© Hellenic Museum Argonauts Club

A SAILOR'S LIFE

WHO BECAME A SAILOR?

On Athenian navy ships, the rowers made up the bulk of the crew. They were a mix of conscripted citizens and volunteers who came from the lowest class of Athenian citizens known as the Thetes. Thetes could not generally afford to become land soldiers, known as Hoplites, because Hoplites were expected to pay for their own armour). But the navy provided the Thetes with opportunities for higher wages than they could expect in other positions. Though a respectable career path, especially for the lower classes, joining the navy as a rower was less prestigious than being a Hoplite in the army. 

 

Other than the Thetes, foreigners who lived in Athens, but not considered citizens (known as metics), were also conscripted or could volunteer for navy service. Finally, if crews needed additional numbers, foreign mercenaries could be hired from other city states or Greek islands. Although popular in movies, it is actually incorrect to say that slaves were commonly used as rowers in the navy. Instead, slaves were only used when there were little other options such as the closing years of the Peloponnesian Wars, and the following 4th century when Athens was struggling economically.  During this time period, the need for foreign fighters also increased greatly.

WHAT DID SAILORS AND HOPLITES WEAR?

The lower level of an ancient ship was very cramped and hot, and the oarsmen's work was very strenuous and demanding. As a result, a rower would likely have worn little more than a loin cloth to cover his lower half. Higher ranked officers presumably wore the typical dress of an ancient Greek. This included an undergarment (chiton or peplos) and an outer garment for traveling (himation or chlamys).

The epibatai (marines) appear to have worn the usual Hoplite dress. Contrary to popular belief, Hoplite armour varied between soldiers, although common outfits developed. Hoplites supplied their own armour based on what they could afford. As a result, poorer Hoplites would frequently not have proper body armour and would instead only carry a shield, spear, helmet, and probably a sword or dagger.  Richer Hoplites could afford the more expensive bronze body armour, which included a bronze breastplate and greaves. Poorer men wore a cheaper type of body armour called linthothorax, which was made of layers of linen glued together with animal glue. 

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HIERARCHY ONBOARD A TRIREME 

 

Highest Positions

 

Trierarch (trierarchos) – The official commander of the ship. He was usually an elite and very wealthy Athenian citizen who was selected by the city-state as part of public service. His main duties were to pay for the cost of the ship’s equipment and maintenance of the ship itself.

The Captain (kybernetes) – The actual captain of the ship who although secondary in rank to the Trierarch, commanded the ship when it was actually at sea.

Secondary Officers

 

Boatswain (keleustes) – The officer in charge of the ship’s crew. He was responsible for the training and morale of the rowers, and was most likely the person who shouted orders to the crew during battle

 

Administrative Officer (pentecontarchus) – Handled the ship’s treasury and was responsible for pay, purchasing, and recruiting.

 

Officer of the Bow (prorates) – dealt with setting the ship’s course and acted as a lookout. The prorates was a lower officer rank and was a typically a promoted rower.

 

Fighting Personnel

Marines (epibatai) – generally listed as 10 men per ship, but most likely varied upon need. The epibatai were essentially water Hoplites or warriors that protected the ship. As the epibatai were from a higher class than most members of the ship, they would have been seen as a higher rank than the ship's secondary officers. In reality, the ship’s officers’ superior experience would have blurred the hierarchy.

 

Archers (toxotai) - generally listed at 4 men per ship, the archers fought in battle and acted as the bodyguard for the trierarch and the captain. The archers were definitely lower than a standard Hoplite. People usually became archers if they couldn’t afford Hoplite armour. 

Oarsmen

 

Oarsmen, or rowers, made up the vast majority of the ship’s crew and were lowest in rank. On average there were around 170 rowers on an Athenian trireme. They would have come from the lowest rank of citizens or Metics (foreigners living in Athens who did not have the same level of rights as citizens). Slaves were not typically used as rowers unless times were desperate. There were also about 10 sailors who were responsible for the sails and other assorted riggings.

 

Other Positions

           

Ship’s Carpenter (naupegos) – assorted repairs and maintenance. Also called a shipwright.

 

Flutist (auletes) – once the keleustes set the rowing stroke, the auletes played on a regular beat to keep the oars moving in time.

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