Ancient Greek and Roman type of galley powered by a combination of oar and sail.

The trireme (Greek trieris) was the ship design that gave Athens naval supremacy in the Aegean for about two centuries. The word is first mentioned by the Ephesian poet Hipponax in 542 BCE, though Thucydides later mentions that the Corinthians used it a century earlier. The trireme probably evolved from the Phoenician pentecontor, a general purpose armed vessel with fifty oars, and was first deployed widely by Polycrates ca. 530 BCE. The initial Athenian ships may have been built by Corinthian craftsmen. Other cities built them in lesser numbers and by around 500 BCE the trireme was the heavyweight fighting machine of most navies.

Triremes were long and narrow ships designed specifically for military purposes. Their length was around 35m (115') and their beam was no wider than 6m (20'). The basic building material was fir, though the main beam was made of sturdier oak. At its bow and just behind the waterline, a ram would be fitted. Ramming was in fact the trireme's main offensive task. The stern would be decorated with a fan-like construction to give it a more fearsome appearance, and above the waterline at the bow, eyes were painted to ward off evil.

According to Herodotus, an Athenian trieris had a complement of 201 men, 170 of whom were oarsmen. The remaining crew was made up of ten sailors who handled the sailing side of the ship; ten hoplites to protect the ship; the shipwright and the drummer or piper who set the pace for the oarsmen; the captain or trierarch, a prominent and experienced citizen who also paid for the ship's expenses; four more officers and four archers who formed the trierarch's bodyguard. No slaves were used for rowing--the rowers had to be motivated to do their best since a single rower could cause havoc, and the oarsmen could be used as foot soldiers too. The crew therefore had to be salaried citizens. Because of this, only the richest of cities could afford the manpower and the expense of maintaining triremes.

Triemes had three banks of oarsmen, each of whom held an oar by himself. The exact configuration is not certain but was likely either 28-29-28 or 27-30-29, perhaps with variations according to the ship's designer and the evolution of the craft from Greek to Roman times. The bottom bank, the thalamites rowed in an enclosed space close to the waterline and their oar holes were insulated with leather. The second row, the zygites had a bit more breathing space on the bottom tier of the outrigger, and the top row, the thranites were on deck and practically on perches that extended over the gunwale. This position was necessary because the length of the oars tends to increase with each deck. The physics of having more than three rows, as may have been the case in Roman times, have not been solved and it's unlikely that such ships were actually constructed. Quinquiremes and the likes increased redundancy and reduced the need for skilled oarsmen by doubling up oarsmen without adding more oars.

Because the oarsmen could be turned around easily and their pace adjusted swiftly, the trireme was much more mavoeuvrable and capable of navigating dangerous passages and shallows with more accuracy than sail-powered vessels. The three rows solved the problem of adding more oarsmen without cancelling out the speed advantage with excessive ship length. The trireme was also able to sail against the wind and deal with calm at much greater speeds than other ships, though its maximum oar-driven speed was probably no more than eleven knots. It could probably achieve bursts of up to 20 knots and there was one report of a triere maintaining a speed of nine knots for 24 hours.

Triremes were instrumental to the Athenian navy and played the main role in the defeat of the Persian navy at Salamís in 480 BCE. After the expulsion of the Persian forces, Themistocles devised an armament program which would have up to twenty trieres commissioned each year. Not quite that many were built but those that were built were put to good use as his successor Kimon established Athens as the dominant naval power in the eastern Mediterranean and as the superpower in charge of the Delian League.

The most famous pair of triremes were the sacred ships Páralos and Salaminía which were used as VIP carriers, for ambassadorial missions and for Athens' official delegation to the sacred island of Delos. As the tactical advantages of the trireme were slowly cancelled out by innovations in shipbuilding and particularly in ships armour, the ships became bulkier and more powerful to the extent that they were no longer suitably manoeuvrable, and they eventually became more useful as troop transports.

There exists one modern reproduction of a 4th century BCE Athenian trireme. The Olympiás was launched in 1987 based on the best archaelogical evidence and using building materials that were available in antiquity. She is under commission in the Greek Navy and is generally used for purposes more diplomatic than ramming people. Unlike in ancient Athens though, the modern oarsmen are unpaid labourers recruited from the island of Britannia and from a strange land west of the pillars of Hercules who are tricked into thinking that it's some form of holiday...

Tri"reme (?), n. [L. triremis; tri- (see Tri-) + remus an oar, akin to E. row. See Row to propel with an oar.] Class. Antiq.

An ancient galley or vessel with tree banks, or tiers, of oars.

 

© Webster 1913.

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