6 Ancient Naval Battles

6 Ancient Naval Battles

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1. The Battle of Salamis

In 480 B.C., Ancient Greece was fighting for its life. The Persian conqueror Xerxes had defeated a coalition of Hellenic defenders at the Battle of Thermopylae, and his forces had sacked Athens and torched the Acropolis. Total defeat seemed on the horizon, but the beleaguered Athenians managed to regroup with their allies on the nearby island of Salamis. There, the admiral Themistocles hatched a plan to strike a last-ditch blow against Xerxes’ 800-ship armada. After using a slave to feed Xerxes false information, the Greeks lured the Persian navy into the narrow channels near Salamis.

Arriving in the straits, the Persians were surprised by a fleet of some 370 Greek Triremes, which sliced through the water single file and began ramming and boarding their vessels. The Persian armada was so large that it had trouble maneuvering in the cramped waterway, and it soon fell victim to panic. From a specially constructed throne on the mainland, Xerxes could only watch as the numerically inferior Greek force sank more than 300 of his ships and butchered thousands of his sailors. With his fleet in shambles, he was forced to put his invasion on hold and withdraw. Xerxes never managed to establish a firm foothold in Greece again, leaving many historians to cite Salamis as the battle that saved Hellenic culture from annihilation.

2. The Battle of Actium

In 31 B.C., opposing armadas under Octavian and Marc Antony clashed near the Greek peninsula at Actium. At stake was control of the Roman Republic, which had hung in the balance since the assassination of Julius Caesar some 13 years earlier. Antony and his lover Cleopatra commanded several hundred ships, many of them well-armored war galleys equipped with wooden towers for archers, massive rams and heavy grappling irons. Octavian’s vessels were mostly smaller Liburnian craft capable of greater speed and maneuverability and manned by more experienced crews.

According to the ancient historian Plutarch, the ensuing engagement quickly took on the character of a land battle, with the two sides firing flaming arrows and heaving pots of red-hot pitch and heavy stones at one another’s decks. Antony’s war galleys proved slow and clumsy in the heat of combat, and Octavian’s more nimble Liburnians found success by swarming around the enemy vessels and attacking in numbers. As the battle turned in Octavian’s favor, Cleopatra lost her nerve and ordered her 60 vessels to abandon the fight. A love-struck Marc Antony followed with a few ships of his own, leaving the majority of his forces to be overwhelmed by Octavian’s fleet. The defeat at Actium was the beginning of the end for Antony and Cleopatra, both of whom later committed suicide when Octavian’s forces moved on Egypt. With his main rival defeated, Octavian tightened his grip on Rome, took the honorific name “Augustus” and ruled for more than 40 years as its first emperor.

3. The Battle of the Delta

The walls of the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses III’s mortuary temple at Medinet Habu include several drawings depicting one of the earliest known naval battles in human history. The engagement took place around 1176 B.C., during a period when the Mediterranean was plagued by a mysterious maritime culture known as the Sea Peoples. These fearsome nomads had already made an attack on Egypt during the reign of Ramses II, and they were likely responsible for toppling the mighty Hittite Empire.

The Sea Peoples launched a renewed offensive against Egypt during the eighth year of Ramses III’s reign. The pharaoh led the Egyptians in a spirited defense that blocked the invaders’ land forces, and he also devised a scheme to trap their navy. After allowing the Sea Peoples to sail into the Nile Delta unopposed, an Egyptian fleet launched a surprise attack and used grappling hooks to seize and destroy their ships. Ramses III also lined the banks of the Nile with archers, who pelted the enemy with a punishing hail of arrows. The ensuing massacre brought a brutal end to the Sea Peoples’ attempts to conquer Egypt. “As for those who reached my boundary,” an inscription at Ramses III’s temple reads, “their seed is not. Their hearts and their souls are finished unto all eternity.”

4. The Battle of the Aegates Islands

In 241 B.C., the navies of the Roman Republic and the North African city-state of Carthage were both feeling the strain of more than 20 years of bitter conflict in the First Punic War. Carthage had struggled to staff its ships with properly trained sailors, and Rome was only able to build a fresh fleet of 200 quinqueremes after wealthy citizens donated vast sums of money to the public treasury.

Upon putting its new armada to sea, the Romans used it to besiege the land forces of Hamilcar Barca near Sicily. When the Carthaginians sent their navy to relieve the pressure, the two sides met in a ferocious ship-to-ship battle near the Egadi Islands. Before the fight, the Roman commander Catulus cut his ships’ weight by stripping them of everything except the bare necessities of combat. The move proved advantageous, and the Roman vessels were able to outmaneuver the Carthaginians’ heavier ships and use their bronze rams and wooden boarding ramps to devastating effect. Half of Carthage’s fleet was soon destroyed or captured, leaving its generals no choice but to agree to harsh terms of surrender to end the war.

5. The Battle of Arginusae

One of the most legendary naval clashes in Greek history, the Battle of Arginusae came in 406 B.C. during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. At the time, Athens’ once-proud navy was in shambles after the Spartan leader Callicratidas sunk 30 of its vessels and besieged the rest near the city of Mytilene. The Athenian commander Conon sent word of his dilemma to Athens, which quickly marshaled an emergency armada of some 150 ships.

When he learned of the relief fleet’s approach, Callicratidas set sail with 120 ships to intercept it near the Arginusae Islands. He was so confident of victory that he refused to withdraw even in the face of the Athenians’ superior numbers, a decision that proved disastrous. The Spartans were overwhelmed during a long and heated battle, and Callicratidas was thrown overboard and killed after his ship tried to ram an enemy vessel. While the Athenians won the day, they later executed six of their own naval commanders for failing to rescue several thousand sailors whose ships had been sunk during the fight. The decision left them with a critical lack of experienced leaders and hindered their efforts in later campaigns. Despite having scored a spectacular win at Arginusae, Athens and its allies went on to lose the Peloponnesian War in 404 B.C.

6. The Battle of the Red Cliffs

During the dying days of the Han Dynasty, ancient China fractured into three states ruled by a trio of warlords known as Cao Cao, Liu Bei and Sun Quan. These would-be royals made repeated attempts to seize power for themselves, and their struggles eventually came to a head in A.D. 208, when Cao Cao invaded the territory surrounding the Yangtze River. In response, Liu Bei and Sun Quan banded together and raised a combined force of some 50,000 troops. This coalition army soon converged on Cao Cao as he sailed down the Yangtze with a massive armada and a complement of roughly 230,000 men.

