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.
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.
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.
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.
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.