Hellenistic history is exceedingly hard to write, a kaleidoscope of great kings and petty warlords, huge armies fighting pointless wars. The period is badly documented, too often dependent on a stultifying first-century BC cut-and-paste job by Diodorus the Sicilian. Knowledge advances incrementally: a new reading here, an unpublished coin there, scattered archaeological finds here, there and everywhere. Most interesting is the clever detective work that brings together the new and the long familiar to solve the formerly insoluble, or to correct an implausible solution once accepted faute de mieux. There are many such puzzles and it is always a pleasure when another mystery is unravelled.
We have long known that Hellenistic cities and kings kept large navies, stocked with truly enormous ships, but surprisingly little has been asked about why this was so. Perhaps it is just that naval history isn’t a glamorous subject. Academic historians often look down on military history as the purview of hobbyists, and so tend not to pursue its pressing questions. For instance: navies cost vast amounts of money and always have done. Why did Hellenistic rulers find such costs worthwhile, as so few ancient societies did, and what were their navies for?
We know rather a lot about the smallish oared warships used by the Classical and Hellenistic Greeks. These are the archetypal galleys, generically called triremes, and recognisable to nearly everyone from films like Ben Hur and Jason and the Argonauts. Scholarly enthusiasts have been able to reconstruct a working trieres, the Olympias, successfully sailing it in the Aegean. Ships such as this were powered by more than 150 oarsmen grouped in sets of three and rowing at staggered heights along the port and starboard sides. They were fast and lightweight, easily beached and portaged, if very expensive to maintain. These triremes won Greece the Persian Wars and lost Athens the Peloponnesian War, after its Sicilian expedition ended in a naval debacle.
Triremes seem to have enjoyed a continuous history into late antiquity, but after the death of Alexander the Great, the kings and kinglets who competed for his legacy began to build much bigger ships, and the reason for this is more difficult to explain. The basic trieres was a ‘three’, but literary sources tell us of ‘fives’ and ‘sixes’, and even ‘twelves’, ‘twenties’ and ‘forties’. How were ancient shipwrights able to build such large vessels? Wooden ships, unreinforced by metal, cannot be scaled up beyond a certain length because differential water pressures on the hull will tear them apart. They cannot be above a certain height if they are to function under both sail and oar. Even with the most ingenious interleaving of oarlocks and rowing benches, a singlehulled ‘forty’ seems impossibly large. Perhaps, some have suggested, these giant polyremes were actually catamarans, but that solution is excluded by the difficulty, even impossibility, of working two sets of oars on the interior of each hull. What remains? Double-hulled ships bound together port to starboard, powered by multiple tiers of rowers on the exterior hulls, and thus slower and less manoeuvrable than single-hulled vessels but able to carry proportionately heavier weaponry. That much is a matter of deduction from the sparse literary evidence coupled with basic physics.
A more difficult question is what such giant ships were meant to do. All of them had rams, just like the smaller ‘threes’, and some had multiple rams. As underwater archaeological techniques improve, we are discovering more examples of these; stone sockets on Augustus’ victory monument at Actium, to which rams taken from the burning hulks of Mark Antony’s fleet were once affixed, offer further clues. Some of the extant rams are monstrous. The largest known, the Athlit ram now in the Maritime Museum in Haifa, weighs 465 kilos without taking into account the wooden beam at its core, and was meant for use: radiographic study has shown that the bronze, cast as a single pour, is aviation grade, capable of sustaining massive impact without fracturing. Surely something so large must have come from a ‘twelve’ or a ‘twenty’? That was the consensus on its discovery. Not so, it turns out: the Athlit ram comes from a ‘four’, as William Murray demonstrates in The Age of the Titans through painstaking and painfully technical analysis of the artistic, archaeological and textual evidence.
