Although Athens had a certain share of the blame for the start of the Greco-Persian Wars, the Wars still had one big advantage for Athens. The Greco-Persian Wars forced Athens to turn from a relatively insignificant Central Greek city-state into one of the major players in Greece and the Aegean Sea within only 5 years. The reason for Athens’s sudden rise to power can be found in the extension of its navy. But how big was the Athenian navy? How many men were needed for the Athenian navy? And how strong was the Athenian navy? Well, all these questions will be answered in the following.
The Athenian navy in the Battle of Salamis (29 September 480 BC) consisted of 253 ships, 200 of which had been built since 483 BC on the suggestion of Themistocles and had been financed from the earnings of the silver mines of Laurion. 30,000 Athenian citizens were needed to man the entire navy since each ship, a so-called trireme, was manned by 170 oarsmen, 10 Hoplites, 5-6 archers, and 15 sailors. On average an Athenian fleet consisted of 32 triremes (plus the ships of allies).
Let`s take a closer look at the size of the Athenian fleet before we look at the origins and the ships as well as the crews of the Athenian navy. And then we will finish with the answer to how strong the Athenian navy really was.
The Size of Athenian Fleets
The size of Athenian fleets varied depending on the time and the necessity since the Athenian navy did usually not operate in its entirety but was split up into smaller fleets that could operate independently.
The average size of an Athenian fleet was 32 triremes plus the ships of allies. It is quite important to state that Athens as the Leader of the Delian League did not only have its own navy but could also call upon the navies of the other members.
By the way.
The Delian League was founded in 478 BC as an association of 150 – 330 Greek city-states to continue the fight against the Persian Empire after the end of the Persian invasion of Greece. But it soon turned into an Athenian tool to expand and secure Athenian dominance in the Aegean Sea and the Athenian claim for dominion over all of Greece.
That also shows when we look at the amount of money Athens received each year from the other members of the League. But not only Athens relied on a League to enforce its own interests, so did Sparta. That is the reason why the Spartan armies consisted of only relatively few Spartiates but many Hoplites from other cities of the Peloponnesian League.
But there were also much bigger, as well as much smaller, Athenian fleets. Let`s look at a few examples.
An Athenian fleet that anchored at Naupaktos in 433 BC consisted of 12 triremes while the Athenian strategoi Eurymedon and Sophokles led a fleet of 40 Athenian triremes to Sicily in 415 BC. The mentioned expedition to Sicily was a total disaster for Athens and encouraged Sparta to reintensify the Peloponnesian War. But it also encouraged an old Athenian enemy, the Persians, to reintroduce their influence into Greece with the help of Sparta.
Towards the end of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenian navy (just like the Spartan navy) had suffered pretty badly. Yet the naval war between both cities went on.
In early June of 406 BC an Athenian fleet of 70 ships under the command of Konon was attacked by a Spartan fleet of approximately 140 triremes. But the Athenian fleet managed to escape and Athens was able to – under great hardship – build another 110 triremes. But manning these new ships was hard. As a last resort, Athens fell back on recruiting slaves as oarsmen, something that was totally unusual.
Greek, Persian, and Roman warships were not rowed by slaves. In case it became necessary to recruit slaves as oarsmen, these slaves were usually freed right before they were sent onto the ships. One of the reasons why slaves were not used to row warships can be found in the complexity of the task. Each oarsman had to be well-trained. Otherwise the entire crew fell out of sync and the ship didn`t move.
Here you can see just how synchronized the oarsmen of a Greek trireme had to be. Just putting slaves without any training on the ships would not have worked…
So the use of slaves as oarsmen on warships was a rare measure that was only taken in times of great need (for example in 406 BC when Athens didn`t have enough citizens left to row its new warships).
Despite the use of slaves, the 120 ships of the Athenian fleet plus its allies managed to win a big victory over the Spartan fleet in the Battle of Arginusae in 406 BC. But that didn`t save Athens. The Spartans were able to rebuild their fleet thanks to Persian money and in late 406 BC the last Athenian fleet was defeated. Athens would eventually capitulate in 404 BC. But that is a story for another time.
Ok, so now we have looked at several smaller and mid-sized Athenian fleets. But how big was the biggest Athenian fleet in history? And in comparison: How big was the biggest Greek fleet?
The biggest Athenian fleet fought in the battle of Salamis on 29 September of 480 BC when a fleet of 380 ships of the Hellenic League (including 253 Athenian triremes) faced the Persian fleet that consisted of 600 – 700 triremes.
