science in action: the trireme Olympias

A great way to study the ancient Greek trireme is to build one. Frank Welsh, a trireme enthusiast and funder, John Morrison, an ancient historian, and John Coates, a former British naval architect, established in 1982 the Trireme Trust with the following objectives:

  1. To resolve a long-standing controversy about the design of this historically important type of ship
  2. To discover its true performance at sea
  3. To enable the realities of sea power at that time to be understood
  4. To draw attention to the maritime and technical skills which were the keys to the cultural achievements and lasting influence of ancient Athens.

The Trireme Trust and Greek shipbuilders worked together to build an ancient Greek trireme. In 1987, the full-scale, fully functionally trireme Olympias was ready to be commissioned into the Greek navy and taken out for its first sea trials around the island of Poros.

trireme Olympias under sail

I was part of the crew that rowed the Olympias in its first sea trial in the summer of 1987. The crew was collected mainly from British universities. We stayed for a couple of weeks in the Greek naval officers school on Poros. Being on the crew of an ancient Greek warship undoubtedly included great hardships and suffering. But by 1987, that job made for a very good time.

The trireme has 170 rowers arranged in three tiers: thranites (top tier), zygians (middle), and thalamians (bottom). I was a thalamian. Because the seats were fixed wooden benches, the effort of rowing was shifted towards the arms and back compared to boats with slides (rolling seats). From where I sat I couldn’t see the water nor feel any breezes coming across the boat. The rowing section leaders and master would shout out instructions, and I could see and feel the rhythm of rowers both in front of me and above me.

crew rowing trireme Olympias -- first sea trial

Being down in the boat has advantages and disadvantages. It was hot. I drank a lot of water and sweated it out. Arranging fresh water supplies must have been a major challenge. Being a thalamian wouldn’t be a good position for being rammed by another trireme. But it would be a great position in winter, or in battle with projectiles flying.

The boat itself is an engineering marvel. John Coates, the architect, would climb around the boat, fixing various broken parts, and talking with rowers. You can find more pictures of the boat here. That the Greeks could build hundreds of these boats 2500 years ago is amazing. That the Greeks and the Brits could together rebuild one based on scraps of archaeological and textual evidence is astonishing. I remember Mr. Coates saying that the design constraints implied much of the design.

bow view of trireme Olympias under sail

We rowed the boat through a variety of test maneuvers. One was was to accelerate to full speed and hold that speed for a short period. Another was to reverse direction quickly and turn sharply. Given that no one had any experience, and given the difficulties of coordinating 170 rowers, the boat performed amazingly well.

A recent study has analyzed the power output of trireme crews. The study found:

rowers of ancient Athens – around 500BC – would had to have been highly elite athletes, even by modern day standards.

Says Dr Rossiter: “Ancient Athens had up to 200 triremes at any one time, and with 170 rowers in each ship, the rowers were clearly not a small elite. Yet this large group, it seems, would match up well with the best of modern athletes. Either ancient Athenians had a more efficient way of rowing the trireme or they would have to be an extremely fit group. Our data raise the interesting notion that these ancient athletes were genetically better adapted to endurance exercise than we are today.”[1]

This is an interesting finding. The historical record seems diverse enough and clear enough to rule out performance exaggeration or misreporting, an issue that always should be considered carefully. Perhaps some subtle difference in ship design made a huge difference in performance. That seems highly unlikely.

Were the ancient Greeks genetically better adapted to endurance exercise than persons around the world today? Note that “persons around the world” is the relevant comparator, because the market for athletic performance today is globalized. No negative selection for endurance seems plausible for all human beings around the globe over the past 2500 years. Genetic differences, it seems to me, isn’t a plausible explanation.

Trireme crew performance is puzzling. I personally believe in the potential of modern athletes.

Update: The trireme crew’s t-shirt shows the different oar shapes for the rowers at different levels in the boat.

Update 2: Freely available on the web: John Morrison, “British sea trials of the reconstructed trireme, 1–15 August 1987,” Antiquity 61 (1987): 455-9.

* * *

[1] Quote from Leeds University Press Release. These findings are also reported in Stephanie Pain, “When men were gods,” New Scientist, Feb. 10, 2007, pp. 46-7. That article provides a few additional details. It notes that ancient writers consistently indicate that triremes crews could row at 13-15 kilometers per hour for 16 hours or long. Modern measurements indicate that 30% of the crew’s power output is lost. But even with 100% power efficiency, the crew could not achieve ancient performance. The New Scientist article is not scholarly documentation of the study. Such documentation apparently is not yet available.

