Thursday 1 October 2015


One of the failings of much writing about galley warfare, and especially trieres combat, in the past has been to focus on the act of ramming only from the point of view of the target.

I have scribbled about rams and the effects on the target. What I would also like to get across is the fact that a ramming attack is a double-edged event. To put into perspective, to the other lunatics like me and maybe some half -interested others, how the full picture of what was going on in this type of combat was more complex, more uncertain. more frightening and more skillfull than is generally appreciated.
Dare you take to sea for battle in a trieres ?

Trieres combat, and galley combat in general, required the cooperative efforts of 200 or more  men to put to use the near-perfected product of thousands of hours of skilled work by experienced craftsmen. The whole project could be wrecked by poor management, a moment's error of judgement or the vagaries of nature. In the Second World War many thousands of tank crew took imperfect vehicles into combat and found the harsh realities of cooperation under restricted conditions while under threat of death an almost intolerable physical and psychological challenge.  A few moments could bring a shift between the vehicle and its crew being victorious and elated at destroying and damaging other vehicles and into a state of abject fear and trepidation as the enemy turned the tables on them. A lot of technology and training could be put in danger by a ditch beside the road, a poor electrical connection or if the team in the other tin can had a smidgin more luck or skill.
In the back of each crewman's mind....
Newton's Third Law was first defined and written down by him but many people had prior awareness of it. The crew of a trieres in particular. If a ram is accelerated into a target then the attacking ship will also feel some repercussions. Newton's First Law was felt by the oarsmen in their legs and arms as they accelerated the ship towards the target. Newton's Second law was appreciated by the kybernetes in his calculation of how much speed he could coax from his crew and how fast they could accelerate and how much momentum he would need to damage his target.

The Third Law means that the momentum of the attacker will come back to bite him if he slams his trieres into a target without regard to this relationship. It is one thing to shoot a stone ball into the wall of a town with as much force as one can generate from a katapeltes and quite another to treat a mass of wood populated by 200 men in the same way.

A trieres hitting an imoveable target will almost instantly decelerate to a stop.  The trieres is subjected to an opposite force which stops it dead. The crew also experience this opposite force, which also stops them dead- maybe literally. This is the same deceleration which affects the unfortunates in a car crash. This is what trieres combat with rams is about. A series of car crashes.: but car crashes which are executed deliberately and in a controlled manner.
The trieres in a car crash has two problems to overcome.

The first is that the structure of the ship should survive the impact. If it does not then the crew is lost anyway and even if the target is eliminated then they have gained no advantage for their side.

The second is that the crew should survive the impact. The crew must be able to continue the fight after damaging a target ship otherwise their effort gains no advantage for their side.


A trieres had two systems which contributed to its survival in a collision.

The ram itself was mounted at the front of the vessel as an extension of the keel and supported by the stem post. The centre of mass of the ship is projected forward very closely to the driving centre of the ram which means their is little turning moment to stress the structure. The ram mounting is solid and braced to resist being deviated from a forward course as it impacts the target. The ram itself is of massive bronze and formed like a modern girder. It is harder and stonger than any wood it impacts. The whole structure of the ship is mounted onto the keel and this forms the axis of attack as it bears the whole mass of the ship into the target. Because the ship is built to withstand the force of the sea resisting its progress then it is well suited to surviving an impact along that same axis. It is not coincidence that the ram as a weapon developed out of the cutwater as a hydrodynamic structure. Trieres must have been built to withstand the expected stresses of combat impacts.
 In addition, the ship's crew were not passive passengers but riders who could act to help achieve an effective impact. The rowers could obey commands to accelerate or decelerate and the kybernetes could steer the ship into the target at an angle of attack of his choosing. A good kybernetes could judge, given an appreciation of the relative courses of his own ship and the target, the correct angle of impact to achieve a hole in the enemy's vessel.

The crew were well aware of the implications of the meeting, no matter how controlled, Flying oar looms and tight spaces under the deck left little scope for avoiding at least a sore head from an unexpected collision.
Brace,brace,brace : one possible method after Wegener-Sleeswyk
 The deck officers must have communicated the moment of expected impact to the keleustes and on to the oarsmen. The oars must be out of the water at the moment of impact and the men braced on the beams and benches around them to take the strain.  The stresses he would experience are about 1.5G which amounts to a man of 75kg being slammed in the front by 113kg or so. It gets worse. If the target is more massive than the rammer then deceleration is more sudden and the impact rises to a maximum of 2G. This means each rower must brace himself as if being slammed by 150kg or approximately 3 medium sized lambs or two unarmoured dwarves.
Multiplied by 2 !

If the ram was slammed into the enemy ship at a wildly oblique angle then the lateral forces experienced by the ram mounting could shatter the structure and tear it off. This we know happened on a large scale in early ramming battles. Experience was gained and applied in future tactics.

If the approach to ram was conducted at too-acute an angle then it may either not bite, experiencing a greater resistance from the hull than if it was attacked obliquely, or the speed of a target pursued may be so great that the net ramming speed is insufficent to damage the target.

