Warships of Mare Nostrum

Armies were and always have been the primary means of delivering force against an opponent, whether by defeating his armies in battle or besieging the cities that owe him allegiance. Thus it was that armies were always favored. As cities grew and trade across the seas developed, there came a second means of delivering force- the warship. This ship could apply force against trading vessels upon the seas, strangling a city by blockade of her ports, or deliver land forces to areas previously thought invulnerable to land attack.

Every state, nation, polis, and city that could build warships soon began to do so, though in none would the maintenance of warships and standing fleets ever be more important than fielding the best army they could. Ancient Athens came close to equity between land and sea forces, but even in that maritime city the navy played second-fiddle to land forces. Ships were built as needed, and drawn up on land for storage when they were not. Some states, like Pergamum and Bithynia, had storage sheds built for their ships when not in use. Others, like Rome, dismantled or sold unwanted craft after using them, while still others rented them out to states who needed ships. The earliest warships were most likely converted merchant ships, whose crews would rain missiles upon hostile craft and then board them to battle hand-to-hand.

One of the earliest true warships used in the Mediterranean was the Pentekonter, from about 800 BCE. She was sixty five feet long, about three and a half feet wide, and stood all of three feet above the sea upon which she rode. Fifty men manned her single oarbank, twenty five to a side and each with his own oar. She was likened to a missile with men in it, as her primary weapon (and indeed, the primary weapon of every galley since then) was a bronze-covered ram whose sole purpose was to be driven into the side of a ship below the waterline and thus sink the target ship. The rowers provided the speed, while the captain provided the direction. A sleek new weapon system was born.

The Pentekonter, with its ram, brought a whole new style of naval warfare into play. Now ramming was the key factor. Oarsmen became trained professionals, a far cry from the galley slave of movies like Ben Hur. Training and discipline among the rowers was critical to having the ram-equipped warship become itself rammed. The waterline was low, giving less than three feet of freeboard above the sea, and the ship extremely narrow. These two qualities meant the rowers could no longer stand up to throw their javelins and stones at the other ship without risking tipping their own- thus they either threw from the sitting position, or concentrated on their rowing.

The Pentekonter gave way rather quickly to the newer and more improved Bireme, first built by the Phoenicians around 700 BCE. The Bireme had approximately the same length, as that turned out to be the most practical length for ships at the time, but now had a second bank of oars. The rowers were stacked in alternating seats, which effectively doubled the amount of oarsmen (and thus the amount of power and speed). Biremes were quickly copied by the Greeks, and from them to other nations. The main weapon was still the ram, and tactics still pretty much the same- put the ram into the enemy ship and bring it down. But now they became refined. The kyklos was developed to allow smaller fleets some form of protection. The ships would form a circle with the rams facing outward, a deadly threat to any ship attempting to break inside. The periplus was used by larger fleets- who would back water before an oncoming fleet until the outermost ships could wheel about to attack the flanks of the oncoming line-abreast fleet. Another tactic was the diekplus- forming your fleet into several columns. The lead ship in the column would penetrate the enemy line, and any ships that turn to attack it would present their own sides to the follow-on ships. This tactic also led to the shearing of oars- where a ship would come from the front or rear of another ship and attempt to use her bow to break off the oars of the enemy ship by scraping the bow along the enemy side. That usually resulted in mass casualties among the rowers, and broken oars meant the ship was slower and less easily handled, opening it up to ram attacks.

The optimum length and width had been reached, but ships continued to grow. The trireme came about in 525 BCE, when outriggers had been attached to the sides of the ship to allow for a third bank of oars. Triremes had one hundred seventy one rowers (thereabouts), and room for up to forty marines. They also had reinforced bows for shearing, since the outriggers protected the lower decks (though were hideously exposed in themselves). A trireme was about one hundred thirty feet long, double that of a normal bireme, and had a beam of thirteen feet- more than three times that of its predecessor. She still had a low freeboard (amount of ship above the water), but the extra bank of oars made her a bit higher and a lot faster. The marines added back a limited boarding ability and missiles, to which the bireme and her sisters had no answer.

Thus were the tactics and ships for about a hundred and fifty years, until the Carthaginians came up with the quinquereme, which was soon copied by the Romans. The quinquereme had five rowers, but they manned three banks of oars like the trireme. This was because of practical limits on ships concerning oardecks and oars- four or more decks made a ship too high and unwieldy, and the length and weight of the oar unfeasible. But still, in an age where oarpower equaled speed, there was a way to increase oarpower to achieve more power- and that was to use bigger oars and put more men on the oars. Thus the quinquereme had five rowers- two manning the top oar, two manning the middle deck oar, and the smallest oar on the bottom deck was manned by a single rower.

