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.

Tuesday 3 October 2017


The National Maritime Museum of Australia has a very nice webpage dealing with Pliny the Elder's death. He got too close to the erupting Vesuvius in 79AD. It was a heroic death that you can read about at the webpage. Follow the links to see the Olympias original model, a ram ornament, and much more.
Click picture to visit ANM - can be slow to load...
Pliny the Younger's letters to Tacitus about his uncle's death are  HERE.

Pliny the Elder's knowledge of the natural history of volcanoes is HERE. (Chapters 57-59).

In 1902 the volcano Mont. Pelee on Martinique erupted. It delivered a similar kind of eruption as killed Pliny the Elder and wiped Pompeii off the map. Mont Pelee wiped the town of Saint Pierre off the map.

The Idyl before Vulcan sneezed

There were also ships hit by the eruption at Saint Pierre. SS Roraima was anchored a kilometre offshore and a survivor left this account ...

'James Taylor, a cooper employed on the Roraima, gives the following account of his experience of the disaster: "Hearing a tremendous report and seeing the ashes falling thicker, I dived into a room, dragging with me Samuel Thomas, a gangway man and fellow countryman, shutting the door tightly. Shortly after I heard a voice, which I recognized as that of the chief mate, Mr. Scott. Opening the door with great caution, I drew him in. The nose of Thomas was burned by the intense heat.

"We three and Thompson, the assistant purser, out of sixty-eight souls on board, were the only persons who escaped practically uninjured. The heat being unbearable, I emerged in a few moments, and the scene that presented itself to my eyes baffles description. All around on the deck were the dead and dying covered with boiling mud. There they lay, men, women and little children, and the appeals of the latter for water were heart-rending. When water was given them they could not swallow it, owing to their throats being filled with ashes or burnt with the heated air.

"The ship was burning aft, and I jumped overboard, the sea being intensely hot. I was at once swept seaward by a tidal wave, but, the sea receding a considerable distance, the return wave washed me against an upturned sloop to which I clung. I was joined by a man so dreadfully burned and disfigured as to be unrecognizable. Afterwards I found he was the captain of the Roraima, Captain Muggah. He was in dreadful agony, begging piteously to be put on board his ship.

"Picking up some wreckage which contained bedding and a tool chest, I, with the help of five others who had joined me on the wreck, constructed a rude raft, on which we placed the captain. Then, seeing an upturned boat, I asked one of the five, a native of Martinique, to swim and fetch it. Instead of returning to us, he picked up two of his countrymen and went away in the direction of Fort de France. Seeing the Roddam, which arrived in port shortly after we anchored, making for the Roraima, I said good-bye to the captain and swam back to the Roraima.

Read some gobbledygook white-bashing  'interpretation' of this photo where I got it from HERE
"The Roddam, however, burst into flames and put to sea. I reached the Roraima at about half-past 2, and was afterwards taken off by a boat from the French warship Suchet. Twenty-four others with myself were taken on to Fort de France. Three of these died before reaching port. A number of others have since died."

Samuel Thomas, the gangway man, whose life was saved by the forethought of Taylor, says that the scene on the burning ship was awful. The groans and cries of the dying, for whom nothing could be done, were horrible. He describes a woman as being burned to death with a living babe in her arms. He says that it seemed as if the whole world was afire.'
 The Roraima burnt and sank. Today it is a tourist diving wreck.

Saint Pierre after the twenty minute eruption

One of three  survivors was a prisoner in the town jail - Ludger Sylbaris. You can read about him HERE.

A full version of the piece from Cosmoplitan July 1902 HERE

Anyway, ships and volcanoes don't mix, not 2000 years ago and not now.