Read an Excerpt
War on Ancient Waters
The Mediterranean is the birthplace of scientific archaeology under water. After more than five decades of work by archaeologists, a rich and varied understanding of the warship has emerged from both sea and soil. Archaeologists have developed knowledge about ancient ships from images painted on pottery, engraved in metal or chiselled in stone. We know more about ancient ships than we do about many other ships throughout history, because so many ancient shipwrecks have now been discovered and studied. British scholar A. J. Parker has catalogued over seven hundred Roman wrecks. Archaeologist George F. Bass, the pioneer of scientific underwater archaeology, and his associates at the Institute of Nautical Archaeology estimate that they have discovered over a hundred ancient and medieval wrecks along the Turkish coast.
But despite thousands of years of often-intense naval combat in these waters, little evidence has come from the sea. Why? Probably because ancient warships were small, light craft that were pulled out of the water when not in battle. When they fought, they did so within sight of land. After service, they were dismantled and recycled. Ancient warships that fell in battle were usually captured or disabled, drifted ashore or broke up on the surface of the sea. They were not always sent to the bottom. If destroyed, they were probably hauled onto the beach and burned, as the ancient historian Plutarch suggested more than nineteen hundred years ago. Walking the beaches near the site of the battle of Artemisium, where the Greeks clashed with the Persians in 480 B.C., Plutarch described stone memorial tablets and "a place on the beach where deep down, mingled with the thick sand, you can find a dark, ashy powder, which seems to have been produced by fire, and it is believed that the wrecks and dead bodies were burned there."
Whatever the reasons, archaeologists have extracted only tantalizing clues from the water: a handful of wrecks and a few weapons. But from the land, in combination with ancient texts, archaeologists, historians and other scholars have learned a great deal about ships of war from thousands of years ago.
The Earliest Navy
From skin, reed and log boats, the ship slowly developed in the Mediterranean. Open-water voyages on log rafts probably occurred as humans crossed from Africa to Europe. By ten thousand years ago, people were venturing out to sea to fish, probably in hollowed logs and skin boats stretched over a wooden frame. By the early Bronze Age, some five thousand years ago, boats made of bundled reeds and wooden-planked craft had emerged.
The evolution of the ship gave rise to far-flung trade networks and to the use of the sea to extend power and control. By the second millennium B.C., the world's first navies were created by Mediterranean states. Ancient historians credited the near-mythical ruler of Crete, Minos, with the creation of the first navy. Thucydides wrote in the fifth century B.C., "[Minos] made himself master of a great part of what is now termed the Hellenic Sea. He conquered the isles of the Aegean and was the first colonizer of most of them."
Archaeologists excavating on land throughout the Mediterranean have proved the extent of Minoan trade by recovering Minoan artifacts in Egypt, the Levantine coast (now, Israel and Lebanon), the Aegean isles, Turkey, Greece and Italy, including Sicily and Sardinia. Trade goods alone do not indicate an ancient Minoan empire, but their scattered presence is evidence of Minoan naval power strong enough to protect ships carrying goods to distant lands. The excavation of the centre of Minoan power, Knossos on Crete, starting in 1900, revealed a vast palace and settlements remarkable in that they lacked protective walls. As Lionel Casson, the dean of classical maritime studies, writes, Thucydides knew what he was talking about: "The people of Crete ... had been daring and active traders and the possessors of a great navy; Minoan towns needed no stone walls, for wooden ones, their ships, protected the island."
Archaeological evidencedepictions on pottery, seals and fragmentary murals from the ruins of Minoan towns and citiesindicates that these early warships were no different from merchant ships, except that instead of cargo they carried armed warriors to fight battles ashore.
The First Warships and Battles Afloat
By the second millennium B.C., two types of ships began to evolve: the merchant vessel and the warship. The Mycenaeans, a scattered group of peoples on the Greek mainland, took to the sea during the height of Minoan power, and by 1500 B.C., they had conquered the Minoans. Fierce warriors, they developed the war galley, a long, oared ship suited for raiding, piracy and war. These were the ships that carried the Greeks to Troy. Homer's descriptions of the Greek warships in the Iliad and the Odyssey show them to be fast, slender and graceful craft.
They carried a single sail on a mast that could be raised to take advantage of the wind. When the wind did not blow, or in battle, the sail and mast were lowered and stowed and the men took to the oars. The smallest war galleys were about 12 metres (40 feet) long, carrying twenty oarsmen; the most common carried fifty oarsmen and may have been about 27.5 metres (90 feet) long. And vet they were only about 3 metres (10 feet) wide and with a low freeboard. Open, or as Homer termed them, "hollow ships," with a small deck forward and aft, the war galleys were probably much like a modern rowing shell.
