Primary History

Ancient Greeks: Sea and ships

  • Greek ships

    Greek ships had sails, and were pushed along by the wind. Small trading ships usually stayed close to the shore, so the sailors did not get lost. Before a voyage, the sailors prayed to the sea god Poseidon, for a safe journey.

    Greek warships had oars as well as sails. The largest warships had three banks of oars and were called triremes. A trireme needed 170 men to row it - one man to each oar. It had a long narrow deck that soldiers could run along and fight from. The oarsmen sat underneath the deck.

    Archaeologists have measured the remains of ship-sheds where Greek ships were built, to work out how big they were. A trireme was about 35 m/115 ft long.

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  • Ships on Land

    The narrow piece of land that joins the southernmost part of Greece to the mainland is the Isthmus of Corinth. Periander, ruler of the city-state of Corinth, built a stone track across the isthmus, so ships could be dragged overland. Hundreds of slaves made the track.

    Corinth became rich by charging ship-owners to send their ships on the overland short-cut. It was much quicker than sailing all the way around the coast. Have a look at the maps to see why.

    Today there is an easier way to cross the isthmus. Ships pass through the Corinth Canal. It is not very long, but has very high sides.

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  • Colonies and pirates

    The Greeks used their ships to sail off and found colonies. One colony called Massalia (Marseille), in what is now France, was founded around 600 BC. The Greeks who landed here were called Phokaians. Their 50-oared ships were the fastest ships in the Mediterranean.

    It was useful to have a fast ship, because there were lots of pirates! If pirates caught a trading ship, they would steal the cargo (which might be wine or copper or gold). They would sell the crew and passengers as slaves.

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  • The Battle of Salamis

    The greatest sea battle in Greek history was at Salamis (an island not far from Athens). It was fought in 480 BC between the Greeks and the Persians. A large Persian fleet of about 500 ships sailed into a narrow strait at Salamis. The Persian king Xerxes watched from a throne set up on the shore, expecting an easy victory. However, the Persians got trapped in narrow channels, and they were attacked by about 380 Greek ships. 200 Persian ships were sunk or damaged, and hundreds of Persians were killed. It was a great victory for the Greeks.

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  • How did Greeks fight at sea?

    In a battle, the triremes tried to get close to the enemy ships and if possible crash into them. A trireme was steered by long steering oars at the stern or back of the ship. The captain ordered the ship to steer straight at an enemy ship. Fixed to the front of the trireme was a sharp metal-covered point or ram. When the trireme struck the side of an enemy ship, the ram smashed a hole in the wooden planks. Water flooded in and the damaged ship either sank or had to be beached on the nearest shore. The trireme's soldiers sometimes jumped onto a damaged ship and captured it.

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Fun Facts
  • Triremes were faster than sails-only ships, with a battle-speed in calm sea of about 10 km/h.

  • Triremes were not so good in rough seas though.

  • Before rowing out to battle, a trireme's crew dumped much of the gear on shore - including the sail. This saved weight so the ship went faster.

  • Trireme rowers were not slaves (unlike the rowers in a Roman warship). They were free citizens.

  • A replica trireme was built to test historians' ideas about how Greek ships were built and sailed. It's called Olympias.

  • For anchors, Greeks sailors used heavy stones with a hole in for a rope. Later, they invented the modern shaped anchor.

  • A few Greek trading ships may have had rams too - to give pirates a nasty surprise!

  • Greek ships had an "all-seeing eye" painted on the front or prow. The sailors believed the magic eye would guide them safely home to port.

  • The most famous Greek sailor was Jason. His ship was the Argo, and his crew were called the Argonauts. They had exciting adventures looking for a magic sheepskin called the Golden Fleece.

  • An Ancient Greek shipwreck found off Turkey was carrying 10 tons of copper from Cyprus. Divers also found writing tablets, bronze daggers and an ivory trumpet.

  • A Greek sailor named Pytheas is said to have explored the coast of Britain.

  • Ancient Greeks sometimes exaggerated. At Salamis, they said the Persians had over 1000 ships!

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Jump to: A-D | E-G | H-L | M-O | P-S | T-Z

A to D

[AB-buh-KUS} Beads on a wire or wood frame used for counting and doing sums.
[a-CROP-olis] The Acropolis is a large hill in the centre of Athens. On top of it were many temples and other buildings, the remains of which can still be seen today
Expert in studying the past from remains left by people.
Person who used a bow and arrow.
A person who designs buildings.
[aris-TOF-a-neez] Lived from about 450 to 385 BC. He wrote comedy plays comedies for the theatre in Athens.
[aris-TOT-ull] Lived from 384 to 322 BC. A scientist and philosopher.
Anything made by people. Artefacts found by archaeologists include broken pottery, bits of wood and metal, brick and stone.
The patron goddess of Athens, and goddess of wisdom. A huge statue of Athena stood inside the Parthenon in Athens.
The capital city of modern Greece. In ancient times Athens was a powerful city-state with its own government, laws, army and navy.
[A-tik-a] The region around Athens.
Soldiers riding on horses.
Mythical creature with a horse's lower body and legs, but the chest, arms and head of a man. Centaurs were wild and unruly, but one named Chiron was wise and skilled in healing.
In Athens a citizen was a person with the right to take part in the assembly, serve on juries and take a turn as a member of the ruling council. Only male Athenians were allowed citizen rights.
Ancient Greek cities had their own governments, laws and armies. The city and the land it controlled around it made up the city-state.
colony (colonies)
An overseas settlement. The Greeks set up colonies around the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
A tall cylinder-shaped support for the roof or doorway to a building. There were three styles of columns in Greek architecture: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian.
comedy (comedies)
A play written to make the audience laugh. In the Greek theatre comedies poked fun at the foolishness of people and especially politicians.
[COH-rinth] A city-state in southern Greece, famous for its pottery and overland ship-track. Someone or something from Corinth is known as Corinthian.
Raised decoration on a soldier's helmet, like a ridge. On Greek helmets, the crest was made of stiff horsehair.
death penalty
Punishment for a serious crime, such as murder. The person found guilty was executed (killed).
[DEL-fee] A city to the west of Athens, withthe famous Oracle of Delphi. People went to consult the Oracle for advice from the gods.
A system of government in which citizens can vote to decide things. Athens had democracy from 510 BC.
Flat dish-shaped object thrown by an athlete, a bit like a Frisbee only smaller and heavier.

