What is Olympias:

The trireme trust was founded to promote the construction of an Athenian triere copy. The Greek Trust and the Greek Navy can today congratulate themselves on achieving their goal by achieving Olympias. Their success is however disputed by some who point out that this ship is not rebuilt according to real vestiges of antique trire found to be discovered on seabed. The objection is less admissible than it appears at first sight. First of all the Trières did not flow: When a waterway was declared there, they floated filled with water, and being unable to sail, they were towed. Even drowned, they had, like Olympias, a positive buoyancy coefficient. Constructed of wood, with only a small proportion of materials heavier than water, the average density of the building and its contents was therefore lower than that of water.

In the hypothesis that a trire was able, despite everything, to flow, how could an archaeologist identify it on the substance? Only the lower elements of the hull could have survived. But even in the presence of numerous vestiges, the archaeologist can not decide whether they are those of a trireme, but from what he knows of descriptions made in literature and inscriptions; The latter are the only means of identifying a vessel that appears on ancient representations.

There is only one exception to this: the grafitto of Alba Fucens on which one reads navis tetreri longa (quadrirème or "4"). The wrecks obviously do not have "etiquette"; Therefore the definite identification of a trire is impossible. In case one of them has sunk, the archaeologist will identify it only if he knows beforehand what he is looking for. Therefore, in the absence of a properly identified trireum, Dr. Coates and I thought it would be reasonable to proceed as follows: Gather all the trier data that we could find in the language, literature and inscriptions Various; Use these data to carry out probable identifications of trire representations; Introduce the imperatives of geometry and physics to draw a vessel that incorporates the data of the first and second points; And, as far as possible, construct a vessel according to this drawing, check its characteristics and performances, and compare them with the writings of ancient authors. This method would allow at least to recognize a trireme or its representation newly discovered but not accompanied by an inscription.

Legitimacy of reconstruction: Archaeologists have asked themselves whether experimental archeology, that is to say the reconstruction of objects which can only be a copy of their ancient model, was really or not of archeology in the " Strict acceptance of the term. The questioning of the merits of the construction and nature of the Olympias gives us the opportunity to present here the main arguments in its favor. Evidence, or evidence, of the reality of an ancient artefact can be direct and / or indirect. Among the first, there is the existence of real vestiges of the object or of those directly related, its representations accompanied by an inscription and the contemporary literary attestations which one has a direct relationship with it. Indirect evidence includes figures that can be recognized as images of the artifact and, in the specific case of triremes, contemporary shipbuilding practices. In the absence of certain wrecks, the ancient traces that directly concern the trire are on the one hand the holds of Zéa (article of D. Blackman), in the port of Piraeus, built to shelter the trire, and other Vocabulary and quotations in literature and inscriptions.

The holds of Zéa were built in the 5th century in the limestone rock to shelter triremes and were restored in the 4th century BC They each have a maximum width slightly less than 6 meters, well enough for a trire. Their length at the present level of the sea is 37 meters but I.X. Dragatzes specifies that they extend farther under water whose level has risen since the 4th century BC The holds have been able to reach a depth of about 0.8 to 0.9 meters below the surface of the water, With a slope perhaps more pronounced to allow the drying of the boats. In ancient Greek, the term "sorts" means "(ship) three times equipped ...", or more likely "three times rowed". Whatever it is, it means that the ship has three units that other boats have in different numbers. The index to say it is provided by the triskalmos synonym, used by Aeschylus as an alternative to say trire.

This ship has three Skalmoi (oars) while others have a different number. There is ample evidence that the oldest Greek galleys, with a single level of 10, 15 or 25 oars per ship, were later armed at two levels of oars to undoubtedly improve the power/weight ratio and To make the ship more maneuverable when we began to use spurs for the collision of the enemy. This modification means that in the "space" of the rower of the old galleys, two pivots of rowing had to be placed where there was only one before; One was necessarily at a different level from the other. At the time, however, it seems that the necessity of designating the ship was not felt by the new word dieres, which appeared only much later, in the second century AD. J.C., perhaps translated from the Latin Biremis. The words triskalmos and trieres may then apply to a ship in which the number of oars and rowers in space has been increased to three.

This time what distinguished a boat with fifty oars from a boat with 170 oars justified the use of a new name: triskalmos or more prosaically sort. This reasoning leads to the very important conclusion that at least at the time when Aeschylus wrote "the Persians" in 473 BC. J.C., the space of the rower was recognized as one of the fundamental elements of a galley. The number of rowers in the longest row of a galley is 31, the number known from the inscriptions. With a cubit "Doric", of 490 mm, the space of two cubits, or 980 mm determines the length of the ship in its part equipped with oars; It would be about 30 meters. Consequently, the total length of the vessel may be estimated to be somewhat less than forty meters, which would allow it to hold in the holds of Zea, if the sea level has risen well since the time of the Athenian triremes.