Quinqueremes were about the same length as triremes, but a bit broader and higher. Most were also fully-decked. A typical quinquereme was manned by two hundred eighty rowers and a deck crew of about thirty. She also carried one hundred twenty marines, and was capable of sporting some artillery. And because of this, she changed the tactics of naval warfare.

Previously the ram was the main weapon of a ship, and tactics had evolved maximize its effectiveness. But with the 'Five' as she was known, the quinquereme could stand apart from the ram-armed triremes and bombard her rowers with arrows, stones, javelins, and whatever. The purpose was not to put a hole into the other ship, but to kill as many rowers on one side as possible. Remember, oarsmen were trained professionals who worked together. Kill enough of them and their efficiency drops, making their ship perform poorly. A poorly-performing ship was dead meat to the Five's own ram, while she herself was large enough to handle a hole or two below decks. The increased number of marines also allowed brought back effective boarding tactics into naval battles.

The Romans excelled at land warfare, but were notoriously incompetent upon the seas. To defeat Carthage, Roman naval architects came up with the Corvus, a long plank on a turret with a big metal spike upon the end. The thing was raised up until an enemy vessel was nearby, then dropped upon the foe. The metal spike bit deeply into the deck, pinning the hapless vessel securely while Roman marines stormed across the plank to bring land warfare into a naval battle. The Corvus, however, made its host ship even more unstable than it already was, and several entire fleets of Corvus-equipped ships were lost in storms. It was later abandoned for the harpago- an artillery piece that launched roped grapnels. Same effect- the target was grapneled and reeled in to where the heavily armed Roman marines could board and capture the vessel.

The Eastern Kings of the time- Egypt, Pontus, Pergamum, and the Seleucids to name a few- made a hobby of creating bigger and bigger ships. The trireme had hit the practical limits of rowers, and making longer ships to accommodate more rowers would give them a huge turn radius- suicidal in a day where rams could smash holes in ships and sink them. Wider ships were slower, again suicidal, as were heavier ships. But there was an answer to the power-to-weight ratio problem- and it was noted above. If one could not increase the number of oars to generate more power, one could increase the size of the oar. The heavier oar was too large for a single rower, but multiple men could be stacked on the heavier oars to operate them in the manner of the quinquereme.

Thus larger ships could be built. The hexareme had six rowers, the septimreme seven, the octareme eight, and the deceres ten, each utilizing more men per oar. One monstrous vessel of the period was the Leontophoros- a mammoth vessel, most likely a catamaran-style double hull. She was a fantastic ship, exquisitely decorated, and surprisingly seaworthy for her size. Memnon of Heracleia wrote that she was an octoreme commissioned by Lysimachus during the Successor wars following the death of Alexander:

   "When he heard what had happened, Antigonus the son of Demetrius tried to cross over to Macedonia with an army and a fleet, in order to forestall Ptolemaeus; and Ptolemaeus went to confront him with Lysimachus' fleet. In this fleet were some ships which had been sent from Heracleia, six-bankers and five-bankers and transports and one eight-banker called the lion-bearer, of extraordinary size and beauty. It had 100 rowers on each line, so there were 800 men on each side, making a total of 1,600 rowers. There were also 1,200 soldiers on the decks, and 2 steersmen. When battle was joined, the victory went to Ptolemaeus who routed the fleet of Antigonus, with the ships from Heracleia fighting most bravely of all; and of the ships from Heracleia, the prize went to the eight-banker "lion-bearer".

Not to be outdone, Ptolemy IV decided to build a 'Forty' (tessarakonteres). This ship was immense for its time. She was powered by four thousand rowers, with four hundred other crew needed to run the rigging. Three thousand marines could muster and fight on her deck. She was over four hundred sixteen feet long and had oars reaching out up to fifty-five feet. However, I could find no indication in history that she ever left the Nile Delta to put out to sea, much less ever used in battle.

Rome, too, got caught up in this madness, but her programs ended with the Deceres, known to RTW fans as the mammoth ship produced by the Pantheon to Neptune of the Scipii faction. This ship was one hundred forty five feet long with a beam of twenty feet (thus a mere twenty-five feet longer and a paltry six feet wider than the quinquereme), and had two collapsible wooden towers on its deck. Each also mounted two-to-six pieces of artillery, including the dreaded harpago. She was powered by five hundred seventy-two rowers and could hold two hundred to two hundred fifty marines on her deck. Like most polyremes, she had three oardecks, each oar being manned by three rowers with a fourth on the top (heaviest) oar.

One may wonder why the artillery was mounted, since it was so obvious that it would almost never result in the sinking of a ship- even with a direct hit. But there was a method to the madness. All of these ships were fully decked, with their rowers protected under solid cover. The artillery may not be able to sink a ship with a boulder, but it could smash through the coverings protecting the rowers and smash up a few of them. If enough rowers on one side of a ship were disabled, out of action, or otherwise clogged up with debris of both broken men and oars, then the performance of the entire ship would suffer, giving the other ships an advantage.

