Lessons of History: The good ship Democracy: The building of a trireme warship fleet had a deep effect on Athenian society. Boris Rankov explains

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THIS week sees the Hellenic community in Britain celebrating 2,500 years of Greek democracy. The anniversary will be marked, amongst other festivities, by the visit of a reconstruction of an ancient Athenian warship to the River Thames. Powered by 170 rowers of both sexes, the Hellenic Navy trireme Olympias will on Wednesday evening pirouette in front of the Palace of Westminster, play host to Madam Speaker, and then paddle off majestically towards Tower Bridge.

This will undoubtedly provide a diverting spectacle for City commuters crossing Westminster Bridge on their way home, but it may be asked, what has it to do with democracy? The answer lies in the intimate connection between Athens's acquisition of a trireme fleet in the fifth century BC and the subsequent development of her nascent democracy into the most radical the world has known.

To understand this connection, one must appreciate firstly that Athenian ships were rowed by paid citizen crews and not by slaves; and secondly that in an ancient world in which war was endemic and the normal state of affairs, one's worth and status as a citizen was directly proportional to one's ability to defend one's city in battle. The latter point was stressed by Aristotle in his analysis of the different constitutions of the Greek state in the Politics. He associates oligarchy with states which rely on cavalry recruited from those who can afford to own a horse, whilst the growth of democracy is linked with the development of hoplite infantry in which the individual had to provide only his own helmet, shield and breastplate.

At the beginning of the fifth century BC, Athens discovered silver on her own territory and invested it in building a fleet of 200 triremes, the ultimate naval weapon of their day. In order to serve in this fleet, an individual had to provide only his own strength and skill, and even the poorest could make a real contribution to the preservation of the state. According to Aristotle, strong leadership by the conservative element during the Persian Wars had begun to lead the city back towards oligarchy, but 'the common people (the demos), serving in the fleet, won the victory at Salamis; they gave Athens power at sea, and this gave her an empire, and so they preserved the democracy'.

Even allowing for the use of resident foreigners, a sizeable proportion of Athenian men would have gone to sea on the triremes. For instance, the fleet of 76 ships put out by Athens in 411BC would have required about 13,000 oarsmen, roughly equivalent to a quarter of the estimated adult male population of the city.

But the political importance of the fleet stemmed ultimately from the fleet's record of success against Athens' enemies and in the ruthless suppression of her rebellious allies and subjects. That success rested on the fact that in a straight sea-battle Athenian crews were individually almost unbeatable. This was the result of Athens's unique ability to finance her crews on a long-term basis from the profits of empire, which gave them the time to master trireme rowing and trireme tactics. This is emphasised by the words which the fifth-century historian Thucydides, himself a former trireme admiral, puts into the mouth of the Athenian leader Pericles: 'Sea power is a matter of skill, like everything else, and it is impossible to get practice in the odd moment when the opportunity presents itself; it is a full-time occupation which leaves no time for anything else.'

Many Athenians of all classes would have learnt to row as they travelled around their empire on public or private business. A contemporary writer tells us that 'it is inevitable that a man who often travels by sea should take an oar, both he himself and his servant too'. Nevertheless, the demands which the trireme made of its rowers were extreme.

These ships were developed as early as the end of the seventh century BC, probably by adding a third level of rowers to the earlier two-level warships. The aim was to cram as much oar power as possible into the same length of slender hull as before, so as to increase speed without sacrificing manoeuvrability. It is clear that these were qualities required for ramming tactics, and the advantage conferred by the relatively small increase in speed given by the third layer can be gauged from the calculation that such a ship would have cost five times as much as its predecessors. Because of this, the type did not become widespread until the fifth century; Athens needed that lucky strike of silver before she could join the trireme club.

Once acquired, the ships still had to be rowed, and experience with the reconstruction has shown that to do this well was far from easy. With 170 rowers packed into a hull 37 metres long and 5 metres across, accommodation is cramped and sweaty and the oarblades are separated from each other in the water by only about 30 centimetres. Moreover, whilst the top layer of rowers can see out of the ship and watch the oars, the lower two layers are rowing through small portholes and can only see along the interior; in effect, two-thirds of the crew are rowing blind. As a result, the crew need to be given the time by an audible signal on every stroke, especially at the lower rates of striking. But even the rowing master in charge of co-ordinating the rowing and normally standing in the central gangway cannot see the oarblades and the crew at the same time, and in any case his voice will not carry instructions more than halfway through a ship packed with wooden furniture and human flesh. Triremes were a man-management nightmare.

