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Toward the ship as we know it

War and trade

Evidence from wreck archaeology and paintings suggests that vessels of other Mediterranean peoples were built along similar lines to Egyptian boats.   However, the Greeks and Phoenicians (who came from what is now Lebanon) developed large, more seaworthy and more sophisticated craft.   Phoenician ships could voyage well beyond the Mediterranean, to the British Isles, for instance.   The Greeks built large fleets of warships: such ships took Agamemnon’s armies to besiege Troy.

The Greeks, Phoenicians and later the Romans combined sails and oars for propulsion in a very successful and long-lived craft called a galley.   There is plenty of evidence of how war galleys developed to carry more and more rowers to give them greater power and hence speed.   Additional men were allocated to each oar, with benches fitted to seat them.   Outriggers were developed to give a point at which the oars could pivot.   Extra decks were built to accommodate further banks of oars.   This was a significant innovation, perhaps the first time the transition had been made from the one-decked boat to the multi-decked ship.   The practical limit seems to have been three banks of oars in the trireme, a replica of which has been built and successfully rowed and sailed.   The largest galleys had an additional mast slanting over the bow, carrying a sail called an artemon.   These were probably the first multi-masted ships.

Merchant vessels also carried oars, and Homer speaks of 20-oared merchant ships, contrasting these with warships which carried 50 rowers, some of whom would also be expected to fight.   It is likely that oars were used mainly to propel the faster merchant ships, carrying passengers or high-value goods such as silks, spices or gems.   More humble cargoes ‑ for instance cotton, grain, wine in jars or building stone ‑ would not be so urgent, and vessels carrying them would probably use oars only to enter and leave port or round capes where the wind was adverse.   Ancient writings suggest that Greek cargo vessels could carry as much as 400 tons.

The Romans were not such intrepid seafarers as the Greeks. Indeed, once they had beaten the Carthaginians in the last of the Punic Wars (149-146 BC) there was relative peace in the Mediterranean and Rome had no need of a powerful navy.   Roman warships had no more than two banks of oars.   Their merchant ships also seem to have been more modest than those of the Greeks, the biggest carrying about 250 tons of cargo.


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