Front, top and side view of a hepteres (septemereme). The diagrams in the upper part (arris of ships) depict the evolution of the arrangement of the oarsmen, from the original Greek penteconter to the Roman imperial trireme (Credit: John Warry / Salamander)
By Periklis Deligiannis
Around 500 BC, the trireme (an invention of the Corinthians) became the basic warship of the Greek, Phoenician, Etruscan, Lycian and other Mediterranean war fleets. The trireme supported the “thalassocracies” of Athens, Carthage, Corinth, Syracuse, Tyre, Caere/Caisra (Cerveteri), Aegina and other Greek, Phoenician and Etruscan city-states.
The campaign of Alexander the Great in Asia and the overthrow of the Persian empire created a new statehood for the Greek world. The new Greek/Hellenistic states (kingdoms) which were created in Asia and Egypt were overwhelmingly more extensive than the old city-states. The new political situation had its impact on warfare, both on land and sea. The old hoplite armies numbering a few thousand hoplites gave way to armies of tens of thousands of soldiers, based on the Macedonian phalanx and the heavy cavalry (mainly Macedonian ‘Hetairoi’ and Thessalians). Similarly, the older fleets of the city-states which used the trireme as their basic warship, were replaced by the fleets of the colossal Hellenistic states in which the main warships were a number of ships larger or much larger than the trireme. This group of warships were called collectively ‘polyeres’ (‘πολυήρης’ in Greek, ‘multumeremes’ in a Latinized term) and the most typical of them were the tetreres (quadrireme in a Latinized term), the penteres (quinquereme ), the hexeres (sexereme), the hepteres (septemereme), the hocteres (octoreme) and the deceres (decemereme). The penteres was the most successful of them.
The tactics of naval warfare were adjusted accordingly. The triremes used mainly their speed and flexibility to prevail in naval conflicts, while the penteres and the other polyeres used their size and displacement. The main element that remained unchanged since the era of the trireme was the use of the ram, although its role in sea battle was reduced.
The naval operations of the Lamian War (323/322 BC) was the swansong of the classic trireme (trieres, τριήρης in Greek) and the real start of the era of the penteres (quinquereme) and the other polyeres-type warships. During these operations, the Athenian fleet with the trireme as its main battleship, faced the Macedonian fleet in which the tetreres and the penteres warships of the Southeastern Greek (Cypriot and Cilician) and Phoenician allies of the Macedonians were the basic battleships. Despite the fighting overexertion of the Athenians, the new polyeres-warships crashed repeatedly their fleet in the sea battles of the Echinades Islands, Abydos and Amorgos.
Side elevation, plan and sections of the stern (bottom left), the center (bottom center) and the bow (bottom right) of an Athenian trireme. The trireme was the design basis for the construction of the heavier polyeres-type warships but it was soon overwhelmed by them, being unable to compete them (Credit: Scientific American).
The ancient references are clear about the inventors of the first polyeres-type warships. In 399 BC, the shipbuilders of Dionysius I of Syracuse built the first tetreres and penteres which was meant to “conquer” the Mediterranean. In 332 BC, Alexander the Great during his campaign, found the Cypriots and the Phoenicians using tetreres and penteres warships. In 324 BC, Athens had at her disposal 360 triremes, 50 tetreres and 7 penteres. However, she hardly used the last two types of warship in the Lamian war, probably because the Athenians were not yet familiar with their use, trusting firmly their traditional trireme. Some modern historians question the invention of the first polyeres warships by the Syracusans, while others try to find a “middle solution”. For example, W.W. Tarn considers that the tetreres and penteres built by Dionysius and Athens, were experimental and that the first “real” tetreres and penteres warships were built in Phoenicia and Cyprus (a relatively popular theory). Tarn’s main argument is the fact that in these areas was achieved a remarkable development of naval architecture of new large warships, while the polyeres warships of Syracuse are mentioned again in the ancient sources after many decades, around 300-290 BC.