Though severely outnumbered, Liu Bei and Sun Quan gained an advantage thanks to a now-legendary ruse. While pretending to surrender part of their forces near an area known as the Red Cliffs, their generals floated several dozen ships filled with oil and straw up to Cao Cao’s fleet and set them ablaze. Cao Cao had unwisely chained his entire armada together, and the fire soon spread to hundreds of vessels. As Cao Cao’s men panicked and tried to escape, alliance forces launched a withering barrage of arrows from the banks of the Yangtze. Cao Cao fled the battle, leaving many of his forces to be intercepted and slaughtered as they retreated. China’s tumultuous “Three Kingdoms” period would continue for several more decades, but following the debacle at the Red Cliffs, Cao Cao’s hopes of reunifying China under his own banner were permanently thwarted.

The greatest naval battles of all time

On 4 June 1942, the titanic Battle of Midway began to unfold in the centre of the Pacific Ocean. It was here that, six months after the shock attack on Pearl Harbor which thrust the US into World War Two, Japanese forces tried to go further by invading the American military base on Midway Atoll. A fearsome armada of aircraft carriers, battleships and warplanes was dispatched on this mission, which threatened to establish Japanese dominance over the Pacific theatre of the war.

'the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.'

There was just one problem for the Japanese: American codebreakers had intercepted and cracked their communications about the assault, meaning the US was able to deploy a defensive fleet to meet the invaders. What followed was an epic clash, the tranquil tropical region transformed into a thundering inferno of dive bombers and torpedo bombers. It was a crushing defeat for the Japanese, who lost all four of their aircraft carriers and thousands of men. The battle extinguished Japan’s offensive strategy in the Pacific, and was described by the military historian John Keegan as 'the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare'.

Read more about: Battles

The Battle of Midway

480 BCE: Salamis

Salamis has a solid position as one of the most influential battles of all time including land battles. Faced with the overwhelming numbers and resources of the Persians, the Greeks fought two delaying actions on land at Thermopylae and at sea at Artemisium. Both engagements were impressive holding actions that had great success despite ultimate defeats. They served to show that the Greeks could outfight the Persians, but also showed the resolve and resources of Xerxes.

The standard Greek Trireme would have been in full force and expertly operated by Athenian sailors, already known for their skills in naval combat.

Planning to fortify the narrow Isthmus of Corinth on land, Athens was left in the open and almost the whole population took to the sea. As Athens burned a trap was set to lead the much larger Persian navy into the narrow and winding strait of between the island of Salamis and the Greek mainland.

As the Greeks positioned themselves in an inlet perpendicular to the Persian entrance, they launched at the vulnerable sides and took an immediate advantage. Though outnumbered as much as 3 to 1, the Greeks decimated the Persian navy. As a result, Xerxes himself left the invasion in the hands of his generals and soon the Greeks won other great victories at Plataea and Mycale greatly aided by the damages caused at Salamis.

241 BCE: Battle of the Egadi/Aegates Islands

Though many of the battles are relatively unknown, the first Punic War between Rome and Carthage was a titanic struggle that would decide the ruler of the Western Mediterranean. The struggle was mainly for control of Sicily and while land battles were fought, the war largely revolved around vast naval battles.

The Romans were new to large-scale naval combat while the Carthaginians were descendants from the sea-mastering Phoenicians and had proud naval traditions. Initially met with several defeats, the Romans invented the spiked Corvus bridge to link to enemy vessels and let their superior swordsmanship shine. This proved costly however as the heavy bridges led to the loss of over 100,000 men through storms alone.

The Corvus allowed ROme to stay in the war when things got rough, but the final battle was decided with traditional tactics. The Romans simply trained harder and were better prepared for the battle. By Chewie – CC BY-SA 2.5

Both sides were financially exhausted near the end of the over 20-year war and when the Roman government announced that they simply couldn’t finance another navy, the wealthy elite of Rome stepped up and paid for a 200 ship navy to make the last push for victory. To ensure their best chances for victory the Corvus was removed for better mobility and the crews drilled relentlessly even before the ships were finished.

The bold move paid off as the now sea hardened Romans fought a fierce battle among the Aegates islands off Western Sicily. Their training and added mobility allowed them to get the better of and destroy a larger, 250-ship Carthaginian navy, using traditional naval tactics of ramming and boarding.

The victory isolated the Carthaginian land forces and Sicily and forced a peace. Arguably the most important battle allowing Roman dominion of the Mediterranean the battle elevated the largely land-based Romans to a major naval power. The Carthaginians were severely restricted during the second Punic War by the Roman’s dominance of the sea, resulting in the successful Hannibal only being resupplied by sea once. Furthermore, the establishment of naval traditions allowed for the later fight against piracy once the Romans began adding more territory.

6. Battle of the Masts

The naval Battle of the Masts, fought in 655 AD, pitted Muslim Arabs who were led by General Abu L-Awar against the Orthodox Christian Byzantines commanded by Emperor Constans II. This battle was fought in Constantinople, which is known today as Istanbul. It was the then capital of Roman/Byzantine empires. The Battle of Masts was triggered by Arabs who desired to conquer Constantinople like they had to provinces in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and parts of the Middle East. They planned to attack through the Sea of Marmara. To repel the attack, Emperor Constans II with his naval fleet of 500 ships pursued and caught up with the 200 naval Arab ships at the Turkish Port of Finike. The over-confident Constans II navy attacked the Arabs navy hastily, without planning an attack formation, expecting to crush them with one assault. Against all odds, the outnumbered Arab navy destroyed the Byzantine navy to shreds. The defeated Byzantines fled and left their fleet to be destroyed by a storm. Their emperor Constans II disguised himself as a seaman to escape. The Sea of Marmara was stained with blood, and bodies from the Battle of the Masts were piled at the shores. Since the battle was fought by the navy ships in up-close style, it got the name the Battle of the Masts.

