Chapter XIV. The Peireus and the Shipping.
105. An Athenian Triearch. - Among this unaristocratic crowd we observe a dignified old gentleman with an immaculate himation and a long polished cane. Obsequious clerks and sailing masters are hanging about him for his orders; it is easy to see that he is a TRIERARCH - one of the wealthiest citizens on whom it fell, in turn, at set intervals, to provide the less essential parts of a trireme's outfit, and at least part of the pay for the crew for one year, and to be generally responsible for the efficiency and upkeep of the vessel.[*] This is a year of peace, and the patriotic pressure to spend as much on your warship as possible is not so great as sometimes; still Eustatius, the magnate in question, knows that he will be bitterly criticized (nay, perhaps prosecuted in the courts) if he does not do "the generous thing." He is therefore ordering an extra handsome figurehead; promising a bonus to the rowing master if he can get his hands to row in better rhythm than the ordinary crew; and directing that wine of superior quality be sent aboard for the men.[+] It will be an anxious year in any case for Eustathius. He has ill wishers who will watch carefully to see if the vessel fails to make a creditable record for herself during the year, and whether she is returned to the ship house or to the next trierarch in a state of good repair. If the craft does not then appear seaworthy, her last outfitter may be called upon to rebuild her completely, a matter which will eat up something like a talent. Public service therefore does not provide beds of roses for the rich men of Athens.
[*]Just how much of the rigging and what fraction of the pay of the crew the government provided is by no means clear from our evidence. It is certain that a public-spirited and lavish trierarch could almost ruin himself (unless very wealthy) during the year he was responsible for the vessel.
[+]According to various passages in Demosthenes, the cost of a trierachy for a year varied between 40 mine (say $540 [1914 or $9,304.20 in 2000]) and a talent (about $1000 [1914 or $17,230 in 2000]), very large sums for Athenians. The question of the amount of time spent in active service in foreign waters would of course do much to determine the outlay.
Eustathius goes away towards one of the wharves, where his trireme, the "Invincible," is moored with her crew aboard her. Let us examine a typical Athenian warship.
106. The Evolution of the Trireme. - The genesis of the trireme was the old PENTECONTER ("fifty-oar ship") which, in its prime features, was simply a long, narrow, open hull, with slightly raised prow and stern cabins, pulling twenty-five oars to a side. There are a few penteconters still in existence, though the great naval powers have long since scorned them. It was a good while before the battle of salamis that the Greek sea warriors began to feel the need of larger warships. It was impossible to continue the simple scheme of the penteconter. To get more oars all on one tier you must make a longer boat, but you could not increase the beam, for, if you did, the whole craft would get so heavy that it would not row rapidly; and the penteconter was already so long in relation to its beam as to be somewhat unsafe. A device was needed to get more oars into the water without increasing the length over much. The result was the BIREME (two-banker) which was speedily replaced by the still more efficient TRIREME (three-banker), the standard battleship of all the Greek navies.[*]
[*]By the end of the fourth century B.C., vessels with four and five banks of oars (quadriremes and quinqueremes) had become the regular fighting ships, but they differed probably only in size, not in principle, from the trireme.
107. The Hull of a Trireme. - The "Invincible" has a hull of fir strengthened by a solid oak keel, very essential if she is to be hauled up frequently. Her hull is painted black, but there is abundance of scarlet, bright blue, and gilding upon her prow, stern, and upper works. The slim hull itself is about 140 feet long, 14 feet wide, and rides the harbor so lightly as to show it draws very little water; for the warship, even more perhaps than the merchantman, is built on the theory that her crew must drag her up upon the beach almost every night.
While we study the vessel we are soon told that, although triremes have been in general use since, say, 500 B.C., nevertheless the ships that fought at Salamis were decidedly simpler affairs than those of three generations later. In those old "aphract" vessels the upper tier of rowers had to sit exposed on their benches with no real protection from the enemy's darts; but in the new "cataphract" ships like the "Invincible" there is a stout solid bulwark built up to shield the oarsmen from hostile sight and missiles alike. All this makes the ships of Demosthene's day much handsomer, taller affairs than their predecessors which Themistocles commanded; nevertheless the old and the new triremes have most essentials in common. The day is far off when a battleship twenty years old will be called "hopelessly obsolete" by the naval critics.[*]
[*]There is some reason for believing that an Athenian trireme was kept in service for many years, with only incidental repairs, and then could still be counted as fit to take her place in the line of battle.