Hellenistic Ships


Most Hellenistic warships were modifications on the older, classical trireme, which had three rows of oars. They were maneuverable and quick, but not suited for travel on the open sea. Dionysus the First began to expand out past the trireme when he took over the island of Sicily. His navy numbered over 300 ships with three, four (quadrereme) and five (quinqureme) rows of oars. Alexander’s eventual fleet also contained three, four, and five rowed warships.

Most scholars now believe that the number attributed to a ship may not have been actual rows of oars, but a combination of the number of rows and the number of oarsmen. How exactly each ship was constructed remains an archaeological mystery, because no actual ships survive from the Hellenistic Era, only written sources and depictions in art.

One major advancement in warships was made by the Romans. After facing maritime defeats during the First Punic War, they engineered a new quinquereme, after recovering a Carthaginian shipwreck. While not the first to do so, they made a ship that made Rome a naval power for the first time. They also added a corvus, a long plank with a spike on the end. When two ships got close enough together, the corvus would drop into the neighboring ship’s deck and prevent it form moving away. Then Roman soldiers would cross the plank and take over the ship.

One possible quinquereme design, with a corvus on the front

One possible quinquereme design, with a corvus on the front

Other warships were also created during this time. There are written records of ships with six (hexareme), seven, and eight rows of oars participating in naval battles. Dionysus II introduced the hexareme into his navy first. Many of the advancements in naval technology are due to the rivalries between the Hellenistic Empires, notably the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Antigonids in Macedon. In order to out do each other they continued to add bigger and bigger ships to their navies. The effectiveness of some of these ships in battle is still debated.

Ancient depiction of a warship from a temple

Ancient depiction of a warship from a temple

Giant Vessels

The competition between the Ptolemies and the Antigonids lead to the creation of massive ships. Both navies included polyremes with oar and oarmen combinations up into the teens. Demitrius  I of Macedon had at least one eleven sixteen and eighteen. Ptolemy II introduced a twenty and a thirty.

However it was Ptolemy IV who introduced the forty oared ship a Tessarakonteres. This massive warship was likely only for display and was never recorded to be in a battle. There are few oar and oar combinations that would work practically to allow for such a ship to be built. The most popular theory states that the ship would have been like a giant catamaran, two hulls with one deck spanning the space in between. This would have allowed for two twenties to be built and a deck built to connect them. It still would have been a nightmare to actually sail anywhere.  This vessel still hold the record for the largest man-powered vessel.

A front and top view of the tessarakonteres.

A front view of the tessarakonteres.

Another giant ship was built by King Heiro II of Syracuse. The Syrcausia  was not intended for war but used as a floating palace instead. While supposedly having only twenty rows of oars, it hosted a library, a temple to Aphorodite, a gymnasium, flower beds and rooms for over a hundred passengers, not including the crew. The hull was reportedly so deep, Archimedes had to invent a way to get the bilge water out, which resulted in the creation of the Archimedes’ Screw.  It sailed on only one voyage to Alexandria in Egypt and given as a gift to Ptolemy III. It may have been  the inspiration for Ptolemy IV’s tessarakonteres.

The Syracusia as depicted in the 1700's

The Syracusia as depicted in the 1700’s


Cook, Arthur Bernard.

    1905 Triemes. The Classical Review 19 (7) 371-377

Carey, Helen H. and Judith E. Greenberg

    1989 The JASON Project: Ghosts of Ancient Fighting Ships. OAH Magazine of History 4(2) 52-55



Lahans, Michaea.l The Syracusia Ship http://www.mlahanas.de/Greeks/Syracusia.htm 12/13/2013

Casson, Lionel (1994). “The Age of the Supergalleys”. Ships and Seafaring in Ancient Times. University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-71162-X

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