  • 1509 February 3 Diu - Portugal's Indian viceroy defeats a combined Egyptian-Gujarat Sultanate fleet off Gujarat, India, and controls spice trade
  • 1510 - Maltese under Prégent de Bidoux defeat Venetians
  • 1512? - Genoese under Andrea Doria defeat Moors at Algiers
  • 1512 August 10 St Mathieu - English defeat French off Brest Regent and Marie la Cordelière sunk
  • 1526 - Swedes and Lübeckers defeat pirate fleet
  • 1529 - Ottoman Turks under Khair-ad-Din (Barbarossa) defeat Spanish
  • 1535 early June - 20 Swedes/Danes/Prussians defeat 9 Lübeck ships
  • 1535 June? - Swedes/Danes/Prussians defeat 10 Lübeck ships at Fyen
  • 1538 September 28 Preveza - Ottoman Turk fleet under Khair-ad-Din defeats Spanish-Venetian-Papal fleet
  • 1545 July 18 and 19 The Solent - French attack English off Portsmouth Mary Rose sinks
    • August 15 - English fight French off Portsmouth
    • July 13 - English under Count Egmont defeat French under Marshal de Thermes off Gravelines
    Year Date Battle
    1563 Action of 30 May Swedes capture three Danes before war is declared.
    Action of 11 September Inconclusive [skirmish?] between Danes/Lübeckers and Swedes.
    1564 Action of 30 May Swedes under Bagge [clash with?] Danes/Lübeckers under Trolle.
    Action of 12 July A Swedish captain blows up his ship after a Danish attack.
    Action of 12 August Swedes under Klas Horn defeat Danes under Herluf Trolle, southeast of Öland.
    1565 Action of 4 June An indecisive battle between Danes/Lübeckers and Swedes near Buchow.
    Action of 7 July Swedes defeat Danes/Lübeckers between Bornholm and Rügen.
    1566 Action of 26 July Swedes defeat Danes/Lübeckers between Öland and Gotland.
    1568 Swedish fleet captures several Polish corsairs and drives off remainder. ΐ]

    Warship Deposition

    A notion that any vessel that operated at sea, particularly with numerous individuals onboard, in conflict situations, and by both oar and sail propulsion, did so without significant equipment and stores, as well as some ballast, is contrary to any basic understanding of ship operations. Ships’ tools, arms (ship and personal), containers, and personal equipment must be taken into any realistic analysis. Metal fasteners, lead sheathing, rigging gear, anchors, equipment, weapons, crew items and possibly galley structures are commonly known to be on ancient merchantmen, and evidence from the Egadi islands indicates this was true for warships as well. This is not surprising to maritime archaeologists as the necessities of operating all sea-going vessels require basic considerations. Ancient warships conducted the overwhelming majority of their voyages under sail propulsion. For any sailed vessel ballast was mandatory for to sail effectively, a feature noted in Renaissance galleys, particularly for long and narrow vessels that had little extended keel. The numerous stones associated with the Egadi warships attest to this, and those tested have shown to come from North Africa. All vessels carry weight in addition to their hulls when in operation at sea. Consequently, when a warship’s hold was flooded, thus loosing buoyancy from displacement, the wooden elements of the hull had less ability to carry any additional weight. Warships performed diverse functions and missions throughout the 5th century B.C.E. – 3rd century C.E. and there was no standard or absolute manifest of items carried on board, a factor that directly affected their depositional fate. In the specific event of the Battle of the Egadi Islands, the Carthaginians sailed their warships loaded with supplies to the Egadi Islands, on a rough weather day, and were sailing in this manner when the Romans sprang their ambush. This over-laden condition placed the Carthaginian warships at a disadvantage in their engagement with the Romans (Polyb. I.61.4-6). The armor finds and amphora dispersion in site sector PW-A support Polybius’ account of the Carthaginian ships laden with supplies and troops while sailing. Once breached by ramming attacks during the battle, warship hulls filled with water. The material within the warships raised the hulls’ overall specific gravity to a point whereby these warships were either disabled or sank: both are attested (Polyb. I.60 – 61.6 Diod. XI.24.11.2). A breach in a mortise-and-tenon hull would catastrophically weaken it to a point that ships could break in two due to the hogging and sagging forces of waves. Evidence confirms that the rams were not removed from the hulls, but sank while attached to the warships. Warships, like all other ships and boats, had numerous fates that were determined by factors such as hull condition, cargo, ships stores, hull integrity, and the weather at the time of the sinking event. > Read Less

    Know Your Historical Warships: From 7th Century BC – 17th Century AD

    When it comes to history, maritime pursuits had undoubtedly enhanced the ‘reach’ of humankind, from the perspective of both migrational activities (like the Austronesian people) and trade networks (like the Phoenicians). Over time, the coastal geographical locations of various settlements rather translated into strategic economic centers that were worth defending – thus giving way to the first naval powers of the world. This, in turn, led to the design and evolution of naval ships, namely warships, that were built for the dedicated purposes of defense and attack maneuvers.

    Interestingly, one of the consistent design templates for such warships pertains to the galley – basically a ship that is primarily propelled by rows (of oars) instead of sails. Consequently, the war galley survived in its various forms (with multifarious weapon systems) for millennia, possibly from circa 1500 BC to 17th century AD, until the advent of more advanced naval crafts. In essence, we must understand that war galley is not exactly a definitive type of warship, but rather a general design upon which different types of warships are based on.

    On the other hand, a frigate originally referred to any kind of warship with sails, built for speed and maneuverability, and as such tended to have a smaller size than the main warship. By the 17th century, frigates, known for their speediness, carried lighter armaments than the ‘ship of the line’. The corvettes were even smaller than the frigates, sometimes modified from the sloops – and thus were only reserved for coastal defense (and raids) and minor engagements during the Age of Sails (1571–1862).

    To that end, in this article, we will discuss the renowned historical warships (some based on the galley design, while others based on sails) that have sailed the high seas, with the time period covering almost 2,500 years – from 7th century BC till 17th century AD.

    1) Bireme and Trireme (origins from circa 7th century BC) –

    Source: Assassin’s Creed Wiki

    Herodotus mentioned penteconter, a type of ship that had a single set of oars (possibly numbering 25) on each side. This ship, with its function bridging the gap between exploring and raiding, was probably one of the first types to be used by the Greek maritime city-states and colonies for communication and coastal control. However, arguably the first known ship dedicated to naval warfare possibly pertains to the bireme. Boasting a much bigger design than the penteconter, a typical bireme of 80 ft length (remus meaning ‘oar’ in Latin) had two decks of oars on each side, complemented by a single mast with a broad, rectangular sail. More importantly, befitting its status as a warship (or war galley), the bireme was also fitted with the embolon, the battering ram or beak that could smash into enemy vessels.