Much can be said against this theory but Ιwill settle onthe following, in my point of view: The later development of polyeres-type warships in Phoenicia and Cyprus, was not due to their invention by the undoubtedly skillful shipbuilders of these countries, but to the unlimited financial support of Antigonus the One-Eyed, and the Ptolemaic and Seleucid kings to those shipbuilders. The main reason of this financial assistance was the assignment to Phoenicia, Cyprus, Cilicia, etc., to built powerful warships for the navies of the aforementioned Hellenistic monarchs. The other Greek/Hellenistic states could never have the huge incomes of the Proto-Antigonid, Ptolemaic and Seleucid Empires. On the contrary, Syracuse and Sicily fell into anarchy and economic setback after the fall of the Dionysian Dynasty – prohibitive conditions not only for the development but for the mere building of polyeres-warships. Therefore the interruption of the building of such vessels at Syracuse is not due to their supposedly “original experimental nature” but to the politico-economic disadvantages of Sicily in comparison with the Hellenistic Empires of the East. The fact that in 290 BC, Agathocles of Syracuse had an impressive naval fleet of two hundred tetreres, penteres and hexeres warships denotes the great experience of the Siciliots/Syracusans on building them. Athens did not even manage to use satisfactorily her polyeres warships, in order for us to reach today any conclusion about their “experimental nature”. The Athenians built their first tetreres and penteres warships during the new shipbuilding program of Lycurgus (the great unofficial governor of Athens, about 330 BC) and lost them all a few years later, at the end of the Lamian War (322 BC) which marked the definitive end of their naval force. Therefore, the theory that the Athenian polyeres warships were “experimental” can not be persuasive.
Syracuse had always close relations with her mother-city, Corinth. It should be remembered that the Corinthians invented the trireme and many innovations on the tactics and armor of the trireme during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). The Syracusans have used similar innovations of their own against the Athenian fleet during the Sicilian Campaign of the Athenians (414-413). The great naval and shipbuilding tradition of the Corinthian-Syracusan alliance amplifies the references of ancient writers about the building of the first polyeres-type warships in Syracuse. We can assume that Corinth and her Siciliot colony bear the honor of the invention of the two most successful fighting ships of Antiquity: the trireme and the quinquereme (penteres) respectively. Aside from the conception of the penteres, the Syracusans invented also the tetreres, thereby starting the invention of the larger polyeres warships (hexeres, deceres etc.)
The evolution of the Greek warship, from the penteconter (top) to the Roman imperial quinquereme of the Greek type (Credit: alecrespi)
From then on, the fleets of triremes turned gradually to fleets of tetreres and penteres warships. The Cypriots and the Syro-Phoenicians adopted the new polyeres warships until 332 BC, while the Athenians built their own shortly thereafter. Almost simultaneously Carthage – a great naval power which used to take care not to be found wanting on shipbuilding developments – should have built her first tetreres and penteres warships. Some researchers believe that the Carthaginians were the inventors of the polyeres warships, relying however, on sporadic circumstantial evidence of secondary importance. There is also the theory that the Carthaginians received the technology of the new polyeres warships from their mother-city Tyre of Phoenicia. The Carthaginians and the Tyrians had relations similar to those of the Corinthians and the Syracusans. Other modern researchers believe that the Tyrians have received the polyeres warships from the Carthagians.
The Early Successors of Alexander gave a big boost in the use and the development of the penteres and generally the polyeres warships, using them widely in their wars (321 BC – early 3rd century BC). The Successors have built fleets comprised of numerous large warships, reaching the building of colossal vessels such as the eikoseres (with twenty oarsmen on each vertical group of oars) and the enormous tessarakonteres (with forty oarsmen on the same group of oars!). These warships resembled to floating fortresses, very similar in size to the modern battleships and aircraft carriers. The tessarakonteres had a crew of 6.000 men (officers, oarsmen, sailors, soldiers etc.), as many as a modern aircraft carrier. But gradually the use of these enormous polyeres-warships was abandoned, due to the high maintenance costs and the difficulty of their navigation. The only really useful polyeres-type warships were the tetreres, the penteres, the hexeres, the hepteres, the hocteres and the deceres, but mostly the first two mentioned. The tetreres was inferior to the penteres and for this reason it was supplanted by the later until the beginning of the 3rd century BC. Only the Rhodians went on using more tetreres than penteres warships, because the first was best suited for their operations against pirates. The hexeres, hepteres, okteres and dekeres were inferior to the penteres due to their large displacement which reduced their speed and made their navigation difficult enough. It appears that the ideal polyeres was the penteres. The penteres was one of the basic warships, if not the most important, of the fleets of Antigonus the One-Eyed and his son Dimitrius, of Ptolemy, of Lysimachus and other Early Successors. In the subsequent Greek/Hellenistic war fleets, the penteres was the dominant warship but the share of the other polyeres warships remained high.
Finally, the penteres-warships constituted 70-80% of the fleets of Carthage and Rome during the Punic Wars, according to estimates based on ancient references on their composition.
Continue reading in PART II