E to G

A boatman who takes people across a river or lake in a boat called a ferry.
Decoration around the top of a wall or building.
Monsters with wings and hair made of snakes. The gorgon Medusa could turn people to stone.
Building with machines for producing goods in large numbers.
factory commission
A group of men who travelled around Britain to investigate the working conditions of children in both factories and mines.
fire grate
The metal part of a fire and fireplace.
A map of the world drawn on a sphere, useful in geography lessons.
A woman who taught rich girls and young boys in their homes, as a paid, live-in servant.
grammar school
Boys' schools, started in the Middle Ages as an alternative to Church schools and giving free education to some boys.

H to L

A slave who worked for a Spartan master.
Someone who writes about, and studies, the past, especially from writings left by earlier people.
[HOP-light] A Greek foot soldier. Hoplites carried round shields and long spears and had bronze helmets and leg guards.
Said to be the author of the two long poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, but nothing is really known about him.
Narrow strip of land with sea either side.
A long spear for throwing.
In a law court, the people who listen to evidence and decide whether an accused person is guilty or not.
Oven heated by wood, charcoal or some other burning fuel for 'firing' (heating and hardening) clay pots.

M to O

State in the north of Greece, birthplace of Alexander the Great.
Battle between the Greeks and Persians.
Picture-decoration made from small coloured tiles.
Olympic Games
A religious festival held in honour of Zeus, attended by people from all over Greece.
A religious custom where people asked the Oracle questions or sought advice. The Oracle was supposed to give the answers of the gods.

P to S

[pan-KRAT-ion] A type of wrestling with almost no rules; one of the Olympic events.
[PARTH-en-on] A huge temple on top of the Acropolis hill in Athens.
[PER-i-kleez] A popular leader of Athens from 458 - 429 BC. Pericles was famous for his stirring public speeches.
An empire to the east of Greece, ruled by kings. Persia tried to invade Greece. Ancient Persia is modern Iran.
Greek fighting formation, made up of ranks of foot soldiers.
A person who thinks and writes about the meaning of life and how people live.
Sea robber. There were many pirate ships in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas at the time of the Ancient Greeks.
Lived from about 428 to 348, he was a philosopher and teacher in Athens.
Person active in politics - the business of governing a city or country.
Useful containers such as bowls, dishes, plates and mugs made from soft clay that is baked hard in an oven called a kiln.
In warfare, a pointed weapon for battering holes in walls or ships. Greek warships had rams fixed to their front ends or prows.
Roman means "of Rome" or a person from Rome. The Ancient Romans conquered Greece around 146 BC, but admired and copied Greek civilization.
A gift made to the gods. For example, pieces of meat could be burned on an altar as a sacrifice.
Someone who studies - and often writes books too.
Artist who makes statues and other works of art from stone, wood or metal.
Ancient kingdom, north of the Black Sea in a region now inside Ukraine and Russia.
A person with no freedom, owned by someone else.
Large piece of wood, leather and metal held in front of a soldier's body to protect him in battle. Most Greek shields were round.
[SOK-rat-TEES] Lived from about 470 to 399. A philosopher and friend of Plato, he was famous for asking questions, but was forced to kill himself because Athens' rulers feared his teachings.
[SOF-o-kleez] A writer of plays who died in 406 BC. He was also a general, in the army of Pericles. Sophocles wrote tragedies.
[SPAR-ta] A city-state in southern Greece. The Spartans were famous for their strict military training and powerful army.

T to Z

A building used for religious worship and ceremonies. The Greeks put statues of gods and goddesses inside their temples.
The burial place for a dead person. Ancient people often put food, pottery, weapons and other possessions in a person's tomb.
In theatre, a play with a sad or serious ending, and a moral lesson or teaching.
[TRY-reem] A Greek warship with three banks or rows of oars.
City in what is now Turkey, in which people called Trojans lived. They fought a 10-year war with the Greeks.
Typical clothing of Greek men and boys, a loose-fitting garment like a long shirt with short sleeves.
[Zerksees] King of Persia. Son of Darius. Led the Persian army at the Battle of Salamis.
[zz YOOS] The king of the gods. Zeus was the most powerful of the ancient Greek gods.