    Now according to one hypothesis, the Greek bireme was possibly inspired by the fast-moving galleys used by the Phoenicians. However, within a matter of centuries, the bireme evolved into the trireme (with three decks of rows) with larger dimensions, sturdier design, double masts (one large and one small), and more number of crew members (possibly reaching 200, with 170 of them being rowers). Furthermore, the command structure involving such trireme warships, especially in the ancient Athenian navy, was quite streamlined with a dedicated captain, known as the trierarch (triērarchos) who commanded his group of experienced sailors and oarsmen.

    With the sheer domination of such war galleys in the ancient Mediterranean theater (circa 4th century BC), it should come as no surprise that the trireme further evolved into the quadrireme, the quinquereme, and so on. One pertinent example would relate to Tessarakonteres (diagram above) – belonging to Ptolemy (Ptolemaios) IV Philopator, who ruled the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt from 221 to 204 BC. According to a description penned by Athenaeus, the giant Hellenistic warship with its 40 tiers of rows and seven rams was supposedly manned by 400 sailors (for rigging and regulating the sails) 4,000 rowers (for handling the oars) and 2,850 armed marines – thus accounting for a total of 7,250 men, which is more than the crew numbers required aboard the largest existing aircraft carrier in the world!

    The Roman Republic and the Carthaginian Empire was also known for maintaining a large fleet of quadriremes and quinqueremes, and as such, many of these warships were also fitted with artillery in the form of catapults and ballistae. Moreover, the Roman marines devised a mechanism known as corvus (meaning “crow” or “raven” in Latin) or harpago. This was a sort of a boarding bridge that could be raised from a 12-ft high sturdy wooden pillar and then rotated in any required direction. The tip of this bridge had a heavy spike (the ‘corvus‘ itself) that clung on to the deck of the enemy ship, thus locking the two ships together. The Roman soldiers crossed across this makeshift bridge, and directly boarded the enemy ship. This naval tactic gave the Romans the upper-hand since they were known for their expertise in close-quarter combat.

    2) Liburnian (origins from circa 2nd century BC) –

    The smaller liburnian ships on the flanks, supporting the quinquereme in the center. Source: Telias

    After the Roman Republic gained its ascendance over the Carthaginians, its naval power was relatively secure, and as such, the status quo was reflected by the conventional fully-decked galleys equipped with partially-submerged rams, mechanical artillery, and possibly even turrets (for archers). In a few cases, Roman ingenuity still won the day – with one example pertaining to the desperate Roman fleet, under the command of one Decimus Brutus, fighting the Veneti and their sturdy ships (during Caesar’s Gallic Wars, circa 56 BC). In response, Brutus devised the incredible tactic of using grappling hooks that would allow them to cut the rigging of the heavy Venetic vessels.

    However, with the gradual supremacy of the Romans in the Mediterranean region, the state didn’t really require large ships for expansive military actions. Furthermore, a new kind of foe came to the fore by 1st century BC – the pirates with their lighter vessels who made frequent raids on the coasts of Illyria and the various islands of the Adriatic. In response, the Romans adopted the designs of these lighter, more-maneuverable ships – and the result was the liburnian (liburnidas), a single-banked galley that was later upgraded with a second bank of oars. The name was possibly derived from the ‘Liburni’, a seafaring tribe from the Adriatic coast.

    In essence, the liburnian functioned as the faster warship-variant of standard biremes and thus were used for reconnaissance, raids, and general escort duties for merchant vessels. Over time, there were various types of liburnian warships, with some fitted with heavier frames and rams for better offensive capability (rather than speed). In fact, by the time of the emergence of the Roman Empire, the liburnian was basically used as a blanket term for most types of Roman warships (and even cargo vessels). As for the historical significance, Agrippa was known to have effectively used his fleet of liburnian warships against the forces of Marc Antony and Cleopatra, in the decisive Battle of Actium, in 31 BC.

    3) Dromon (origins circa 4th-5th century AD) –

    The most prevalent warship by circa 5th century AD (till 12th century AD), especially in the Mediterranean waters, pertained to the dromon (‘runner’ or ‘racer’). As could be ascertained from the name itself, this galley-type vessel was designed as a fast craft that eschewed the outrigger used in earlier Greek and Roman warships. According to some historians, the dromon might have been the evolution of the liburnian, and as such was the mainstay of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) navy that maintained its naval supremacy during the early medieval era. Dromon-type galleys (or at least similar warships) were also used by their proximate foes, namely the Arabs, by circa 7th century AD.

    In terms of modifications in design, the dromon possibly boasted a full deck (katastrōma) that may have carried artillery, while also conspicuously having no battering ram. Instead, the warship was fitted with an above-water spur (with a sharp point) that was used for breaking enemy oars, as opposed to puncturing hulls. One can also hypothesize how the dromons, irrespective of their single bank or two banks of oars, were fitted with the effective lateen sails (triangular shaped), possibly introduced by the Arabs, who, in turn, derived the technology from the Indians.

    4) Fireship (used in different eras, from circa 5th century BC- 19th century AD) –

    Illustration by Graham Turner

    In terms of naval technology, fireship is a blanket term used for different types of warships that were used with various tactical outcomes. For example, one of the oldest accounts of a ‘fire ship’ pertains to a ship literally set on fire by the Syracusans, who then guided the burning vessel towards the Athenians (during the Sicilian expedition, circa 413 BC). The latter, however, was successful in mitigating the danger by putting out the flames. A similar type of tactical ploy was also used during the Battle of Red Cliffs (circa 208 AD) when the general Huang Gai let loose fire ships (stocked with kindling, dry reeds, and fatty oil) towards his enemy Cao Cao.

    On the other hand, an arguably more effective version of the fireship was devised by the Eastern Romans (Byzantine Empire) during their momentous encounter against the Arabs, in circa 677 AD. Utilizing the aforementioned dromon-type warships, the Romans fitted their darting galleys with special siphons and pumping devices, instead of the usual beak (or spur). These siphons spouted ‘liquid fire’ (or Greek Fire) that continued to burn even while floating in the water. In fact, some writers have gone on to explain how the viciously efficient Greek Fire could only be mitigated by extinguishing it with sand, strong vinegar or old urine.

