Ancient Ships

Let’s distinguish galleys (warships) and merchant ships.

We badly miss pictures of ancient ships and we have to rely solely on reliefs, mosaics and ceramics and on modern artwork based on what we think we understand about ancient ships. A number of wrecks of merchant ships have been found, but very few ancient texts to describe them (one noteworthy exception: the Isis, by Lucian of Samosate). The reverse is true for war ships as only one wreck was found so far (the Marsala Punic ship, found in 1969), and some bronze rams described by Murray, including the 465 kg Athlit ram found in 1980. An explanation may be that merchant ships sunk with their cargo so that at least the bottom of the ship was preserved, while war ships were destroyed and their wooden structure was scattered around, except the rams.

The best modern “image” is the reconstruction of an Athenian Trireme at scale one in the Olympias Project of J.S. Morrison, J.F. Coates et N.B. Rankov between 1987 and 1994. The project still survives on internet thanks to the “Trireme Trust“.

This page also provides 3 tables :

  • known ancient maxi-ships
  • other ancient ships
  • pm: the Maltese galley

Who is the “Gubernator”?  the captain and helmsman … and/or the pilot?

“Gubernator” in Latin, and “Kybernetes” in Greek.

Greek Pentecontore, detail on Attic Cup, ca 520 AD (BNF, Paris)

He was the captain acting both as the helmsman and as the pilot who knew the location of safe shelters and how to handle the ship to enter them.

This can be deduced from the famous last voyage of Paul where the kyberniti and the naukliro are the obvious decision-making sailors on board, together with the centurion who is a distinguished “client”:

« Nevertheless, the centurion believed the master [κυβερνήτῃ] and the owner of the ship [ναυκλήρῳ], more than those things which were spoken by Paul. » (Luke’s Acts (27. 11), probably 80 to 90 AD).

However, Virgil (Aeneïd, 5, 176-177) makes a clear distinction between master and pilot in « ipse gubernaclo rector subit, ipse magister hortaturque uiros clavumque ad litora torquet. » (he [Gyas] replaced the pilot, and as a master, he urges his men while steering shoreward, transl. Joseph Farrell, 2014) during the famous race between four navy ships at Drepana-Trapani (Sicily). This is still the case on modern navy ships where the captain’s job is to conduct war more than to steer the ship by himself.

Some pilots were based in a given port and had detailed knowledge of local sea ways in addition to a vast experience in ship handling (similar to modern maritime pilots).

Let’s look at the oldest text describing a pilot job:

« Now when day appeared, a man in rustic garb signalled and pointed out which were the places of danger, and those that we might approach in safety. Finally, he came out to us in a boat with two oars, and this he made fast to our vessel. Then he took over the helm, and our Syrian [captain] [i.e., Amarantus] gladly relinquished to him the conduct of the ship. So after proceeding not more than fifty stadia [five miles], he brought her to anchor in a delightful little harbour, which I believe is called Azarium [probably somewhere near Derna in Libya] and there disembarked us on the beach. We acclaimed him as our saviour and good angel. A little while later, he brought in another ship, and then again another, and before evening had fallen, we were in all five vessels saved by this godsent old man, the very reverse of Nauplius who received the shipwrecked in a vastly different manner [he deliberately misled sailors to ground them onto the rocks]. On the following day, other ships arrived, some of which had put out from Alexandria the day before we set sail. So now we are quite a fleet in a small harbour. » (Letter from Synesius of Cyrene (370 – 414 AD) to his brother in Alexandria, May 397 AD).

This description fits a modern pilot (except for the “rustic garb”!) where the “boat with two oars” is now replaced by a modern pilot launch or  helicopter.

Another ancient text reads as follows:

“If the captain entered the ship in a river without a pilot, and if he was not able to control the ship and lost her when a storm occured, the charterer may undertake legal action against him.” (Justinian’s Digest,, Ulpianus, ca 530 AD).

This text shows that a pilot could be mandatory in some areas with higher risk for shipping. This is still the case today.

