Monday 20 October 2014


In ancient naval battles commanders sometimes actually chose to run their ships in to the shore as a tactic. This seems, at first, rather puzzling. Why should ships throw away their mobility to fight ? How could they cast themselves ashore which is what good navigators try to avoid, isn't it?
'Time and tide wait for no ship'
Ancient galleys were built for speed. They did not carry large quantities of provisions and there was no space on board for cooking or sleeping. At a pinch men could eat bread dipped in olive oil while they rowed but the normal procedure was to eat ashore.
'Otter's noses in a bun-only 2 drachma!'
The stern of a galley curves steeply upwards and the hull draught is generally shallow. This means that such ships can easily drive up against a beach without becoming fast. With the use of an anchor to each side the ship can be secured against moving in the wave wash. The crew would then disembark via ladders set against the threnys
Æneas casually deserting Dido up his gangplank or 'apobathra'
Oops,, black sail and figure in background has helmet...
this is Theseus casually deserting Ariadne
When it was time to depart the crew could row away from the land. It has been suggested that ships could have carried wooden rails to allow them to be drawn completely out of the water on any shallow beach for maintenance but this was not the everyday occurrence of simply running in to shore for a meal break or overnighting.
How NOT to beach a galley - these will be here for some time...10years?.
An answer becomes more apparent when one considers the alternatives for a fleet which is either surrounded or outnumbered. Ramming tactics rely on getting around the enemy to deliver the deadly blow while safe from the target. Counter-tactics can be evasion or facing the enemy head-on when the rams of both neutralise each other. Should a fleet have a suitable beach to its rear it makes sense to back water and drive the ships in so that they form a bulwark of rams facing to sea. Any assault must now be a meeting of the ships' prows and a slugfest between epibatai. Generally, not so many epibatai were carried, 10 to 40, but a beached ship could also use the manpower of the rowers to fend -off attackers with poles or oars if nothing else.

If the shore was occupied by friendly forces then reinforcements could board the ships and add to their defence. A palisade could even be thrown around the beached ships producing an armed fort to defend the vessels.
The attacker would have to keep all his rowers at their station and if he could not board and take the beached ships he must attempt to get lines onto them and drag them to sea. An alternative was to disembark troops or call supporting forces and make an assault from the land.
In any event the beaching tactic was a good one to avoid rapid or certain defeat and gave the underdog a chance to save some of his ships or delay the inevitable so he could escape after dusk or save his manpower by disembarkation. The cost of a trieres was quite enormous and so both sides made great efforts to either capture enemy vessels or preserve their own. A trieres was not like a tank or destroyer – it was not a disposable artefact which was merely a means to allow soldiers to fight. Tanks or destroyers allowed men to attack the enemy but the loss of the machines was not of itself important. They could be replaced. Even the crews were relatively quickly trained. A trieres was a synthesis of ship-building skills, selected raw materials, sailors and soldiers which created a weapon of war, transport and power projection. It was replaceable but at great cost and effort.
 A trieres cost 1 talent per month to keep in service. This is was enough to feed a family of four for 120 years or more at Athenian prices! To build a trieres cost a whopping 10 talents.
For food, Greece has got talents.
If a hard-pressed commander found he had a suitable shore to hand rather than the all-too-prevalent, deadly, rocky coastline around the Aegean then beaching was to be considered. Trieres could back at close to the speed they could advance and thus a ship could run for the beach, keeping its ram to the enemy.

If the ship must be given up at last then the crew could escape overland to man another ship and fight again.

Three hundred mens' fate and the time needed to create another such unit meant the loss of a single trieres would be keenly felt and so flight or beaching was a rational tactic for a fleet in danger. In a battle at sea a single successful ramming attack could seal the fate of a vessel and crew in a few minutes. Beaching gave the crew a fighting chance against superior numbers and would at least prolong the fight and give the crew a possible route to safety, and life.

Epibatai, beached and bleached.