By  Periklis    DeligiannisPolyeres

A Roman polyeres-type warship with turrets on deck.
From the maritime conflicts between the early Hellenistic states, we can distinguish the naval battle of Salamis in Cyprus (306 BC) and the subsequent seaborne siege of Rhodes by Demetrios the Besieger. The evolution of the polyeres warships came largely from Demetrios’ resourcefulness. Demetrios as a political and military figure had very limited abilities (thereby he failed miserably for this reason), but his ingenuity on engineering was unlimited.
After 280 BC the political situation was stabilized and the new large Hellenistic navies were formed. The State of the Lagides (Ptolemaic Kingdom) had at its disposal 336 quinqueremes/penteres and 2,000 ships of smaller displacement, and it was the greatest naval power not only among the Greeks but also compared with Rome and Carthage, despite the overexertion of these western Mediterranean states during the naval war between them (First and Second Punic Wars). The manning of the Ptolemaic fleet stood in need of 150,000 men without the marines. Most of them came from the most skilful mariners of the known world of those days: the Greeks and the Phoenicians. The Ptolemaic Kingdom, according to all evidence (displacement of its ships, number and capacity of its crews etc.) was the greatest naval power of Antiquity, of course superior even to the Athenian naval power of the 5th cent. BC. Some researchers have questioned the figure of the 336 penteres warships as well as the figures of smaller vessels and of the total crews needed to man them (on the contrary W.W. Tarn defended these numbers).

In order to prove the correctness and accuracy of these numbers, a list of the maritime countries, cities and islands controlled by the Ptolemies around the middle of the 3rd century BC, is enough evidence: Egypt, Alexandria of Egypt (with hundreds of thousands Greek and Phoenician citizens), Cyrenaica, Philistine (coastal Palestine), the 4/5 of Phoenicia, Seleucia on the Orontes river, Cyprus, Western Cilicia, Lycia, Halicarnassus, Miletus, Ephesus, Samos, Cos, Chios, Lesbos, Erithrea, Cyclades Islands, Hitanos of Crete, Thracian Peninsula with the populous Lysimachea (with many Athenian colonists), Abydos, Thasos and several smaller maritime cities. These are almost the same countries and islands that in 480 BC provided their warships to form the colossal fleet of 1200 triremes (about 800 triremes in reality) with which Xerxes invaded Greece. In the middle of the 3rd century, these maritime areas were under the Ptolemaic control with only a few exceptions (the coasts of the Issic Gulf, modern Gulf of Alexandretta, were under the Seleucid control, and several city-states of Ionia and the Propontis were independent). In addition, their population would have increased significantly after more than two centuries (from 480 BC) and moreover with the newly founded Hellenistic cities (Alexandria, Seleucia etc.). It is obvious that these maritime countries and islands could provide without any overexertion 336 penteres warships, 2,000 smaller vessels and 150,000 mariners. The only problem for the Ptolemaic fleet headquarters would be the difficulty to bring together all these forces (the Persians gathered them only once).

The Ptolemaic naval forces would operate more successfully as autonomous fleets or flotillas not far from their city harbors. Finally, the 336 “penteres” should be rather considered as generally polyeres warships. The majority of them would be undoubtedly penteres type, but there would be many larger and smaller polyeres (the smaller would be specifically tetreres warships).


Front, top and side view of a dekeres/decemereme (with ten oarsmen per vertical group of oars). The dekeres was one of the heaviest polyeres warships. The small diagram is a representation of a Roman liburna (‘libyrinis’ in Greek)/(Copyright: John Warry/ Salamander)
The Seleucid Empire had not initially a considerable navy in the Mediterranean, relying mostly on the 30-40 polyeres warships of their vassal Phoenician and Greek city-states of Syria and Cilicia (Laodicea, Mallos etc.). Since 198 BC, the Seleucids acquired real naval power when they conquered from the Ptolemies the Phoenician cities with their approximately 100 polyeres. The rest of the major Greek naval powers of the polyeres period, were the island of Rhodes (the “new Athens” concerning naval power), the monarchy of Syracuse, the Antigonid Macedonia, the Attalid Kingdom of Pergamos and Massalia (Marseilles), a discontiguous but potent Greek city-state in the Western Mediterranean.
The penteres (quinquereme) was really proved by adversity during the titanic sea struggle of the First Punic War (264-241 BC), the greatest naval conflict in Antiquity. The maritime tradition of Carthage starts in her foundation by the Phoenicians of Tyre (early 8th century BC). In 264 BC, the Carthaginian fleet consisted of 130 penteres, but the Roman doggedness could not be bent by the seamanship of the Carthaginians. The Romans – like the Spartans against the Athenians – ventured to face Carthage in her traditional element, the sea, navigating a grand fleet of penteres warships.