The names for the three categories of oars and rowers, the Thranites, Zygios and Thalamios, also inform us. All three are found in naval inventories to designate oars, but the first and last words are also used by historians to designate rowers. The word to designate the hold appears to be Thalamos or thalamus. The pentecontent (in Greek pentékonteros: ship with fifty rowers), with its single row of oars on board could transport a certain volume of payload. In the odyssey, we read that gifts are stowed under the Zyga (swimming bench) and Herodotus describes the Phocaeans who prefer exile to Persian domination and take the sea with their families and their goods on their pentecontors. When the second level of oars was introduced, the hold was sacrificed to gain more power. It is reasonable to suppose that these oars and their rowers of the second level were called thalamioi, and that those of the upper level, where the rowers used to sit on the shoals, were called Zigioi. The words Zigie and Thalamite are erroneous Byzantine inventions, which, it is supposed, were a counterpart to Thranites.

Since the middle of the 6th century BC the poet Hipponax was the first to mention a trire equipped with a spur and many benches, this one appears frequently in the literature. Herodotus ( speaks of a ship with a crew of 200 persons, which could only be a trire, since it is the number cited later for this type of ship, and because no other type of ship This size is not reported at the time. However the information given relates to its performance of speed and agility rather than the details of its construction. The most important text of the 5th century BC. J.C. is probably the narrative of Thucydides (2.93.2) speaking of Corinthian rowers transferred to megarian trenches on the other side of the isthmus, "each carrying its rowing, cushion and tower." This text thus makes it possible to invalidate that the rowers of trierers may have teamed two or more by rowing, as was often hinted at. According to Thucydides (7.67) it would seem that on a trire, the men on deck (Katastroma) had to sit. At the beginning of the 5th century BC. It would seem that the bridge was not built transversely from one side of the ship to the other, but that it was later built in order to carry more soldiers. Shielding screens or grids, if necessary, became normal on-board equipment.

Another important text relating to the system of oars of the triremes is found in Aristotle (part of animals 687-18): speaking of the fingers of the hand, he says that "there are good reasons for the external finger to be short, That the middle one is long, like the middle oar on a boat. " The author of "Mechanika" (4th century BC, attributed to Aristotle) ​​gives the reason for the difference in length of the oars of a galley. To the question of why the rowers of the middle make the most advanced the building, he replies that it depends on the power developed by the ream like lever: The part of the longest train (that is to say of the tower up to ' To the handle) is inside the hull in the middle of the building, where it is the widest. At the prow and the stern, the convergence of the edges (port and starboard) obliges to shorten this part of the train. The Greek physician Galien states the same point: "All the oars are thrown out of the hull at the same distance from the flanks of the boat, although they are not of the same total length." This is useful information, as will be seen later.

Rear view - Olympias

Entries and Indirect Sources:

But the most abundant sources on the triremes of the Athenian navy in general are the inscriptions of the fourth century: "The decree of Themistocles" (IG2 1604-1632) and what we will call the "naval inventories", towards the third quarter of 4th century (377-376 to 323-322 BC). These "inventories" were discovered in Piraeus and give, in a fragmentary state, the annual reports of the outgoing council of shipyard supervisors. The "decree of Themistocles" is an inscription, which, it is thought, resumes in the literary form of the fourth century, the decree presented by Themistocles to the Athenian assembly in the autumn of the year 481 BC. A "trierarch" (captain), ten hoplites and four archers on each triere. This is corroborated for the fifth century by literary sources (Thucydides 3.94.8 and 6.43).

The modest number of defenders denotes a tactical use of the ship, which influences the construction of the bridge of the triremes of the fifth century. The "naval inventories" contain on the triremes information of great value for the history. They describe the organization and practices of the Athenian navy during the third quarter of the fourth century and allow us to follow the gradual introduction of tetreres and penteres. ("4" and "5"). On triremes, information is limited but valuable. Their most interesting contribution relates to positions related to oars. They designate three categories: thranite, zygian and thalamian. The quantities for each building are invariably 62 thranites, 54 zygians and 54 thalamians (respectively 31, 27 and 27 rowers on each side), ie a total of 170 oars and rowers. If the 14 armed men are added to them, there remain 16 (out of 200) to form the hyperesia, that is to say the body of the assistants of the trierarch.

This corps consisted of two teams of five sailors (one at the stern, one at the bow), and six second-masters (junior officers), the most important being the helmsman and the prow. The "inventories" also mention a fourth series of trains, the perineos, that is to say the spare trains to the number of 30 in total, which added to the others make a total rounded to 200, and are of two different lengths, 9 Angled and 9.5 cubits. From Thucydides (5th century BC) to Procopius (6th century AD), the word is also used to designate persons on board who do not regulate their passage by rowing, as opposed to rowers (Proskopoi, Auteretai, Sortitai, etc.). Since these 9 cubits and 9 and a half cubic yards are undoubtedly spare parts, placed on board triremes to replace unused oars of the three categories, it can be concluded that all the oars had to measure either 9 cubits or 9 cubits and a half. The reason for the difference in length has been named above and looks good. Calculating with a cubit of 490 mm, one obtains a length of 4.41 meters at the stern and the prow and 4,665 meters in the middle of the ship.


