Stuff from Way Back #3: Row, Row, Row Your Boat

Sardines in the tin

Many people have acquired much of their knowledge of history
from Hollywood, obviously a dubious
source.  This is especially true
regarding antiquity, an area of history generally poorly known and understood,
even by many historians, and apart from the Bible (another dubious source) the
movies have been the major font of information about the ancient world for
many.  Unfortunately, more often than not
that information is wrong.

Perhaps the
most pervasive historical myth promulgated by tinsel town is that of the galley
slave, Charlton Heston chained at his oar, rowing to the beat of a drum and the
crack of a whip in a Roman galley.  This
made for great cinema in
Ben Hur
, but it is in fact complete nonsense.  Galley slaves were a feature of the Italian
and Turkish navies of the Renaissance era, but by then Mediterranean warship
architecture had changed greatly from antiquity and facilitated the use of
slaves.  The navies of Persia,
Greece, Rome and Carthage were rowed by free
men, who were paid for their efforts.

The primary
warship of the Greeks before the death of Alexander was the trireme, the
fastest significant human-powered vessel ever produced.  The trireme was tiny, more a racing scull
than a ship: 120 to 135 feet in length, 10 to 13 feet wide amidships (18 with
the outrigger) and a draught of only 3 to 4 feet.  Into this space were packed a crew of perhaps
a dozen sailors and 170 rowers, arranged in three banks in the hull.  With an underwater ram protruding from the
bows the trireme itself was the weapon, though those with less naval skill, like the Macedonians and the Romans, could use closing and boarding tactics instead of ramming. Cheap to build, the
vessel was fragile, unseaworthy, lacking in cargo space and expensive to
maintain. It was a precision instrument,
sacrificing everything for speed.

Such a
vessel can not be rowed by untrained slaves.
In the 1980s the Greeks and British built the first trireme since the Roman
Empire, the Olympias, and found that a crew of college
students (including some with sculling experience) needed to be trained for
weeks just to be able to row slowly in a straight line. With so many rowers in such a small space
coordination must be absolutely perfect or the oars, which come in three sizes
and enter the water at different angles, will be instantly fouled. To perform any maneuvers – turning sharply,
changing speeds, backing water – the crew must be very well trained, and that
training could clearly mean the difference between life and death in a
battle. And while being chained to the
ship is a great motivation to keep the ship afloat, the history of warfare has
constantly demonstrated that positive inducements are far better motivators
than fear.

forget the guy pounding time with a drum.
That sort of low frequency sound is drowned out by the noise of the
oars, and the Olympias used whistles, which is what the sources
mention. In fact, forget everything
about the Ben Hur fleet. The
standard warship of the Roman Republic,
the quinquerime, was heavier, slightly broader and stood higher out of the
water, but this was still a far cry from the roomy vessel served by Judah
ben Hur. 300 rowers in three banks (some
oars had two men) filled the hull of the quinquereme, leaving room for a central
gangway but certainly none for some overseer to crack a whip. Further, during the Empire the standard vessels
were much smaller than a quinquereme, the major occupation of the imperial
fleet being pirate chasing.

these are delicate vessels, certainly the smaller trireme. So light is the ship that a few men walking
about the deck could upset the trim enough that oars would miss the water or
strike too deeply, leading to immediate fouling. In fact, the Athenians manned the decks of
their triremes with javelineers who could throw from a seated position. The quinquereme provided a much more stable
platform for marines and even mounted ballistae (giant crossbows), but the
notion of a sea-borne catapult, as in Ben Hur, is still a stretch. Try hitting anything with a catapult mounted
on a lifeboat.