Scholia Reviews 3 (1994): 5

H. T. Wallinga, Ships and Sea-power before the Great Persian War: the Ancestry of the Ancient Trireme. Leiden, New York & Cologne: E. J. Brill, 1993. Pp. xv + 217 with 25 illustrations. ISBN 90-04-09650-7. Gld.140/US$80.

Antony Graham Keen
The University of Manchester

In this volume, the culmination of over a decade of articles on Archaic naval matters, Wallinga attempts to give a thorough treatment of two intertwined themes; the development of sea-power in the Archaic period and the evolution of the trireme. Both themes have recently been dealt with at shorter length, the latter by Morrison and the former by Starr.(1) These brief treatments have their problems; Morrison is marred by his tendency to manipulate the evidence to support his reconstruction of the trireme, whilst Starr’s work lacks real depth.(2) Wallinga is more satisfactory than either.

Some of Wallinga’s ideas are simple common sense and should not need to be brought to the attention of scholars (but clearly do). Into this category can be put his constant reminding the reader of the importance of triremes, and indeed most ancient naval vessels, as transport vessels. Likewise there is his argument that not all triremes were always fully-manned (pp. 169-83); hence a fleet of three hundred vessels might have a paper manpower of 60,000, but the actual figure might be as much as half of that.(3)

Many other of his ideas are quite radical, and often at variance with commonly-held scholarly opinion; but only occasionally (e.g. when criticizing Meyer’s view of the evolution of Athenian naval power at pp. 8-11) does he labour the point when opposing traditional interpretations. Many of Wallinga’s ideas are worthy of serious consideration. So, for instance, he argues that the pentecontor was without exception a twin-banked vessel rather than the more common view(4) that there were both single and twin-banked versions (pp. 45-53). The introduction of the trireme he dates quite late, to some time in the third quarter of the sixth century, dismissing the triremes attributed to the seventh-century Egyptian pharaoh Necho by Herodotus (2.159)(5) as a mistranslation of the Egyptian word for ‘ship’, which in Herodotus’ time was equivalent to Greek trieres but probably in Necho’s time referred to the then-standard warship (p. 104f.); Wallinga finds it difficult to believe that these vessels can have been triremes for the very sound reason that if the trireme was in existence c. 600 B.C., it is strange that the Carthaginians did not use them at the battle of Alalia in the 540s to offset the otherwise superior Phocaean pentecontors (on which see pp. 67-83).

He further argues that the evolution of the trireme occurred not in the world of the Greek polis (where the speed advantage over the pentecontor would not, without other factors coming into play, justify the trebling of the manpower requirement), but in Carthage and Egypt, and in two distinct phases; the Carthaginians added a third bank of oars to the pentecontor as a means of countering Phocaean naval superiority, and the three-banked system was in Egypt added to existing cargo vessels to counter a potential naval threat from Persia (pp. 102-18). This is in direct contrast to the usual view(6) that the trireme originated in Greece and was then exported to the Near East; but though Thucydides says that triremes were built E)N *KORI/NQW| PRW=TON TH=S *E(LLA/DOS (1.13.2), it seems best, despite the objections of Morrison,(7) to accept Wallinga’s view (p. 31)(8) that by this he means the first triremes in Greece, not the first triremes ever; this at least is the natural reading of the Greek. Wallinga’s hypothesis seems far more plausible than the common view that the trireme evolved from the much smaller two-level pentecontor with no intermediate stage, though it will not appeal to the Hellenocentric. According to Wallinga, the trireme only became the standard warship in the late sixth and early fifth centuries; Persia built them because Egypt had them, Athens because Persia had them, and the rest of Greece because of Athens.

The general historian of the Greek world will, however, have more interest in Wallinga’s theories on sea-power rather than in those on the technical development of ship designs. Here again Wallinga often departs from accepted views, often to his (and the reader’s) profit. He argues convincingly that most Archaic navies (and a number into the Classical period) depended largely upon privately-owned vessels pressed into service on behalf of the polis, one important exception being Corinth (pp. 13-32). It follows that most of these fleets would be without the expensive triremes until the polis per se rather than individual citizens took a leading role in the fitting out of the navy, in the case of Athens not properly until Themistocles’ naval bill in 483 (pp. 148-54).

At many other places Wallinga puts forward ideas that at the very least will force teachers of the Archaic period to rethink their approach. The naval power of Polycrates of Naxos, according to Wallinga (pp. 84-101) was funded by Egypt as a means of averting the Persian threat; the `Ionian’ thalassocracy of Thucydides (1.13.6) was that of Phocaea and Polycrates (p. 66f.), the other Ionian cities not having any significant naval power until supplied with ships by the Persians (pp. 118-122);(9) Miltiades’ Parian expedition, often held up as evidence that the Athenians were capable of acts of simple imperialism that fitted in with no strategic plan, is seen as having as its objective the raising of funds for building and operating a trireme fleet to oppose Persia (pp. 144-48), anticipating (though Wallinga does not say as much) the financial demands of the Delian League.

With all these radical ideas, it might not be surprising if Wallinga went a bit too far on occasion, and indeed he does, chiefly in regard to his interpretation of Persian policy. The suggestion that Xerxes possibly planned to follow his conquest of Greece immediately with an attack further west (p. 161f.), though supported by the comment that `once [a large-scale expedition] was organized, commanders would want to exploit its potential to the utmost’, pushes the reader’s credulity, especially as Wallinga has already described the attribution of a similar plan to Cambyses as `an armchair strategist’s fancy’ (p. 130).