Olympias - Prow

Indirect evidence concerning the trire consists of contemporary shipbuilding practices and some figurative representations of the ship. Also, from the method of construction known as "first hull" which (underwater archeology was revealed) was used at the time for merchant ships, also from the examination of the vestiges of the Prow of a warship of the end of the third century preserved in the spur of Ahlit, one can reasonably imagine the method followed to construct a trire of the Vth and IVth before our era. We also have images of warships of this period representing triremes. Two of them are important:

1. the Lenormant relief, showing the starboard center of the hull of a vessel with oars;

2. the vase of Ruvo decorated with the image of the back of a boat stranded and whose oars are bordered but whose rudder is seen. These objects date from the end of the fifth century when the trire were liner ships, that is to say long before the invention of tetris and pentères in the Athenian naval inventories. Thanks to the direct sources, it was possible to establish that the triremes had a bridge, a hull open on the flank (parexereisia), an opening through which the Thranite oars passed, and lower two rows of portholes for the oars; The holes in the lower row were covered with sleeves and large enough to pass the head.


Olympias - Hangar full view

A pioneering project

The plans of the Olympias take into account the main characteristics that we have just described, namely: A total crew of 200 men including 170 rowers, each maneuvering a train; Three rows per oar on three superimposed levels, 31 thranites, 27 zygians and 27 thalamians on board, the thranites maneuvering their ream in a long opening (parexereisia), the hull, the zygiens and thalamiens by individual openings; Openings of the thalamian rank with sleeves (askomata); One space for each rower two cubits; Oars of the same length outside the hull; A total building length of 37 meters, a width of 5.5 meters; A row propulsion system and details of the structure of the building based on the models illustrated on the Ruvo vase and the Nenormant relief; A hypozoma installed taut, with anchorage in prow and stern.

The traditional argument against the three-level trireme that the Lenormant relief represents is that these three levels involved distinctly different lengths of oars, a system that could not be operated satisfactorily. Against this system it was argued that it would involve 4, 5, 6 and up to 40 levels of oars in the later developed warships called tetris, pentères, hexeres, etc ..., forgetting conveniently who The "alla zenzile" and "a scaloccio" swims which succeeded him (more than one man per oar), and who both put the oars on one level, could not provide an explanation for these developments. "The enigma of the trire" seemed insoluble.

The major success of the Olympias was to demonstrate without controversy that a 37-meter-long, three-level rowboat could impeccably navigate, making the data available at the moment, Was a trire of the time. It also enabled us to conclude that the name "trire" applied to a vessel having three rows of continuous rows from bow to stern on each side. This conclusion in turn made it possible to understand exactly what the new types of ships appeared during the 6th century BC. JC, with the introduction of the practice of having several oars rowing, haemiolia, trihemiolia, and those up to 4, 5, 6 up to the monsters of 40 rowers, while always keeping in mind the remark of W. Tarn that no warships of more than 10 rowers per ream were ever used in combat.

Triere upper view

Whatever the detailed modifications in the concept of the Olympias which would be deemed necessary after further discussions, new archaeological discoveries or new trials at sea, the success of the archaeological experiment carried out (ie, Paving the way for further work on the whole range of ancient warships) can not be denied. " According to dr. John Coates, the report of the Olympias test campaigns, highlighted the fact that the "rowing" of this swim was done after a short training, that a space of two (888 mm) between two rowers was too small, that the ligaments of the oars should necessarily be made of green leather, provided that it remained dry, that the oars and their sleeves were to be constantly lubricated in order to be effective, As light as possible while having the best flexibility, and that with 45 strokes of rowing / minutes, the maximum power was reached. But he also demonstrated that, modified according to these teachings, the revised Olympias could exceed the maximum speed reached and sustained for 24 hours (7.5 knots), reaching 9.5 knots, which was truly unsurpassable.

Greek Trireme

Finally, the rowers had to sit on a comfortable cushion, be protected from the sun, drink enormously in hot weather, especially for the Thalamians (lower rank) lacking air. Concerning the ship, it was also shown that the antique oars were perfectly efficient and that the ship was easily flanked, had practically no grip on the wind, which did not affect its performance, but that it could, because of its Low width, give band. In sailing, the sail seemed to be sufficiently effective to propel the vessel at 4-5 knots per oblique wind, and in the event of a weak wind, the additional power obtained at the train resulted in speeds of 6 knots without exhausting the rowers. In the event of a standing wind, it was imperative to maneuver the rowing boat to shelter it or to cabot in a less windy place, but in this case the maximum speed did not exceed 3 knots, the effort exhausting the crew.

Extract from the archeology files, N ° 183, 06/1993).