Warships and Naval Warfare Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

From ancient times, the principal warship of the Mediterranean Sea was the oared galley, which was used to ram and sink opposing ships.

Nature and Use

From ancient times, the principal warship of the Mediterranean Sea was the oared Galleys;oaredgalley, which was used to ram and sink opposing ships. The galley typically had fore and aft decked platforms with a lower, usually open, area for the rowers. The galley was built using a “shell-first” Shell-first construction[shell first construction]construction, in which the planks of the galley’s hull were edge joined with mortise-and-tenon joints, to which a system of frames was later inserted. Joints typically were made out of oak for strength, and the other sections were constructed from lighter woods, such as pine or fir, for speed. From the bow of the vessel at its waterline projected a sharp beak, or ram, usually made of bronze, which was used to puncture the sides of opposing ships and cause them to sink.Naval warfare;ancientNaval power;medievalWarships;ancientWarships;medievalShips and shipbuilding;ancientShips and shipbuilding;medievalNaval warfare;ancientNaval power;medievalWarships;ancientWarships;medievalShips and shipbuilding;ancientShips and shipbuilding;medieval

Control of the sea and protection of merchant shipping were important for many Mediterranean civilizations. Although the PhoeniciaPhoenicians and Etruscans;navyEtruscans previously had developed navies to defend their trading interests, the Greek city-state of Athens was the first to actively use its Athens;navyGreece;navynavy in efforts toward imperial expansion. Even a largely land-based power such as Rome;navyRome was eventually forced to develop a navy to deal with naval threats such as the Carthaginians and the Vandals.

The bow of a Greek trireme, which employed three banks of rowers to achieve the superior speed, handling, and power that enabled Athens’s growth as an imperial power in the mid-fifth century b.c.e.

(Kimberly L. Dawson Kurnizki)

The stern of a Greek trireme, which employed three banks of rowers to achieve the superior speed, handling, and power that enabled Athens’s growth as an imperial power in the mid-fifth century b.c.e.

(Kimberly L. Dawson Kurnizki)

The oared galley also predominated in the Atlantic Ocean for many centuries. Raiders such as the Vikings;and galleys[galleys]Vikings used their oared galleys, known as Longshipslongships, to make raids along the coast of Europe. In response to the more strenuous maritime conditions along the coast of northern Europe, these vessels did not use mortise-and-tenon joints, but instead were clinker-built. Clinker-built Clinker-built ships[Clinker built ships]construction, sometimes called clench-built Clench-built ships[Clench built ships]construction, is a method of shipbuilding in which overlapping planks are fastened to one another using wooden pins, called treenails, or iron clench nails. Next, a form of caulking, consisting of animal hair dipped in pitch to prevent leaking, is placed in the seams between the planks.

The oared galley remained the dominant warship until the development of the Cogscog in the thirteenth century c.e. The cog was a large merchant vessel associated with the development of the Hanseatic Hanseatic LeagueLeague, a commercial union of German, Dutch, and Flemish towns. It had very high sides and a flat bottom and was propelled by a single square sail. Although the cog was a poor sailer, its high sides offered protection against smaller oared vessels, such as the Viking longships. The addition of fighting castles at the bow and stern allowed the vessel to be used to fight wars and blockade towns. The cog was soon replaced, however, by the Carrackscarrack, a sailing ship with multiple masts and a combination of square and lateen, or triangular, sails. The carrack was a very efficient sailing vessel that became popular in both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. After cannons were added to the carrack, many Western European countries utilized the vessel to become worldwide naval powers.


The Greek civilization was one of the first to develop naval power. The first Greek warships, consisting of a single level of oarsmen with one rower per oar, were called Triacontor (oared vessel)triacontors and Pentecontor (oared vessel) pentecontors (thirty- and fifty-oared ships). By the end of the eighth century b.c.e. , a second level of rowers was added, in an effort to improve the vessel’s speed and to increase the force of the collision between the vessel’s ram and the opposing ship. After the addition of a third row of oarsmen in the late seventh century b.c.e. , the resulting vessel was known as a Trireme (oared vessel) trireme. According to the Greek historian ThucydidesThucydides (Greek historian) Thucydides (c. 459-c. 402 b.c.e. ), the trireme was invented by a Corinthian named Ameinocles. However, other ancient sources credit the Sidonians;trireme Sidonians with the innovation. Because only the wealthiest cities could afford to build and maintain a trireme, these vessels were not used extensively for several centuries, after which the Phoenicians and Egyptians began to incorporate triremes into their fleets. It was during Athens’s growth as an imperial power in the mid-fifth century b.c.e. that the superior speed, handling, and power of the trireme firmly established its position as the premier warship.