It is fairly certain that ancient pilots did not rely on any written documents such as the known Periploi and Stadiasmoi, because they do not provide sufficient information for a pilot (these documents were probably compiled by merchants and other people sailing on ships). Even today, maritime pilots do not write down their experience, as they still consider it as an art that cannot be expressed by words (“ars gubernatoris”). Some scientific knowledge on ship handling has been gathered and written down, but local knowledge, e.g. near port areas is only in the pilot’s head and transmitted oraly from one generation to the next.

Concluding: the gubernator was the true captain of the ship and acted both as the helmsman and as the pilot who knew the location of safe shelters and how to handle the ship to enter them. However, on navy ships, the helmsman/pilot and the master were two different individuals.
Sometimes, the ancient pilot worked similarly to a modern maritime pilot who is usually based in a given port and has detailed knowledge of local sea ways in addition to a vast experience in ship handling (he therefore trains extensively on digital simulators, and on manned models like Port Revel).

Some more definitions of ancient Greek terms:

NB: these are no more than the most probable (and schematic) definitions! More information may be found in:

KOWALSKI, JM. (2012) « Navigation et Géographie dans l’antiquité Gréco-Romaine – La terre vue de la mer », éd. Picard, Paris.

ARNAUD, P. (2015) « Entre mer et rivière : les ports fluvio-maritimes de Méditerranée ancienne », Colloque ‘Les ports dans l’espace méditerranéen antique. Narbonne et les systèmes portuaires fluvio-lagunaires’, Espace Capdeville, Montpellier 22/23 mai 2014.

ARNAUD, P., (2015), « Inscriptions and port societies: evidence, “Analyse du discours”, silences, portscape … », International Conference on Roman Port Societies through the evidence of inscriptions, organized by Pascal Arnaud and Simon Keay as part of the ERC Advanced Grant funded Rome’s Mediterranean Ports Project in conjunction with the British School at Rome, 29-30 January 2015.

Commercial shipping:
Naukleros (Latin: naucler(ic)us, navicularius, dominus navis; FR: armateur; GB: ship owner): the meaning of this word seems to have changed over time (ship owner, ship master, maritime trader) and in space (Italy, Egypt), acc. to Arnaud (2017). He was a member of his city’s professional guild who could negotiate privileges and shipping prices with the emperor’s Annona and therefore belonged to the Roman elite. He could also act as a negotiator for his own business.
Naukleros (Latin: magister navis; FR: subrécargue; GB: supercargo): trader travelling on board the ship and representing the owner of the cargo who empowered him to buy and sell cargo.
Phortegos (Latin: naucler(ic)us, navicularius; FR: cabotage; GB: coastal trade): ship owner sailing his own ship and acting as a maritime trader, which may perhaps be assimilated with a person conducting coastal trade.
Emporos (Latin: emporus; FR: marchand; GB: trader): maritime trader sailing on another man’s ship.
Cheimon (Latin: mare clausum; FR: mer fermée; GB: closed sea): season with unstable weather, from early November to end of March, during which large-scale shipping was avoided, at least in the western Mediterranean area.
No Greek word (Latin: annona; FR: annone; GB: annona): organisation for state-owned grain supply from Sicily, North Africa and Egypt via shipping lanes connecting them with Ostia and other important ports.
Military shipping:
Trierarkhos (Latin: trierarchus; FR: triérarque; GB: trierach): person operating a kind of one-year leasing of a war ship (e.g. trireme) owned by the state. This is one of the wealthiest citizens’ duties (“leitourgia”).
Nauarkhos, Archos: in ancient Greece (Latin: nauarchus; FR: commandant; GB: commander): commander of a war ship; in ancient Rome (Latin: nauarchus; FR: amiral; GB: admiral): commander of a fleet (fleet captain).