    Suffice it to say, the weapon and the fireship were perfectly tailored to naval warfare and as such the Eastern Roman Empire used it in numerous marine-based encounters to secure victories – with notable examples involving the crucial successes achieved against two Arab sieges of Constantinople. However, the procedures of making and (subsequent) deployment of Greek Fire remained a closely guarded military secret – so much so that the original ingredient has actually been lost over time. Still, researchers speculate that the composition of the substance might have pertained to chemicals like liquid petroleum, naphtha, pitch (obtained from coal tar), sulfur, resin, quicklime, and bitumen – all combined with some kind of a ‘secret’ ingredient.

    Furthermore, there are 11th-century conceptions pertaining to Northern Song Dynasty fireships that were possibly equipped with flamethrowers that were similar to the Greek Fire mechanisms of the Eastern Roman navy. By the Age of Sails (1571–1862 AD), various navies used explosive fireships. These vessels, drizzled in tar and fat and filled with gunpowder, were operated by a small crew who made their escape during the last moments before the incendiary fireship could run into an enemy craft. Suffice it to say, such ruthless naval tactics were usually reserved for assaults on anchored ships, rather than in the open seas.

    5) Viking Longship (circa 10th century AD) –

    While Viking raiding ships were one of the defining features of Viking raids and military endeavors, these vessels had a variance in their designs – which is contrary to our popular notions. According to historians, this scope of variance can be credibly hypothesized from the sheer number of technical terms used in contemporary sources to describe them. To that end, the Vikings before the 10th century made very few distinctions between their varied merchant ships and warships – with both (and other) types being used for overseas military endeavors. Simply put, the first Viking raids along the English coasts (including the plundering of the Lindisfarne monastery in 793 AD, that marks the beginning of the Viking Age) were probably made with the aid of such ‘hybrid’ ships that were not specifically tailored to military purposes – as opposed to the ‘special’ ships showcased in The Vikings TV series.

    However, in the post-9th-10th century period, the Viking raiders boosting their organized numbers by military establishments or ledungen, did strive to specifically design military warships, with their structural modifications tailored to both power and speed. Known as snekkja (or thin-like), skeid (meaning – ‘that cuts through water’) and drekar (or drakkar, meaning dragon – derived from the famed dragon-head on the prow) these streamlined longships tended to be longer and slimmer while accounting for a greater number of oars. On the other hand, increased trading also demanded specialized merchant ships or kaupskip that were broader with high freeboards, and depended on their greater sail-power.

    Given their svelte design credentials, the Viking longship traditionally required only a single man per oar when cruising through the neutral waters. But when the battle was at hand, the oarsman was joined by two other soldiers whose job was to not only give a lending hand (for increasing the ship’s speed) but also to protect the oarsman from enemy missiles. And as the Viking raids became more profitable and organized, the wealth was translated to even bigger and better warships. One good example would pertain to King Olaf Tryggvason’s (who ruled Norway from 995 to 1000 AD) aptly named Long Serpent. According to legends, this ship supposedly carried eight men per half-room (or oar) at the naval Battle of Svolder, which would equate to over 550 men overboard if we also count the other combatants. Now in practical terms, this scenario might have been a bit exaggerated with probable translation issues. But even if we account 8 men per room (or 4 men per oar), the total number of men that Long Serpent could carry would have gone beyond 300!

    6) Carrack (origins in 14th century AD) –

    Considered as one of the most influential ship designs in the history of navigation, the carrack was probably among the first sea vessels that evolved beyond the design of war galleys. In essence, the carrack eschewed any form of oar-based system, instead entirely relying on sails. To that end, a fully-evolved carrack design was typically square-rigged on the foremast and mainmast and lateen-rigged on the mizzenmast. The size of the carrack, with its carvel-built robust hulls, also made it stand out from its galley-based predecessors, with some versions boasting capacities around a whopping 1000-tons.

    By the early 16th century, the carrack (also known as nao in the Mediterranean theater) became the standard vessel for the Atlantic trade routes and exploration. Simply put, the massive capacities of the carracks made them ideal candidates as merchant ships while their sturdy design and high stern (with large highcastle, aftcastle, and bowsprit) made them effective as military warships.

    7) Caravel (origins in 15th century AD) –

    The caravels of Christopher Columbus – the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria (possibly a carrack). DEA/G. Dagli Orti/Getty Images

    In reaction to the relatively ponderous nature of the aforementioned carrack-type warships and merchant vessels, the Portuguese (and later the Spanish) developed the caravel – a smaller but highly-maneuverable sailing ship with three masts and ‘modular’ sails. Pertaining to the latter, the sails of the ship could be adapted in accordance with the situation and requirement of the crew – with both lateen-rigged (caravela latina) and square-rigged sails (caravela redonda).

    Suffice it to say, such levels of design flexibility allowed the caravel to be at the forefront of Portuguese exploration endeavors. One pertinent example would relate to the Niña and Pinta ships of Columbus that were instrumental in their journey to the Americas. By the end of the 15th century, larger variants of caravels were built by the Portuguese, often as dedicated warships with better mobility. Some of these designs boasted four masts (with a combination of both square and lateen rigs), along with forecastle and sterncastle (although they were smaller than carracks).

    8) Galleass (origins in late 15th century AD) –

    Engraving of a galleass from Plan de Plusieurs Batiments de Mer avec leurs Proportions (c. 1690) by Henri Sbonski de Passebon. Source: Wikimedia Commons

    Designed as a compromise between the sail-driven larger ships and the oar-driven galleys, the galleass was fitted with the combination of oars (usually 32 in number) and masts (usually 3 in number). In essence, the warship was designed to have the better maneuverability of galleys while also having the volumetric capacity to hold heavy artillery. Suffice it to say, many maritime factions adopted the design of galleasses, namely the Venetians who used them effectively in the Battle of Lepanto (1571) and the Ottomans who called their ‘hybrid’ ships mahons.

