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Old November 10th, 2009, 10:13 AM   #1

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The Athenian Navy


The Year is 480 BC. Two massive fleets are staring each other down between the Greek Mainland and the island of Salamis. On the one side are the combined Greek forces, who, after much hesitation and persuasion, have decided to hold their ground and defend their homeland in what could possibly be the last battle for many of the men. On the other side is the navy of the Persian Empire, consisting of contingents from all of Xerxes' dominion, most notably the Phoenicians.

The numbers did not look good for the Greeks. They were more than doubly outnumbered. Yet there was one man within the ranks of the Greek forces that would not let himself be shaken by mere numbers. Athenian statesman and general Themistocles, arguably one of the finest naval strategists in history, had a plan. Three years earlier, after the discovery of a rich silver deposit in the mines at Laurium, Themistocles decided to persuade his fellow Athenians not to divide the money among themselves, but to fund a new fleet (which was not an easy task.) He did this by lying to them. He told the masses that the ships were needed for the brewing trouble in the Aegean, but his real intentions were to build a defense against what he knew to be an impending invasion by Xerxes. His actions, although dishonest, would save Athens in the long run. Moreover, he was not just looking at building "another" fleet, but one consisting entirely out of new trieres (or triremes which they are commonly known as). Penteconters would be overshadowed by the performance of these equally agile and fast but much more powerful ships. A new age in maritime history would emerge.

But now three years later, with Athens burning, Themistocles' "wooden wall" was put to the test. He had already defeated the Persian's in a battle at Artemisum a few months before, now but he faced a larger enemy force and his fellow Greeks were less motivated. With the sacred temples at Athens burning, it was no surprise that many Greeks preferred to flee.

With the two navies opposing each other in the Straight of Salamis, battle was bound to ensue. But how could such a small (relative) and demotivated, albeit skilled and experienced, fleet defeat such a massive armada? As mentioned, Themistocles had a plan. He gave the signal for the Greek ships to back water, making it look like they were retreating. The Persians took the opportunity and advanced, wedging themselves deeper into the passage. Then, just as Themistocles predicted, the waters began to shift and the Persian ships started to collide with each other. This is precisely what Themistocles had wanted. He took advantage of the Persian's lack of knowledge of local waters and their general inexperience and skill at naval warfare. With confusion and panic spreading among the Persian ranks, the Greeks were able to pick off enemy ships without too much trouble. Losses were high on the Persian side, as many of the sailors could not swim.

It was an astonishing victory and caught both Greeks and Persians by surprise. With Persia defeated at sea, now just the army had to be dealt with.

With the war over in 479 BC and a few more years of retaliation that followed, peace settled itself in nicely. Indeed, this was the start of Athens’ Golden Age. But what would become of Athens massive and powerful navy? There was no longer one tyrannical enemy all of Greece could join up against. As a result, the traditional factions became apparent again among the Greek city states. With Athens leading one side and Sparta the other, the Greeks would sure enough sooner or later get at each other's throats again. Athens and approx. 140 other city states decided to form the Delian League, so called because the meeting took place at Delos. Athens, as the largest, most popular and of course the most powerful polis of them all, was naturally to be the leader. Initially Athens asked for annual contributions of naval contingents or, if they'd rather, a sum of talents. The navies of Athens and her allies would patrol the Mediterranean, fending of pirates and protecting trade routes. Things went swimmingly at first, but over time Athens’ real intentions became apparent. Athens was out to create herself an empire, which the other members of the Delian League did not sign up for. Those that tried to leave the "voluntary" league would be punished, which could mean anything from a fine to total distruction (as seen at Miletos). Sparta became naturally uneasy at her traditional rival's rise to power, but she remained quite powerless at sea for Athens’ navy had become so great since the Persian Wars. Sparta relied heavily on Corinth, which had the second best fleet in the Greek World. Yet even the second best was far inferior to Athens'.

But why was Athens’ fleet so much more powerful than anyone else’s? The answer is, to put it simply, practice. Practice, practice, practice. In both times of war and peace the Athenian fleet would practice. The basic training period was longer and more vigourous than anywhere else. Athens’ had such excellent strategoi as Themistocles, whose experience was most valuable. Precision and timing was key to success. Unlike Sparta who preferred to board enemy ships and fight hand to hand, Athens’ perfected the art of ramming. Ram too slow and you might not penetrate the enemy's hull, ram too fast and you might get yourself stuck. Both could be catastrophic for the ramming ship. Of course Athens’ also had marines on board if worst came to worst, but she tried to avoid such confrontations.

