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The modern trireme rower’s experience

10/07/2017

It is a difficult thing for the historian to attempt and describe events of the past especially as in most cases it is humanly impossible to have first hand experience on the items that our forefathers used in order to execute the task at hand. This is especially true about the ancient times where a few museum artifacts and some text fragments of the ancient literature are the only things we have at our disposal.

In my case I was fortunate that the Hellenic Navy has a working reconstruction on an ancient trireme and even allows access to the general public. So in July 2017 after dealing with the red tape that is always required to get access in a military installation and allowed to handle military equipment I found myself in Trocadero in the Attic coastline ready to board on trireme “OLYMPIAS”.

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Under instructions and the watchful eye of the crew we were boarded on the vessel in groups of ten persons. Not many choose to go to the thalamitae lowest row of oars. While us modern people had the choice of boarding easily and choose our place since our enjoyment rather than an important military mission was our main concern. I imagine thought that the ancient crews would board in the following manner. First the thalamitae and they would start manning their posts starting from the prow. The zygitae oarsmen who would be handling the middle row of oars and last the thranitae who would operate the upper row of oars would board and man their posts in the same manner as the first men who boarded. Then the deck crew would board to start preparing the vessel and the last ones would be the hoplites and archer marines. This is the most logical order of things and it would have been time consuming even with trained men which means that our boarding took more time that it would probably take in Antiquity.

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on my post as a tharanites

When each one took its place and sat facing the rear of the trireme the crew gave instructions on how to respond simple word commands. The simplest was “pteroson” (literally: spread the wing) which means bring the oar across your knees and use your hands to keep it parallel to the surface of the water. The next command was “apantes proso” which requires every one to row forward. To execute this command you bend forward and push your oar in front of you so that it makes a 30 to 40 degree angle to the side of the ship, looking backwards and then at a second tempo you put the oar in the water and you pull yourself backwards. The other command is “apantes prymna” which requires every one to row backwards. To execute this command you stretch you self backwards and drag your oar in front of you so that it makes a 30 to 40 degree angle to the side of the ship, looking forward and then at a second tempo you put the oar in the water and you push yourself forward.

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oars in «pteroson» position

We executed both commands sometime while the trireme was docked. There were almost all of us fumbling and the worrying sound of wood knocking wood was heard at the dock. It was at that moment when I realized the importance of the texts of Herodotus who describes the insistence of Dionysius of Phocea who forces the Ionian crews to row a lot and was so persistent that the crews voted to remove him from leader!   And I also understood why Plutarch wrote that Cimon kept exhausting training of his crews despite their complaining.

Finally the ship was ready to leave and despite the fumbling, all rowers felt proud of ourselves that we manage to make the 35-tone trireme move forward. Though the souls of the elite oarsmen of the ancient “Salaminia” trireme would probably had a great laugh at our expense. At intervals the captain would order pteroson for some much-needed respite and a quick gulp of water. Needless to say we were all very relived when the crew unfolded the sails and those brave enough of us attempted to walk across the deck.

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the rowers joy!

If any landlubber thinks it’s an easy thing to walk on a deck without rails even on a calm sea he better think it again. Bare feet help a lot! There is a reason most fishermen do not wear shoes on their boats that they swing even on the calmest sea surface! And there was an even bigger reason that the ancient Athenians insisted on training their whole hoplite force to the rigors of deck fighting. Load a trireme deck with men who have never experience of the sea and your marines complement is as good as useless. This might explain the issues that the Peloponnesians faced during their struggle against Athens.   Also after walking near the prow I have serious doubts that a man wearing 25 kilograms of armor would cover the distance from there to the deck of a rammed enemy ship with a jump. It would be possible if the ramming took place at a very narrow angle, but how mach chance of this happening would be possible in the chaos of the battle? The boarding plank theory should be researched further according to my opinion.

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The ram,trireme’s main weapon

Finally much to the detriment of some we were required to go back to our posts, as the trireme needed the help of the rowers in order to dock. Better not to imagin what would have happened if we were also required to drag her to the shore as was the case in antiquity. Even the slight swinging of the vessel made it an effort for most of us to go below deck. Somehow we made it though and I couldn’t help feeling amused for I read the online postings of some people, who have no idea what is it to be on a slippery deck without rails, and propose weird exotic theories on the usage of various troop types during a naval fight

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The reason why some people had enough

As the more determined of us took our place there was less fumbling as now there was some distance between the oars due to the gaps left by those who couldn’t continue. Trireme “OLYMPIAS” returned to the dock and we all were happy for our little cruise.

I want to thank the Hellenic Navy and especially the officers and the crew of the trireme “OLYMPIAS” for allowing me a glimpse in the ancient oarsman’s world. I also thank my instructors at the Hoplomachia Academy for assisting me to keep fit and be able to do first hand research on ancient warfare.

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