Gateway to the Classics: Ancient Greece by James Baikie
Ancient Greece by  James Baikie

The Sailor-State of Greece

OF all the states that have held empire in the world, none have a closer resemblance to one another than Britain and Athens. Of course, the differences between the two are also very great. The Athenian Empire was never more than a little cluster of petty island communities, with a few small strips of mainland colony attached to them, and the dominion of Athens, even over this little group, was only that of the leading member of a confederation. But the real point of resemblance between our vast empire and the tiny Athenian one is that both depended entirely upon sea-power. As in our own case, it was sea-power that built up the Athenian Empire, sea-power that made it prosperous and held it together, sea-power that maintained the strength of the Imperial city. And, as a lesson and a warning to ourselves, it was the loss of sea-power that at once and for ever broke in pieces the empire that the command of the sea had held together. When the Athenian fleet fought and lost its last great battle at Ægospotami, there was no recovery for Athens. Her empire fell to pieces at the very rumour of the breaking of the bond that held it together; and the city fell, without another stroke for its liberty, before Lysander and his victorious Peloponnesians.

"The fleet of Athens was her all in all . . .

And in her fleet her fate."

What sort of a thing, then, was the fleet of the great sea-power of the ancient world? Well, the best way to see it will be to go down to the Peiræus, and board a galley which is sailing to join the squadron at Naupaktus under Admiral Phormio. Phormio has only a small fleet, which is watching the Peloponnesian fleet at the mouth of the Corinthian Gulf. Our ship will bring him up exactly to twenty ships of the line; but if his numbers are small, the ships and crews are the very best that Athens can muster, and Phormio himself is our greatest sailor—the Nelson of the Athenian navy.

Here is our galley, then, lying in the basin, ready to sail as soon as we get on board. She is not a very big ship, compared with modern monsters; but she looks very smart and business-like, with her long, low, black hull, and crimson decorations at bow and stern, her narrow beam, and her long rows of polished oars. From stem to stern she measures about 130 feet, her beam is about 17 feet, and she draws between 6 and 7 feet of water. In the ancient days of the Trojan War, the galley was only a long, open boat with a decked forecastle and poop; and even the triremes that fought the Persians at Salamis were only half-decked; but now our galleys are decked from end to end, and are much more seaworthy than the old style of vessel.

All our battleships nowadays are triremes; that is to say, they have three long lines of oars, whose rowers sit diagonally, one above the other, in rather cramped quarters. The lowest bank of rowers is called the thalamites; there are 54 of them, 27 a side, and while they have the advantage of pulling the shortest oars, they have the double disadvantage of having the stuffiest quarters and of being in the greatest danger if anything goes wrong. If your ship gets rammed in a battle, the poor thalamite hasn't very much of a chance when the enemy's beak comes crashing in through the rending timbers, and the stricken ship begins to settle down. He is like the stoker on a modern battleship: whoever else may go, he goes first.

Above the thalamites, sit the rowers of the middle bank, the zygites, who pull a somewhat longer oar. There are 54 of them also; and above them are the thranites, the upper-deck oarsmen, whose oars are longest of all. There are 62 of them, 31 a side, because the overhang of the ship gives more room on the upper deck. Altogether, then, we have 170 regular oarsmen; and besides these there are 30 spare oars, which can be used in an emergency. The oars are not very heavy—they average, perhaps, 15 feet in length, and each man can carry his oar over his shoulder, and his rowing-cushion under his arm, if he has to go ashore. The loom of each oar is weighted so as to make it balance well and pull easily, and they all work against tholes, to which they are fastened with a leather loop.

On deck we are not much bothered with top-hamper. There is a big mainmast with large square sail, and a small foremast with a foresail to help in casting the ship's head round; but we only use these when making a passage, and before a battle they will be struck and sent ashore. Besides our trierarch, who has to fit out the ship for sea, and keep her in good condition for a year at his own expense, his navigating officer, boatswain, and a handful of seamen to work the sails, we carry a dozen marines in full armour, helmet, breastplate, shield, spear, and sword, whose business is to do the fighting, if we get fast alongside an enemy ship. But we shall never do that if we can help it. It is only clumsy Peloponnesian land-lubbers who try to make a sea-fight into a bad imitation of a land battle. We are seamen, and we make our ship the weapon to do the fighting with. It is a case of skilful manoeuvring till we get our opponent at a disadvantage, and then either ramming him on the side or stern, or sweeping diagonally along his banks of oars, breaking them all, and leaving him helpless. Perhaps you may see something of this game when we have joined Phormio at Naupaktus; for he is the great master of all such dodges.

At our bow, on the water-line, we carry a bronze-shod ram with three teeth. Our rams are not so heavy as the Peloponnesian ones; for their idea of ramming is to blunder bow to bow against your opponent, and so strike him just where he is strongest. We, on the other hand, prefer to do the business more artistically, and our lightness and speed enable us, with good handling, to choose out the weak places where a blow can be got home with most damage to the enemy and least to ourselves. Even so the ram sometimes gets torn off and left behind in the hole it has made, and the whole ship has to be strengthened before battle by girdling cables passed right round her from stem to stern, to keep her timbers from opening when she strikes her foe.

