Who is the Gubernator?

is he 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 kybernetes and the naukleros are the obvious decision-making sailors on board, together with the centurion who is a distinguished ‘client’:

“Nevertheless, the centurion believed the master [κυβερνήτης, kybernetes] and the owner of the ship [ναύκληρος, naukleros], 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 during the famous race between four navy ships at Drepana-Trapani (Sicily): “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) . 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 in the dangerous area of the Gulf of Khambhat (India) with extremely large tidal ranges (up-to over 10 m):

“Because of this, native fishermen in the king’s service, stationed at the very entrance in well-manned large boats called trappaga and cotymba, go up the coast as far as Syrastrene, from which they pilot vessels to Barygaza. And they steer them straight from the mouth of the bay between the shoals with their crews; and they tow them to fixed stations, going up with the beginning of the flood, and lying through the ebb at anchorages and in basins.” (Periplous Maris Erythraei, 1st c. AD).

Ships entering the port of Ariminum (Rimini) following a pilot boat, while the crew is busy reducing sail, 2nd c. AD mosaic found in Palazzo Diotallevi (Luigi Tonini Mus.)

A very illustrative ancient text of a pilot job on the Libyan coast reads as follows:

“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, book 32, Ad Edictum, 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.

A much older text available on the so-called “Pithom stela” (dated 264 BC) probably also mentions a pilot at the entrance of Ptolemais Theron on the Red Sea (acc. to Thiers, 2007).

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 orally 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: the definitions provided below are no more than the most probable (and schematic) definitions. Note also that some small variations of the meaning may exist when translating from one language into another.

Commercial shipping:

naukleros has several meanings:
1. (Latin: naucler(ic)us, dominus navis; FR: armateur; GB: ship owner): the meaning of this word seems to have changed over time (ship owner, ship master) and in space (Italy, Egypt), acc. to Arnaud (2016). The navicularius (maritime trader) 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, acc. to Arnaud (2015).
2. (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, mercator; 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.
annona (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: 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).

Further reading

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.

ARNAUD, P., 2016, « Cities and Maritime Trade under the Roman Empire », in “Connecting the Ancient World – Mediterranean Shipping, Maritime Networks and their Impact”, Christoph Schäfer (ed.), Pharos
Studien zur griechisch-römischen Antike, Band 35, (p 117-173).

BONNIER, A. (2008) « Epineia kai limenes: the relationship between harbours and cities in ancient greek texts », Opuscula, 1, 2008, Stockholm.

THIERS, C., 2007, « Ptolémée Philadelphe et les prêtres d’Atoum de Tjékou. Nouvelle édition commentée de la “stèle de Pithom” (CGC 22183) », Université Paul Valéry-Montpellier III.