Why Were Ancient Fleets So Awful?

Nov 2018
98
Idaho
#1
For thousands of years people were using god-awful galleys that were constantly destroyed by entirely predictable storms. At first I thought it might be like the inferior armor and tiny swords of the ancients - an issue of materials and technique - but it turns out that these garbage triremes actually required older timber than the later and far superior vessels and they were harder and more expensive to build than later vessels, too. Why did the major sea powers - Greece, Carthage, Egypt - not develop something better suited for the freaking weather of their sea? What concept of seamanship or boatwrighting was it that kept them from building vessels that did not topple over or dash themselves to pieces at the slightest breeze?

I know sea travel was still pretty dangerous until the advent of steel ships and coal engines (Spanish Armada), but the sheer ratio of ancient fleets which were entirely destroyed by the weather (and not the enemy) is ridiculous.
 
Nov 2010
6,999
Cornwall
#2
I think you'll find percentage-wise losses were fairly low. We hear about disasters because they are worth recording but Mediterranean ships only sailed in season and seafolk tend to know when bad weather is due.
 

Bart Dale

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
6,646
#3
Galleys were made light weight to make them faster and more manueverability. Not only because ramming was one the methods, but because speed and manueverability is an advantage by itself.

In the Mediterranean the light weight construction was sufficient, but not for the Atlantic, but they typically didn't fight naval battles in the Atlantic with galleys.
 
Nov 2018
98
Idaho
#4
I think you'll find percentage-wise losses were fairly low. We hear about disasters because they are worth recording but Mediterranean ships only sailed in season and seafolk tend to know when bad weather is due.
In the conflict between Imperator Caesar (Octavian) and Sextus Pompey, and later Marcus Antonius two out of the four fleets they used lost about half their numbers to weather. Likewise, Marcus Lepidus lost a large chunk of a fleet heading to fight Sextus Pompey. Part of Octavian's fleet was lost simply between the toe of Italy and Sicily!

One thing I thought was that maybe the sheer concentration of ships in war fleets created hazards, i.e. they would slam into each other when the weather got bad. There was mention of a technique to mitigate this - having the ships loosely lashed together and then rowing against the storm's wind - but apparently Octavian did not know of this method.

In any case, the losses were apparently bad enough to deter people from even trying to cross at times.
 
Aug 2018
55
Anatolia
#6
First of all, they weren't predictable storms; they were gods' wrath. If you don't just anoint yourself with ram's blood after sacrificing it to Poseidon and burn it in fire, this happens.

Maybe sometimes it was due to a failure to capture the target at where they would moor their navy, expecting the storm yet not the defeat.
Famously a portion of Persian fleet was destroyed in open sea after they were unexpectedly stopped by Athenians on western Aegean sea.
 

Belgarion

Ad Honorem
Jul 2011
6,430
Australia
#7
Seafaring is an inherently dangerous occupation, even more so in ancient times. Weather forecasting is not an exact science even today, so there was nothing 'entirely predictable' about storms back then either. The ships were built with the technology available at the time, nothing 'God awful' about it, especially seeing that the basic trireme/galley design was in service for over 1000 years.