The fully-decked (or cataphract) ships of quinquereme size or larger brought back into naval warfare a dimension that had evaporated with the first ram-armed Pentekonter. Boarding came back as a means of capturing ships and defeating navies. The Romans made a start with their corvus, and the invention of the harpago opened the ball to other navies as well. Ships got bigger, and in doing so they could carry more marines, and so they could withstand the attempts of the smaller vessels to sink them by ramming.

These massive ships had massive crews, and all were designed as warships- for speed and power. All things and people onboard had weight, which must be minimized for maximum speed. Even the mast, necessary for long voyages when a prevailing wind was about, was stepped or jettisoned before combat. All was lean and sleek for battle. Thus the water and food needed to fuel the 'engines' and crew was extra weight that slowed a ship in battle. So they were not carried. This created the need for the ships to beach every evening, or have in the fleet a merchant ship whose cavernous hold could carry the needed food and water. Frequent replenishing was a prerequisite to any fleet.

Imagine a fleet of one squadron of ten quinqueremes and two squadrons of ten triremes each, a hypothetical small early imperial provincial fleet. On those thirty ships were six hundred twenty deck hands, two thousand marines, and six thousand two hundred rowers. That is a total of eight thousand six hundred twenty men needing an average of three liters of fresh water per man per day, and enough sustenance to keep them all fit and in fighting shape. Admirals had to be good at logistics or their fleets would starve before they came anywhere near battle.

Getting to the battle was another problem. Today our sailors use Global Positioning and Loran-C to navigate. Earlier sailors used the compass and sextant. But in the days of Roman glory, a sailor had only the sun and the wind- and a calendar- to aid him. A knowledge of the sea's currents, and for night voyages the positions of stars, also helped. In certain times of the year the winds were from one direction, in other times from another. The sun rose in the east and set in the west, and since galleys needed frequent replenishment, they rarely went out of sight of land. Thus the ancient mariner learned the coastlines. Couple that with the fact that galleys fared poorly in deep water, needed such huge quantities of food and water, and you had a navy that hugged the coast and avoided the deep seas where possible.

Not all growth and development was to larger and larger ships, however. Some smaller vessels received attention, too. The Liburnian, a cataphract trireme, was an exceptional vessel for its size. She was one hundred eight feet long and twelve wide- about the size of a short trireme. She was powered by two oar banks manned by one hundred forty-four rowers, had a deck crew of fifteen, and carried a further forty marines. She was fully decked as noted above, and had the speed of a quinquereme.

These proved their worth under Sextus Pompeius, the youngest son of Pompeius Magnus (of Pharsalus fame) and Mucia Tertia. His fleet was comprised solely of liburnians and other small vessels, yet he managed to control Sicily and its vital grain supply for years before an overwhelming Roman fleet forced him out. Countless times the swifter, sleeker vessels of Pompeius drove away the lumbering quinqueremes and deceres of the Triumvir's fleet.

The arms race of building bigger and bigger ships came to an abrupt end, though, with the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. Here, Octavianus and Agrippa had a fleet comprised of two hundred fifty ships, mainly triremes and liburnians, with a few quinqueremes and hexaremes. This force came from seaward to surround the two hundred thirty ships of Antonius's fleet- which were mostly much larger vessels such as quinqueremes and the deceres. It was said that the largest ship in Octavianus's fleet was equal to the smallest ship of Antonius's fleet, to give an example of the differences of the two fleets. The Egyptian fleet, with Antonius, had Sixteens and other humungous vessels. Yet a panic broke out when the Egyptians suddenly turned to flee, and the huge fleet of Antonius went down- some fighting, some surrendering, some running. Octavianus ended up capturing over two hundred ships and became master of Mare Nostrum.

In the aftermath of the battle with Octavianus becoming sole master of Mare Nostrum, there was no longer a need for the huge ships, but the need for a navy remained as escorts, police forces, and transports. The mighty warships disappeared, replaced by fast squadrons of liburnians and other smaller vessels, with quinqueremes being the largest ships still afloat.

All of the above is portrayed in the unseen auto-resolve of the naval battles in the game, up to Sextus Pompeius. Biremes are the first ships the Romans can produce, followed by the triremes, then the quinqueremes, then the corvus, then the deceres. The giant ships of the East are not portrayed as separate vessels for the ease of recruitment, but I have noticed that Eastern fleets seem to have an advantage in naval battle. Likewise, triremes are stronger than biremes, and quinqueremes stronger than triremes- even if the displayed strength is comparable. Ships also move slowly, though faster than land travel, portraying their need to be supplied and beaching every night. This was taken a bit to extremes in places, but the game mechanics prevent an accurate portrayal and still remain a balanced game.


Warfare in the Classical World, by John Warry.