Tuesday 30 August 2016


Ancient sources may be translated into stilted English and one may have to read a long way to find a few paragraphs of meaty naval material. It is not really necessary to read original works when so many books exist which sift them for you and present the juicy bits as quotations or footnotes.
That said, in my opinion  there is no substitute for reading material from the ancient world including the background. The whole context of ancient maritime activity is fascinating.

If you want to read these works in the original language go to the Tufts University Perseus Project, which presents cross-referenced and searchable ancient texts with translations.


I am still amazed how many people have not read Herodotos. Every home should have one.
If you have a psychological barrier to dusty old books written thousands of years ago then I am sorry for you. Go back to your airport novels and your (extortionately priced) fantasy game booklets.

For 1 penny (Amazon used listing) you can get a book which includes more and wierder plotlines, personal relationship complexities , drama, blood and battles than ANY modern novel. Called 'the father of lies' by his detractors,  who could not usually be arsed to put stylus to papyrus, Herodotos of Halicarnassus invented written history. It is too much to expect him to have simultaneously invented critical, analytical history, in my opinion, but for us moderns it is awe inspiring to read what an observant and educated tourist and anecdotist wrote 2400 years ago!

In reference to galleys...Herodotos account of the Second Persian War was written within living memory of the events. It is a must-read. (Salamis etc..)

All this for  pennies. (plus postage).

I recommend two editions of The Histories, by Herodotus
 Penguin Classics, Transl. Aubrey de Selincourt, (mine from1976)
 Penquin Classics De Luxe Edition 2015 , Transl. Tom Holland

This has become, along with Szun Tzu, a posey reference for ambitious breadheads as well as politics students. Despite this, it remains a reflective, analytical but also skewed, account of an ancient war by a high-ranking, educated participant. Of these there are but a handful surviving. On that ground alone..read it.
In terms of galley warfare, Thucydides commanded a fleet and a ship himself.!!!!!! Of course, we do not get the whole cake. Before you get excited, he did not leave us a field manual for trieres warfare, boo hoo. But it is an exciting and brutal read. He was a rival of Herodotos. Literary jealousy already!

Get the Penguin Classics translation by Rex Warner for a few pence second hand.

You could also get modern commentaries to supplement such as that by (aghem) Donald Kagan
(aghem) 'The Peloponnesian War' , Harper Perennial, (aaaggghem) 2015

I often find myself momentarily wondering ruefully why there is no big film of 'Anabasis' - Xenophon's classic account of the retreat of 10.000 Greek mercenaries  which has a parallel only in the fortunes of the Czech Legion during the Russian Civil War. Then I remember the answer.. do not wish for it..they would create a travesty. 'The Retreat' should be read despite the fact it only has mention of ships at the very end sailing on the long awaited 'thalassa!'. If you have not read it yet do so. It is a window into many alien worlds. The past is not one other country , in the Anabasis it is many.

That aside, Xenphons account of his times in the Hellenica covers the end of the Peleponnesian War.
Read it in Penguin Classics as 'A History of My Times'. Translated by George Cawkwell.

Xenophon famously compared a trieres to both a mill and a country estate.....
Floating country estate ?
Read also his essays on equestrian matters and life of Agesilaus, Cyropedia and Revenues. These works have influenced the modern world so deeply you would be surprised. Find out how yourself.

There is also the modestly titled 'Library of the History of the World' by Diodoros Siceliotes / Diodorus Siculus

This is a wildly colourful history focussed on Sicily where Diodoros lived as a descendant of Greek colonists. It has battle accounts and much detail lacking from other historians he can be cross-referenced with but also a tendency to add 'plausible' detail. Use carefully,.. but he did write closer to the era by two thousand years than us and used sources no longer available to us.

It cannot be bought in a useful edition. Get it from Bill Thayer......


Lacus Curtius is a website created by Bill Thayer, a translator and engineer, who deserves several medals for his cyclopean work of presenting ancient sources and other reference material about the ancient world. His own travels and commentaries on the geography of the ancient world sit alongside an array of the most important ancient historical materials in translation. I am in awe of his project.

He has all the material I discuss here and much more so you need notpay to access the world of ancient naval warfare after all!

GO THERE AND BROWSE NOW !!!  I would not be surprised if you get lost there for a few hours and never get back to this site today, if ever.

I say no more except that if you have not been there before you are in for a treat and maybe email Bill if you like his site.

ROMANS (and Romanising Greeks)
Total War meets Ben Hur : Unfettered by ancient sources

Polybius a Greek soldier and sailor to some extent. He wrote an account of the Third Punic War which he was witness to, and of the Roman encroachment into the Balkans, Greece and Asia Minor. His close associateion with the Scipio clan and first-hand observation makes his work indispensible even if we can be annoyed ove his failure to describe naval military matter in the detail he affords to land-lubbers. Penguin Classics, Ian Scott Kilvert translating. Mine was 25 pence a long time ago.
Read about the 'raven'
 Livy wrote a history of the early wars of Rome including the Punic Wars and wars in Greece and Asia Minor. Plenty of naval engagements. Lots of politics and lots of battles. Plus the Bachanalian conspiracy - the original 'witch hunt'. Available from Oxford World Classics or Penguin.
Cæsar - arch propogandist. Ironically, for naval matters the best stuff is The Civil War which was probably ghosted by a close associate. Gripping stuff concerning the sieges of Marseille and Alexandria and, of course, 'Pompey and the Pirates'. Penguin.

Plutarch - the arch biographer. A Greek bureaucrat who wrote biographies of Romans and Greeks, paired to compare and contrast their individual qualities and explain the dominance of Rome in his time. The Penquin Classics anthology entitled 'The Rise and Fall of Athens', translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert groups Themistocles, Cimon, Nicias, Alcibiades and Lysander to give perspectives on the most important trieres wars. A few pence second hand. Even dog-eared it is gripping stuff.
Luckily for us, Plutarch still included the warry bits.

There are many fragments and citations from other 'historians' poets and doodlers but leave them for the future when you are deeply hooked.