The combined impact velocity of the attacker and target must be kept in a range sufficient to breach the target's hull but insufficient to damage the attacker. This is why the best way to attack another ship was from the stern quarter.

Gets it right the second time ! A perfect anastrophe.
The worst way to attack another ship was on the bow quarter. In this configuration each vessel will experience a force equal to the sum of their momenta. A trieres built to sail at 15 knots and be rowed at 10 will be severely tried, to say the least, by a head-on impact at equivalent to 20 knots.

It was only marginally less bad to attack a target from the beam if the target was moving. If the target is crossing then the lateral stress on the bow timbers was at its maximum and this was the weakest aspect of its structure. In addition, the forces affecting the crew of the attacker would be severe. They would be thrown forwards by the deceleration of the impact AND to the side opposite to that to which the target was moving. Heaven help any on deck who did not have a good hand-hold in that situation.

And what of the human sardines squished amongst sweat, farts, bilge and curses into this high-speed wooden can and expected to hurtle themselves at an unseen foe? What happens to them on impact ?

So much seems to hinge upon the kybernetes that we can only increase our admiration for these men. They were not of sufficient social status to warrant more than a few cursory lines from ancient authors but it was their skill and judgement derived from years of experience which was the key to a successful ramming attack.

The kybernetes must control the speed of his vessel. He must control the angle of attack and he must judge the timing to perfection with his ship moving in three planes on the sea.

The poet Lucian wrote about the pilot of a giant grain freighter, The Isis, he visited in Athens harbour in AD. This was about a sailing ship of great size but a sneaking admiration is to be detected in this terse and outwardly disrespectful description of an unassuming kybernetes who must have nevertheless exuded a sense of great  skill and confidence.

'Samippus: And all depends for its safety on one little old atomy of a man, who controls that great rudder with a mere broomstick of a tiller! He was pointed out to me; Heron was his name, I think; a woolly-pated fellow, half-bald. 
Timolaus:  He is a wonderful hand at it, so the crew say; a very Proteus in sea-cunning.'
(Lucian - The Ship. 35)


Once the ram became de rigeur for sea battles, mariners must have rapidly gained knowledge of how to use it to best effect by reports spread of various trials and errors. Herodotos tells us that the Phoceans learnt an early lesson in his account of the battle of Alalia in 535bc. They won, but many of their ships were almost as wrecked as their targets, the bows being ruined by the impact forces.
By the time we have good evidence for the structure of warships we can see all the longitudinal timbers meet behind the ram so that all impact forces are distributed along the whole ship and focussed through the bronze tip of the ship.

To hit an enemy effectively only required a small advantage in speed to give the required excess force to penetrate the tenon-and-peg hulls of triereis. Computer simulation has established that  different types of wood in the target or different angles of approach do not significantly change the basic rule which is that an advantage of 1/2 knot in speed will mean a penetrating hit.

On the other hand this means that vastly excessive speed will send the attacker barrelling in to the target and as the breach widens and the attacker slows he is more likely to get wedged-in and unable to withdraw. In this classic situation the crew of the ruined ship will launch a frantic boarding attempt, seeking for survival aboard the (more) bouyant victor.

The same excessive speed will tumble deck passengers into the briney and injure some rowers.
Shock and Oars !

This means that lightness of touch was a required attribute of a successful warship commander. The cooperation between the deck officers to feed information to the poop deck and the cooperation - almost empathy - required between the kybernetes, pentekontarchos and trierarch could only be developed by intensive practice. Just when sufficient speed had been achieved, just where the best angle of attack lay to ensure a hit and space to back-off, and the exact moment at which to stop rowing and brace for impact should all be judged and broadcast to ensure an attack was delivered.

The best position for an attack was to sit on the tail of the target as per an aerial dogfight.
In this position the target's speed is obvious, any change of course he makes is signalled by movements of his pedalia. By the same token, the target cannot read the attacker's changes in course and speed until after a disadvantageous delay.
The other significant advantage of the tailing position is that when the ram is set at the target it will hit a receeding target at an acute angle which minimises the stresses on the attacker. Transverse stress were the worst in terms of damaging a ship's bows and converging course would give increased shock of impact.

In trieres combat the secret was to ram the enemy in the right place, from the right position of attack, and with just enough force necessary to do the job.

In later times, as larger ships appeared, one could count  more on the mass of ones' own vessel to survive impact especially against smaller vessels. The trieres was a Formula One vehicle rather than a Stock Car and had to be treated as such.

Wednesday 30 September 2015

Osprey : Republican Roman Warship

It is a long time since I was impressed by an Osprey book so it is a pleasant surprise to get one that is in an special area of interest of mine that delivers more than expected! The format is always limiting but this example - unusually - makes the most of it.

The confusing situation where Osprey display a different cover to the actual book as shown in Amazon notwithstanding,,,,,
Osprey ?

 Rafaelle D'Amato strikes a good balance between packing in as much as he can, along with supporting evidences, but keeping it concise and interesting. It is rare to find him going off on personal interpretations or space-filling digressions in this volume and he covers a lot of detail.