This credulity is stretched to its limits by his suggestions that Darius I’s tribute system was largely geared up to financing a fleet in the Mediterranean (pp. 126, 135 n. 15, with a related point at p. 126 that the crisis precipitated by Cambyses’ financial measures to run a fleet is reflected in the stories of his madness and the revolt of Bardiya), and that Xerxes’ decision to invade Greece was a reaction to Athens’ acquisition of a trireme fleet (p. 161). The former is a rather Eurocentrist perspective; the Persian empire was vast, and Darius had more problems to worry about (and spend his money on) than simply the maintenance of naval dominance in the west. As for the motive Wallinga gives for Xerxes’ expedition, though he disputes Herodotus’ report (7.1.1f.) that Darius had any plans for a full- scale invasion of Greece (p. 160), a Persian invasion to forestall mainland Greek interference in Ionia must have been a serious possibility from the moment Cyrus the Great dismissed the threats of Spartan ambassadors after the fall of Croesus (Hdt. 1.152f.), and after Greek involvement in the Ionian revolt and the humiliation of Marathon, it would surprising in Darius did not plan an invasion.

There are omissions and infelicities. In his treatment of the trireme’s evolution he accepts without question Morrison’s reconstruction of the vessel.(10) But though Morrison has proved that the trireme could have been built in the way he suggests, there remain dissenters, who maintain that Morrison’s view is not in fact the way in which the trireme was actually built.(11) Wallinga nowhere acknowledges this. He should have done so, if only to dismiss the alternative reconstructions; though his interpretation of the trireme’s evolution is markedly different from that of Morrison, it is important to Wallinga’s view that Morrison’s reconstruction of the vessel’s final form is correct.

Wallinga’s note of the small scale of early Archaic trade and therefore the lack of need for sail-powered merchant ships (p. 35) should mention the larger sailing ships of the Bronze Age found at Cape Gelidonya and Ulu Burun off the coast of Turkey,(12) and his discussion on the same page of the grain route to the Black Sea, which he believes began in the late seventh century, seems in ignorance of the much later date for this proposed by Noonan and Garnsey.(13) As an example of the infelicities, at p. 126 he states `as argued earlier there is reason to assume… [Persian] permanent patrols [in the Mediterranean]’; in fact the only previous mention of the patrols at p. 119 merely asserts that they existed – the arguments are actually at p. 126 n. 55.

It is also regrettable that such a provocative book is marred by a poor standard of proofreading. Non-words such as `Thukydides’ and `Korkyra’ are more forgivable in someone whose first language is not English than they are in the anglophone, and only at one point (p. 176) do the numerous punctuation errors cause any serious confusion. The chief flaw lies in the bibliography. The following works are referred to in the text but not included in the bibliography: Bremmer 1990 (frequently cited); Bury 1900; Cartledge 1983; Heinimann 1945; Hornblower 1982; Hornblower 1983; Katzenstein 1973; Lloyd 1988; Ray 1988; Roebuck 1984. This is rather too many omissions, and to make matters worse, Braun 1982, Gardiner 1961 and Warmington 1960 are cited in the bibliography as `1983′, `1960′ and `1964′ respectively, whilst Harden 1962 and Bickerman 1968 appear in the text as `1963′ and `1969′; and The History of the British Navy is erroneously attributed in the bibliography to David Lewis, rather than to the distinguished naval historian Michael Lewis.

But though these faults make the book annoying to use, only occasionally do they make it all but impossible (I have been unable, for instance, to deduce to what `Ill. 76′ at p. 49 n. 54 refers), and the book’s errors should not be allowed to detract from the important ideas advanced. This is a book that should be consulted not only by scholars of ancient naval warfare, but by anyone whose teaching or research interests lie in the period c. 800-480 B.C. For by clarifying details of the use of ships and sea-power, Wallinga has mapped out a whole new interpretation of Archaic Greek history.


(1) John S. Morrison & J. F. Coated, The Athenian Trireme (Cambridge 1986) 25-45; Chester G. Starr, The Influence of Sea Power on Ancient History (Oxford 1989) 15-28.

(2) See the review by Philip De Souza, CR n.s. 40 (1990) 506-7.

(3) The suggestion that a trireme could not move with a reduced crew is effectively argued against by Wallinga (p. 171f.) and has been conclusively disproved by the trials of the reconstruction Olympias; see J. F. Coated, Stavros K. Platis & J. T. Shaw, The Trireme Trials 1988 (Oxford 1990), 20, 23, which surprisingly Wallinga does not mention.

(4) For which see Morrison [1] 30-36.

(5) Usually accepted without question; see e.g. Morrison [1] 38.

(6) E.g. Morrison [1] 38.

(7) E.g. `The First Triremes’, The Mariner’s Mirror 65.1 (1979) 53-63.

(8) Following e.g. Lionel Casson, Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World (Princeton 1971) 81 n. 17.

(9) Wallinga first advanced this latter idea in `The Ionian Revolt’, Mnemosyne ser. 4, 37 (1984) 404-7.

(10) J. S. Morrison & R. T. Williams, Greek Oared Ships 900-322 B.C. (Cambridge 1968); John Coated & Sean McGrail, The Greek Trireme of the 5th Century B.C. (Greenwich 1984); Morrison [1].

(11) In particular Alec F. Tilley, most recently in `Three Men to a Room – a Completely Different Trireme’, Antiquity 66 (1992) 599-610, who does raise some salient points.

(12) Cape Gelidonya: G. F. Bass (et al.), Cape Gelidonya: a Bronze Age Shipwreck (Philadelphia 1967). The Ulu Burun wreck has not yet been fully excavated; interim reports have appeared in AJA 90 (1986), 92 (1988) and 93 (1989).

(13) T.S. Noonan, ‘Grain Trade of the Northern Black Sea’, AJPh 94 (1973) 231-42; P.D.A. Garnsey, Famine and Food Supply in the Graeco-Roman World (Cambridge 1988) 108-9.