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The might of oars
     Phoenicians and Greeks
     First Roman navy
     Rowing into battle

Metal hulls
To be completed

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Phoenician design: from 1100 BC

The Phoenician fleet contains two markedly different designs of ship. A squat and tubby sailing vessel, rounded at both ends, is used for carrying goods and passengers. A longer boat, also rounded at the stern but with a sharp battering ram for a bow, is for war; this warship is a galley, propelled by oars, making possible bursts of speed and rapid manoeuvres.

Ramming an enemy ship is the main tactic of naval warfare throughout the Phoenician, Greek and Roman periods. A thousand years after the first Phoenician example, Roman warships have a bronze beak beneath the prow, below water level. They are themselves protected from this form of attack by belts of metal around the vessel.


The only way of increasing the all-important speed of a Phoenician warship is by adding more oarsmen. To some extent this can be achieved in a longer ship, but there comes a point at which extra length brings structural weakness. The solution is to have banks of oarsmen. By 700 BC the Phoenicians are using two banks, one above the other, in the type of vessel known as the bireme. Within the next two centuries a third bank is added, probably by the Greeks, to provide the trireme.

The trireme is the vessel used in the first war to be decided largely by naval power - the conflict in the 5th century BC between the Greeks and the Persians. By the time of the Punic wars, galleys are even larger.


The first Roman navy: 260-255 BC

During the opening skirmishes of the first Punic War the Romans capture a Carthaginian warship which has run aground. It is of a kind only recently introduced in Mediterranean navies. As a quinquereme, with five banks of oars (rowed by 300 oarsmen), it is larger and heavier than the triremes which have been the standard ship of Greek warfare. Since victory at sea involves ramming other ships, the extra size is important.

Rome's new navy is to consist largely of quinqueremes, copied from the captured Carthaginian example. The senate orders 100, together with 20 triremes, and sets the astonishing delivery time of two months. Even more astonishing - the order is apparently met.


Rowing into battle: for 2000 years

The main ingredients of naval warfare remain essentially the same throughout the classical and medieval centuries. Long, narrow ships, powered by banks of oarsmen, circle each other attempting either to ram the enemy or to grapple a ship so that marines can board it and slaughter the crew. Such encounters continue until 1571, when the battle of Lepanto is the last great engagement between warships propelled by oars.

The only refinement in these centuries is a famous Byzantine invention. It proves so devastating that it has retained, even today, the status of a terrifying mystery. It is Greek fire, first used in the 7th century.


Longships: 7th - 11th century

A swift design of boat powered by oars is developed in northwest Europe, from the 5th century onwards, when the Germanic tribes begin raiding by sea. It is best known, in a later form, as the Viking longship.

This type of boat features already in the 7th century in the Sutton Hoo ship burial. The shape of the Sutton Hoo ship is known only from the traces left by its timbers in the earth, but a smaller boat of similar kind was found at Nydam in Schleswig in 1863. More elaborate longships of the 9th century survive in excellent preservation from two Norwegian ship burials, excavated at Gokstad in 1880 and at Oseberg in 1903.


The Oseberg ship is famous because of its superb carved decoration. But the Gokstad example is probably the more typical longship, swift and of shallow draught, of the kind used to carry Vikings on their raids across the North Sea and up the rivers of Britain and Ireland.

The Gokstad ship is 78 feet long, clinker-built from oak planks, with two high pointed ends, holes for sixteen oars along each side, and fittings for a broad oar to be worked as a rudder by the helmsman on the right-hand side of the stern (this 'steer-board' provides the word starboard). A mast near the centre carries a large rectangular sail.


Scenes in the Bayeux tapestry reveal that the Norman ships are still of precisely this kind in the 11th century, with the addition of a small fortified platform for archers at each end. But the warship is only one of the Scandinavian sea-going vessels. Five boats discovered in the Roskilde Fjord, north of Copenhagen (apparently sunk there in the 10th century), are all of slightly differing shapes within the same double-ended convention.

One, more stoutly built than the others, has higher sides and a central hold. It may be in ships of this kind that the Vikings, together with their families and livestock, make their bold expeditions to Iceland, Greenland and even north America.


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