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Down to the Sea in Ships

Transportation and Voyaging by Sea in Roman Times

Transportation, the role it plays in society, and the methods and technology used to move people and goods from one place to another is one of the benchmarks by which we measure "progress" in the evolution of a civilization. Progress is a rather loosely defined term which means different things to different people, and in fact the definition of progress in a positive direction has been the source of much heated debate amongst historians. However, it can be generally stated that, the more advanced a civilization has become, the more efficient, rapid, safe, and relatively inexpensive its means of transportation have become. Easy access to a wide variety of means of transportation to fill almost every need in fact defines a large portion of what we mean by Western civilization and is one of the most dramatic factors that distinguishes civilization in Western countries from that in Third World countries. Images of classic cars and Fifties music, the American cowboy always in the saddle, and "Dinner in the diner" while speeding through the night behind a high - wheeled passenger engine are icons of what American civilization has been in the not too distant past. What would our society be like today without the morning commuter report on the major news radio stations, frequent flyer miles, and complaints about sloppy and inefficient public transit service?

It was during the early days of the Roman Empire that the world first experienced the beginnings of truly large scale international transportation and commerce. Note that the term "Roman Empire" as used here is not the same as "Imperial Rome", which came into being with the reign of Augustus reckoned at 27 BC by some scholars and 31 BC by others. Rome started her empire building in earnest soon after the close of the Second Punic War with the Battle of Zama in 201 BC. This period of empire building, which reached its peak during the last year of the emperor Trajan in AD 117, came about partly as a result of developing and expanding transportation in the Mediterranean region. Ironically, this empire building activity itself brought about rapid advances in international transportation that occurred over the next four hundred years.

In order to examine this, we need to go back several hundred years and shift our focus eastward to the Achaian peninsula and ancient Greece. The homeland of the Greeks had two overwhelming geological features that dictated that they would have to turn to the sea if they were to grow and thrive as a civilization or even survive at all. The Achaian peninsula where most of the mainland Greek city - states were located was a land of mountain ranges that were all but impassable to all except goats and long arms of the sea that stretched inland for many miles and effectively cut off neighboring peninsulas from each other unless you were to travel by boat. The rest of the Greek city - states were grew up on the innumerable islands that dot the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean seas. There is evidence that even as far back as the Minoan civilization maritime trade flourished between these islands and Egypt, Sicily, and Asia Minor.

The story of how ancient shipbuilding technology developed is a long and very fascinating one and one of the author’s favorite areas of history. For the time being, let us condense the knowledge contained in several thousand books on ancient maritime architecture and simpley state that ancient ships came in tow distinct flavors. Long, sleek, fast warships were propelled by staggered banks of oarsmen and used a sail as a means of propulsion only to get to the scene of the battle. They were narrow and crowded, sailed during daylight hours only, and were beached at night with their crews cooking their meals and camping on shore. Lucky was the captain who found a nice sandy beach come nightfall. These pentakontors, triremes, and quinquiremes were fitted with a heavy bronze ram below the waterline under the bow in front for punching holes in enemy warships and were steered with a pair of extra long oars handled by steersmen near the stern, or rear of the ship. One of the recurring truisms throughout history is that the need for superior weapons is often the strongest impetus to developing technology. The development of the trireme, or warship with three banks of oars on each side, is a case in point. It was developed in the early years of the Fifth Century BC just before the Battle of Salamis in 480. Its introduction in the Greek, Phoenecian, and Persian navies made the pentakontors with their single row of oarsmen obsolete. They were rowed by free men working for wages, not slaves as is commonly believed today. Everybody got a small silver drachma a day except for the thranite who pulled the upper oar. Because this required a good deal of extra strength and skill, he often received a little bit more than a drachma a day. Evidence for this difference in pay scale comes to us in the form of a statement by Thucydides describing the Athenian invasion of Syracuse in 415 BC.

