By Periklis Deligiannis
Τo my wife, Nelly, my inspiration and guiding light of my life .
The modern trireme “Olympias.”
TABLE: The numbers of warships of the Athenian fleet during the 5th-4th centuries BC
|Chronology||Number of warships|
|Around 500 BC||50 penteconters|
|Sea Battle of Salamis 480 BC (along with the Athenian clerouchs in Chalkis)||200 triremes|
|468 BC||200 triremes|
|After the failed campaign in Egypt||200 triremes|
|outbreak of the Peloponnesian War (431 BC)||300 triremes|
|Nikias’ Peace (421 BC)||300 triremes|
|Sicilian disaster (413 BC)||108 triremes|
|Battle of Arginousae (406 BC)||180 triremes|
|Aegospotamoi (405 BC)||180 triremes|
|After the final defeat of Athens (404 BC)||12 triremes|
|370 BC||100 triremes|
|Around 350 BC||300 triremes|
|325-3 BC||417 warships= 360 triremes, 50 quadriremes and 7 quinqueremes.|
Athens was not one of the traditional naval powers of Greece. Around 500 BC, its fleet was rather insignificant comparing to the powerful fleets of triremes and biremes of Corinth, Miletos, Samos, Aegina and other maritime city-states, consisting of 50 outdated penteconters (small 50-oared warship). The Athenian fleet was relatively newly built, thanks to the perseverance of Themistocles. In fact it was built a few years before its great victory at Salamis (480 BC) against the fleet of the Achaemenid Persians. During the greatest part of the “Golden” 5th century BC, the Athenian fleet consisted of 300 triremes , of which usually 200 were manned, or maximum 250. A part of the crews were Athenians or ‘metoikoi’ (foreign residents) in Attica, but a great number of mercenaries and allies from various maritime Aegean cities were also employed. Apart from this fleet, Athens had under its control the 180 triremes and the crews of its subject naval allies, namely the islands of Chios, Lesbos and Samos. So the final number of triremes at its disposal, was 480. When the Athenians were eventually defeated in the Peloponnesian War, Sparta have allowed them to keep only 12 triremes as a coastguard of Attica against pirates or other threats (404 BC). Perhaps the Spartans believed that thus they undermined the Athenian navy, but if they did, they were wrong. The sea power of Athens was not identified with the amount of its warships. As it turned out, even if the Athenians have been losing their vessels by the hundreds, the shipyards of Piraeus (the main harbor of Athens) could replace them. The naval power of Athens was identified with the shipbuilding and seafaring abilities of its men, but also with the perseverance of its people.
Athens gradually recovered from the disaster of 404 BC, and about 370 BC had a fleet of 100 triremes. By the middle of the fourth century, the Athenians increased this number to 300 triremes, reaching the number of their ‘national’ fleet during the 5th century. The Athenians of the 4th cent. BC were determined to take the lead again in Greek politics, and they knew very well that the only way for this quest, was the way of the sea. So despite their defeat by Phillip of Macedon at Chaeronea (338 BC) and their forced allegiance to Alexander the Great (335), the Athenians maintained the high rate of shipbuilding, breaking their own “record” in this activity. A good reason for their achievement was the incredible success of Alexander to destroy the Persian Empire in 330 BC. The Athenians understood that a fleet of 300 triremes was no longer enough to compete with the new Macedonia, whose borders touched over the Himalayas (“Himaon Oros” in ancient Greek). Primarily responsible for this new Athenian achievement was Lycurgos, the “new Themistocles.”
The great Athenian politician Lycurgos (and much “neglected” by modern historians), who had essentially the financial control of his city for at least 10 years (until his death in 324 BC), had ran an ambitious rectifier program with the objective to strengthen the economy, the army and the fleet. Belonging to the anti-Macedonian faction and knowing very well that a new war against Alexander the Great was inevitable, Lycurgos had taken great care to enhance the military forces of Athens. Among other things achieved in those years, was the further strengthening of the fleet not only numerically but also qualitatively. So, two new types of warships were added to the existing triremes. These new types were destined soon to dominate the Mediterranean: the quadrireme and especially the powerful quinquereme (These are the Latin terms for those warships: the Greek terms are “tetreres” and “penteres” respectively).