With such sleek hulls, the Mycenaean galleys were easily beached. Casson notes that the Odyssey describes how Odysseus made a fast getaway from the island of the Cyclops by shoving his ship off the beach with one good heave on his boat pole. But the lightness of the galleys came with a price: they were not a strong craft and working them was difficult and risky. Nonetheless, these ships were the standard Mediterranean warship beginning around 1500 B.C. Amazingly, we know nothing definitive about these ships because none has ever been discovered by archaeologists.
The power of Mycenae waned after 1250 B.C. when a major invasion of the Mediterranean by seafaring groups of Indo-Europeans occurred. Known as the "Peoples of the Sea," these seafarers destroyed Mycenaean cities and occupied the Levant. Their destructive arrival ushered in a so-called dark age and the first-recorded sea battle in history. Around 1176 B.C., Egyptian pharaoh Ramses III and his large navy met the Sea Peoples in battle, probably in the Nile Delta.
What we know about this battle comes from one remarkable source, a carved relief on the wall of Ramses' mortuary temple at Medinet Habu. Rising out of the desert, the imposing ruins tower above the sand. The wall, several storeys high with traces of bright paint and deeply carved images, is awe-inspiring. For maritime scholars, one series of scenes incised in stone is, as archaeologist Shelley Wachsmann notes, "the most important iconographic evidence" not only for the ships of the Sea Peoples, but also for "ship-based warfare before the introduction of the ram as a nautical weapon." By carefully analysing the relief, archaeologists have some sense of what the ships were like, and how the battle was fought.
Wachsmann uses the relief and an understanding of Egypt's artistic style to recreate the battle. Groups of ships, with soldiers on the decks, fought a "land battle" at sea, with the Egyptians staying out of range of the Sea Peoples' spears and shooting the invaders with archers. The relief shows Egyptian ships closing on their opponents after a volley of arrows, tossing a four armed grapnel from the bow into the enemy's rigging and capsizing the light, shallow Sea Peoples' ships. The enemy soldiers drowned, were killed in the water or were pulled out and captured, as were their ships. The capsized ships are shown floating in the water.
The only archaeological traces of this battle might have been loose weapons scattered on the seabed. Indeed, all that we know about these ships of war comes from artistic representations, which archaeologists call iconographic evidence, and an understanding of ship construction resulting from the detailed study of Egyptian ships of the period excavated from desert sands. The most famous of these ships, the exquisitely built royal boats of the Pharaoh Cheops, were discovered in stone-lined pits next to the Great Pyramid.
As yet, no direct archaeological evidence of war at sea during the Bronze Age has been found. There are only tantalizing traces: an underwater discovery near Belt Yannai on Israel's Mediterranean coast of a late Bronze Age dagger and a Canaanite sickle sword may be evidence of an early sea battle.
Rise of the Ram
Egypt repelled the onslaught of the Sea Peoples. But it did not pursue naval control of the Mediterranean. Instead, a group of sea traders from Sidon, on the Levantine coast, expanded a commercial network of maritime trade westward, establishing colonies in North Africa at Utica and Carthage. Controlling much of the western Mediterranean and trading into the Atlantic as far north as Britain, these peoples, now known as the Phoenicians, ultimately came into conflict with a group of Greek city-states.
The Greek city-states rose out of the dark age that followed the arrival of the Sea Peoples. By 800 B.C., Corinth, Athens, Miletus, Sparta and other cities began to expand their trade, and over the next two hundred years, the Greeks established overseas colonies to the east in the Dardanelles, north to the shores of the Black Sea and west to Italy and Sicily. This expansionism brought Greece into conflict with the Persian Empire, the Phoenicians and the Etruscans, and started a series of wars on land and sea for control of the Mediterranean.
In this age, the galley propelled by oars but also carrying an auxiliary mast and sailwas the principal fighting ship. Around 850 B.C., the Greeks added a projecting, bronze-sheathed underwater ram to the bow of their galleys. Perhaps adapted from a projecting beak at the bow of earlier warships that facilitated running the ship onto the beach, the ram changed the way ships fought at sea. Although they still grappled and men fought it out on-deck, the ram, as Lionel Casson notes, shifted the emphasis "to the men who manned the oars." Victory went to a well-trained crew, who responded instantly and accurately to orders to drive a ram into an enemy ship.
