Ships of the Ancients.

The ancient Greeks and other Eastern nations had ships of considerable size many hundred years before the Christian era. The earliest mythical stories describe long voyages performed by vessels of far more complicated structure than the simple canoe. The ships engaged in the Trojan war each carried a hundred and twenty warriors, which shows that at the period referred to they could not have been of very small dimensions. Although they might have been open, they had masts and sails, and were propelled by rowers sitting on benches, while the oars were fastened to the sides of the ship with leathern thongs. Some were painted black, others red. When they arrived at their destination, the bows were drawn up on shore; or when on a voyage, they at night anchored by the stern, with cables secured to large stones. At an early period they had round bottoms and sharp prows. We hear of ships with three ranks of rowers, called triremes, B.C. 700, and long before that time biremes, or ships with two ranks of oars, had been introduced. In the time of Cyrus, long sharp-keeled war-ships were used, having fifty rowers, who sat in one row, twenty-five on each side of the ship. About B.C. 400, the practice of entirely decking over ships was introduced; Themistocles induced the Athenians to build a fleet of two hundred sail, and to pass a decree that every year twenty new triremes should be built. The Greeks even at that period, however, seldom ventured out into the open sea, steering in the daytime by headlands or islands, and at night by the rising and setting of different stars.

The Greeks possessed ships of war and merchant-vessels. That a war-galley was of large size may be inferred from the fact that she carried two hundred seamen, besides on some occasions thirty Epibatoe—literally, marines, trained to fight at sea. These war-vessels moved with wonderful rapidity, darting here and there with the speed of a modern steam-vessel. The ordinary war-ships were triremes, or had three banks of oars. The merchant-vessels or transports were much more bulky, had round bottoms, and although rowers were employed on board, yet they were propelled chiefly by their sails. After the time of Alexander, vessels with four, five, and even more ranks of rowers became general, and ships are described with twelve and even thirty ranks of rowers and upwards—but they were found of no practical use, as the crew on the upper benches were unable to throw sufficient power into the immensely long oars which it was necessary to employ.

Fully B.C. 500, the Carthaginians invented the quadremes, and about B.C. 400, Dionysius, first tyrant of Syracuse, whose ambition was to create a powerful navy, built numerous vessels of the same description, unused till that time by the Greeks. The rowers in these ships, with numerous banks of oars, could not have sat directly one above another, as some suppose; but the feet of those on the upper tier must have rested on the bench or thwart on which those immediately below them sat. Thus the tiers of oars were probably not more than two feet, if so much, one above another; and supposing the lowest tier was two feet above the water, the highest in the quadremes could not have been more than ten feet, and even then the length of the oar of the upper tier must have been very great, and it must have required considerable exertion on the part of the rower to move it. The most interesting part, however, of an ancient ship to us at the present day was the beak or rostra. At first these beaks were placed only above water, and were formed in the shape of a short thick-bladed sword, with sharp points, generally three, one above another, and inclining slightly upwards, so that they might rip open the planks of the vessels against which they ran. They were sometimes formed in the shape of a ram’s head fixed to the end of a beam; and hence in modern days we have adopted the name of rams, which we give to ships of war built on the same principle.

After a time these beaks were fixed on to the bow of the ship below the water, and were thus still more dangerous to other ships, when they could strike an antagonist on the side. The bow of a ship was generally ornamented by the head of some animal, such as a wild boar or a wolf, or some imaginary creature placed above the rostra. On both sides of the prow were painted eyes, such as are seen on the bows of boats and vessels in the Mediterranean at the present day. The upper part of the prow was frequently ornamented with a helmet covered with bronze. The steersman or pilot was looked upon as the chief in rank among the crew, and after him there came an officer whose duties were similar to those of the boatswain, as he had the care of the gear and command over the rowers. The stern or puppis, from which we derive the term poop, was elevated above the other parts of the deck, and here the helmsman had his seat, sheltered by a shed frequently adorned with an image of the tutelary deity of the vessel. Sometimes he had a lantern hanging in front of him, probably to enable him to see the magic compass, the use of which was kept secret from the rest of the crew. A circular shield or shields also ornamented the stern. Behind the helmsman was placed a slight pole on which flew the dog-vane, to show the direction of the wind. In the centre of the ship was a raised platform on a level with the upper part of the bulwarks, on which in battle the soldiers took their stand to hurl their darts against the enemy.

