Friday, 6 October 2017

The Eye of Faith

Towers on ships are often mentioned in ancient sources and often depicted in sculpture. There are also a few wall paintings from Pompeii and Herculaneum which show towers on ships.
But do they all ? 

Michael Pitassi's books on the Roman navy are detailed, readable and 'must haves' for anyone interested in galley warfare. (see end of piece for refs.)
I did spot one thing worth investigating closer, though.

One of the illustrations in 'The Roman Navy' is a b/w version of a wall painting displayed at the Palazzo Massimo Roman museum. The painting is from the first century BC.

A tower on a galley  ( ?)

Pitassi identifies a tower in the bow of the galley and, one can see why, at a quick glance.

As I have blogged before HERE, one should always try to check illustrations for scale and internal integrity to see if they check out. This works with 2000 year old illustrations too !

Here is a wider, colour view of the wall painting.

STEP 1 : Scaling : If this is a tower it should stand higher than the prow ornament. if this is a tower it should stand higher than the men on the same vessel.
This picture needs to be viewed full size... The blue bars are the heights of men in the ship. The green shows the tower height ..not impressive. The red line is an artefact - a crack in the wall or mold etc. The yellow ellipse is indicating that the top of the 'tower' is in fact a distinct element which is elliptical in shape.

STEP 2: Internal details : If this is a tower it should look like one. Let's take a closer look.
Trying different enlargements and false colour images it is impssible to see any detail relating to a rectilinear structure or paint strokes matching such.
STEP 3 : The last stage is to look for analogous details on other ships in the same composition.
There are no other towers. There are warriors with elliptical shields in the bow areas of other gallleys. The sea fight here is between small single-banked galleys. Maybe it is a scene from the Iliad or maybe it is based on a naumachia fought in a flooded arena.

The warrior in the focsle of the lower ship has his shield raised and is in a similar location to the 'tower'. Thee oarsmen behind him are rendered in a comparable scale, so any tower should be rendered proportionately. It seems the 'tower' is a warrior, or two, defending themselves in the focsle of the upper ship. The original painting was unclear or time has destroyed some details. The top ship is also maybe attacking the centre ship and therfore the warriors have their shields raised, giving the impression of a tower.

The galleys shown here are all rather small. Unlikely to carry a tower anyway. The date of the illustration is after when shops larger than a Three or Liburnian were a rarity.
It is even possible that the artists inspiration was a naumachia at an arena.
Caesar gave a naumachia in 46BC with 6000 participants/victims.
Augustsus gave one in 2BC with 3000 deck fighters and 30 ships.
Claudius continued the tradition in 52AD with 100 vessels  on Lake Fucine.
In 80AD the inauguration of the colosseum was celebrated with two naumachia  with 000's of men.
In 85AD and 89AD Domitian also gave naumachia - in arena.

In summary, the 'tower' is an artefact created by the style of the illustration and the technique used. Quickly painted figures on a plaster wall, painted by a landlubber artist who may  never have seen a galley in action, never mind a tower - but may have seen a naumachia with small ships - do not make for the illustration one wants to see.

It is easy to look at a somewhat fuzzy picture and see what you want to see. The human brain is wired to recognise patterns we already know. That is why your girlfriend's flat has much you recognise or like!  That is why our ancestors ran from a shadow that looked like a crouching lion.

It takes a bit of time, but it is possible to analyse and elucidate any dubious cases.

Pitassi's books, both recommended, are

Michael Pitassi, The Navies of Rome.   Woodbridge, UK/Rochester, NY:  Boydell Press, 2009.  Pp. 348; 8 p. of plates.  ISBN 9781843834090.
Reviewed HERE. bear in mind Mr Pitassi is a retired lawyer, not a classics academic.

and..The Roman Navy, Ships, Men and Warfare350 BC-AD475, Seaforth Publishing 2012

Reviewed HERE.

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