Greek Trireme: Definition, Facts & Diagram

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  • 0:00 What Is a Trireme?
  • 0:48 Characteristics
  • 1:40 Operating the Trireme
  • 2:52 Uses in the Persian War
  • 3:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Patricia Chappine

Patricia has a master's degree in Holocaust and genocide studies and 27 graduate credits in American history. She will start coursework on her doctoral degree in history this fall. She has taught heritage of the western world I and II and U.S. history I and II at a community college in southern New Jersey for the past two years.

The Greek trireme was one of the most effective warships of the ancient world. Able to travel at speeds far greater than other ships of the time, the trireme was a decisive tool in many battles. In this lesson, learn the history and characteristics of the Greek trireme.

What Is a Trireme?

The Greek trireme was a large warship with three banks of oars. The word 'trireme' was derived from the Latin word triremis, which meant 'three-oarer.' These ships were about 120 feet long and required 170 men to operate the oars. Built for speed, the trireme's low weight made it unreliable in rough seas and was most effective in battles close to shore.

The origin of the trireme has been the subject of much historical debate. The earliest known references to ancient triremes have been found in the work of the historian Thucydides. According to his writings, the Greeks took the design of the trireme from the Corinthians during the eighth century. Some historians trace the invention of the bireme, or two rows of oars, and the trireme to the Phoenicians.

Characteristics

Estimates of the trireme's top speed capabilities range from six to eight knots. The trireme was not meant for long journeys, since most supplies were left behind to allow maximum maneuverability in battle. The ships were so light that they could be carried ashore by about 140 men. The most common woods used in construction were cedar, pine, or fir.

Due to its weight, oak was only utilized for construction of the hull. The use of lightweight woods made triremes prone to getting waterlogged, so they would often be beached at night. Once construction was complete, the ship was decorated with eyes or other designs used to make the ship appear menacing to enemies.

The offensive tactics used by the officers consisted of either ramming another ship or swinging around the side and cutting off the oars before the enemy rowers could pull them up.

Operating the Trireme

The crew of the Greek trireme consisted of approximately 200 men: 30 regular crew and 170 rowers. The regular crew included officers and sailors to run the ship and archers and spearmen for added combat effectiveness. The trierarch, or captain of the trireme, was usually a wealthy citizen of Athens. The person in charge of the deck was a kybernetes, or helmsman. The crew also comprised several other officers and sailors who operated the sails specifically.

Since military service was an important part of any full Greek citizen's life, the position of rower was filled by free men and not slaves. However, in some emergency situations, slaves were part of the rowers. The crews trained during peacetime to prepare for the rigors of operating the trireme. The crew and oarsmen needed to operate as a team in order to effectively maneuver the ships in battle. The timing of the rowers was essential to the success of the ship. Rowers were divided into three separate sections: the thranitai (or top row), the zygitai (or middle row), and the thalamitai (or lower row).

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