The Warship and Workhorse of the Athenian Empire
The trireme, τριήρης in ancient Greek, was the formidable warship that hamstrung the second Persian invasion of Greece and changed the course of European history. It helped Athens build an empire and the wealth needed to sustain a civilization whose arts, monuments, and institutions sowed the seeds of Western culture. Yet, no shipwrecks of triremes have ever been found, and scholars debated whether a ship with three stacked banks of oars was even physically possible.
That is, until a full-scale trireme was built by the Trireme Trust to prove it. Crewed by volunteers -- mostly graduate students -- the Olympias astounded naval experts and classical scholars alike with her speed and maneuverability. Her reliance on skilled rowers reminds us that sometimes low-tech solutions can achieve amazing results.
Glimpses of the Trireme Olympias in Action
The Olympias was the brainchild of classicist John Morrison, who first proposed a method by which vertical banks of rowers could row without snarling oars. Teaming up with retired Chief Naval Architect of the UK Ministry of Defense John Coates, they formed the Trireme Trust in 1982 to test Morrison's hypothesis. Coates drew up plans based on Morrison's research. Eventually the Greek Ministry of Tourism and the Hellenic Navy signed on to build and conduct sea trials on the Olympias.
Olympias By the Numbers
- Oars: 170, based on ancient texts. Reconstruction proposes 3 files of rowers on each side, fewer rowers on bottom than top
- Dimensions: 37m (121 ft) long, beam (maximum width) 5.5m (18ft)
- Displaces: 47 tonnes (52.6 US tons) with crew aboard
- Cruising speed up to 6 knots (7mph) when rowed continuously for 30 miles, with an average of 5 knots. Achieved 9 knots (10.3mph) in sprints, 10.8 knots (12.4mph) under sail with following wind
- Construction begun: May 1985. Launched: July 1987
- Home Port: Poros Island, Hellenic Naval School
- Sea trials 1987, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1994. Came to London in 1993 for 2500 anniversary of Greek democracy. Last used to bring Olympic Flame to the Piraeus, harbor of Athens, for the 2004 Olympic Games
- Location: The Olympias has been moved to a protected drydock at the George Averof Battleship Museum at Neon Faliron near the Piraeus, Athens' harbor
History of Greece in the 5th Century BCE
The Age of the Trireme
"Though all else shall be taken within the bound of Cecrops
And the fastness of the holy mountain of Cithaeron
Yet Zeus the all-seeing grants to Athene's prayer
That the wooden wall only shall not fall, but help you and your children.
But await not the host of horse and foot coming from Asia,
Nor be still, but turn your back and withdraw from the foe.
Truly a day will come when you will meet him face to face,
Divine Salamis, you will bring death to women's sons
When the corn is scattered, or the harvest gathered in."
~ Oracle of Delphi in Herodotus Histories 7.140
Persian King Darius' army had been turned back at the epic battle of Marathon in 490 BCE; now, ten years later, Xerxes son of Darius was returning to Greece with an even larger army and navy to finish the job. In Greece's most dire hour, Athens sent messengers to the Oracle of Delphi and were told, in essence: run for the hills, all is lost. Refusing to give up, they sent to the oracle a second time and received the cryptic verses translated above.
What was the wooden wall on which their hopes depended? Some thought it meant a city stockade, while others guessed it meant a ship. In the end, the ship theory prevailed. The statesman Themistocles persuaded his fellow citizens to abandon Athens to the sack of the Persian army and build 100 triremes for a counter-offensive. At "divine Salamis," fast-moving Athenian triremes destroyed Xerxes' fleet, and the impoverished Persian army was finished off at Plataea in 479.
In the wake of the Persian Wars, Athens formed the Delian League with other Greek city-states, who agreed to donate triremes or money to support Athens' fleet as insurance against future Persian aggression. Athens used part of the money to rebuild the Acropolis and Parthenon, and became a flourishing sea power and center of trade, importing grain, silver and other goods from overseas colonies.
When the Persian threat dwindled, Athens turned its fleet against its own allies to keep them in line and keep tribute flowing. Sparta, which had had formed its own League in the southern part of Greece known as the Peloponnese, went to war against Athens and her allies, and the rest of the fifth century was spent fighting it out in a battle between sea and land powers. In the end, Sparta mustered its own fleet and cut off the overseas grain imports on which Athens depended. The killing blow came when Sparta's fleet under the generalship of Lysander destroyed 168 of Athens' ships and captured some 3-4000 sailors at the battle of Aegospotami. The Athenians were starved out and surrendered to the Spartans in 404BCE. All of Greece was weakened by the conflict, and the stage was set for the rise to power of Philip of Macedon just to the north and his mighty son, Alexander the Great.
Throughout the fifth century, fast-moving triremes served as chariots of the sea, outmaneuvering the Persians' heavier warships, ramming and sinking supply ships and troop convoys, and providing swift military aid to besieged islands. They were the wooden wall of the cradle of democracy -- and of empire.
Video: Oympias Sea Trials, 1990
Prof. Morrison's Book on Olympias
Should There Be an Olympias II?
The Olympias was a test model. It performed amazingly well, considering that scholars had no existing shipwrecks to use as a guide, only drawings, paintings, images on coins, and the dimensions of some ancient docks at Zea. However, it could not sustain the 7 knots cruising speed asserted by ancient historians.
Before he died, Professor Morssion was laying plans for a new, slightly longer trireme reconstruction. More recent archaeological evidence has also come to light which suggests further refinements. And the Olympias, as light as she is, has sustained enough damage during her years of service that the Greek navy decided to place her on permanent display in drydock to keep her from deteriorating further.
So here's the question:
Bibliography: Sources Used for This Page
- Trireme Trust Homepage
Website maintained by the Trireme Trust that built the Olympias. Includes ship information, newsletter archives, and much more.
- Science in Action: The Trireme Olympias
Rower Douglas Galbi, member of the Olympias' first crew, gives an excellent summary of the Trireme Trust and Olympias sea trials supplemented with his own experiences and photos.
- The Hellenic Navy's Olympias Page
Brief history of the Olympias with a great photo gallery at the bottom.
- University of Leeds: In the News
Physiologist Harry Rossiter assesses ancient versus modern atheletes' endurance based on the Olympias sea trials (includes good photo of stern).
Computer Simulations of Triremes
Other Recommended Links on the Greek Trireme
- Olympias -- Athenian Trireme
Collection of good photos of the Olympias.
© 2008 Ellen Brundige
Visitor Center and Ship's Log
Susanna Duffy from Melbourne Australia on April 28, 2012:
I'll be in Siracusa this Autumn and I'll be scanning the seas every morning on the lookout for Greek marauders in triremes
Helena_Schrader on March 20, 2010:
Great lens! You've got some really helpful information here. Please feel free to stop by my lens and say hi when you get the chance.
blakesdad lm on March 26, 2009:
Very nice niche page. Fascinating stuff. Five stars!
Amanda Blue on June 21, 2008:
The beauty and story of this ship take one's breath away. There is no question that there should definitely be an Olympias II! Marvelous lens by you, as always.
MacPharlain on March 17, 2008:
Excellent work, very informative! If I ever get to Greece, I'll have to visit the trireme.
Margaret Schaut from Detroit on March 17, 2008:
Wow, another FABULOUS PAGE!!!