17 thoughts on “science in action: the trireme Olympias”

  1. Grin. Well, motivation does have quite a bit of control on how long a person can do a physical task. I am sure that others, who have also grown up on a mixed farm, know that jobs such as shoveling grain, or handling 80# hay bales, can be done long past the time that the muscles and lungs are crying Ow, Stop!

    I was born in the Crowsnest Pass, of SW Alberta, and Surveyed Seismic, for 30 years, in adulthood. Skiing, snoshoeing, [in winter] and walking ‘in’ knee-deep, soggy muskeg [in summer], quickly finds muscle-groups that get very little work, in normal use. In fact, it is the _back_ muscles which cry the most, about the soggy muskeg walking!

    I imagine that the work of rowing is also rife with discovery of new muscle groups!

    I await, with great interest, future notes by those who took part in other challenging re-creations. Thank you.

  2. Perhaps they should go back and do some more testing but this time replace the University students with 20 yr old farm workers and construction laborers. the whole genetic theory seems absurd, physical conditioning should make up for the difference.

    I also wonder how much data they had about the design of the oars, benches and the ship hull and how much was guesswork, there may have been small differences in the ancient boats such as a seating arrangement that let you put more leg into the stroke or any number of other things that evolved over time but wouldn’t be on a first time reconstruction build.

  3. triremes are pretty much the coolest thing ever invented along with the loin cloth they go down in history as the most technologically advanced technology of their time. I have a shrine dedicated to both of these historic landmarks
    that shall one day revert into it’s true form and conquer the world.

  4. alistair campbell March 16th, 2007 | 4:29 pm James, (Feb 21/07) should read Frank Welsh’s book about the origin of the 1987 trireme. I think it answers most if not all of the questions about research etc. Also, Frank points out that the ancient rowers were almost trained to row from childhood. Mind you, even the 1987 volunteers, aged 15 to 57! managed – with minimal training – to achieve very creditable results in both the vessel’s speed and agility.

  5. Though not obvious, I believe the explanation is simple and related to genetics – but not in the direct sense suggested above.

    The ancient Greek warriors existed in a world where the issue of life and death was necessarily a daily preoccupation; where facing survival and war were a constant fact of life. But, not only did these men have to live and breathe each moment like their own lives depended upon it, their entire population did. And not only did their people’s existence depend on the warriors’ strength, skill, and willpower – their entire *kind* did. I believe the urgency of protecting life, family, and genetic essence brought out in these men (if I may speak figuratively) an extremely and insanely badass expression of human physical potential.

    I believe Nature has equipped all of us with this incredible potential, as a synergy of physical structure, mental resolve, and spiritual inspiration. It’s why we came to rule the earth the way we now do. It’s what gave us the luxury of time to figure out how to create “domestic” technologies that have since made those incredible faculties but obsolete solutions to threats and conditions no longer immediate and, for most, inconceivable.

    We are overdomesticated, is all. Modern elite athletes, while proud, conditioned and genetically gifted, rarely experience the stimulus of “genetic survival” faced by ancient warriors who protected their entire race – their very essence – from extinction.

    To ground my theory, I offer my experience studying martial artists in the world – particularly the Muaythai fighters of Thailand. They are renowned for their incredible toughness and power, despite their lack of the modern athletic training and sports nutrition. Originally employed for unarmed battlefield combat, Muaythai is cherished by Thais as having helped the kingdom resist all foreign invasion, and thus also ensuring survival of the race.

    Beginning at age 8-11, Muaythai fighters come almost exclusively from extremely poor families, pursuing the sport as a necessary means of life support for themselves and their relatives. Their bodies, minds, and spirits are therefore conditioned by the need to pursue “race survival”. And that is the culture of the sport: to never give up until nature decides it. As a result, they are able to manifest and withstand tremendous physical impact and intensity. A recent National Geographic documentary on martial artists (“Fight Science”, discovered that a lightweight, 10-years-retired Muaythai champion to be able to knee-strike a crash test dummy with the impact of a car moving at 35mph. To be blunt, these guys hit freaking hard, yo.

    As one example, I offer a video of my own teacher, Jongsanan Fairtex, in his legendary “elbow war” match against his nemesis, Sakmongkol. This is but one example of the “normal” physical potential of humans raised in the school of hard physical survival. There are countless others, not only restricted to martial arts, neither shown by the media nor known by mainstream science and society.