As ancient narratives make clear, ‘fours’ were ships of the line, relatively fast and manoeuvrable, but heavier and more powerful than ‘threes’. Like ‘threes’, they were rowed into battle with a view to ramming and holing an opponent, or raking down its hull, splintering oars and leaving it dead in the water. The Athlit ram is large, but not large enough to impede the velocity of a ship aiming to ram its opponent. If it sat on a ‘four’, that confirms what the literary sources suggest: the exponentially larger ship classes of the Hellenistic age were much bigger than we can easily imagine. In other words, solving this first problem, the relationship of galley class to ram size, only worsens a problem of even longer standing: how to scale up a ‘three’ or a ‘four’ to a ‘twelve’, let alone a ‘forty’? And even if it were technically possible (as another slog through rowing benches and oarlocks demonstrates it was), what was such a leviathan actually good for? The long-standing answer, before rams started to be found and a working trieres had been launched, was that these big ships were hardly ships at all, but floating battle platforms for marines and catapults. Hellenistic sea battles, it was argued, were land battles that happened to take place off terra firma. Bolt-throwers would clear enemy decks, as catapults punched holes through them, crippling the rowers. Grapples could then be used and an infantry battle would begin between opposing marines. This explanation makes superficial sense, and held the field for the better part of a century, during which no one remarked on the absence of any evidence to support it.
Greek city-states had been building trireme fleets for two centuries before the big ships started to appear. They are a definitively Hellenistic phenomenon, postdating the conquests of Alexander the Great. That’s an important clue. None of the diadochoi, the successors who carved up Alexander’s empire, had anything like his prestige, let alone his legitimacy. Giganticism for its own sake was one way of chasing prestige, which might, given time, translate into legitimacy. Another clue: Alexander had used his fleet not just to ship men, horses and matériel to Asia, but also to besiege recalcitrant cities along the coast of Asia Minor, most famously Tyre, which held out for seven months. He understood that a siege is only as effective as its weakest point. An army on its own can take a landlocked city, but the most important cities in the eastern Mediterranean were ports, often very well fortified. Were the Hellenistic big ships designed for besieging coastal cities, taking out their maritime defences and preventing their resupply by sea?
So far, so hypothetical, but there is evidence. The first big ship named in the sources, the Leontophoros or ‘Lion-bearer’ of King Lysimachus, was deployed in battle only once, so far as we know. It was built in a fit of pique and rivalry, after Lysimachus had been frightened off attacking his enemy Demetrius when Demetrius staged an impromptu naval review off the coast of Cilicia. Demetrius already had other ships almost as large as the Leontophoros. Details are sketchy, but Demetrius was called Poliorcetes, ‘besieger of cities’, and he experimented ceaselessly with new devices that might help him. His bloodless confrontation with Lysimachus triggered an arms race in which ships kept getting bigger. At the end of the third century BC, the fourth Ptolemaic king of Egypt, Philopator, put up a statue to one Pyrgoteles, honouring him for building a ‘thirty’ and then a ‘forty’. Pyrgoteles’ predecessors, working for Ptolemy II Philadelphus, had turned out ‘twelves’ and ‘twenties’ in great numbers, creating the largest fleet the Greek world had known. Egypt was safe, more or less, from invasion by land, but this also meant it was not well situated to launch land-based campaigns. Ptolemaic ambitions rested on control of the sea and the concomitant ability to dominate the coast and cities of the eastern Mediterranean.
Technical developments, competitive giganticism and coastal power politics conspired to create the big-ship phenomenon. We can ditch the canard about the polyremes staging what were essentially land battles at sea: the big ships brought prestige and power, but like the Athlit ram they were also meant to be used. Cities safe from land attack could be taken by storm or blockaded effectively enough to force their surrender. Protected by flotillas of ‘threes’ and ‘fours’, large polyremes could smash through blockaded harbours and batter fortifications with huge siege engines. In the rare naval engagements, they could break up the enemy line, scattering its vessels, leaving them at the mercy of smaller, quicker ships. The big ships were too large, too slow, too clumsy to function on their own. Keeping them protected, maintained and supplied required costly infrastructure, but they were much more than floating platforms. When used in combination with other ships they were not just the most spectacular, but also the most lethal weapon in a Hellenistic arsenal.
