Yvan Eht Nioj: Naval Warfare in the World of The God’s Wife

Where can you find pleasure, search the world for treasure/ Learn science, technology? – The Village People

I’ve talked about a lot of the historical background surrounding The God’s Wife; from geography, to politics, to clothing. But I really haven’t addressed the military elephant in the room.

No, not those elephants…

So I thought this week we’d start with Arsinoë’s main preoccupation during the Alexandrian War and talk a little about ships and naval warfare during the last century BC. 

For most of Western classical history, the two main vessels available to the ancient navy were the bireme and the trireme (reme = oar). So the prefix was to let you know how many banks of oars each ship possessed – biremes having two decks of oars and triremes having three. These are the ships you are most likely thinking of when you envision an ancient Greek ship. A masted sailing vessel with oars and a ramming prow. 

The thousand ships Helen’s face launched, if you will.

The bireme is the older of the two designs, used through much of recorded history, with its heyday as the dominant warship being up through the 8th century BC, when the trireme makes its appearance and takes over. The ancient wind-powered warship was a delicate balancing act of design to combine maximum power, while still being fast and maneuverable. More rowers gave you both, hence why the trireme replaced the bireme as the favored design. 

But power was important too, because of the way naval warfare was fought during this period. We’re used to thinking of Pirates of the Caribbean, and if you’re me, Master and Commander: big-sailed vessels firing cannonballs at each. But the Greeks will have to wait until the Chinese invent gunpowder nine centuries in the future to try that, so instead the main goal of ships were to ram opposing vessels in such a way that you sink your enemy but not yourself. But like more modern sailing navies, hostile boarding and deck fighting were also on the menu. 

A bronze ramming prow

One of our major sources for trireme-based warfare is the Greek historian Thucydides and his account of the Peloponnesian Wars. Thucydides counts a typical trireme’s crew at around 200 men: the captain (trierarch) and his deck crew of 10-20 men, the 10-20 marines (epibatai) who made up the boarding parties, and the 170 men who were the rowers. The deck crew was full of the kinds of positions you’d expect like helmsman and quartermaster, and a few you might not, like the auletes, which as those of you who remember Arsinoë’s father’s epithet means the flutist. The auletes was responsible for providing the rhythm to which the rowers stroked. The marines were made up of a variety of soldiering types, but usually they were some combination of foot soldiers and archers. 

The crew of a trireme was democratic in that all strata of Greek society were represented, but your social class determined the position you would serve in. The trierarch was always a citizen of means because the captain of a vessel was also responsible for all of the outfitting and maintenance, even though the ship itself was the property of the government. Meaning the position was one of great prestige, but also financially fraught, which is why it wasn’t terribly unusual to have a pair of captains for a single vessel to displace the costs. The deck crew occupied the next highest social standing, in part because they were typically experienced sailors and had specialist knowledge. The hoplites who served as the foot marines were usually free citizens, as evidenced by their ability to provide their own armor, but of a lower class or younger age than those who served in the crew or as the captain. Marine archers were usually mercenaries from Greek allied nations more adept at projectile warfare like Scythia (a nomadic people from central Eurasia and the lower Caucuses). And as you probably guessed, because it was the most physically demanding job, the rowers were almost universally slaves and foreigners. 

Think Ben-Hur

But Sarah, you might be saying to yourself if you’re an astute reader of The God’s Wife, neither of these ships are more than mentioned in your book. Where are the quadriremes, quinqueremes, hemiolias, and trihemiolias? Well, first things first, I’m starting out with the bireme and the trireme because their basic design is still the basis for pretty much all Western Mediterranean vessels until galleons show up. Certain ships might enjoy an especial era of popularity, but rarely were any of the different variants wholly abandoned. For example, although I pointed to the bireme’s decline in supremacy in the 8th century BC, it was still useful depending on the circumstances. Caesar primarily used biremes for his invasions of Britain in the 1st century BC, and Renaissance monarchs were still using a type of bireme as late as the 1300s AD. So, when one is talking about the difference between a quadrireme and a trireme, we’re not discussing the difference between a Napoleonic man o’ war and a nuclear submarine. Most of the changes made to ancient warships were modifications of the number of decks, oars, or oarsmen, not radical shifts in structural design. 

Secondly, this is where things get a little embarrassing from an archeological perspective. Because you see, we’re not exactly sure what a quadrireme (or a quinquereme for that matter) looked like, despite those two vessels being the premier warships of many late-BC navies, most notably the Ptolemaic Egyptian navy, which was one of the major sea powers of the era. For a long time, classicists assumed the naming conventions of the older ships simply carried through. If a bireme had two decks/banks of oars, and a trireme had three, then a quadrireme must have four, a quinquereme must have five, and so on. Except that becomes increasingly hard to imagine from a structural standpoint (how do you jam more oars on each side? How could shipbuilding of the time support a top-heavy vessel with five or more decks?), not to mention that there are other warships with number prefixes that go as high as forty. It is probably absurd to think that there was ever a Spruce Goose of a ship with forty oar banks.  