    Unfortunately, over time, the limitations of such frigate-type galleasses came to the fore, especially because of their ‘compromising’ design. For example, most of the galleasses couldn’t carry the sturdy square sails because of the size of the galley-based hull. At the same time, the increased size, when compared to a standard war galley, didn’t allow the galleass to be as maneuverable as its oar-based predecessor.

    9) Chebec (origins in 16th century AD) –

    A North African answer to the European warships with their broadsides (longitudinal side of the ship where the guns are placed), the chebec (or xebec – possibly derived from the Arabic word for ‘small ship’) was the evolved variant of the war galleys used by the Barbary pirates. In response to the sails and guns of the larger European warships, the chebec was also designed to make room for broadside cannons. However, at the same time, the chebec was distinctly smaller and more streamlined in its overall form – especially when compared to the massive carracks (naos) of the Mediterranean.

    Over the course of a few decades, the chebec warships completely ditched the oars, while relying on three massive lateen sails – thus making the complete transition from a galley to a sailing ship. At the same time, their intricate design credentials like the adoption of large lateen yards, angular positioning of the masts, and longer prows made them speedier and more maneuverable than the bulky warships of the period. Interestingly enough, the effectiveness of the chebec warships led to their adoption in the 18th-century navies of both France and Spain.

    10) Turtle Ship (origins in late 16th century) –

    When the Japanese forces under daimyō Hideyoshi invaded Korea in 1592, they boasted of two significant advantages over their foes – their Portuguese supplied muskets, and their aggressive tactic of boarding enemy ships (supported by cannon fire). However, Korean Admiral Sun-Shin Yi had an answer for these ploys in the form of the newly designed Turtle Boat (Geobukseon in Korean). Constructed with the aid of newly raised private money, this relatively small fleet consisted of ships (with lengths of 120 ft and beams of 30 ft) covered in iron plates. The core frame was made from sturdy red pine or spruce, while the humongous structure itself incorporated a stable U-shaped hull, three armored decks, and two massive masts – all ‘fueled’ by a group of over 80 sinewy rowers.

    However, the piece de resistance of the Turtle Boat was its special roof that consisted of an array of metallic spikes (sometimes hidden with straws) that discouraged the Japanese from boarding the ship. This daunting design was bolstered by a system of 5 types of Korean cannons emerging from 23 portholes, that had effective ranges of 300 to 500 m (1000 ft to 1600 ft). And finally, the awe-inspiring craft was made even more intimidating – with a dragon-head on the bow of the vessel that supposedly gave out sulfur smoke to hide the ponderous movement of the boisterous boat.

    11) Galleon (origins in 16th century AD) –

    According to historian Angus Konstam, the early 16th century was a period of innovation for ship designs, with the adoption of better sailing rigs and onboard artillery systems. A product of this technological trend in marine affairs gave rise to the galleon – a warship inspired by the combination of both the maneuverability of caravels and the hefty nature of carracks. To that end, the galleon was possibly developed as a specialized marine craft with a keel-up design dedicated primarily to naval battles and encounters, but also having some cargo-carrying capacity.

    After the 1570s, it was the Spanish navy that took an active interest in developing their own version of the galleon – thus leading to the Royal Galleons of the Spanish Armada. These incredible warships ranged from humongous 1,000-ton (with 50 onboard guns) to 500-ton (with 30 onboard guns) capacities but were complemented by graceful designs, with a sharper stern, sleeker length-to-beam ratio (when compared to bulkier carracks), and more effective hull shape for carrying artillery. However, by the early 17th century, the sizes of the Royal Galleons were trimmed down – to be increasingly used as escorts (and even cargo ships) for the highly profitable transatlantic trade routes.

    As for the artillery on-board the typical galleon, there were several varieties, including the larger canones (cannon), culebrinas (culverins), pedreros (stone-shotted guns), bombardettas (wrought-iron guns), and versos (swivel guns). Among these, the pedreros – used as close-range anti-personnel weapons, and bombardettas – with their lower ranges when compared to bronze guns, were increasingly considered as outdated by the 17th century. On the other hand, the versos, with their swivel-mount and faster breech-loading mechanisms, were effective and flexible for both solid-shot and grapeshot.

    12) Schooner (origins in the 17th century) –

    The schooner was typically defined as a relatively small marine vessel with two or more masts – with fore and aft sails on both these masts. Now while it was smaller than the general warships of the period, the schooner (and the even tinnier sloop) were the preferred crafts commanded by the pirates who operated in the Caribbean region from around 1660-1730 AD. This probably had to do with their relative inconspicuousness, greater speed, and better maneuverability – especially when compared to the bulky merchant ships. Simply put, the pirates of the Caribbean tended to prey on the merchant vessels rather than the powerful warships that usually even moved in squadrons.

    As for the ship-mounted guns, the sloop and larger schooner were typically equipped with the 4-pounder (also called the Canon de 4 Gribeauval), the lightest weight cannon in the arsenal of the contemporary French field artillery. These gun pieces weighed around 637 lbs and had a maximum range of over 1,300 yards. Larger pirate ships (like Black Bart’s Royal Fortune) obviously carried bigger guns, including the medium 8-pounder and heavy 12-pounder.

    Conclusion – Ship of the Line

    HMS Hercule – ship of the line, painting by Louis-Philippe Crépin. Source: Wikimedia Commons

    Unfortunately, in spite of the many modifications (both structural and organizational) made on the Spanish galleon, naval warfare in the decades of the mid 17th century changed significantly in terms of formations and maneuvers. To that end, in the following years, one of the widespread tactics adopted by many contemporary European navies related to the ‘line of the battle’ – basically entailing the formation of a line by the ships end to end, which allowed them to collectively fire their cannon volleys from the broadsides without any danger of friendly-fire.

    The adoption of such tactics translated to ships being used as floating artillery platforms, thereby resulting in the design of heavier vessels with more number of guns – better known as the ‘ship of the line’. Suffice it to say, the sleeker warship (like the galleon) was ironically anachronistic, with the focus of shipbuilders once again shifting to the bigger warships with broadside artillery platforms.

    Ancient Greek Warfare

    In the ancient Greek world, warfare was seen as a necessary evil of the human condition. Whether it be small frontier skirmishes between neighbouring city-states, lengthy city-sieges, civil wars, or large-scale battles between multi-alliance blocks on land and sea, the vast rewards of war could outweigh the costs in material and lives. Whilst there were long periods of peace and many examples of friendly alliances, the powerful motives of territorial expansion, war booty, revenge, honour, and the defence of liberty ensured that throughout the Archaic and Classical periods the Greeks were regularly engaged in warfare both at home and abroad.