One such rare digression is to discuss a poem, 'Colomban's Celeuma'. I think this can just as easily be seen as the author using a literary device based on an observed rythmic phenomenon - that of rowing oarsmen - rather than an objective record of how oarsmen kept time. Circular argument alert..

The book ranges from considering what Rome's earliest warships may have been, down to the battle of Actium and the demise of larger warships. The Egadi material is included with some nice photos.

One advantage D'Amato may have is that a lot of archaeological evidence is relatively close to him but in contrast to many he gets off his backside and takes new photos or gets them taken and does not rely on stock images. This alone makes the book worthwhile. New pictures of sculpture I know from many books but only from one camera angle are very welcome and very informative as well as items previously unpublished in accessible form. Who buys an edition of archaeological papers to get one image of a pot lid ? (Ok, me , maybe . occasionally, but not many )

D'Amato gallops through a lot of modern writing without pausing to give detailed references but the important thing is he compiles the interesting bits here. A single sentence summarises several dusty numismatic papers- BRAVO! In fact one could say that he deals with almost ALL areas -outside shore facilities and administration - so little we know on this subject ..

The colour plates are a key attraction of the Osprey format. Here they are by G. Rava who illustrated 'Ancient Warship' and his style has not changed. Where is the editorial control over images? The ships depicted here are clunky, massive and often two dimensional. The overall effect of action plates like the siege of Syracuse (E) are reasonable but offset by outrageous scale distortions and wierdness such as Pompey's marines attacking pirates up a beach in a Trajanic testudo formation(C).
Illustration increases relative size of man and figurehead by about 3 and oars shown as thick as telegraph poles. Ram is shown as steel or silver but they were of bronze.
On the positive side, I greet  ANY colourful representations of classical galley warfare with an eye on historical accuracy with a cheer.

With reference to the illustrations, and to illustrate another point, as it were, D'Amato's translation of cærulus as 'dusky p.20 is an editorial omission. There are many, which may be due to the author writing in a second language. I know the problems well myself and it is possible to write something in a foreign language one thinks is passable but which grates immediately on native speakers. There are many oddities in the book , giving an impression of Euro-English. What the hell do Osprey editors get paid for ? Cærulus/cæruleus, by the way , CAN mean darkish blue, but it can also mean black. In reference to ships, the obvious black is pitch or tar, used to protect timber and an obvious detail of any wooden ship. 'Dusky' is not a colour, but an adjective. Could not a junior editor or half-blind proof-reader at Osprey have seen this ? Because of this (?) all the ships illustrated get shown as blue but tar and pitch are nowhere to be seen.

There are no battle plans or tactical diagrams. Maybe a good thing, because they are often done poorly or at least, uninspiringly, and we can all read the ancient accounts ourselves anyway. Many aspects of this topic are open to interpretation but in this book the basic information is often provided rather than only the author's view. This treats the reader as an adult and gives confidence in the author.

It is not necessary to write more because this Osprey, at least, is well worth the money. It has certainly given my Punic Wars ship development a big boost.

Sunday 27 September 2015


The AW 50th issue special edition arrived friday. It's a bit of a curate's egg. There are articles on naval warfare but rather limited ones. They raise an interesting point about digital versus print media.
 The main naval article deals with the battle of Ecnomus quite well but has a rather uninspiring graphic of the progress of the battle. I think it is here print must try to capture readers, I feel. Lively explanation rather than endless quotation or discussion of scources.  On the other hand there is a splendid double-page colour illustration showing a Punic 4 getting the better of a Roman 5. The drowning Latins in the foreground are horribly convincing but if I was a Punic archer I don't think I would waste arrows on men in the water. The nice thing about this picture is the unusual angle one views the capsizing Roman vessel from.

The other long maritime article is about the Roman decision to expand their maritime capability in the course of the First Punic War. The slight drawback of the article is that it does not seem to take into account the newer ideas that neither fleet was composed mainly of 5's.

Such information has been derived from the RPMN researches at the Ægadi Islands battle site. It is this which graces the cover of the edition with a short accompanying note. There is another article which summarises finds from Ægadi but not in much detail, with references to the RPMN website.

It is welcome to find a publication that deals in some way with galley warfare but the sum of the material here is nothing one could not find on the web quickly and, a little more time would provide so much information that this offering would quickly pale. This is a problem for a periodical. How to compete with the web. For me, the tactile pleasure of a book or magazine - and especially the smell of a newly-printed magazine as one opens the envelope !!! is unmissable. Content is the problem . How to find it and present it cost effectively on paper. Many publishers try quantity over quality and flood-out poorer offerings. The kind of art AW includes is often inspiring but maybe it needs inspiring articles too. Not to tread over to the territory of all blood and sex, but maybe get out of the rut of showing reenactors alongside summarising pieces.  In this issue a piece of historical fiction is presented - this is certainly trying something new, but does it belong in AW ? AW is a little trapped between wanting some academic bona fides but needing broad appeal over a wide time range to get enough readers.

A tall order, but BUY the magazine and hope they continue to work on it. There is not much else out there other than Osprey and Pen and Sword.