Brief historical overview

…. and if you are not an expert historian, this may help you to start …

Chronology of civilizations acc. to Inman in “Ancient and modern harbors: a repeating phylogeny”, 15th Coastal Engineering Conference, New York, 1974
Chronology of civilizations acc. to Inman in “Ancient and modern harbors: a repeating phylogeny”, 15th Coastal Engineering Conference, New York, 1974

As far as archaic seagoing shipping is concerned, Egyptian rulers have been sailing during the Early Bronze Age (ca. 3300-2100 BC), i.a. Pharaoh Khufu-Cheops importing stones from the Sinaï (ca. 2570 BC), Sneferu (ca. 2575 BC), Sahure (ca. 2450 BC) and Sesostris I (ca. 1950 BC) sending ships to Byblos for wood and to Puntland for exotic goods[1]. In the Gulf, Mesopotanians were sailing to the Indus valley and to East Africa, via Dilmun (Bahrein) and Magan (Oman)[2].

Minoans from Crete were probably the first “professional” seafarers sailing internationally in the Mediterranean area. This spanned, in round figures, the period between 2000 BC and 1500 BC.

From 1500 BC to 1200 BC, the Mycenaeans ruled the Aegean Sea and eastern Mediterranean as illustrated by Homer’s later epic on Achaeans fighting the Trojan War[3], while the Egyptians were still sailing on the Nile and on the Red Sea, and we know of Hatshepsut’s sailing from Myos Hormos on the Red Sea to the Land of Punt (ca. 1450 BC) and of Rameses III’s naval battle near Pelusion on the Nile against foreign invaders (1178 BC).

The Bronze Age ended around 1200 BC, when the Iron Age started with long “Greek Dark Ages” in Greece (1200-800 BC) corresponding to a Phoenician climax (Carthage was founded in 814 BC, but Byblos was already a trade port in the 3rd millenium BC). This was followed by a Greek revival called “Greek Archaic Period” (800-500 BC) and by the beter known “Greek Classical Period” (500-323 BC), the “Hellenistic Period” (323-31 BC) and the Roman period[4].

At the end of the Roman Empire (476 AD), it was western Europe that had its “Dark Ages”, for say five centuries, during which everything had to be rebuilt in the western Mediterranean … while the Arabs were over-active in the Indian Ocean.

Finally, if you would like to read a recently published overview on ancient ports, I recommend Arnaud (2016) [5], Marriner (2017) [6], and Morhange (2016) [7]. For a complete overview on ancient seafaring, see Danny Lee Davis (2009) [8].

[1] Marcus, E., 2002, “Early Seafaring and Maritime Activity in the Southern Levant from Prehistory through the Third Millenium BCE”, in van den Brink & Levy eds, Egypt and the Levant, interrelations from the 4th through the Early 3rd millenium BCE, New approaches to Anthropological Archaeology, pp 403-417.
See also Wikipedia: 
[2] Potts, D., 2016, “Cultural, economic and political relations between Mesopotamia, the Gulf region and India before Alexander”, in Megasthenes and His Time, Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, pp 109-118.
[3] Achaeans were also called Danaans or Argives by Homer, and possibly Ahhiyawans by the Hittites and Tanaju by the Egyptians; today they are called ‘Mycenaeans’.
[4] For a superb overview of the Roman history, have a look at: Badel, C. & Inglebert, H., 2014, “Grand Atlas de l’Antiquité romaine – Construction, apogée et fin d’un empire”, éd. Autrement, Paris, (191 p).
[5] Arnaud, P., 2016, “Les infrastructures portuaires antiques”, in The Sea in History: The Ancient World – La Mer dans l’Histoire: L’Antiquité, General editor Christian Buchet, Woodbridge, The Boydell Press.
[6] Marriner N., Morhange C., Flaux, C., Carayon, N., “Harbors and ports, ancient”, 2017, A. S. Gilbert (ed.), Encyclopedia of Geoarchaeology, Springer Science+Business Media, Dordrecht, pp 382-403.
[7] Morhange, C., Marriner N., Carayon N., 2016, “The eco-history of ancient Mediterranean harbours”, in The Inland Seas, Towards an Ecohistory of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, T. Bekker-Nielsen et R. Gertwagen (eds.), Verlag, pp 85-106
[8] Danny Lee Davis, 2009, “Commercial Navigation in the Greek and Roman World“, PhD thesis, University of Texas, Austin, (359 p).