    City-State Rivalries

    Evolving from armed bands led by a warrior leader, city militia of part-time soldiers, providing their own equipment and perhaps including all the citizens of the city-state or polis, began to move warfare away from the control of private individuals and into the realm of the state. Assemblies or groups of elite citizens sanctioned war, and generals (strategoi) came to be accountable for their actions and were often elected for fixed terms or specific military operations.


    In the early stages of Greek Warfare in the Archaic period, training was haphazard and even weapons could be makeshift, although soldiers were usually paid, if only so that they could meet their daily needs. There were no uniforms or insignia and as soon as the conflict was over the soldiers would return to their farms. By the 5th century BCE the military prowess of Sparta provided a model for all other states to follow. With their professional and well-trained full-time army dressed in red cloaks and carrying shields emblazoned with the letter lambda (for Lacedaemonians), the Spartans showed what professionalism in warfare could achieve.

    Many states such as Athens, Argos, Thebes, and Syracuse began to maintain a small professional force (logades or epilektoi) which could be augmented by the main citizen body if necessary. Armies became more cosmopolitan with the inclusion of resident foreigners, slaves, mercenaries, and neighbouring allies (either voluntary or through compulsion in the case of Sparta's perioikoi). Warfare moved away from one-off battles fought in a few hours to long-drawn-out conflicts which could last for years, the most important being the Persian Wars (first half of the 5th century BCE), the Peloponnesian Wars (459-446 & 431-404 BCE), and the Corinthian Wars (394-386 BCE).


    The Hoplite Phalanx

    The mainstay of any Greek army was the hoplite. His full panoply was a long spear, short sword, and circular bronze shield and he was further protected, if he could afford it, by a bronze helmet (with inner padding for comfort), bronze breastplate, greaves for the legs and finally, ankle guards. Fighting was at close-quarters, bloody, and lethal. This type of warfare was the perfect opportunity for the Greek warrior to display his manliness (andreia) and excellence (aretē) and generals led from the front and by example.

    To provide greater mobility in battle the hoplite came to wear lighter armour such as a leather or laminated linen corselet (spolades) and open-faced helmet (pilos). The peltast warrior, armed with short javelins and more lightly-armoured than the hoplite became a mobile and dangerous threat to the slower moving hoplites. Other lighter-armed troops (psiloi) also came to challenge the hoplite dominance of the battlefield. Javelin throwers (akonistai), archers (toxotoi) and slingers (sphendonētai) using stones and lead bullets could harry the enemy with attacks and retreats. Cavalry (hippeis) was also deployed but due to the high costs and difficult terrain of Greece, only in limited numbers e.g., Athens, possessing the largest cavalry force during the Peloponnesian Wars had only 1,000 mounted troops. Decisive and devastating cavalry offensives would have to wait until the Macedonians led by Philip and Alexander in the mid-4th century BCE.

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    Armies also became more structured, split into separate units with hierarchies of command. The lochoi was the basic unit of the phalanx - a line of well-armed and well-armoured hoplite soldiers usually eight to twelve men deep which attacked as a tight group. In Athens, the lochos was led by a captain (lochagos) and these combined to form one of ten regiments (taxeis) each led by a taxiarchos. A similar organisation applied to the armies of Corinth, Argos, and Megara. In 5th-century BCE Sparta, the basic element was the enomotiai (platoon) of 32 men. Four of these made up a pentekostys (company) of 128 men. Four of these made up a lochos (regiment) of 512 men. A Spartan army usually consisted of five lochoi with separate units of non-citizen militia - perioikoi. Units might also be divided by age or speciality in weaponry and, as warfare became more strategic, these units would operate more independently, responding to trumpet calls or other such signals mid-battle.

    War At Sea: The Trireme

    Some states such as Athens, Aegina, Corinth, and Rhodes amassed fleets of warships, most commonly the trireme, which could allow these states to forge lucrative trading partnerships and deposit troops on foreign territory and so establish and protect colonies. They could even block enemy harbours and launch amphibious landings. The biggest fleet was at Athens, which could amass up to 200 triremes at its peak, and which allowed the city to build and maintain a Mediterranean-wide empire.


    The trireme was a light wooden ship, highly manoeuvrable and fitted with a bronze battering ram at the bow which could disable enemy vessels. 35 metres long and with a 5-metre beam, some 170 rowers (thetes - drawn from the poorer classes) sitting on three levels could propel the ship up to a speed of 9 knots. Also on board were small contingents of hoplites and archers, but the principal tactic in naval warfare was ramming not boarding. Able commanders arranged their fleets in a long front so that it was difficult for the enemy to pass behind (periplous) and ensure his ships were sufficiently close to prevent the enemy going through a gap (diekplous). Perhaps the most famous naval battle was Salamis in 480 BCE when the Athenians were victorious against the invading fleet of Xerxes.

    However, the trireme had disadvantages in that there was no room for sleeping quarters and so ships had to be drydocked each night, which also prevented the wood becoming waterlogged. They were also fantastically expensive to produce and maintain indeed the trireme was indicative that now warfare had become an expensive concern of the state, even if rich private citizens were made to fund most of the expense.


    Battle Strategies

    The first strategy was actually employed before any fighting took place at all. Religion and ritual were important features of Greek life, and before embarking on a campaign, the will of the gods had to be determined. This was done through the consultation of oracles such as that of Apollo at Delphi and through animal sacrifices (sphagia) where a professional diviner (manteis) read omens (ta hiera), especially from the liver of the victim and any unfavourable signs could certainly delay the battle. Also, at least for some states like Sparta, fighting could be prohibited on certain occasions such as religious festivals and for all states during the great Panhellenic games (especially those at Olympia).

    When all of these rituals were out of the way, fighting could commence but even then it was routine to patiently wait for the enemy to assemble on a suitable plain nearby. Songs were sung (the paian - a hymn to Apollo) and both sides would advance to meet each other. However, this gentlemanly approach in time gave way to more subtle battle arrangements where surprise and strategy came to the fore. What is more, conflicts also became more diverse in the Classical period with sieges and ambushes, and urban fighting becoming more common, for example at Solygeia in 425 BCE when Athenian and Corinthian hoplites fought house to house.