Here you can find out more about the Persian fleet and why most sailors and ships of the „Persian“ fleet were not so much Persian as Greek, Phoenician, or Egyptian. And here you can find out more about why I wrote that the fleet of the Hellenic League and not all united Greeks fought the Persian fleet in the Battle of Salamis.
The Battle of Salamis (or I should better say the imminent threat of a Persian invasion) was also the reason why Themistocles recommended increasing the Athenian navy in the first place.
The Origins of the Athenian Navy
The history of the Athenian fleet basically starts in 483 BC when Themistocles suggested the drastic expansion of the Athenian fleet in preparation for an imminent Persian invasion. As a result, Athens started to build 200 additional triremes.
The 200 triremes that were built in 483 BC on the recommendation of Themistocles were financed by the profits from the silver mines of Laurion. But the maintenance of the ships was put on wealthy Athenian citizens. Each wealthy Athenian citizen had to finance the maintenance and combat readiness of one trireme for one year.
But that was an expensive endeavor. And that brings us to the ships and crews of the Athenian navy.
The Ships of the Athenian Navy
The most common ship in the Athenian navy (just like in the Spartan navy and in the Persian navy) was the trireme.
The Trireme was a 38 – 40 yd (35-37 m) long and 16 – 19 yd wide warship with a draft of only 3,9 ft (1,20 m) that had a sail and oars. The Trireme was a fast and agile ship that could reach a top speed of 11 mph (18 kmh / 9,7 knots). It was manned by a total of 200 men (170 oarsmen, 10 Hoplites, 5-6 archers, and 15 sailors).
It looked like the replica you can see in the following video:
By the way. Some movies depict the idea that Greek triremes set their sails when they tried to ram (and as a result sink) a hostile ship. But that didn`t happen. Ancient Greek ships did not set sail when they tried to ram a hostile ship. Instead, the mast and the sails were taken down before the battle to improve the maneuverability of the ship.
Taking down the sails before a battle also had the advantage that flaming arrows could do a lot less damage.
The goal in an ancient Greek naval battle was not to board the opponent’s ship. Instead, the goal was to ram the opponent’s ship and rip a hole into its hull. So the Hoplites on board a Greek warship were not there to board the enemy`s ship. Their job was to prevent the crew of the rammed (and soon sinking) enemy ship from boarding their own ship.
Speaking of crews.
As I said, 200 men were necessary to man one trireme. And most of them were oarsmen. The growing importance of the Athenian navy also shows in the Athenian democracy. Originally Democracy in Ancient Greece meant that only men wealthy enough to fight as Hoplites had a political say.
But since the Athenian navy needed thousands of oarsmen (who usually came from the lowest class of citizens, so-called Thetes), the Athenians had to also include the Thetes in politics and give them a political say. So in a way, the expansion of the Athenian navy and the growing need for oarsmen caused the expansion of political participation to the lower classes who, until now, had been too poor to serve in the military and – as a result – didn`t have a political say.
30,000 Athenian citizens were needed to man the entire Athenian navy. The fact that the poor fourth class of citizens (the Thetes), who – until then – had been excluded from military service and political participation, were suddenly able to also serve in the military meant that they suddenly also had to be allowed to participate in politics.
Many of the Thetes were day laborers, more on the daily pay of an Athenian day laborer here.
So up to 30,000 citizens were needed to man the Athenian navy. That was actually most of the Athenian population! And that bears one question: When the Athenian fleet was so big that most of the Athenian citizens were necessary to man the fleet, then how strong was the Athenian fleet?
How Strong Was the Athenian Fleet?
The victories of the Athenian fleet in the Greco-Persian Wars would not only be crucial in winning the war, they would also spark the rivalry between Athens and Sparta. And even the entire Greek plan for the Battle of Thermopylae relied on the fleet of the Hellenic League (that mostly consisted of Athenian triremes).
The Athenian navy was extremely strong and the reason why Athens turned from being a relatively insignificant Central Greek city-state to being a major political player in Greece and the Aegean Sea in only 5 years.
The only reason why the Athenian navy was eventually overpowered by the Spartan navy was the fact that Sparta could always build new fleets with the help of Persian money as well as the fact that Athens had a bad habit of executing its most capable generals and admirals for either being not successful enough or being too successful.
But that is a story for another time.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Karl-Wilhelm Welweit: Sparta. Aufstieg und Niedergang einer antiken Großmacht (Stuttgart 2004).*
Jenifer Neils: The Cambridge companion to ancient Athens.*
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