Mark Antony’s Last Throw

Michael Kulikowski

  • The Age of Titans: The Rise and Fall of the Great Hellenistic Navies by William Murray
    Oxford, 356 pp, £30.00, January 2012, ISBN 978 0 19 538864 0

Hellenistic history is exceedingly hard to write, a kaleidoscope of great kings and petty warlords, huge armies fighting pointless wars. The period is badly documented, too often dependent on a stultifying first-century BC cut-and-paste job by Diodorus the Sicilian. Knowledge advances incrementally: a new reading here, an unpublished coin there, scattered archaeological finds here, there and everywhere. Most interesting is the clever detective work that brings together the new and the long familiar to solve the formerly insoluble, or to correct an implausible solution once accepted faute de mieux. There are many such puzzles and it is always a pleasure when another mystery is unravelled.

We have long known that Hellenistic cities and kings kept large navies, stocked with truly enormous ships, but surprisingly little has been asked about why this was so. Perhaps it is just that naval history isn’t a glamorous subject. Academic historians often look down on military history as the purview of hobbyists, and so tend not to pursue its pressing questions. For instance: navies cost vast amounts of money and always have done. Why did Hellenistic rulers find such costs worthwhile, as so few ancient societies did, and what were their navies for?

We know rather a lot about the smallish oared warships used by the Classical and Hellenistic Greeks. These are the archetypal galleys, generically called triremes, and recognisable to nearly everyone from films like Ben Hur and Jason and the Argonauts. Scholarly enthusiasts have been able to reconstruct a working trieres, the Olympias, successfully sailing it in the Aegean. Ships such as this were powered by more than 150 oarsmen grouped in sets of three and rowing at staggered heights along the port and starboard sides. They were fast and lightweight, easily beached and portaged, if very expensive to maintain. These triremes won Greece the Persian Wars and lost Athens the Peloponnesian War, after its Sicilian expedition ended in a naval debacle.

Triremes seem to have enjoyed a continuous history into late antiquity, but after the death of Alexander the Great, the kings and kinglets who competed for his legacy began to build much bigger ships, and the reason for this is more difficult to explain. The basic trieres was a ‘three’, but literary sources tell us of ‘fives’ and ‘sixes’, and even ‘twelves’, ‘twenties’ and ‘forties’. How were ancient shipwrights able to build such large vessels? Wooden ships, unreinforced by metal, cannot be scaled up beyond a certain length because differential water pressures on the hull will tear them apart. They cannot be above a certain height if they are to function under both sail and oar. Even with the most ingenious interleaving of oarlocks and rowing benches, a singlehulled ‘forty’ seems impossibly large. Perhaps, some have suggested, these giant polyremes were actually catamarans, but that solution is excluded by the difficulty, even impossibility, of working two sets of oars on the interior of each hull. What remains? Double-hulled ships bound together port to starboard, powered by multiple tiers of rowers on the exterior hulls, and thus slower and less manoeuvrable than single-hulled vessels but able to carry proportionately heavier weaponry. That much is a matter of deduction from the sparse literary evidence coupled with basic physics.

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