The lists of the Athenian fleet in the year 325/4 BC included according to ancient inscriptions, 417 warships: 360 triremes, 50 quadriremes and 7 quinqueremes. This figure is confirmed by the 372 shipsheds at the port of Piraeus during this period. With the addition of the shipsheds of the other ports of Attica, the final number amounts to more than 400. And if we add the coastguard and alert warships (probably 20) to the shipsheds, the total number of vessels is more than 417.
Ancient Greek marines (hoplites and peltasts) have landed on shore. The Athenians were skilfull marines because of the maritime tradition of their city (reenactment by the British Historical Society Comitatus).
This was the heyday of the Athenian navy and not only from a numerical point of view. As stated before, the new fleet consisted additionally of quadriremes and quinqueremes, not been reused by Athens. Moreover the Athenians in 325 BC, were not lacking in maritime and shipbuilding skills compared to their ancestors of the 5th century BC. Of course, again, the number of vessels they could really staff was smaller: there were enough crews for only about 200 out of 417 warships. By adding mercenary crews, about 240-250 vessels could be manned as it happened in the outbreak of the Lamian war, when the Athenians used the money of the Macedonian treasurer Attalos for hiring crews. In conclusion, the apogee of the Athenian navy had not been reached in the 5th century BC, as it is widely believed, but rather in the years 325-322 BC.
The upgrade of the Athenian navy applied also to the land naval installations. A great part of the aforementioned 372 shipsheds of Piraeus was constructed during this period, to cope with the numerical increase of the vessels. Additionally during this period, the Naval Arsenal of Philo was built (in the lesser harbor of Zea).
Lycurgos was largely the man who has achieved all this. With the consolidation of the fleet, he revitalized also Piraeus. Because of his services to Athens, he can be compared to Themistocles, the real founder of the Athenian navy and Piraeus.
Another masterpiece by Igor Dzis: an Athenian trireme and marines (copyright: Igor Dzis).
However, during the Lamian war that followed (323/322 BC), the Athenians and their limited maritime allies encountered the fleet of the Macedonians (of the dead already Alexander), consisting in reality of the warships of Helladite, Cypriot, Phoenician, Cilician and Philistine allies and subjects of Macedonia. The Macedonian fleet included a high percentage of quadriremes and quinqueremes (mostly from the Eastern Mediterranean). This Macedonian naval advantage seems to have judged the outcome of the war. The Athenians and their allies were confronted by the Macedonian fleet under Cleitus the White, in a series of naval clashes. These clashes ended with the great sea battle of Amorgos where the Athenian fleet was crashed (322 BC). After the war ended, about 200-250 Athenian warships (probably only triremes) were lying in the shipsheds of Attica. But it was a “ghost fleet” since there were no rowers to move it, after the exile of over 12,000 Athenians (mainly mariners) by the winner Macedonian general Antipater, and of course, the heavy losses during the Lamian war. These ships were left to rot and the Athenians never again built a great fleet. The reasons for their decision were various: 1) the decrease of the population of Attica due to the migration of the Athenians in the Hellenistic East, 2) their awareness of the impossibility of competing the colossal Hellenistic kingdoms (generally by the old city-states), and 3) the prevalence of the quadrireme and the quinquereme. If the Athenians wanted to take the lead again in the politics of the new Greek/Hellenistic World, they had to build a new fleet of quadriremes and quinqueremes, not consisting of outdated triremes. But the financial burden of such a venture would be unbearable for Athens.
The Athenians used to employ Scythians as archers aboard their triremes (reenactment of Scythians by the British Historical Society Comitatus).
Thus the years 325-322 BC recorded the maximum of the Athenian fleet, but also its end. After 322, Athens retained only a small number of triremes and was not involved again in remarkable naval operations. However, the high seamanship of its citizens survived for centuries in the future. Athens was engaged in some naval wars of Rome along with other naval allies (socii navales). The Athenians provided also crews for the Roman and later the Byzantine imperial fleet, until the Middle Ages.
1. DIODORUS OF SICILY: Historical Library
2. PLUTARCH: Lives
3. HAMMOND N. & WALBANK F.W.: History of Macedonia, III vol.
4. WILCKEN Ulrich: Ancient Greek History.
5. HISTORY of the GREEK PEOPLE, Volume D, Athens 1970.
6. CAMBRIDGE ANCIENT HISTORY, vol.VII-part 2, Cambridge 1989
A modern reconstruction of the shipsheds of Piraeus (Piraeus Maritime Museum).