Why Were Ancient Fleets So Awful?

Nov 2011
The Bluff
There was nothing "God awful" about the trireme (or those extensions of the theme). The trireme was the hight of naval technology in its day. As noted, it was built light and designed for maneuverability and speed. These ships were the "spears" of the sea and had to perform tactical maneuvers such as the diekplous and periplous. These were war vessels not cargo carriers of pleasure barges and, in the right hands, were deadly. As such, they were not designed, nor intended, for use in contrary weather. Such weather meant anything worse than winds of about thirty or so kilometres per hour. Such ships were prodigiously expensive not only to construct but also to man and maintain. One only needs to look at the massive arsenal and ship sheds which made up the three harbours of ancient Athens' Peiraeus. In its heyday, Athens maintained numbers of these ships which were deployed in the same manner and for the same purpose as the US nowadays deploys carrier battle groups. They were, in ancient terms, near as expensive.


Ad Honorem
Dec 2015
Any navy composed primarily of galleys is, by definition, oarful.
An oarful fleet vs a wind-dependent fleet, which one is "better"?

Back when I still played games:
In the old game of "Uncharted Water II", you have two options of top ships: Tekkosen or Full-rigged ship. The game assumes 1500 CE.
The tekkosen is "oarful", smaller, less wind-dependent, and
Full rigged ship is larger and capable of carrying more guns.

How did wind-based ships replace galleys or even galleass?
Nov 2010
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.

So as I said then, unusual incident driven by war conditions, not common sense


Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
Whilst ancient seamen were characteristically superstitious as any later period, the extent of religious explanation for prevailing weather would have varied just so. Some would have said "oh no the gods are angry", others might have said "Oh no, a storm is brewing".

Seaworthiness is another matter. Ancient mariners had access to ships that sometimes used flimsy or crude construction, but many ships werer well built and with poor weather in mind. Also we must allow for the remarkable seamanship and skills of these sailors. Most tended to hog the coast and anchor overnight if possible, although knowledge of the Mediterranean meant that ships could sail out of sight of land with some assurance they were not going to drop off the edge of the world or meet other unknown hazards.

The range of voyages is alo remarkable. A Chinese expeditionary sent to find the Roman Empire arrived at the coast somewhere in Persia. He asked the locals whether he could board passage to Rome. "YEs" They said, "but it meant going around Africa and might take three months." He was further advised to take rations for two years just in case weather was unfavourable. That knowledge and insight is incredible for that day and age - the implication is that vessels were already taking long journeys around the Cape of Good Hope. Bearing in mind the hazards of the waters on that particular route, the seaworthiness of their ships and the skills needed to weather the worst of it is quite impressive.

Incidentially the Chinese gentleman lost hope of finding Rome, regarding it as too far away.
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