    Humans are incredible.
    It is a fact we are forgetting.
    And now doubting…

    Let us not forget:
    We were made for more.

  6. Interesting idea that the psychology and training of modern athletes misses the incredible mental and physical toughness of the Muaythai, which might be similar to that of the ancient Greek rowers. But it bothers me to watch the video of the Muaythai in action, to hear the crowd cheering, and the commentators talking. I don’t like this as sport, or as the only way out of poverty.

    The Hamzanama, an artistic masterpiece created from 1558 to 1573 in the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar, frequent describes combat between armies through individual combat. Both armies form opposing lines. Each line then sends out a “champion.” The champions fight to determine which side wins the battle. While the Hamzanama is a romance, bio-economics favor such an organization of battle. It would minimize total casualties and support general patterns of male status competition. Perhaps brutal fighting as a kind of spectator sport has a long history.

    Scholars have recently documented high levels of violence in prehistoric societies. Steve Pinker writes:

    It is true that raids and battles killed a tiny percentage of the numbers that die in modern warfare. But, in tribal violence, the clashes are more frequent, the percentage of men in the population who fight is greater, and the rates of death per battle are higher. According to anthropologists like Lawrence Keeley, Stephen LeBlanc, Phillip Walker, and Bruce Knauft, these factors combine to yield population-wide rates of death in tribal warfare that dwarf those of modern times. If the wars of the twentieth century had killed the same proportion of the population that die in the wars of a typical tribal society, there would have been two billion deaths, not 100 million.

    A long history of such circumstances would have effects on human nature. But even if capacity for extraordinary physical and mental feats arose from high-intensity battles for survival, I believe that human nature has enough plasticity to use such capacities in different circumstances.

  7. Re: Trireme-2 (3rd picture down)

    I would be interested in using an image of yours that I have seen on this flickr website. I am collecting images for use in a travel book on Mediterranean islands. If you would like to more about the forthcoming publication, please visit http://www.mediterraneanislands.org. The publisher has said that all contributors will be sent a copy of the book in recognition of their agreement to the image being used.

    Could you confirm you have personally taken the picture of this image and therefore have rights to? I would also need confirmation that the picture is actually of a trireme! Would you mind it being used in the publication?
    If so, please e-mail me back as I think your image is just right for what I have in mind.

    The deadline on my project is this Friday, so I would greatly appreciate a reply at your earliest convenience.

    Kind Regards

    Hassina Christian

  8. To Hassina Christian:

    As indicated on the right column, this blog is available to others under a Creative Commons license. The license doesn’t include commercial use. I assume that your travel book is a commercial use (a book for sale). I’m willing to discuss such use, but you haven’t allowed sufficient time for such a discussion.

    My tentative thinking about commercial use is that I would like such users to make some other, comparable value contribution to the domain of works that others can use relatively freely, i.e. accessible and shareable by everyone around the world with Internet access.

    Write to me with specific requests and proposals. Allow for at least a week for me to respond, especially at busy times of the year.

  9. On 21 February 2007 James asked about the layout of the oars.Professor Morrison and Mr Coates realised that the seating must have been staggered between the three levels because of the reference in Aristophanes, the Greek Comic Poet, which is referred to under Chapter 8 at http://www.michiganwarstudiesreview.com/2006/
    20060501.asp. My father, a classicist, knew Professor Morrison, who as you will appreciate, was a very thorough researcher!

  10. regarding efficiency of rowing. An idea…
    i wonder if the rythm of rowers was staggered to increase the duration /efficiency of the blades through the water. It may have been easier to coordinate three rows than the 5 tier boat which preceeded the Trireme.

  11. Hi

    I was on it in 1990. Great experience over three weeks. Speed trials where we were banging along at 46 strokes per minute. with 170 all throwing their oars about it was crazy. We also had to do a hand brake turn at speed where on side would did the oars in and the other side row like mad. Finally we did a three day trip where we were basically rowing all day as a bireme. 40 mins on for two levels and 20 mins collapsed and stuffing your face for the third bank of rowers.

  12. I am surprised no one mentions the fact that natural selection still applied for humans back then. It is not genetics it is merely the fact that only the strongest survived thus ensuring that pretty much everyone alive was a top specimen (this applies for all races of the time of course).
    So the combination of natural selection + a lifetime of manual labour + training + details in technique, design etc = all the difference in performance imo.

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