a seat for the oarsmen, came into being as a forerunner of what might be termed modern construction. Since vessels were usually beached during the winter months in the Mediterranean, the draft was necessarily limited and consequently the size of the craft remained quite small.

Cross-section of a trireme

Cross-section of a trireme

Sea Warfare

While Sparta had the most powerful army in Greece, Athens commanded the sea. Before the 5th century, sea battles had been fought much like land battles. The plan was to get close to the enemy, ram her, then board her and fight like soldiers. During the Persian wars, Athens developed new tactics in naval warfare.

The Athenians, who were natural seamen, not only had the biggest fleet, they also developed the most skilful tactics. Phormio, a commander in the Peloponnesian War, was able to pin the enemy into a circle at the battle of Naupactus by the better sailing powers of the Athenian ships. The enemy became more and more crowded, they began to bump into each other, and when they were in a real muddle, Phormio attacked.

Triremes had some drawbacks. Because they were shallow, they were in danger from the sudden storms which blow up in the Mediterranean. They had no space for sleeping or cooking, so they could never sail far from base. They could not, therefore, blockade a coast, as an army could blockade a city. As wars were often won by starving the enemy into surrender, that was a serious disadvantage.

The Persian Wars also featured a large sea battle with triremes forming part of the victorious Greek fleet at the battle of Salamis in 480 BC.

The great victory of the Greeks over the Persian fleet at Salamis was won by superior tactics. The Persian fleet was larger, and their ships were quicker and nimbler, but the Greeks lined up their ships across the entrance to a narrow strait, protected by the rocky coast on both sides. The Persians could not bring enough force against the concentrated Greek formation. They fell into disorder and suffered heavy losses.

It was the Greeks who learned most from this victory. They made their ships lighter and faster, and instead of simply driving straight at the enemy ships, they worked out movements by which they could disable them by breaking their oars.

Other Types of Galley

Ancient Greek and Roman galleys were classified as biremes, triremes, quadriremes, and quinqueremes. These terms are commonly supposed to describe a galley as having from two to five vertical banks of oars.

The bireme was an earlier ship with only two tiers of oars, and the quadrireme and quinquireme, which are mentioned in connection with Dionysus of Syracuse. One interpretation is that they had two oarsmen on the upper tiers of oars. There is mention of ships with many more tiers of oars but these are considered unlikely. It is improbable that more than three vertical banks were ever used. The terms may possibly refer to groups of oars or perhaps to the number of men per oar.

The principal weapons of the early Greek military galleys were the ram, a sharp beak on the bow, and the catapult. Archers were used to release broadsides of arrows. Roman galleys, with an abundance of manpower in the form of slaves and prisoners to work the oars, carried soldiers to board enemy ships, were equipped with a corvus, a hinged drawbridge that could be lowered from the foremast. Spikes on the underside of the corvus drove into the enemy's deck and held the two ships together.


Santhosh on November 14, 2013:

Triremes were ancient war gallyes with three rows of oars on each side. They originated with the Phoenicians and are best known from the fleets of Ancient Greece . The trireme was a development of the pentekonter, an ancient warship with a single row of 25 oars on each side. The trireme's staggered seating permitted three row of oarsmen, and an outrigger above the gunwale, projecting laterally beyond it, kept the third row of oars out of the way of the first two. Triremes were the dominant warship in the Mediterranean from the 7th to the 4th century BC .