Relations began to break down and war broke out. The First Peloponnesian War was waged from 460 to 445 BC. The war had no significant naval engagements and it has overall been overlooked in history. I shall skip ahead to 429 BC. The Second Peloponnesian War had already begun and a naval battle took place which highlights the excellence of the Athenians. A small fleet of 20 Athenian trieres was in the Corinthian Gulf, facing a Corinthian fleet more than twice its size. The Athenian commander, Phormio, was just as brilliant as his predecessor Themistocles. The Corinthians positioned themselves in a defensive circle, which further emphasizes their inferiority. But what Phormio did next was unorthodox and risky. He ordered his fleet to continually row around the circle, thus pushing the inexperienced and nervous Corinthians into each other. Once the oars of the ships got too close to each other to be effective, Phormio launched his attack. It was an amazing victory, but one which would be overshadowed by his next one a few days later. He now faced an even larger enemy force. Yet even with such an overwhelming numerical superiority, the Corinthians dared not attack. This is a testament to the reputation Athens had made herself, one which was very much deserved. Athens did however initially suffer a defeat by losing eleven of her twenty ships to the enemy. As the remaining nine fled, the Corinthians took chase. What the Corinthians did not expect, however, was for the Athenians to put up any form of resistance. When the opportunity arose, an Athenian ship swung itself around and instantly sunk the leading Corinthian ship. Such a site was so frightening and unbelievable to the Corinthians that their spirits were shattered. Phormio was able to regroup and defeat the Corinthians, taking back his lost ships and even capturing some additional ones.
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Old November 10th, 2009, 10:13 AM   #2

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Re: The Athenian Navy


It was a great start for Athens, but still no one was sure what the outcome of the war would be. The navy was stronger than ever. Year after year the Peloponnesians sacked Attica, burning the fields and forcing the Athenians to flee within the safety of the city walls. This, however, was not too much of a problem for Athens. With the Mediterranean Sea under Athenian control, vital supplies were shipped in from all over, especially grain from the Black Sea. Considering that the plague broke out in 430 BC, that Athens’ number one citizen Pericles died from it in 429 BC and that Attica was constantly being laid to waste, Athens was going strong. Sparta and her allies were doing what they did best on land and Athens was doing the same at sea – so it is no wonder that the war went on for so many years. Many battles, even those with high losses, did not seem to bring about an end to the war. The Sicilian Expedition of 415-413 BC was a total disaster for Athens. Yet despite such massive losses, Athens somehow managed to press on and prolong the war for nearly another decade. An important naval battle was fought in 406 BC at the Arginusae Islands near Lesbos. Athens cleverly used islets dotted around the area to form a line two ships deep that was wider than Sparta’s single one. This prevented the Peloponnesians from attempting a diekplus, a maneuver in which a ship would speed through the enemy’s line, turn and ram a ship from behind. It was an Atheninan success, but Athens herself thwarted any advantage they could take from it. There had been the issue after the battle of stranded Athenian sailors who were left to drown. Ships were assigned to rescue them, but any attempt was hindered by an unexpected storm. Fury broke out in Athens when news of the drowned men arrived and after a lengthy debate, the eight generals who were in the fleet at Arginusae were sentenced to death; an act which Athenians later regretted deeply.
One year later the two opposing fleets met at Aegospotami. Athens was at this point desperate. Food supplies were running low at home and they hoped for a quick victory. The Athenians, with 180 ships, beached themselves at Aegospotami, where, however, it was a long way to the nearest market. The Spartans used this to their advantage – they had all the time in the world and knew that day by day the Athenians would grow weaker and more anxious. After a few days of Athens’ fleet sailing out to meet Sparta’s, but with Sparta staying put, the Athenian ships once again beached themselves and went off to market. This is when the Peloponnesians engaged. They swooped in and captured 171 enemy ships without much resistance, killing those Athenians who stayed by the ships. Nine vessels managed to escape, as they had hoisted their sails. The Spartan’s could not give chase as conventions dictated that sails would not be carried when setting out to battle. The Spartan victory at Aegospotami was arguably the most one-sided and unbelievable one in naval history. Athens was utterly defeated. Not long after, the city was starved into surrender, and so ended the long and bloody (Second) Peloponnesian War.



Sources:
90% of what I wrote was from memory. As you can see there are some gaps in information. I did not want to look everything up I did not know, as I did this as an exercise to jog my memory. I am writing about the Athenian Navy in my dissertation and this was some good practice. If there are any mistakes or any omissions that should have been included, please tell me.

The books that I have read in the past relevant to this topic are:
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
Herodotus, The Histories
Fik Meijr, A History of Seafaring in the Classical World (1986)
Lionel Casson, The Ancient Mariners (1991)
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Old November 14th, 2009, 03:37 AM   #3
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Re: The Athenian Navy


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Old November 14th, 2009, 03:48 AM   #4

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Re: The Athenian Navy


Excellent, fascinating read even for myself already largely familiar with the material.

