Trireme warships of the Aegean


A reconstruction of a trireme warship planned and built by a British Society of scholars and naval experts following the longest and largest exchange of letters in ‘The Times’ newspaper

The beautiful Turkish coast – once Asia Minor – has the remains of more than thirty city states with harbours that were once part of the Athenian Empire.

This empire was held together, protected and supplied by a large fleet of warships known as triremes.

Due to its superior seamanship the Athenian navy was virtually unchallengeable from the mid 6th to the 4th century BC. A Trireme was unusual as it did not cruise under sail when fighting but was rowed by three layers of oarsmen who were free men, not slaves like the later Roman warships.

The sails were only used to give the crew a rest. They were built of local pine and were long, slim, light and fast.

The lethal blow to the enemy was delivered by a wooden ram weighing 4-500 lbs sheathed in bronze and finished with a vertical blade. When impacting at 10 knots this blade would smash the planking of enemy ships and they would sink instantly. This was how the famous Battle of Salamis was won.

This and numerous other trireme battles were amongst some of the greatest naval battles in the history of the world fought with great destruction and enormous numbers of casualties.

The harbour cities on the coast on which these formidable warships depended for supplies and repairs are still there. They include Ephesus, Miletus, Iassus, Myndus, Halicarnassus (Bodrum), Cnidus, Loryma, Caunus, Rhodes, Patara, Andriace and Phaselis, and we visit them by gulet for exploration. The size of a large fleet putting to for battle could be as many as 200 Triremes, all under instructions to ‘be careful to keep order and silence’.

When the Athenian battle fleet was defeated Athens fell and the Empire fell apart. The cities on the coast had to survive on the own with their own smaller fleets of triremes.

As no written description exists to help us imagine what a fleet of triremes was like we need to attend to the words of a young midshipman before the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

He wrote,

The monsters wheeled in succession round us and followed out to sea with that uncanny precision and silent majesty which marks the departure to sea of a perfectly trained fleet. Finally as we in turn began to swing, weighed the last links of cable and stole stealthily away in the wake of the Grand Fleet.  A more powerful exhibition of majestic strength and efficiency devised solely for the utter destruction of the enemy it would be hard to imagine, and the impression on my youthful mind can never be erased. I was firmly convinced that the machine was invincible.

Come with us to some of these harbour cities and feel something of the drama that once was here! Charter our luxury gulet MS Odysseus.


Robin Lane Fox, ‘The Classical World, an epic history from Homer to Hadrian’, Penguin Allen Lane, London 2003.

Victor Davis Hanson, ‘A war like no other: how the Athenians and the Spartans fought the Peloponnesian War’, Methuen, London, 2005.

Thucydides, ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’, translated by Rex Warner, Penguin Books, 1972.

Plutarch, ‘The Rise and Fall of Athens: nine Greek lives including Nicias, Themistocles, Pericles, Alcibiades and Lysander’, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert, Penguin Books, London, 1960.

Posted by Dargan Bullivant