The Romans were not a maritime people, thereby the shipbuilders of their penteres/quinquereme fleet were their Italiot Greek allies (socii navales) from Magna Graecia (Southern Italy) and probably their Etruscan allies (though the latter never built quinqueremes or ever used them). In addition, the Italiot Greeks provided a great number of the required crews (mainly sailors), however the Romans in order to find the needed oarsmen, recruited all the Italians, even the highlander Samnites and the other Oscans. The Roman tradition claims that the Romans used as a model for the shipbuilding of their penteres fleet, a Carthaginian/Punic penteres which they captured. This reference tends to be rejected by the modern researchers as a Roman “patriotic fallacy” in order for the Romans to reduce the decisive contribution of the Italiot Greeks in their sea power. In many such cases detected by the modern scholars, the patriotic Roman historians (for example, T. Livy) or proroman Greek historians (for example, Polybius) distort the historical truth against the Etruscans, Samnites, Greeks, Carthaginians, Celts and other enemies of the City of the She-wolf.  As some modern historians (Frank, Warmington etc.) point out, correctly in my opinion, the Romans did not need any Punic penteres as a shipbuilding model, because all they had to do is to ask their faithful ally Hieron of Syracuse (269-215 BC) for one of his many penteres warships. And the Siciliot penteres was one of the finest specimens of this kind of warship all over the Mediterranean, because the Syracusans had chronologicallyes was one of the finest specimens eddation n Mediteranean the longest tradition of building it. Furthermore, the Romans may not even need to appeal to Hieron, because it is considered very likely that their Tarantine naval allies knew how to built quinqueremes.

Side view and top view of a penteres according to J.F. Coates (Copyright: J.F. Coates).
Tarn calculated (after correcting the figures given by the ancient historians, mainly Polybius) that during the First Punic War, the Romans lost about 500 warships, while the Carthaginians lost 450. According to my calculations, the total death toll of the two enemies at sea reached the number of 310,000 men (80,000 more men were casualties in the land war). The warships built in total were 1,300 – the vast majority was penteres – of which 700 were built by the Romans and 600 by the Carthaginians (W.W. Tarn). The figures of warships given by the ancient writers which the two rivals deployed in the sea battle of Ecnomos (256 BC) which correspond to the maximum of their naval mobilization, have been rejected by a great number of modern scholars as exaggerated. Polybius states that the Carthaginians had 350 warships (mostly penteres type) at Ecnomos, while the Romans had 330 (mostly penteres also). W.W. Tarn demonstrated convincingly that none of the two sides could deploy fleets of this size. These figures were generated by the Roman tradition (with “deliberate mistakes” as Tarn demonstrated) who had to present the Roman naval victory in Ecnomos as a result of a titanic sea battle in which, additionally, the enemy (Carthaginians) outmatched the fleet of the motherland in number of warships. In fact Carthage could man by overexertion only 200 warships, of which 70-80% were penteres type and the rest were tetreres and triremes, a quest that she used to achieve only by the provision of crews from the other Phoenician/Punic colonies in the western Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Rome could man a fleet of 280 warships according to the highest estimate of W.W. Tarn (which were about 80% penteres type), a figure that is close to that of the 330 Roman warships in Ecnomos according to Polybius.
The 2nd and the 3rd Punic Wars had not any significant naval operations. During the same period, in the Eastern Mediterranean stands out the sea battle of Chios (201 BC) between the Antigonid, the Attalid and the Rhodian fleets.
In conclusion, in 399 BC the Syracusans proceeded in building ships larger than the trireme in order to overcome decisively the Punic naval power. The resourceful Siciliots invented the tetreres and the penteres, as well as the catapults and other powerful ballistic machines. The other Mediterranean naval forces followed the Syracusan shipbuilding developments; a fact that resulted to a shipbuilding ‘race’ which was characterized by the building of ever larger warships. This race lasted nearly four centuries, ending in 31 BC with the great naval battle of Actium.
Periklis Deligiannis


  1. Polybius: HISTORY
  2. Diodorus of Sicily: HISTORICAL LIBRARY
  4. Tarn W.W.: articles in the “Journal of Hellenic studies”.
  6. CAMBRIDGE  ANCIENT  HISTORY-  First edition, Cambridge 1925-1930
  7. Lazenby  J.F.: THE FIRST PUNIC WAR, London 1996