The standard warship of the period was the fifty-oared pentekontoros with a ram at the bow. But a change in the design of warships resulted in a new type of vessel. Although earlier warships had been open hulled, the Greeks added a deck to protect the oarsmen and to provide a platform for the fighting men. The addition of a deck level led to a second row of oars for greater speed. These new ships are known as biremes. This development, around 775 B.C., in turn led some fifty years later to the design of a decked ship that carried three banks of oars, the Greek trieres, or trireme.
The trireme and the ram were the key inventions that gave the Greeks naval control of the Mediterranean for the next three centuries. The trireme, with a trained crew of citizen-volunteers (Ben Hur notwithstanding, the ancients did not use galley slaves), was a fast, deadly ship. The use of the trireme dictated a change in tactics. Rather than closing and fighting with arrows, spears and boarding ladders, triremes lined up in columns and manoeuvred to ram the enemy, causing his ships to founder.
The manoeuvrability and power of the new ships was proved in battle around 540 B.C., when Greek colonists in southern France and Corsica, with a fleet of sixty triremes, defeated a larger force of a hundred Etruscan and Phoenician ships near Corsica. This victory led to history's first naval arms race. Between 540 and 525 B.C., most Mediterranean powers built large fleets of triremes.
Triremes fought the major sea battles between Greece and Persia, notably at the epic battle of Salamis in 480 B.C., when a united Greek fleet defeated the navy of Xerxes. Triremes also fought in the bitter Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta that followed from 431 to 404 B.C. But with dozens of battles and hundreds of ships lost, archaeologists have yet to discover a single trireme shipwreck.
Nearly a century of scholarly debate over the trireme recently ended. The arguments were often over the meaning of the facts available from the scattered evidence of artistic representations and in ancient texts. In the 1980s, collaboration between classical scholar John Morrison and naval architect John Coates resulted in the reconstruction of a trireme. Morrison and Coates built models, then a full-scale section of a trireme to test how the three-banked oar system would work. From this, the Greek government in 1987 built the full scale modern trireme Olympias.
It is an amazing sight as Olympias goes through the paces, rowers working in synchronized motions to move the trireme quickly, stop and turn sharply. Olympias looks much like ancient representations on pottery and stone, but like any reconstruction, some guesswork and deduction was necessary. The ship shows how the modern technique of "experimental archaeology" works to pull together evidence and test theories. After watching Olympias, most scholars agree with Morrison and Coates about the design of a trireme.
The construction of Olympias demonstrated that the trireme was a complex, fast (capable of 11 knots) and yet fragile craft that required a high level of skill of its crew to go into battle. The Greeks, particularly the Athenians, were skilled sea fighters with their triremes, a point that is obvious to anyone who reads ancient accounts of battles like Salamis. There, a combined Greek fleet of three hundred ships defeated a Persian fleet of some eight hundred ships. Thanks to the reconstruction of Olympias, we now have a better understanding of how each citizen-volunteer at his oar personally contributed to a victory that saw two hundred Persian ships destroyed at a cost of only forty Greek ships.
The next phase in the development of ancient warships was the rise of the polyremes. A series of wars, fought for the control of Sicily and the seas surrounding it, pitted Carthage, the Sicilian Greek colony of Syracuse and the new power of Rome against each other. New, larger versions of the trireme, mounting greater numbers of rowers, appeared in a naval arms race that started around 400 B.C.
Quadriremes (fours) and quinqueremes (fives) were built, some ships reaching more than 60 metres (200 feet) in length. At one time, historians believed that these ships, and the "sixes," "nines" and "tens" that followed might have referred to the number of banks of oars, one bank per level, so that a ten would be ten levels high. But such shipstowering above the water would have been impossible to build or sail. Instead, working with a three-level system like the trireme, scholars such as Morrison and Coates have reconstructed the ships on paper with more than one man per oar, often staggering the number of men per oar on each level. A "five" would have two rows or levels of oars, three men per oar on the first level, and two men per oar on the next.
The navies of the last three centuries B.C. were a varied lot, with ships of different sizes and classes, much like later navies with their mix of battleships, cruisers and destroyers. The naval arms race of this period saw contenders for control of the sea outbuilding each other in sheer numbers of ships and in their size. Again, the key to power was seen in the number of oarsmen: tens, sixteens, twenties and forties instead of 12-, 14- or 16-inch naval guns. These were the ships used by Alexander the Great as he seized control of the Mediterranean, capturing island cities like Tyre with combined land and sea forces.