It was a blessing for future historians that the Greeks were fond of writing down details of their lives in not only quite complete and thorough naval records but lowbrow comedy as well. The naval records tell us the names given to the three banks of oarsmen and the numbers of men at each level on each side. Each side of the trireme had 31 thranites manning the topmost bank of oars and 27 each of zygites and thalamites on each side. The Greek trireme was from 100 to 120 feet in length, and the oarsmen occupied a section amidships of about 70 to 90 feet in length. Needless to say, conditions aboard were a bit crowded. Again, we are indebted to those who took pen in hand to write a humorous account of just how close and crowded these conditions were. Aristophanes, in his comedy play The Frogs, refers to the common habit of the upper banks of oarsmen "farting in the face of the thalamite."

By the time of the First Punic War (264 - 241 BC) the Carthagenians had reached the peak of their strength as a Mediterranean mercantile power. The Romans were in the process themselves of expanding their influence, and it would be only a matter of time before the two expanding empires came into conflict. The initial butting of heads occurred over the Sicilian city of Messana (modern Messina) who was engaged in a minor local dispute with Syracuse. The citizens sent appeals for help to both Carthage and Rome, and when the two forces arrived on the scene, the First Punic War grew out of the struggle between the two for the job of helping Messana, which in reality was a bid for control of the region. By now, both sides had evolved very efficient warships called quinquiremes based on the Greek trireme of 220 years earlier. The quinquireme had oarsmen in groups of five, but with some oars being pulled by two oarsmen. Naval tactics were well - developed, and the struggle for empire would be won or lost at sea.

It was the highly efficient system of transporting commercial goods from one place to another Carthage had developed that both made her a great trading empire and ultimately sealed her doom in the conflict with Rome. As inheritors of the Phoenecian seafaring tradition, technology, and secrets of navigation, Carthage delivered cargoes of her own and others to all parts of the Mediterranean world. Her powerful trading post cities in Sicily and Spain placed limits on Roman expansion. Rome had just finished chasing the Greek invader Pyrrhus out of Italy little more than a decade earlier, and the excellent Roman road system was forging strong commercial and political bonds between the Italian cities. Rome was the most powerful of these, and usually left the others a choice of becoming Roman allies or conquered slaves if they refused the first offer. Beginning in 264 BC, Carthage and Rome fought three wars spanning three generations. Names of heroes on both sides have endured to this very day. Hannibal and Hamilcar on the side of the Carthagenians, with Fabius the Delayer, and Scipio Africanus being their counterparts on the Roman side. By 146 BC it was all over. Roman soldiers rampaged through the streets of a defeated Carthage who refused to surrender even in the face of overwhelming odds. Defenders and their families retreated to the momentary safety of temples and rooftops while the Romans put the city to the torch. The citizens either died in the flames or were mercilessly slaughtered as they tried to escape a fiery death. The Romans symbolically sowed the ground with salt, invoking a curse that no city shall ever arise here again. Scipio Africanus was awarded a triumph in Rome where he paraded the captured booty and few miserable prisoners that were all that was left of the once proud city. Carthage’s own efficient transportation system in a way made her downfall inevitable. Rome could not abide a strong rival in the Mediterranean area, as she had found out that she must either assimilate or conuer strong neighbors or they would, sooner or later, cause her grief. During the Second Century BC, Rome made good use of what she had learned from Carthage about knitting her empire together with a strong merchant marine. In addition, her own expanding system of roads made transportation to far - flung portions of her empire much easier. Because of this, it became much easier to govern conquered provinces and to send an army rapidly to any place in the empire where rebellion ir foreign invasion might threaten local security.

Ancient merchantmen were quite a bit broader in the beam in order to hold larger cargoes and were propelled mainly by sailing before the wind. It is generally accepted by scholars that no ancient sailing ships were able to make headway or sail into an oncoming wind and that this technology was developed by the Arabs during the early middle ages. This meant that voyages from some ports to certain other destinations had to wait until the right time of year when the prevailing winds were in the right direction. Also, travel by sea became increasingly risky and dangerous after September 1. The book of Acts in the Bible concludes with a tale of ancient shipwreck. A journey to Rome was delayed until well after the Winter storm season was well underway. Everybody knew the risks involved in a Winter passage. The Apostle Paul in fact warned the centurion guarding him and the ship’s master that, unless they wintered at a port called The Fair Havens, cargo, ship, and some of their lives would be lost. True to his prophecy, they had not sailed much further when the gentle South wind turned into a raging storm and battered the ship to pieces, leaving Paul and the centurion shipwrecked on the beach.

