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Ancient naval warfare

If you follow the Ancient Warfare Facebook page religiously, you will have seen how I reorganised by bookcases this spring. It was a pleasant reminder of my collection's scope. It also proved that I lose track of which books I already own from time to time... This spring would've been a good time to start cataloging my books, because I just found out that I've once again managed to buy another duplicate! Keep reading for a chance to win a copy of John D. Grainger, Hellenistic & Roman Naval Wars.

Hellenistic gigantism

When it comes to naval warfare in the Hellenistic era, we all tend to think of the enormous warships, the so-called multiremes, built by the Antigonid and Ptolemaic empires. We do indeed read of a "thirteen" by the end of the fourth century, and a "fifteen" and "sixteen" captured by Lysimachus and Ptolemy after he drove Demetrius Poliorcetes out of Athens. As I'm sure you know, it doesn't stop there. In a likely case of one-upsmanship, a "twenty", "thirty" and "forty" were constructed. These undoubtedly enormous and fascinating ships - they certainly command their own subcategory of academic literature - probably colour our notions of naval warfare in the Hellenistic era. They certainly did exist, but there is no evidence that anything larger than a "ten" ever fought in a naval battle. In the western Mediterranean, Rome and Carthage certainly did not build anything larger than a "six", leading to the famous disparity in ship sizes at Actium (see Ancient Warfare V.5) with Octavian and Agrippa's smaller ships outmanoeuvring Antony and Cleopatra's larger vessels. It may very well have been a 'put-up job' to contrast the two fleets with such emphasis as the ancient historians do, but it does fit our other evidence. In other words: for our upcoming issue on Hellenistic naval warfare, don't expect the aquatic equivalent of elephant combat. 😉

So, finally, to have a chance at winning a copy of Grainger's book, post below the answer to the following question:
Which nation is most associated with naval warfare in the eastern Mediterranean during the Hellenistic era after the time of the giant warships had passed?

I'll pick a winner at random from the correct answers (and note - the answer is arguable, feel free to provide your interpretation as it will be considered!).

--- Edit: the contest is now closed ---

Rhodes was indeed the answer I was thinking of. In the eastern Mediterranean, it was the preeminent naval power after the end of the super-galleys in the mid-late third century BC, largely as an ally of Rome. By the first century BC, Rhodes' role was largely played out and Rome, in due course took over. So that too would be a correct answer, though with a longer time-lapse in between. Rob S.Rice's PhD dissertation on the Rhodian navy is unfortunately unpublished (though I got a copy). Perhaps he should have a chat with Pen & Sword?

I wanted to give everyone a chance to win, but I gave those who answered "Rhodes" three entries, "Rome" two, and the rest one. That gave me a total of 23 entries. The random number generator at gave number 7. In my Excel sheet, Bob Robertson's name was at that number. Congratulations - you've got mail!

15 thoughts on “Ancient naval warfare”

  • Matthias


  • Christopher Collom, PhD
    Christopher Collom, PhD October 10, 2018 at 9:30 pm

    Q: Which nation is most associated with naval warfare in the eastern Mediterranean during the Hellenistic era after the time of the giant warships had passed?

    A: Inasmuch as the 'Hellenistic' is defined as ending in 31/30 BCE with the sea battle at Actium, the use of giant warships had not yet finished! Roman navies continued to produce ever-larger warships until the "3rd Century Crisis" – after which only the advent of 'Greek Fire' kept imperial navies well-funded and larger than necessary. So, my answer would be Egypt or Rome, as the Parthians did not have a true navy (sensu stricto), and only ever built troop transport ships that didn't have sea battle capabilities.

    • Jasper Oorthuys

      Roman navies continued to produce ever-larger warships until the “3rd Century Crisis”

      That's news to me! As far as I know, the Ops ("Power"), is the only six attested in Imperial fleets between 31 BC and AD 284. It served in the Classis Misenatis, likely as flagship. No other fleet had ships bigger than a five. Do you have other evidence?

  • Sergio Masini


  • jerry aldous-fountain
    jerry aldous-fountain October 10, 2018 at 11:01 pm


  • Bruce McCullough
    Bruce McCullough October 10, 2018 at 11:20 pm


  • David Gilpin

    Republican Rome

  • Jamie

    Rhodes is what immediately jumps to mind.

  • Thorsten

    The Romans

  • Bob Robertson

    Rome. After the major naval powers of Antigonid Macedonia, Seleucid Syria and Rhodes had been conquered by Rome and then Octavian absorbed the last one, Egypt, after Actium into what was virtually his own private enterprise, there was no major competitor at sea for Rome. Since no one else was building giant vessels there was no need for Rome to do so. Also, the task of the navy shifted abruptly from fighting major powers to combatting piracy and escorting transport ships, for which smaller vessels were more suitable anyway.


    Ptolemaic Egypt

  • Pavel Vaverka

    I would say Macedon, they influenced Rome, Pergamum, Rhodos, Pontic kingdom in building their warships.

  • Dave F

    I would opt for Rhodes. Its noticeable Republican Rome went out of its way to court the republic during its expansion into the Eastern Med. Further more, that once the major Hellenistic monarchies were tamed, Rome deliberately chose to destroy Rhodes as an independant economic entity largely to emasculate its naval strength.

  • lynn rogers

    I had the experience of a life time this past June I got to be a rower on the trireme in the bay of Athens the ship is amazing all hand hewed if you can get there in the summer the Greek navy charges three euros to be a rower

    unbelievable experience

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