The quadremes and quinqueremes carried from three to four hundred rowers, and a ship belonging to Ptolemaeus Philopater is described as carrying four thousand rowers. From the surface of the water to the top of the prow was forty-eight cubits, or seventy-two feet, and from the water to the top of the stern fifty-three cubits, or nearly eighty feet; she had thus sufficient room for forty ranks of rowers, and the oars of the uppermost rank were thirty-eight cubits or fifty-seven feet long, the handles of which were weighted with lead, so as to balance the outer part, and thus render the long oars manageable. The lower parts of the holes through which the oars passed were covered with leather. Till the invention of the rudder, vessels were steered by two large oars, one on either side of the stern, with very broad blades. Ships were also furnished with long poles, by which they could be shoved off the ground. The triremes were fitted with two masts, and so were even smaller vessels; the larger had three masts, the largest of which was nearest the stern. They were usually of fir; and the head of the lower mast, which is at present called the top, was in the shape of a drinking cup. Some of these tops were of bronze; the largest held three men, two in the next, and one in the smallest; and breast-works ran round them to defend the occupants from the darts of the enemy. They were also furnished with tackles for hoisting up stones and weapons to hurl at the foe. Above the main-mast was a top-mast or topgallant-mast, called the distaff; the yards were hoisted up much as in the present day, and were secured by parrels or hoops to the mast. They were fitted with topping-lifts and braces. Each mast carried two square sails, and in after days the Romans introduced triangular sails. Though they generally ran before the wind, they were also able to sail on a wind, though probably not very close-hauled.

Ships were supplied with weather-boards, or broad belts of canvas, to keep out the sea, and were surrounded, also, by lines of ropes one above another, to prevent the seamen from being washed overboard. Sometimes these breast-works were made of skins or wicker-work, and in bad weather were raised to a considerable height above the bulwarks. It is said that Anacharsis, upwards of 500 B.C., if he did not invent, greatly improved the form of anchors, which were already made of iron. The anchor had generally two flukes or teeth, and was then called bidens; but sometimes it had only one. We use the same terms as the ancients, to cast anchor or weigh anchor, whence the latter term is equivalent to set sail. Each ship had several anchors; that in which the Apostle Paul sailed, we know, had four, and others had eight. The largest and most important anchor was denominated “the last hope,” hence, when that failed, arose the expression “the last hope gone.” A buoy was used fixed to the anchor by a rope, to show the spot where it lay.

The Romans possessed no war fleets till the year B.C. 260, when a fleet of triremes was built to oppose the Carthaginians. Many of them having been sent to the bottom, however, by the quinqueremes of that people, the Romans built a hundred of the latter-sized ships from the model of a Carthaginian vessel wrecked on the coast of Italy. The  Romans must have had very large merchant-vessels to enable them to transport the enormous monoliths from Egypt which they erected in Rome. These vast stones, also, could not have been got on board and brought up the Tiber without considerable mechanical appliances.

The construction of their ships differed but slightly from that of the Greek vessels; they had turrets on the decks of their larger men-of-war, and employed a variety of destructive engines; so that in battle the soldiers on board fought much as they did when standing on the walls of a fortress. Of one thing I am sure, that no correct drawings of ancient ships have come down to us, if any such were really made; those on medals, cameos, and such as are painted on walls, are probably as far removed from the reality as a Thames barge is from a dashing frigate. They give us, certainly, the different parts of the ship, and from them we may form a pretty correct idea of what a ship really was like. Certain it is, however, that ships were built of prodigious size, and if not equal to a line-of-battle ship of late days, they must have been as large as, if not larger than, the Great Harry, and probably quite as well able to encounter as she was the boisterous seas. Long before the Christian era, ships boldly struck across the Mediterranean, and even passing through the Pillars of Hercules, coasted along the shores of Iberia and Gaul, and thence crossed over to Britain, or coasted round the African continent.

Advanced as the ancients were in architectural knowledge, there is every reason to suppose that they were equally capable of building ships to answer all their requirements, either for war or commerce. They were probably thus not only of great size, but well built, and were certainly finished and ornamented in an elegant and even a magnificent manner, far superior to that of many ages later. The mistaken notion as to the size of the ships of the ancients arises from the supposition that because merchantmen of the present day are smaller than men-of-war, that they were so formerly—the reverse, however, being the case. Men-of-war were generally long, narrow vessels, constructed for speed, to carry only fighting men, with a small quantity of provisions; whereas merchantmen were built of considerable beam and depth to stow a large quantity of cargo. A Phoenician vessel was able to afford accommodation to 500 emigrants, with provisions for a long voyage, besides her crew, while her masts were formed of the cedars of Lebanon.