So why did they disappear almost as suddenly as they appeared? As ever with questions of Hellenistic decline, when in doubt blame the Romans. Rome’s experience of water was riparian not maritime; Tiber not Neptune was its god. By preference, Romans fought on land. If a whole army lay dead on the battlefield it would raise another one and try again. Rome was rich in manpower, and as it conquered more and more of Italy it found more and more recruits. Roman soldiers were cheaper than Hellenistic navies and Romans were willing to send tens of thousands of men to the edge of the known world for the sake of victory. To them, the polyremes were irrelevant. The specialist actions for which such ships were needed took place too rarely to be planned for. And while a Hellenistic king could decide exactly how he wanted to spend his money, the competitive Republican aristocracy, jostling for individual glory, shrank from the expense that a massive navy required. It was cheaper, easier and politically more feasible to find an alternative plan of attack. And so the Roman Republic never built ships bigger than ‘threes’, relying on its Greek allies when something larger was needed in the eastern theatre. As time went on, fewer and fewer Greek states could afford navies and big ships; their kingdoms were growing smaller and the possibility of independent policy was ever more tightly constricted by Rome’s armed diplomacy. By the end of the millennium, Egypt alone still possessed the wealth and autonomy of Alexander’s immediate successors.
The extinction of the big ship navies, unlike their rise, requires no ingenuity to explain. It really was Rome’s fault. But solving the mystery of their origin, quite incidentally, unlocks a great puzzle of Roman history: Mark Antony’s suicidal incompetence at the battle of Actium, so out of keeping with his tactical mastery in earlier civil wars. That Actium was largely won before the day of battle has long been known. What has always been unclear is the reason for Antony’s insistence on keeping Cleopatra with him in Greece when her presence was a political disaster and a gift to his enemies. Equally unclear is why, after disease and desertion had made an attempt at breaking out of the Ambracian Gulf essential, Antony decided to take with him as much of his fleet as he could man, rather than just the fast ships that could have helped him escape. Although later propaganda exaggerated Antony’s folly, it is undoubtedly true that his large ships could not compel Octavian’s fleet to engage and were cut to pieces when the rowers tired and their battle line broke, forcing Antony and Cleopatra into their ignominious, and soon fatal, flight to Egypt. If a naval battle was what he’d really wanted, Antony was a fool or, worse, besotted by a foreign enchantress. But we know he was not a fool. Murray’s exploration of the big ship phenomenon helps explain Antony’s actions. The key to taking Italy was its port cities, and if he was to regain the peninsula, he could do so only by besieging and holding one of the great ports, perhaps Tarentum or Brundisium. Having once, during Caesar’s war against Pompey, slipped a blockade himself, he knew that a Roman fleet of light galleys was insufficient. He would need Greek polyremes, the city-taking monsters Demetrius Poliorcetes had pioneered. Antony needed Cleopatra for her ships and so refused to send her away despite the political cost. Antony knew he had lost Actium before he set sail, and gambled on getting out with his big ships intact to fight another day. He lost that bet.
That is no small revelation, and uncovering the real uses of the Hellenistic big ships is an even greater one. Not every reader – indeed not many readers – will want to struggle through Murray’s prose, and an expository talent little better than his Hellenistic predecessor Diodorus’, to find the model of impeccable detection that they disguise. It is a shame that the poverty of the sources means that no third-century character comes alive the way Alexander or Antony still do; Ptolemy Philopator is just a name, some dates and his fleet. But the laborious analysis needed to explain Philopator’s giant ‘thirties’ and ‘forties’ in turn explains Mark Antony’s last desperate throw of the dice. This is a reminder – not least to politicians eyeing university budgets with uncharitable intent – that sometimes only obscure technical scholarship can reveal genuinely new things about our world.