This ship is a trireme. In the fifth century it was the typical warship. It carried 170 rowers1 on three banks of 14 foot oars and 30 crew members and around 15 hoplites, although peltasts and archers could also be employed. In battle, its primary weapon is a metal reinforced ram on the prow, which was used to pierce the side of enemy ships or to shear off its oars. Besides these maneuvers, the peltasts and archers could send their javelins and arrows against the enemy on the deck of their ship. If two ships came close enough, the hoplites could board the other ship and could engage enemy soldiers in an infantry battle. The oars were manned by Athenians called th๊tes who formed the poorest class.
Naval warfare was much more important to Athens than land battles fought by hoplites. The Athenians were able to gain and maintain their empire because of their naval superiority. Their empire consisted of subject allies who were spread out over the coast of the Aegean Sea and its islands. The allies could only be kept in line with a fast-moving fleet. It soon became evident to the Athenians that traditional hoplite land warfare was not as crucial to their dominance as their navy. With their naval domination, it seemed pointless to engage in hoplite warfare with the Spartans, who were renowned for their superior infantry. There was one problem, however. Grain, the staple of the Athenian diet, had to be exported from the Black Sea area, Egypt and Sicily, so if an invading infantry (like the Spartans) should cut the city off from its ports, Athens would be brought to its knees by starvation.
Around 460 BC, Athens built two long walls, ensuring communication betweem their two ports, Piraeus (3 3/4 miles long) and Phaleron (3 miles long), and the city. During the Peloponnesian War, a third wall was built creating a narrow corridor with the original wall to the Piraeus. These two walls to the Piraeus were the basis of Pericles' attempt to nullify the Spartan superiority in land warfare. Athenian control of the Aegean Sea ensured that the grain ships could reach the Athenian harbors of the Piraeus safely and the corridor guaranteed that grain could be transported to the fortified city without any threat from enemy infantry.
1. Rowers were recruited
from the poorest segment of the citizen population. Slaves were rarely
used. Return to text.