It was the Athenian Navy which gave the chance for Athens to establish its dominance in inter-polis politics out of the ashes of the Persian Wars, its interesting to see where Athenian and Hellenic naval technology and tactics took off later on (see: Demetrius I)
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Old November 14th, 2009, 05:36 AM   #5

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Re: The Athenian Navy


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Originally Posted by NewModelSoldier View Post
Excellent, fascinating read even for myself already largely familiar with the material.

It was the Athenian Navy which gave the chance for Athens to establish its dominance in inter-polis politics out of the ashes of the Persian Wars, its interesting to see where Athenian and Hellenic naval technology and tactics took off later on (see: Demetrius I)


I haven't read that much on the subject, but the naval arms race seems quite fascinating. Pigheadidness goes back millenia
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Old November 14th, 2009, 10:46 AM   #6

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Re: The Athenian Navy


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Originally Posted by Fluffybunny View Post


I haven't read that much on the subject, but the naval arms race seems quite fascinating. Pigheadidness goes back millenia
Very good Fluffy Bunny!! I once wrote a paper about the Battle of Thermopylae and I am currently reading “The Peloponnesian War” by Donald Kagan. I wish I could find my old paper but it is gone with the wind. I plan to read Thucydides next but thanks for the great report. I would like to possible add but that will take some time and thought and I have little time. Are you in England or Germany? Speaking of fluffy bunnies, we have jack rabbits all over the Arizona desert.

Throughout the 27 year war both Sparta and Athens would suffer humiliating defeats but in the end we all know who won out. I wonder was the Athenian Empire really the threat the Peloponnesians thought they were. In all I have read so far I do not think they were but let me finish Thucydides. Can you recommend any books in English? My grandmother and mother were from Korinthos and I have been to ancient Korinthos twice. My last trip to Greece and Turkiye was in 2006 and I hope to come back, Alaska first. LOL
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Old November 14th, 2009, 02:35 PM   #7

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Re: The Athenian Navy


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Originally Posted by cannelidis1 View Post
Very good Fluffy Bunny!! I once wrote a paper about the Battle of Thermopylae and I am currently reading “The Peloponnesian War” by Donald Kagan. I wish I could find my old paper but it is gone with the wind. I plan to read Thucydides next but thanks for the great report. I would like to possible add but that will take some time and thought and I have little time. Are you in England or Germany? Speaking of fluffy bunnies, we have jack rabbits all over the Arizona desert.

Thanks. I'm currently in England at uni. I'll be back in Germany for christmas.

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Throughout the 27 year war both Sparta and Athens would suffer humiliating defeats but in the end we all know who won out. I wonder was the Athenian Empire really the threat the Peloponnesians thought they were. In all I have read so far I do not think they were but let me finish Thucydides. Can you recommend any books in English? My grandmother and mother were from Korinthos and I have been to ancient Korinthos twice. My last trip to Greece and Turkiye was in 2006 and I hope to come back, Alaska first. LOL


The empire Athens (forcibly) created out of the Delian League would have seemed like a legitimate threat, however, due to Athens and Sparta's long tradition of rivalry, I'm sure a lot of their fears were due to exaggeration.

To be honest, I can't think of a book right now. I've read Thucydides (which was a headache) and the books I have on ancient navies revealed a lot of relevant history. I'm quite lazy when it comes to reading
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Old November 14th, 2009, 03:12 PM   #8

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Thanks. I'm currently in England at uni. I'll be back in Germany for christmas.

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The empire Athens (forcibly) created out of the Delian League would have seemed like a legitimate threat, however, due to Athens and Sparta's long tradition of rivalry, I'm sure a lot of their fears were due to exaggeration.

To be honest, I can't think of a book right now. I've read Thucydides (which was a headache) and the books I have on ancient navies revealed a lot of relevant history. I'm quite lazy when it comes to reading
That sounds accurate

Are you German or English? I am 1/4 German but I have not made it to Germany yet, England x2 Switzerland- once
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Old November 14th, 2009, 09:31 PM   #9

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Re: The Athenian Navy


Thank you for two very enjoyable posts, Fluffybunny! I'm quite impressed with the handle you have on your material. Unfortunately I'm unable to assist you by pointing out omissions since I know much less than you about the Peloponnesian War, and the naval battles that took place during that time. Just wanted to chime in with a thumbs up, and keep up the good work!
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Old November 15th, 2009, 02:52 AM   #10

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That sounds accurate

Are you German or English? I am 1/4 German but I have not made it to Germany yet, England x2 Switzerland- once
I am a British citizen born and raised in Germany. I see myself as a Brit, but have a lot of Germanness in me

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Originally Posted by Recusant View Post
Thank you for two very enjoyable posts, Fluffybunny! I'm quite impressed with the handle you have on your material. Unfortunately I'm unable to assist you by pointing out omissions since I know much less than you about the Peloponnesian War, and the naval battles that took place during that time. Just wanted to chime in with a thumbs up, and keep up the good work!

Thanks. Naval battles have generally been overlooked - it doesn't seem to interest people as much as land battles : (
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