Scholars' Association News
Issue 31
July 2014


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The extinction of the titans
By Giannis Nakas

W. M. Murray, The Age of the Titans. The Rise and Fall of the Great Hellenistic Navies, Onassis Series in Hellenic Culture, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, ISBN 978-0195388640

The latest book by Prof. William M. Murray is an exciting journey into one of the most interesting and turbulent periods in the history of ancient Greece, the Hellenistic period. However, what makes the book special is that it deals with a relatively unknown topic: the development and rise of large warships with banks of oars (polyremes) which the naval forces in the age after Alexander ceaselessly competed to build to create “titanic” ships as the name of the book indicates. The book, published with funding from the Onassis Foundation, is the fruit of many years of research by Prof. Murray and forms the core of the Professor's involvement in the Foundation's University Seminars programme held in the USA in 2012.

Rowed boats were the backbone of all naval fleets in the ancient Mediterranean. In the Archaic and Classical period, naval dominance was based on fast, flexible ships, like the famed Athenians triremes that, using speed and the bronze ram on their prow, could damage and immobilise enemy ships. However, from the end of the 5th century BC, the need for stronger, heavier ships led to the development of ever larger vessels (quadremes, quinremes, etc.) which gradually replaced triremes as the main warships. The history of this development and the reasons for which these ‘titans’ became prevalent then disappeared is one of the key themes explored in the book.

Prof. Murray deals with the issues of the appearance, rise and disappearance of large rowed boats from the Hellenistic period in many and various ways. In addition to detailed, exhaustive study of ancient historical sources, the author also analyses the archaeological finds in depth (rams, images of vessels), placing emphasis on the naval technology of that age. The result is an exceptional narrative of the historical development of Hellenistic rowed boats and the role they played in the events of that time, until they eventually disappeared around the end of the 1st century BC.

The book starts off with a short introduction which clears up certain issues about the rowing method and layout of oars on polyremes, while also setting out the key themes the book will explore. It’s worth noting that the prevailing academic view was, given the basic rules of shipbuilding, that no rowed boat ever had more than 3 banks of oars. It was thought that what changed was the layout of the oarsmen per oar. For example, a hexareme was a trireme with two oarsmen on each oar and therefore 6 on each side of the boat. In all events, large crews of oarsmen required proportionally larger, stronger and more expensive ships.

Chapter One opens by exploring how the phenomenon of polyremes emerged to face the new challenges of war at sea that had appeared at the end of the Peloponnesian War. The Corinthians and Syracusians, unable to deal with the outstanding Athenians triremes in ramming battles, had begun to reinforce their prows with thick pieces of timber and to ram their enemies on the prow, using naval dexterity to counter sheer force. At the same time it became common practice for large numbers of hoplites to be kept on board ships, and for naval battles, especially if fought in limited spaces such as harbours, to turn in hand-to-hand battles between soldiers where naval skill played little role. Around 400 BC, when the first catapults were developed, the first quadremes and quinremes appeared in the Western Mediterranean.

In Chapter Two, the author turns his attention to the high-tech behind the technique of head-on ramming, studying the bronze rams on warships of the time known to us from archaeological finds (the most important being the Athlit Ram from Israel), and the monument of Augustus at Nicopolis (where carved scenes of rams dedicated by Octavian to the gods after his victory at Actium have been preserved) and a range of other images. Based on this evidence, the heavier ships needed stronger rams, more to withstand the ramming force on the prow rather than to be able to successfully damage enemy vessels.

That is followed by a long chapter exploring the development of siege techniques from the sea. It presents various sieges of cities where the fleet played a decisive role such as the sieges of Tyre by Alexander the Great and of Rhodes by Demetrius Poliorcetes, ones of that period's most active polyreme builders. Here the author puts forward a radical view. In contrast with previous academics who argued that the invention and development of catapults had in effect rendered old ramming methods useless and resulted in the development of ever heavier battle platform ships, Murray argues that the development of siege techniques was a factor which prompted the kings of the time to develop fleets comprised of heavy-duty ships, capable of carrying siege machinery and soldiers, and also capable of damaging the marine defences of cities by ramming them.

In the subsequent chapters the author argues his viewpoint by analysing in depth the famed text On Siegecraft (Poliorcetica) by Philo of Byzantium (240-220 BC) and then the use of technological characteristics of catapults, especially the stone-throwing ones from the Hellenistic period. The conclusions can be summarised in the fact that large ships from that time continued to rely on ramming, using catapults as ancillary means to harangue enemies, and that they were not the main weapons.

This is followed by a particularly interesting analysis of the phenomenon of scaling up the construction of titanic ships, which reached its pinnacle with the massive tessarakontere of Ptolemy Philadelphus. Here too the author takes a different view from previous academics who considered these ships to be impressive battle platforms and in effect not ships that could sail and ram with success, seeing them as heavy-duty but also as particularly effective warships, which were essential parts of the fleets which included all types of ships and crew, and also acted as strong symbols of prestige and superiority of the ambitious monarchs of the age. Here he stresses once again the excessive cost of maintaining such fleets, which after the 3rd century BC would lead to the disappearance of giant ships and the gradual return of lighter craft.

The last chapter of the book deals with the end of the ’age of titans’ by analysing a series of naval battles that ended in the naval battle of Actium (31 BC), the last conflict in which these ships took place. The inability of these titans to deal with the well-organised, well-disciplined attacks from smaller ships, the excessive cost of constructing, maintaining and manning them, and the Roman's indifference to using ships against fortifications in effect led to polyremes disappearing from the Mediterranean. These symbols of power, superiority and luxury from the Hellenistic age now belonged to the past like the very age itself.

In general terms what W. M. Murray offers in this book is an utterly new, completely absorbing approach to an old problem, based on exhaustive research of written sources (which are presented in detail in the extensive annexes at the end of the book) and in-depth knowledge of naval and military technology from antiquity, based on the most recent archaeological finds on land and at sea.

(Giannis Nakas is an archaeologist specialised in Marine Archaeology).

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