The design of the trireme slowly evolved during the Hellenistic Age into that of a much larger and bulkier vessel. To increase the ship’s speed and power, extra men were added to each bank of oars, leading to Quadrireme (oared vessel)quadriremes and Quinquereme (oared vessel)quinqueremes. A quadrireme was not a vessel with four banks of oars, as the prefix “quad-” suggests, but rather it was a trireme with a top row of oars with two oarsmen to each oar and two lower rows of oars, each manipulated by one man. A quinquereme, also known as a Pentereis (oared vessel)pentereis, or a “five,” had two rows of oars manned by two men and one row manned by one. The new configuration of oars and oarsmen brought about several changes in the design of the vessel’s hull, among which was its increased breadth. The longer oar length changed the stroke of the oarsmen. Because a seated stroke did not allow the full power of the oar to be utilized, a full stroke had to be performed from a standing position by the man on the inside end, as the oar rose and fell during the course of one revolution. More room between decks was also needed, as the men were standing instead of sitting. These adjustments led to larger and larger ships.

Construction of Large Ships

Among the most important reasons for the construction of larger ships were technological advances in weaponry. The torsion Catapults;torsioncatapult had been invented around 400 b.c.e. but did not play an important role until the campaigns of Alexander the Alexander the GreatAlexander the Great;catapult useGreat (356-323 b.c.e.). A logical next step was the mounting of catapults on board galleys to use against other ships, as seen in the famous battle for CyprusCyprus between Demetrius Demetrius I PoliorcetesDemetrius I Poliorcetes (king of Macedonia)Poliorcetes (336-283 b.c.e.) and Ptolemy in 306 b.c.e. To mount the catapult, a larger ship and a sturdier deck, to absorb the weapon’s recoil, were needed. Because smaller ramming ships were easy prey for long-range weapons, warships were built larger to offer protection from aerial bombardment. As the ships became larger, however, their mobility was retarded. This gigantism saw the construction of “sixteens,” “twenties,” and “thirties,” and culminated in the huge ship constructed by Ptolemy Ptolemy IVPtolemy IV (king of Egypt)[Ptolemy 04]IV around 200 b.c.e., which was referred to in the ancient literature as a “forty.”

When Demetrius Poliorcetes attacked Rhodes in 305 Rhodes, Siege of (305-304 b.c.e.)b.c.e., he was forced to experiment with new naval tactics, in response to the strength of the city’s defenses. To attack the harbor, he built a floating siege machine that was mounted on the hulls of two cargo ships. He constructed four Towerstowers, or “penthouses,” for use against the harbor’s fortifications. These penthouses were taller than the city’s harbor towers and permitted arrows and javelins to be directed at the defenders manning the harbor towers. Demetrius Poliorcetes also planked over several of his lighter boats, into which he placed archers and catapults, who fired through ports that could be opened and closed.

During the First Punic Punic War, First (264-241 b.c.e.)War (264-241 b.c.e.) Rome found that, despite the strength of its army, its Carthaginian opponent was a superior naval power. In response, the Romans utilized the Corvus (grappling hook)corvus, or raven, a nautical grappling Grappling hooks hook. This device was simply a long, spiked gangplank mounted on the bow of a Roman warship and dropped onto the deck of a Carthaginian ship, securing the two ships together and allowing a Roman contingent to board and capture the opposing vessel.

After its final defeat of Carthage in the second century b.c.e., the Roman navy began a slow decline in strength. The only real need for a continued naval presence was the protection of merchant ships, especially the annual grain ships coming from Egypt, from piracy. The large quadremes and quinqueremes of the Hellenistic Age were phased out, and smaller, faster ships better able to combat the pirates were increasingly produced. New vessels, such as the liburnian and the dromon, were introduced into the Imperial fleet and soon replaced the trireme as the main warship of the Roman navy.

The Dromon

The Dromon (ship)dromon was built for a specific purpose: to combat a different type of enemy than had the trireme, which was typically used against other triremes in pitched naval contests. During the years of the Roman Empire, vessels became smaller and faster. A military vessel was needed that could catch these smaller vessels and still be powerful enough to fight in large-scale naval battles against organized opponents. The dromon, with its various capabilities, was the solution. It was fast–in fact, its name means “runner” in Greek–yet it was still large enough to carry the weapons required during large naval conflicts.