The merchant ships of Paul’s day were round vessels propelled by one mainsail and possibly a small sail carried on the bowsprit or on a small stub mast just behind the bowsprit. For centuries, they had been plying the waters of the Mediterranean, carrying wheat, lumber, exotic animals, glassware, pottery, wine and olive oil. The liquid cargoes were carried in tall sealed jars called amphorae placed in wooden racks on the ship’s hold. These often sported a pointed bottom to make it easier to load them into the wooden racks. Several articles in national Geographic Magazine detail diving expeditions to recover amphorae and other objects from ancient ship wrecks in shallow water.

One of the most heavily frequented trade routes lay between the Egyptian city of Alexandria and the Ostia, the port city that served Rome. As her empire grew, it became increasingly obvious that locally grown grain was insufficient to feed Rome’s growing population. Rich and productive though the Campanian farms were, their output was still insufficient to feed Rome’s growing population. The Province of Egypt could seemingly provide an endless supply of high quality wheat. Year after year, the grain ships made their way between the two cities, carrying their precious cargoes upon which the life of the empire itself depended. Indeed, the importance of the North African grain supply was not lost on the military mind. If a rebellious general or provincial governor wished to claim the imperial throne for his own, he need only control or even seriously threaten the grain supply ships. The prospect of mass starvation in the Eternal City would usually bring either an imperial general to the rescue or the end of an emperor’s reign in fairly short order.

In addition to the vital flow of commerce facilitated by ships sailing to all ports on the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, a bold sea captain or adventurer sometimes ventured past the Pillars of Hercules and actually entered the Atlantic Ocean. Roman sailors were often very loath to do this, fearing the perils of a voyage to the cold and misty isle of Britain on the edge of the known universe. A small amount of commerce did flourish between the rest of the empire and Britain, the cargoes usually being tin and other metals. Important deposits of tin were located in Cornwall in the West of Britain. Tin was indispensable to the manufacture of bronze foe weapons, tools, ornamental sculpture, and jewelry. There were no other large deposits in the classical world, so a journey into the mysterious Western Ocean was occasionally necessary for the survival of the empire.

Before we leave the subject of ancient maritime transportation, an excerpt from the History of Herodotus will demonstrate that some of these ancient seafarers performed some amazing feats of exploration. Herodotus tells us that the Egyptian Pharaoh Neco sent an expedition to sail from a port on the Red Sea south and west around the continent of Africa (which Herodotus calls Libya). The expedition was manned by Phoenician sailors who completed the voyage by sailing back through the Pillars of Hercules (Straits of Gibraltar to the modern reader) and returning to Egypt after two and a half years. Herodotus is quite well - known for repeating fantastic myths and legends, and a report of the circumnavigation of Africa in ancient times might well be well passed off as another exaggerated tale but for one interesting detail. By a lucky coincidence, Herodotus tells us that the Phoenician sailors reported seeing the sun on their right as they sailed westward during the southernmost part of their voyage which took them around what is today the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. It would be easy for the sailors to see that they were sailing west because the sun came up behind them each morning and set in front of them each evening, but every ancient sailor knew that the sun was to his left as he sailed westward. Herodotus shows some skepticism in believing this tale because of this seeming inconsistency, but this small detail gives us every reason to believe the voyage actually took place. What Herodotus didn’t know is that the sun will in fact appear on the right if you are sailing Westward in the Southern Hemisphere. The southern tip of Africa is a long distance below the Equator, and the sun would not only have been on the right of the Phoenician sailors but quite low on the horizon at these latitudes, especially during the winter months. Though Herodotus could not resolve the facts he was given, this supports the conclusion that these Phoenician sailors did in fact circumnavigate Africa, and two and a half years would be a reasonable time for completion of such a voyage.


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