    Strategies and deception, the 'thieves of war' (klemmata), as the Greeks called them, were employed by the more able and daring commanders. The most successful strategy on the ancient battlefield was using hoplites in a tight formation called the phalanx. Each man protected both himself and partially his neighbour with his large circular shield, carried on his left arm. Moving in unison the phalanx could push and attack the enemy whilst minimising each man's exposure. Usually eight to twelve men deep and providing the maximum front possible to minimise the risk of being outflanked, the phalanx became a regular feature of the better-trained armies, particularly the Spartans. Thermopylae in 480 BCE and Plataea in 479 BCE were battles where the hoplite phalanx proved devastatingly effective.


    At the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BCE, Theban general Epaminondas greatly strengthened the left flank of his phalanx to about 50 men deep which meant he could smash the right flank of the opposing Spartan phalanx, a tactic he used again with great success at Mantineia in 362 BCE. Epaminondas also mixed lighter armed troops and cavalry to work at the flanks of his phalanx and harry the enemy. Hoplites responded to these developments in tactics with new formations such as the defensive square (plaision), used to great effect (and not only in defence) by Spartan general Brasidas in 423 BCE against the Lyncestians and again by the Athenians in Sicily in 413 BCE. However, the era of heavily armoured hoplites neatly arranged in two files and slashing away at each other in a fixed battle was over. More mobile and multi-weapon warfare now became the norm. Cavalry and soldiers who could throw missiles might not win battles outright but they could dramatically affect the outcome of a battle and without them the hoplites could become hopelessly exposed.

    Siege Warfare

    From an early stage, most Greek city-states had a fortified acropolis (Sparta and Elis being notable exceptions) to protect the most important religious and civic buildings and provide refuge from attack. However, as warfare became more mobile and moved away from the traditional hoplite battle, cities sought to protect their suburbs with fortification walls. Independent lookout towers in the surrounding countryside and even frontier forts and walls sprang up in response to the increased risk of attacks. Many poleis also built fortifications to create a protective corridor between the city and their harbour, the most famous being the Long Walls which spanned the 7 km between Athens and Piraeus.

    Sieges were usually long-drawn-out affairs with the principal strategy being to starve the enemy into submission. Offensive strategies using battering rams and ramps proved largely unsuccessful. However, from the 4th century BCE technical innovations gave the attackers more advantages. Wheeled siege towers, first used by the Carthaginians and copied by Dionysius I of Syracuse against Motya in 397 BCE, bolt-throwing artillery (gastraphetes), stone throwing apparatus (lithoboloi) and even flame-throwers (at Delion in 424 BCE) began a trend for commanders to be more aggressive in siege warfare. However, it was only with the arrival of torsion artillery from 340 BCE, which could propel 15 kg stones over 300 metres, that city walls could now be broken down. Naturally, defenders responded to these new weapons with thicker and stronger walls with convex surfaces to better deflect missiles.

    Logistics: Baggage & Supplies

    The short duration of conflicts in the Greek world was often because of the poor logistics supplying and maintaining the army in the field. Soldiers were usually expected to provide their own rations (dried fish and barley porridge being most common) and the standard for Athens was three-days' worth. Most hoplites would have been accompanied by a slave acting as a baggage porter (skeuophoroi) carrying the rations in a basket (gylion) along with bedding and a cooking pot. Slaves also acted as attendants to the wounded as only the Spartan army had a dedicated medical officer (iatroi). Fighting was usually in the summer so tents were rarely needed and even food could be pillaged if the fighting was in enemy territory. Towards the end of the Classical Period, armies could be resupplied by ship and larger equipment could be transported using wagons and mules which came under the responsibility of men too old to fight.

    Spoils of Victory

    War booty, although not always the primary motive for conflict, was certainly a much-needed benefit for the victor which allowed him to pay his troops and justify the expense of the military campaign. Booty could come in the form of territory, money, precious materials, weapons, and armour. The losers, if not executed, could expect to be sold into slavery, the normal fate for the women and children of the losing side. It was typical for 10% of the booty (a dekaten) to be dedicated in thanks to the gods at one of the great religious sanctuaries such as Delphi or Olympia. These sites became veritable treasuries and, effectively, museums of weapons and armour. They also became too tempting a target for more unscrupulous leaders in later times, but still the majority of surviving military material comes from archaeological excavations at these sites.

    Important rituals had to be performed following victory which included the recovering of the dead and the setting up of a victory trophy (from tropaion, meaning turning point in the conflict) at the exact place on the battlefield where victory became assured. The trophy could be in the form of captured weapons and armour or an image of Zeus on occasion memorials to the fallen were also set up. Speeches, festivals, sacrifices and even games could also be held following a victory in the field.


    Greek warfare, then, evolved from small bands of local communities fighting for local territory into massive set-piece battles between multi-allied counterparts. War became more professional, more innovative, and more deadly, reaching its zenith with the Macedonian leaders Philip II and Alexander the Great. Learning from the earlier Greek strategies and weapons innovations, they employed better hand weapons such as the long sarissa spear, used better artillery, successfully marshalled diverse troop units with different arms, fully exploited cavalry, and backed all this up with far superior logistics to dominate the battlefield not only in Greece but across vast swathes of Asia and set the pattern for warfare through Hellenistic and into Roman times.

    The Victory of Trafalgar - A Thunder to Last Eternity

    Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson achieved a stunning naval conquest. Much of it can be contributed to his own experience, and that of his men, as well as the decisive decision making throughout his campaign. By overwhelming and gradually defeating the combined fleet of the French and Spanish, he thoroughly changed the course of the Napoleonic Wars, and guaranteed the naval dominance of the English for the next century.

    Death of Nelson bronze plaque, Trafalgar Square, England ( BasPhoto / Adobe Stock)

    Even so, Nelson paid for his victory with the ultimate price – his own life. But death took him only in flesh – his name, his deeds, and his memory will live on eternally.

    Top image: The Battle of Trafalgar, oil on canvas by John Christian Schetky, c. 1841. Source: Yale Center for British Art / Public Domain

    Watch the video: Ναυμαχίες Β Παγκοσμίου Πολέμου - Naval Battles WWII (December 2022).

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