In Olympias, these problems have been overcome by a variety of expedients, some plausibly authentic, some less so. Rowers on the top layer are encouraged to coach the two people below them on how to move their oars; these groups of three co-ordinate with the rest of the crew by looking down the ship and by following the sound of a reeded pipe played in time with the rowing: a high-pitched sound coming from the centre of the ship will just carry through the hull. Even so, the crew are easily knocked off their stride by rough water; an individual rower's mistake can create a visible ripple effect along a whole side of oars; the two sides can very quickly drift out of time with each other. When this happens, the pulling master can only repair the damage by making the crew count together in time for ten strokes, and it must be admitted that to date this has been done in Olympias through the medium of electronic loudspeakers. The ship has been rowed without these, though only as the result of equipment failure and never yet by choice; on each occasion, it has required the co-operation of two or more pulling masters in different parts of the ship and the rowing has teetered on the brink of breakdown.

These problems most certainly had to be and were overcome in the ancient ships, as Pericles says, by practice. With electronic aid, the quality of rowing on Olympias has visibly and audibly made great strides in the four seasons of trials, and this has been reflected in the significant increase in the speeds which can be achieved and maintained under oar; soon it will be possible to throw the speakers overboard. What has emerged clearly from the Olympias experiment is the close correlation between skill and speed and therefore effectiveness in battle.

The significance of this was not lost on the ancients. If victory depended purely on skill rather than on the financial ability to maintain a horse or buy armour, then the safety and prosperity of the city might depend on the lowliest members of society. It can only have been for political reasons that the conservative Cimon chose in 467BC to convert the 200 ships which had won the battle of Salamis 13 years before by building up the superstructure to take 40 instead of the usual 10 hoplite marines. His aim was to replace ramming tactics, which relied on speed and agility, with boarding tactics. For the latter, the main task of the oarcrew was to bring ships within grappling distance of one other, and this needed no great competence; the important work would be done by the heavily armoured gentlemen on deck. In the end, at Athens both the democrats and ramming tactics prevailed, but in other Greek states where the oligarchic element was stronger and where there was insufficient wealth to keep crews at high levels of training, boarding tactics were the norm. There was no doubt, however, about which style of fighting was the more effective. Thucydides describes an engagement at Sybota in 433BC between the Corinthians and the Corcyreans who were allied to Athens. The battle was being fought, he says, 'in the old manner . . . more like a land battle'. The Corinthians were winning, when they spotted a small group of ships approaching from a distance, which they suspected, presumably from the quality of their rowing, to be Athenian; they immediately broke off the engagement and withdrew. This dominance and the demands of an overseas empire meant that Athens's power in the latter part of the fifth century BC rested more on her trireme crews than on her hoplites. Furthermore, the skill which produced this superiority was not individual competence at the oar, but a collaborative skill. Indeed, it is difficult to think of any activity in the ancient or the modern world which would have required as precise and sustained a co-ordination of skill at such a high level as is required to row a trireme well. The political implications of the solidarity and community of purpose which would be engendered by this level of collaboration should not be underestimated, especially when one considers also that triremes tended to operate in fleets of up to 100 ships or more.

In this way, Athens's trireme rowers came to have a voice in society, articulated through the open assemblies of the people, which had to be heard. In the period when her ships were winning victory after victory against Peloponnesian fleets in the late fifth century, the radical democracy reached its apogee. It is no coincidence that the conservative backlash of the oligarchic revolution of 411BC came in the aftermath of the naval disaster at Syracuse two years before and while the fleet itself was away at Samos. Similarly, Athens's final naval defeat at Aegospotamoi in 405BC, at the hands of a Peloponnesian fleet now financed by Persian money, paved the way for the tyrannical rule of the junta known as the Thirty.

The technological advance represented by the introduction of the trireme gave the ordinary Athenian a means of making himself militarily indispensable. As with the granting of female suffrage after the First World War, a whole sector of society could no longer be ignored. The trireme was, in a very real sense, the vehicle of democracy, and the visit of the Olympias to Westminster therefore has a symbolism which is entirely appropriate to the occasion.

Boris Rankov is Lecturer in Ancient History at Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, University of London. He was a member of the winning Oxford crew in six Boat Races and since 1988 has been a rowing master in charge of the crews for the trireme's sea-trials.

(Photographs omitted)