on 15 July 2008
While the British battleship ruled the waves in the eighteenth century, it was the Athenian Trireme that was the dominant ship in the 5th century BC.
Nic Fields presents us with a look at these Greek warships, their origins, construction, crew and role in battle.
Covering everything from the limitations of the ships themselves, to the expenditure of keeping them at sea, to the marines, and the life of the oarsmen, this book is bursting with facts. This is not bad considering it's only 48 pages long. It also includes a look at Naval tactics and strategies, and the decline and revival of the Athenian navy. One of the most fascinating sections looked at the 'Olympias' a full scale modern reconstruction of a Trireme.
As well as containing photographs and maps, the book also has 8 pages of colour plates by Peter Bull. These show the Triremes at sea, under construction, as well as in battle.
This book is meant as an introduction to the subject of Greek naval warfare, and as a result it is far from being in-depth. But if you want a short guide to the Triremes, then this is the best available.
This book is an excellent summary of what we know about the Athenian trireme, rather than the "Ancient Greek Warship", as the title suggests, somewhat misleadingly. The Athenian trireme, as the contents of this volume makes clear, was only one type of trireme built for speed, swiftness manouvers and raming as a result (as opposed to "head-to-head" raming). There were also other types of warships, both smaller and larger, at the beginning and at the end of the period reviewed by this book (500-322 BC), when the trireme has just become THE ship of the line and when it was just about to be displaced in favour of larger ships (quadriremes and quinqueremes).
As usual with Osprey publications, the book is only a summary, so that those wanting more might be a bit disappointed. However, it is a very good one, to the extent that it covers all of the relevant aspects of the trireme, from its origins, probably Phoenician, to the performances obtained by the Olympias, a modern reconstruction of an Athenian trireme. There are specific sections on its design, construction, crew, armement and tactics in action, and two sections on its limitations and the Athenian navy. There is, of course, not enough space for a full history of the Athenian navy in the 5th and 4th centuries, although Nic Field still manages to make the main points in a clear way. Another strong point is Nic Field's use of the sources, which he so obviously knows, his useful little biographies for the main ones and the references for accessing them in English.
Finally, the bibliography is rather good, although the more technical and more complete "The Age of the Galley" (editor Robert Gardiner), which covers naval warfare under oars from Pre-Classical times until the 16th century, is missing. Also missing are a couple of more recent books published after this Osprey was released and which are listed below. In addition, both the photos and the plates support nicely the various sections of the book. I particularly liked plate F showing an example of the periplous which is drawn directly from Thucydides and the naval engagement off Naupaktos in the early stages of the Peloponesian War and in which 11 Athenian triremes soundly defeated some 20 Peloponesians.
This is certainly the best starting point for anyone developing an interest in naval warfare in Antiquity. Those wanting or needing to go further can, in addition to "The Age of the Galley", read:
- Lords of the Sea (John Hale, 2009), which is a rather excellent and well-written history of the Athenian navy and
- The Age of Titans (William Murray), which is about the larger ships developed during the Hellenistic period and their very special and different purposes.