Perhaps the best-known offensive weapon of the Byzantine fleet was “Greek Greek firefire,” invented by a Syrian, CallinicusCallinicus (Syrian inventor)Callinicus, in Constantinople and used in 674-678 c.e. during the first Arab siege of Constantinople, Siege of (674-678)[Constantinople, Siege of 674]Constantinople. Greek fire was a flammable liquid that would supposedly burn even in water. It was shot through a metal tube, or siphon, onto enemy ships, causing them to catch fire. Most Byzantine ships had a siphon, protected by the forecastle, mounted at the bow. Larger vessels sometimes had siphons mounted on each side of the ship, as well as small siphons that could be used for boarding actions or for repelling boarders. Although the Byzantines zealously guarded the secret makeup of Greek fire, the Arabs;and Greek fire[Greek fire]Arabs eventually produced a similar flammable liquid in the ninth century c.e.

The sea battle at Actium, 31 b.c.e.

(North Wind Picture Archives via AP Images)

Dromons also carried other offensive weapons, for both long-distance attacks and close ship-to-ship action. They had large Crossbowscrossbows, known as Toxoballistra (crossbow)toxoballistrai, mounted on deck. Small catapults capable of launching stones or pots containing vipers, scorpions, quicklime, or Greek fire were also used. Deck crews were armed with bows and crossbows. For close work, cranes were used to drop heavy stones onto and hopefully through the decks of opposing ships.

Byzantine naval supremacy remained unchallenged until the seventh century reign of the Byzantine emperor HeracliusHeraclius (Byzantine emperor)Heraclius (c. 575-641). In 626 c.e., a Persian army and an Avar fleet threatened Constantinople, but the Byzantines destroyed the AvarsAvar ships, forcing the besiegers to withdraw. Soon afterward, the Arabs;naval powerArabs, realizing the importance of naval power, developed a fleet based upon the Byzantine model and began to challenge the Byzantines for control of the Mediterranean. This fleet proved to be quite successful, defeating the Byzantines in 655 c.e. at Lycia, Battle at (655 c.e.)Lycia (Dhat al-Sawari), off the Syrian coast. In 717 c.e. Constantinople, Siege of (717-718)[Constantinople, Siege of 717]Constantinople was attacked by a large Arab flotilla, but the Byzantines were able to destroy the attacking fleet with Greek fire, lifting the siege and allowing Emperor Leo Leo IIILeo III (Byzantine emperor)[Leo 03 Byzantine]III (c. 680-741) to drive off the Arabs.

Although the Byzantines were successful in fending off Arab attacks on Constantinople, they were less successful in 1204 c.e. during the Fourth Crusades;Fourth (1198-1204)Crusade. In a carefully planned amphibious assault using both soldiers and warships, the Crusaders were able to capture the city that had withstood capture for nearly nine hundred years.Naval warfare;ancientNaval power;medievalWarships;ancientWarships;medievalShips and shipbuilding;ancientShips and shipbuilding;medieval

Books and Articles
  • Anglim, Simon, et al. “Naval Warfare.” In Fighting Techniques of the Ancient World, 3,000 B.C.-500 A.D.: Equipment, Combat Skills, and Tactics. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002.
  • Casson, Lionel. The Ancient Mariners: Seafarers and Sea Fighters of the Mediterranean in Ancient Times. London: V. Gollancz, 1960.
  • _______. Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971.
  • Fernández-Armesto, Felipe. “Naval Warfare After the Viking Age, c. 1100-1500.” In Medieval Warfare: A History, edited by Maurice Keen. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Fields, Nic. Ancient Greek Warship, 500-322 B.C. Illustrated by Peter Bull. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2007.
  • Gardiner, Robert, ed. The Age of the Galley: Mediterranean Oared Vessels Since Pre-classical Times. London: Conway Maritime Press, 1995.
  • Lewis, Archibald, and Timothy J. Runyan. European Naval and Maritime History, 300-1500. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.
  • McGrail, Sean. Ancient Boats in North-West Europe: The Archaeology of Water Transport to A.D. 1500. New York: Longman, 1987.
  • Morrison, J. S., J. F. Coates, and N. B. Rankov. The Athenian Trireme. 2d ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • Nelson, Richard Bruce. Warfleets of Antiquity: Ships, Crews, Tactics, and Campaigns of Greek, Persian, Carthaginian, Hellenic, Roman, Celtic, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Byzantine Fleets. Illustrations by P. W. Norris. Goring by Sea, England: Wargames Research Group, 1973.
  • Nicholson, Helen J. “Naval Warfare.” In Medieval Warfare: Theory and Practice of War in Europe, 300-1500. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
  • Throckmorton, Peter. The Sea Remembers. New York: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987.
  • Thubron, Colin. The Ancient Mariners. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1981.
  • Tilley, Alec. Seafaring on the Ancient Mediterranean: New Thoughts on Triremes and Other Ancient Ships. Oxford, England: John and Erica Hedges, 2004.
Films and Other Media
  • Warship. Documentary. Public Broadcasting Service, 2002.

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