The death of Alexander in 323 B.C. started a war between his generals for control of the far-flung Macedonian empire. Antigonus, with his son Demetrius, held Greece, while Seleucus held Persia and Ptolemy dominated Egypt. Dionysus, the tyrant of Syracuse, is credited with the invention of the five; Demetrius of Greece is credited by ancient historians with the invention of the larger shipssixes, sevens, all the way up to a sixteen. As Demetrius built larger ships with more oarsmen and larger decks carrying not just armed men, but catapults, fire pots and ballistae that fired bolts and stone shot, his ships were matched and then surpassed by those built by other rulers. Ptolemy IV, it is said, built a gigantic forty, perhaps an unwieldy marriage of two hulls into a massive catamaran.
In this age of the super-galley and varied fleets, sea battles were fierce melees as ships of different sizes closed with each other, firing missiles, bolts and darts before ramming. Armed marines, standing on decks, or in wooden turreted towers at either end of the ships, fought with long spears, arrows and swords. Grappling irons brought ships close so boarding parties could spring onto the enemy's deck.
In this period, the first direct archaeological evidence of war at sea appears in the form of iron spear points embedded in the hull of a sunken ship. The Kyrenia wreck, a Greek merchant galley, was attacked and scuttled, probably by pirates, around 306 B.C. When archaeologists from the Institute of Nautical Archaeology excavated the wreck, and the timbers were raised for preservation and reassembly, the spear points were discovered. They are the earliest direct evidence of a fight at sea.
The Athlit Ram
Another underwater discovery provides a hint of larger warships from this period and the sophistication of the ram. Archaeologist Yehoshua Ramon, snorkelling about 200 metres (650 feet) offshore from Athlit, which lies near Haifa on Israel's northern coast, discovered the ram in November 1980. Lying in the shallows of only about 3 metres (10 feet) of water, the ram was raised for careful scientific study by archaeologists from Israel and the United States. Repeated surveys of the bay where Ramon discovered the ram yielded no additional traces of the warship that once carried the ram. It had apparently drifted close to shore after being wrecked and disintegrated, leaving only the heavy ram with remains of the warship's bow inside it.
The "Athlit ram," after cleaning and preservation, proved to be an exceptionally well preserved, cast bronze warship ram 2.26 metres (about 7 feet) long, 0.76 metres (about 2.5 feet) wide and 465 kilograms (over 1000 pounds). This ship-killer held sixteen timbers from the bow of the lost warship inside its socket. In a meticulous, painstaking process, J. Richard Steffy of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology carefully extracted the timbers, which were form-fitted inside the ram.
Steffy's analysis of the surviving wooden structure of the ram showed a well-designed series of strakes and timbers that distributed not just the weight of the ram but the forces and stresses of the act of ramming into a heavily constructed hull bottom. Steffy believes that the "entire bottom of this ship was essentially the weapon," not just its Bronze ram.
No other wooden remains of the ship at Athlit were discovered. There are only the timbers from inside the bronze ram to suggest how the original warship's hull was built. The ram timbers and wooden wales that ran along each side of the keel indicate that the ship weighed as much as one tonne per metre of length a heavy ship indeed. This reconstruction means that not all ancient warships were lightweight.
Fast and hard-hitting was not always a good combination. Steffy points out that a motorcycle hitting a brick wall at 100 kilometres (about 60 miles) an hour will destroy itself, whereas an eighteen-wheeled truck loaded with 20 tonnes of freight will knock the wall down at 10 kilometres an hour. "Our warship was more like the eighteen wheeler than the motorcycle," Steffy says. Momentum was the key, as was remaining agile to "drive that ram home." The Athlit ram suggests that the builders of that warship discovered the right balance between the weight of the timbers and the good "punch" and the overall lightness of the vessel to enable the oarsmen to manoeuvre quickly.
The bronze ram itself was a sophisticated weapon and very different from the bronze-sheathed ramming timber discovered at Marsala. Made of a high-grade bronze (90 per cent copper and 10 per cent tin), the ram sweeps out from the bow to a reinforced head with three "narrow fins" that spread the force of ramming into a blunt impact in a concentrated area less than a half-metre square. This impact would break planks and flood the enemy ship without smashing a hole in the side and raising the possibility of the ram getting stuck. Unlike the ram discovered at Marsala, the Athlit ram was firmly attached to its warship and could not break away without serious damage. It was not a bee-stinger, but a sophisticated, engineered "warhead" mounted on the "weapon," its ship.
Excerpted from LOST WARSHIPS by JAMES P. DELGADO. Copyright © 2001 by James P. Delgado. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.