Kira on November 05, 2013:

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The most prominent fingithg ship of this time was the trireme. The Greeks started using the trireme extensively around 500 B.C. . The trireme was better than the pentekontor because it had three times as many oarsmen. Trireme is an English version of the word trieres, which means three-fitted. Archaeologists have debate over the exact interpretation of three-fitted, but most agree it means the trireme had three tiers of oars with one man to an oar. The trireme used this arrangement of oarsmen instead of just one tier of oarsmen like the pentekontor. Greek vases actually depict triremes with oarsmen in this arrangement of three tiers. The trireme was a very quick warship and could have reached speeds of up to 14 knots in good weather. Triremes were approximately 118 feet long, 18 feet wide, and 8.5 feet tall. 170 oarsmen propelled the trireme, but the trireme only carried about 14 soldiers. This is because at this time warships were no longer used just for transporting soldiers, warships were also used in naval battles. Since gunpowder wasn't invented yet, the Greeks used this military vessel to ram into the enemy's hull. This would disable the ship or sink it. This tactical maneuver was called diekplous, or in English break through and ram. The main weapon for ramming into enemy ships was the bow of the ship. This was covered with a bronze ram. For more information on how the trireme was used to ram enemy ships, see Naval Tactics below.

k on November 22, 2012:


pipercake on May 09, 2012:

i looked at 2 other sites and if you compare them this one is informationless

TannerGary on April 16, 2012:

Im using it for a Project

miley on March 28, 2012:

who is the author?

Mari on February 12, 2012:

Finally, a decent, informative article on Greek Triremes! Thanks so much!

coolo on January 30, 2012:


Kimlian on January 08, 2012:

wow! this place rocks!! i found every thing i wanted to about triremes!!

Satan on April 12, 2011:

where in hell is the Ottomans? Did they use Triremes???????????

Satan wants to Know please? okay that's the first time ive said please in a LONG time.

chuck norris on April 08, 2011:

Where is the mentiopn about the Ottomans? Why did this site come up when i serched ottoman ships??!!!!!!!!!!???????????!!!!!!!!!!!?

Alec Tilley on October 02, 2010:

Everything written about triremes on this web-page makes the false assumption that the 'tri' (= three)referred to oarsmen at three levels or some other arrangement with six files files of oarsmen. But it actually referred to three files of oarsmen in all. The arrangement used at Athens (there were other arrangements) is shown on the well-known Siren Vase, now in the British Museum.

Five centuries of scholarly debate have thus given entirely the wrong answer to the trireme problem, while five minutes looking up the meaning of 'double banked' in the Oxford English Dictionary or a seamanship manual indicates the right answer. 'Double banked' means with a port oarsman and a starboard oarsman on each rowing bench. An ancient bireme (a '2-er') was a double banked vessel, not one with oarsmen at two levels. Similarly, the original triremes had three files of oarsmen, not six.

Most of he evidence is in:

Seafaring on the Ancient Mediteranean, published in 2004 as BAR International Series 1268.

Since then, more evidence has come to light:published in The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology Vol.33.2 of April 2004 ('A newly acquired ancient ship- model')

Much of the evidence is in the journal Antiquity, Vol.66 of 1992 : 'Three men to a room - a completely different trireme'.

dcjhazhjgh on March 31, 2010:

wooooow really there is nuthing about how triremes were used in naval battles

Botterguy on May 25, 2009:

Love to read about ancient ships. Very informative. Mediterranean and other European sailing vessels is my passion. I wrote one on the Xebec, a bit into the future from your Trireme.

bill on May 11, 2009:

most common were 7s

Alice Montiago on May 03, 2009:

This is a great site and very well written.

William F Torpey from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on April 26, 2009:

The galleys are very interesting, but I'm don't think I'd like to be a crewmember on any of them back then. Enjoyed the hub.

Idugit from England on April 23, 2009:

Good article, but please note that after the Battle of Actium, there were serious changes in the design of Roman warships. Threes and liburnians were most common, Fives and Sixes, very rare and the superlarge galleys gone altogether. The projecting oar box for the third level of oars disappeared and the topmost row of rowers may not have been decked in. There's a paper by John Orna-Ornstein of the British Museum which explains the changes and illustrates them with pictures of Roman coins of the period.

Please note, too, that 'slaves and prisoners' did NOT row Roman warships. They were forbidden to do so by law. Rowers on Roman warships, after Actium, were Auxiliary soldiers.

The Good Cook on April 14, 2009:

Informative and well written as usual.

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