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Ancient Greek Naval Powers


The sphinx of the Naxian Treasury at Delphi Museum. The sphinx appears in Naxian coinage and pottery and it might be the emblem of the Naxian Marines. S. Skarmintzos archive.


The rich Naxians found a lot of colonies and built a treasury at Delphoi to house their offerings to Apollo The Sphinx related to the Naxian treasury was probably the island’s emblem. The sphinx is also depicted on coin dated to 6th century BC. (1)

Sphinx from Attic pottery found in Etruria. Tamba Museum, Florida

Its worth noting that Pausanias is his  “Description of Greece” says that Sphinx was either a female pirate captain or a pirate ship’s prow decoration. Though Naxians repulsed the first Persian raid in 501 BC they failed din 490 BC. But they fought at Salamis with 4 vessels in 480 BC.

Silver Coin of Ερέτριας with the octopus image. Athens Numismatics Museum


Great naval power of the 7th century BC and founder of many colonies. It got involved in the Ionian Revolt in 490 BC. Seven Eretriean ships took part in the battle of Salamis. The aristocratic hoplites probably sported a bull’s head on their shields but the marines most likely carried the octopus.

Design base on pottery in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens depicting an Eretriean Marine.

Plutarch reports that Themistocles had said that: “The Eretrians have blade like the octopus but heart like squids”. He makes fun of their shield device while taunts them that they lack guts to engage with their swords.

Attic blackfaced pottery of the 6th century BC showing Athena defeating Engelados depicted here as a Megarean marine in allegory of the conquest of Salamis by Peisitratus and Solo. Hermitazge Museum St.Petersburg.


In mainland Greece Megara acquired able navy and founded colonies-Byzantium being the most notable. The twins Artemis and Apollo became the patron gods of the Megareans who attributed to them the repulse of the Persian incursions in 480 BC. (4) The birth of the divine twines at Delos connected the two gods with the sea. In the Megarean coins Artemis and Apollo are depicted as dolphins. In the same way they appear on the shields of the Megarean marines who fought in the defense of their homeland while manning twenty triremes at Salamis. The Megareans will withdraw from the Athenian league and they will be among the most important naval allies of the Spartans during the Peloponnesian War. It’s worth noting that the navigator of Lysander at Aegos Potamoi was a Megarean. The financial decline of the city brought an end to its naval power.

Attic black figure pottery depicting a Megarean marine. Τhe dolphin emblem appears on Megarean coins. Ex Cavaldini collection.

Skciron who was killed by the Athenian hero Theseus was said to be a Megarean king. (5). The myth says of a sea tortoise trying to aid Sciron in battle, but it was too killed by Theseus. The story is probably an allegory of the alliance of the Megareans and the Aeginitans against Athens during the Peloponnesian War.

Weights from the Athens Agora Museum bearing the sea tortoise of Aegina. S. Skarmintzos archive.


The Aeginitan coins bearing the sea tortoise were probably minted by the Argive king Pheidon. Pheidon was overlord of the Aeginitans and he probably had their fleet and their marines at his disposal. (6) The Aeginitan marines excelled in Salamis but after the Persian wars were crushed by the Athenians (7) and fled as refuges to the Spartans who settled them in Thyrea.

Silver Aeginitan coin with the image of the sea tortoise. Athens Numismatics Museum

They continued to serve in the navy of the Peloponnesian league until Lysander resettled them in their island in 404BC. The sea tortoise, symbol of the goddess Aphaea-Britomartis and patron deity of island was probably carried on the Aeginitan shields. Aphaea-Vritomartis is the Bronze Age goddess combining the qualities of the Mistress of Sea and Land. (8) The idea that the sea tortoise was the shiled emblem is reinforced by the fact that it appears clearly on   G184 at Louvre Museum

Detail from Black faced pottery showing the emblem of a Corinthian marine. (National Archaeological Museum) S. Skarmintzos archive


Corinth started to evolve as a naval power from the 8th century BC and it considered the mother city of the trireme. Corinthians considered Poseidon ruler of the Isthmus (9) but the cult of “Delphinius Apollo” was strong in the ports of Corinth, Lechaeum and Cenchreae. Most hoplites doing naval service probably originated from there. With most of their income coming from maritime activity its hardly surprising that the considered this god their patron.

Corinthian pottery depicting marines and dated around 700 BC. Cincinnati Museum

Bearing the gods dolphin on their shields thy bravely fight in Salamis and also against the Athenians during the Peloponnesian War. Their mercenaries might have carried the swastika that is depicted on city coinage. Their skills and ability though, were wasted due to incompetent leadership.

Sicyonian coin.


The city was near modern Kiato and had rich artistic tradition. Tyrant Cleisthenes brought political changes in Sikyon during the 6th century BC. He divided the citizens in four tribes: Archelaoi (Rulers of the people) and he called the other three, Hyatae (Pig-ites), Choireatae (Swine-ites), Oneatae (Ass-ites). According to city coinage and pottery a version of Chimera and the donkey appeared on Sicyonian hoplites shields. At Salamis they furnished 15 ships. The city expansion and its related naval power come to an end after the Peloponnesian War.

Modern reconstruction of a Sikyonian hoplite. On his shield bears the emblem of the Archaelaoi tribe. Courtesy of the British Hoplite Association.


(1)     Herodotus, 1. 61, 64 ; Polyenos. 1.23.2 ; Plutarch Laconian Proverbs. 64.

(2)      Herodotus, 3. 39—47, 54—56, 59, 120—125 ; Θουκιδίδης. 1. 13 ; Athen. xii. p. 540.

(3)      Aelian “On animals’ 12.38

(4)      Pausanias 1.40.2, 1.40.3, 1.43.1

(5)      Pausanias 1.39.6

(6)      Herodotus, 1. 61, 64 ; Pausanias 2.29.5

(7)      Herodotus, 8. 122

(8)      Hysychius Lexicon

(9)      Pausanias 2.1.16

5 Σχόλια
  1. Greetings, how are you? I hope you do well. I needed to say that I like Ancient Greek Naval Powers stefanosskarmintzos.

    • Thank you.

      Perhaps you mightr like to check my other articles on ancient Marines.
      Kind regards

    • Thank you. I will try to keep up with intersting posts

    • Thank you. I will try to keep up with intersting posts

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