Pictured: the archeological record

So where does that leave us? For ships with less insane numbers, like the four-implying quadrireme, perhaps they really did have four decks of oarsmen, like the 19th century interpretation of a quinquereme illustrates below.  

Another idea is that in the larger vessels, the greater numbers referred to more men per oar, which would also be a way to increase power without adding infinity more oars. So the thought runs something like this: a quadrireme has two banks of oars like a bireme, but instead of one man per oar, it has two, which would theoretically be double the output. 

It is claimed that the Carthaginians, themselves generally believed to be the descendants of the seafaring Phoenicians, were said to have invented the quadrireme, and certainly it was much in use during the Second Punic War they fought against Rome. But it is also mentioned during Alexander the Great’s siege of the city of Tyre in the 4th century BC, so it was not a particularly new ship, either. Where we talked about the marine unit of a trireme at maximum being no more than 20 men, ancient sources place the boarding parties of a quadrireme at closer to 75, which provides a clue to as to the ship’s scale-up size. We also know, that for its size, the quadrireme remained relatively fast and it had a shallower draught, which meant it could still be an effective coastal patrol ship. Hence why Arsinoë’s army could still use them in the comparatively shallower bay of Alexandria. 

Quinqueremes were seen as the heavier-hitting warships in terms of size during the early Roman Empire. The Greek historian Polybius numbers the total crew of a quinquereme at 420 men – 300 of whom were rowers, with roughly 100 marines. Because they were less maneuverable than quadriremes, they were often the flagships of their navies and their extra weight made them less voluble in inclimate seas. Larger warships with more decks also led to increased use of ballista, a projectile weapon capable of launching large stones or bolts at targets from a distance. 

A small ballista

Besides these bigger ships, there are a small galaxy of tinier vessels that served as support in a fight, just as a modern navy has battleships as well as aircraft carriers. Hemiolias and trihemiolias are an example of this, the “hemi” referring to the practice of inserting half-lines of rowers to increase speed without having to necessarily increase the size of the ship. Hemiolias were famous in the eastern Mediterranean as the choice of pirates and other coastal runners, but official navies used them as well in a variety of ways. Alexander the Great was said to have navigated the Indus River in India with them, and the Romans often used them for troop transport in order to relocate their armies at the fastest possible speed. Trihemiolias had more oar lines and are thought to have had an outbox structure for the oars, but pictorial evidence is sketchy. The ship on which the Nike of Samothrace is perched is thought to possibly be a trihemiolia. 

Bet some of you are learning that’s supposed to be a boat she’s standing on for the first time.

But how the various ancient navies used the different kinds of craft was largely determined by the tastes of the cultures they came from. The more aqueous kingdoms like Carthage and Egypt were generally willing to be more experimental in terms of size and rigging, while the more sea-adverse Romans tended to favor smaller, lighter craft which could get them out of scrapes faster. The Romans, while possessing quinqueremes and other large ships, thought of even quadriremes as big vessels, while the Ptolemies in Egypt classed quadriremes as light craft on par with the trireme. As another example, the navy of the Greek city-state of Rhodes, as an island defending from the aforementioned Mediterranean pirates, were thought to have invented the trihemiolia to combat the hemiolias they were chasing, and even if they merely adopted them, the Rhodians were known for their devotion to that particular vessel. 

But as with any military engagement, equipment is only half the battle. Strategy is important, too, and the fall of Egypt’s Ptolemies despite their fabled navy lies at the intersection of these components. Egypt’s navy relied very heavily on their large warships – quadriremes and higher – which is great if one can use the superior size of those ships to ram one’s opponents. But both in the Alexandrian War, and later at the Battle of Actium, those ships proved too slow against an arguably inferior Roman navy that utilized smaller, faster ships like biremes, hemiolias, and a galley the Latins called a liburnian, to outmaneuver the Egyptian fleets. Julius’ admiral in Alexandria was a man named Euphranor, who as a Rhodian, would have known exactly how devastating quick strikes from these kinds of vessels could be, having likely cut his teeth chasing pirate hemiolias in his home state. 

A Roman navy piloting liburnians

As for Octavius, his best admiral was perhaps more unlikely, but equally effective. Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa was a childhood friend of Octavius, which lets you know he, too, comes from a rather obscure background. They attended school together and Agrippa attached himself to Octavius’ star from then on. During the Liberatore part of the civil war, Agrippa was often tasked with hemming in Pompey’s surviving son, Sextus Pompeius, who was sailing around the Mediterranean raiding the coast and calling himself the son of Neptune.

The long-suffering face of a man surrounded by egomaniacs

Agrippa proved to be a surprisingly adept student of the naval arts for a Roman, and he eventually defeats Sextus before weighing anchor off the coast of Actium and showing patrician Mark Antony that he really should have stuck to the army. Agrippa would continue to be Octavius’ closest friend and most trusted general until his death, and while Agrippa was an excellent soldier as well, the blue sails he was permitted to fly on all of his ships reminded the world that he’d made his reputation on the high seas, and that Rome could be dangerous even on their weakest playing field.

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