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Hellenistic and Roman republican naval warfare technology

from HISTORICAL CASE STUDIES: The Mediterranean world

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 April 2017

William M. Murray
Affiliation:
University of South Florida, United States
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Summary

ABSTRACT.This contribution examines rapid developments in naval warfare technology in the Mediterranean world in fourth and third centuries BC, particularly the evolution of large oared warships, known as ‘polyremes’ and the creation of naval siege units for assaults on coastal strongholds by the successors of Alexander the Great. It also explains how unsustainable costs and changing strategic priorities led to their abandonment and the introduction of more cost-effective and adaptable vessels and strategies.

RÉSUMÉ.Cette contribution étudie le rapide développement de la technologie des navires de guerre dans le monde méditerranéen des IVe et IIIe siècles av. J.-C., en particulier l'évolution des grands vaisseaux de guerre à rames connus sous le nom de « polyrèmes », et la création d'appareils dédiés au siège maritime pour l'assaut des bastions côtiers par les successeurs d'Alexandre le Grand. Elle explique également comment les coûts insoutenables et les changements de priorités stratégiques ont conduit à leur abandon et à l'apparition de tactiques et de vaisseaux plus rentables et mieux adaptés.

OVERVIEW

During the last four centuries BC, naval warfare experienced an incredible burst of technological innovation in both the eastern and western Mediterranean. In the span of roughly a century and a half – from approximately 400 to 250 – warships grew in size from triremes or ‘threes’ to ‘thirties,’ became broader and heavier, and were armed at the bows with bronze rams of increasing size and weight. The numbers contained in the names describing these new galleys (triērēs = ‘three,’ tetrērēs = ‘four,’ triakontērēs = ‘thirty’) relate to their oar systems, with vessels from the same class having roughly similar dimensions and designs. While we are ignorant of the basic specifications of most classes larger than ‘fives,’ we suspect they were powered by crews of many hundreds, even thousands of men, arrayed at one, two, or three levels, with multiple men to an oar. As a whole, we refer to the vessels that were larger than ‘threes’ as ‘polyremes,’ although the ancients preferred to call such warships ‘cataphract’ (kataphraktos) or ‘fenced-in’ from the rowers’ safe placement below the fighting deck. Indeed, the Latin term for such galleys was tectae or ‘decked.’

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2017

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