Altogether, then, you can see that we are a pretty full ship, with at least 200 men, stores, and equipment packed into a space only 130 by 17 feet. It takes some planning to get and to keep order. How, above all, can these 170 oarsmen, pulling oars of three different lengths and weights, be kept together, and made to pull, and ease, and backwater, just at the right moment and in proper order? Watch, and you will see; for now we are just ready to cast off, and you may be sure our trierarch will want to go out in style under all the critical eyes that are watching along the piers. The boatswain takes his stand amidships, and beside him stands a flute-player, who strikes up a loud clear tune with a sharply marked rhythm that fits the swing and stroke of an oar. Now the trierarch, or his navigating officer on the poop, makes a sign, and the boatswain lifts his hand and marks time, as if he were conducting an orchestra; and at each rise and fall of the flute-player's tune, he chants "Op-O-óp." "Op," and the oars dig into the water, and are pulled through, "O-óp," and the rowers reach forward again for the next stroke. The foam swirls round about our ram as the galley gathers way; the monotonous chant and the wail of the flute grow faster; the rowers themselves, as they begin to get their backs into it, sing out a rhythmical chanty, "Rhup-pa-pai," which helps to keep them all together; and the galley sweeps out between the pier heads, and lays her course southwards for the long weary round of the Peloponnese to where Admiral Phormio is waiting for us at Naupaktus, and big things may soon be happening.

And now, one dark morning, just before dawn, a week later, we, and the rest of the twenty Athenian ships, are tossing in the middle of the Corinthian Gulf waiting for our friends the Peloponnesians. Yesterday we sighted them creeping along the northern shore of the Peloponnese, forty-seven triremes, with a number of store-ships and transports, evidently intending to land troops on the Akarnanian shore, which we are defending. Much to their surprise, for they never dreamed that Phormio would dare to bring out his twenty ships against their forty-seven, our admiral put to sea at once, and sailed parallel with them all the rest of the day, till they almost reached the mouth of the Gulf. Then they put about, and sailed eastwards again, and pretended to lay up for the night. But Phormio was not to be taken in; and so we have kept the sea all night, expecting to catch them making a surprise attempt to cross in the darkness.

Now our lookout ship signals that the enemy fleet is coming, and gradually, as the dim light begins to grow, we see the forty-seven great hulks, with the store-ships behind them, heading northwards across the strait. We form in line ahead, and go sweeping down to meet them. See, they have caught sight of our line, and now they gather, like a flock of frightened sheep, into a great circle. The transports are gathered in the middle of the circle, and the warships range themselves like the spokes of a wheel, with their sterns inward and their beaks pointing out, while five fast galleys are kept in reserve within the circle, ready to dash out on any ship of ours that ventures too near. If they can keep their circle unbroken, we shall find it no easy job to attack.

Phormio, however, knows the kind of sailors he has to deal with, and the skill of his own men. We sweep right round the circle, close under their bows, mocking and jeering at them as we pass, and then, going about, we pass round them again closer still. The poor Peloponnesians huddle closer and closer together, expecting us every moment to attack, and the circle begins to get irregular and unsteady. But our admiral has no intention of attacking—till his own time comes. He is waiting for the land-gale that rises with the sun; and see, here it comes, lifting the water into foam, and driving the huddled ships of the Peloponnesians together. The galleys begin to run foul of one another and of the transports. Half the crews are poling their boats off from one another instead of sitting to their oars, and what with shouts and swearing and mutual reproaches, the oarsmen who are ready can't hear the boatswain's orders or the sound of the flute.

All is confusion, and just when the muddle is at its worst, Phormio gives the signal to attack, and dashes his own galley through a gap in the circle into the centre. Whirling round on her heel, as the starboard oarsmen pull ahead while the port oars backwater, the admiral's galley dashes her beak into the defenceless quarter of a Peloponnesian galley bearing an admiral's sign; and the enemy goes down like a stone. Behind the admiral the rest of the squadron follows fast, some dashing right through the broken circle, and ramming the sterns of the enemy galleys on the other side, some sweeping close alongside an enemy, drawing in their own oars as they come, and crashing through the oar-banks of their opponents from bow to stern, smashing all the oars, and hurling the wretched rowers over one another in heaps.

Almost before the Peloponnesians have time to realize what has happened to them, twelve of their best ships are in our hands, and the rest of their big fleet is flying for dear life back to the shelter of the coast from which it came. Without the loss of a single ship, almost without the loss of a single man, our twenty galleys have beaten the forty-seven of the enemy; because we know our business as sailors, and the men of the Peloponnese, good fighters on land, have a lot to learn when it comes to fighting on sea.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: Athens in Its Golden Age: The City  |  Next: The Soldier-State of Greece
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2020   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.