The Ancient Mariners

Ramses defeats the Sea People
Ramses defeats the Sea People

I’m having a great time with The Ancient Mariners: Seafarers and Sea Fighters of the Mediterranean in Ancient Times by Lionel Casson. It’s a wonderful work that has answered a lot of questions I had while reading about naval warfare in the ancient world, like what’s a trireme and a quinquereme, and what did these ships look like?

I’m just guessing, but I think Lionel Casson agrees with me about what scholars are for. They’re supposed to pore over ancient manuscripts and archaeological evidence and provide me the reader with all the telling details.

Casson is as intrigued as I am about the earliest navigators: who first harnessed the wind and sailed over the seas. We know the earliest Mesopotamian cities traded with India, and the early Egyptians traded with Punt, but early navigators must have explored long before that.

Casson finds representations of ships in Egypt and Mesopotamia back to 3,000 BCE (before the common era), but then pushes it back even further, based on a little clay toy boat dated about 3,500

“Not long ago, digging at Eridu, in the level that dates around 3500 to 3400 BC, excavators came upon a little toy model of a boat. The town is now well inland, but the coast line in its vicinity has changed and in those days it sat upon the coast of the Persian Gulf. The model is of a small skiff, no doubt the sort used for fishing or small trips along the coast.

“In the center of the floor, somewhat forward of amidships, it has a sturdy round socket and, on either side, a hole has been pierced in the gunwhale. The socket may have held a figure or a standard of some kind, but it looks very much as if it was there to receive a mast, and the holes a pair of stays.”

The discovery of a child’s toy in Eridu extends the history of sailing back 500 years.

How did the Romans, completely landlocked for centuries, defeat the Carthaginian Navy that had ruled the seas for centuries? The corbus, or ‘raven,’ a long plank with a spike on it that allowed them to board the Carthaginians vessels.

How did Augustus’ friend Agrippa defeat the the experienced pirate fleet of Septimus Severus? A grappling hook fired from a catapult.

These innovations put an end to the tactics of earlier fleets like the Minoans and the Athenians and the Rhodians and the (Macedonian) Ptolemies of Egypt, where the important thing was oar power and ramming. That’s how the Greeks defeated the Persians and ruled the seas for centuries. Then the Syracusans defeated the Athenians by reinforcing their ships.

Alexander and his successors built larger and larger galleys like the quinqueremes (five men to an oar) and even bigger galleys until the Romans made the Mediterranean into their personal lake. They destroyed the commercial power of Rhodes by creating a tax-free island on nearby Delos.

Then the showdown between Agugustus and Mark Anthony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium. This wasn’t actually much of a battle. Augustus, then known as Octavian, Julius Caesar’s heir, had somehow obtained Anthony’s will from the Vestal Virgins — not the first time the Vestals had helped out the Caesars — which detailed his legacies to foreign-born Cleopatra and their children and alienated all Anthony’s supporters in Rome.

Then Otavian obtained Mark Antony’s battle plan from a deserting general. And, as Casson notes, the whole fleet knew that Athony and Cleopatra’s ships had their sails on board, indicating their intention to flee. But Antony had only a portion of his fleet because most of his rowers died in an outbreak of malaria. He had to burn a lot of ships that he couldn’t man and the rest of the fleet was undermanned. It wasn’t much of a contest.

Anthony had bulky galleys that were only good for ramming, which they couldn’t do without experienced crews, and Augustus and Agrippa had more nimble Liburnian vessels that could easily dodge them and then board them. Cleopatra’s and Anthony’s personal ships set sail and took off for Egypt, the rest of their army and navy surrendered and Augustus took care of them later, although Cleopatra famously took care of herself by means of an asp in a basket.

A scholar like Casson provides so much insight into these ancient battles.