What’s a trireme?

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Triremes were ancient warships with three vertical rows of oars on each side. They were fast and maneuverable and played a significant role in Athenian maritime dominance. The exact design is unknown, but modern recreations have been built and operated.

A trireme is a type of human-powered galley that was widely used in the ancient world. The word trireme refers to the three vertical rows of oars the vessels had on each side, an advancement over earlier single-row penteconters and double-row biremes. Each oar was typically operated by a single person, although the exact configuration and design of these vessels was lost to the Middle Ages. Later galleys that used three banks of oars are also sometimes known as triremes, although their designs may differ from the original warships of antiquity. Modern recreations of triremes are sometimes built and operated, with one taking part in the Olympic torch relay in 2004.

During classical antiquity, between the 7th and 4th centuries B.C. C., the trireme was one of the most successful warships. The vessels were reportedly fast and maneuverable, due to the use of three vertical banks of oars. Sources disagree on when and where they were first used, although reliable evidence points to their use when Persia invaded Egypt in 525 BC. C. Triremes were also instrumental in establishing Athenian maritime dominance, until they were used by both sides when Sparta and her allies defeated Athens at Aegospotami.

There is no definitive evidence on the exact design of ancient triremes. Most modern knowledge of these vessels comes from written accounts and artwork, as preserved wrecks have never been discovered. One innovation that was believed to exist in Athenian triremes was a set of cables called hypozomas. These cables are believed to have been laid under the beam and tensioned to prevent hogging in rough seas. The tension provided by the cables may also have allowed an Athenian trireme to ram an enemy ship without breaking up.

Historical sources refer to triremes as two cubits long, which is about 120 feet (37 meters). These descriptions are believed to be quite accurate, as building sheds of approximately this length have been discovered in ancient Athenian shipyards. The dimensions of these sheds and ancient references suggest that the vessels were about three meters (nine feet) tall. Trireme hulls are believed to have been built from soft woods, such as pine and fir, which tend to be lightweight and allow for faster vessels. A typical trireme is thought to have had around 170 oars arranged in sets of three vertical rows, along with a pair of rear-steering oars and two square-rigged masts.

In the 1980s, a project was undertaken in Greece to recreate a classic trireme. This project used ancient sources to approximate the construction as closely as possible and led to many new discoveries about the probable condition and capabilities of the ships. Even operating with a relatively inexperienced crew, this recreated trireme was capable of speeds of 9 knots (approximately 17 km/h) and making relatively tight turns.

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