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Greeks and Galleys: Sacred Ships in Ancient Greece

Updated: Apr 21, 2023

In our Greeks and Galleys series, we're exploring famous Greek ships and their captains – and this week, we’re jumping back to the ancient world with Athenian ship Paralus.


Sacred Ships


The Paralus was part of a special group of sacred ships in ancient Athens. These were ships used for religious purposes. They could be decked out in astonishing decorations, and lined up in religious processions that took place in rivers and at sea!



However, unlike most sacred ships, the Paralus, because of its great speed, was also used as a messenger ship during the Peloponnesian War. It served an important role, and its adventures became legendary among the ancient Greeks…


The Parthenon temple in Athens was built using the money collected by the Delian League. Image source: Creative Commons

The Peloponnesian War


This was one of the defining wars of ancient Greek history. It all started after the city of Athens had built up an empire, known as the Delian League.


Athens promised to protect all of Greece from the Persian empire, in exchange for payments of money, grain, and ships. More and more cities began making payments to Athens, and Athens became more and more wealthy. Soon, the Athenians weren’t using the money to protect Greece, but for their own benefit!

This enraged the Spartans. In Sparta, every citizen was a soldier. Their goal in life was to prove, through warfare, that they were the most powerful Greeks. Sparta saw the growing power of the Athenian empire as a threat, and declared war!


Athens and Sparta were at war for 27 years. During this time, the Paralus served as a messenger boat, a war ship, and a diplomatic vessel.

The Crew of the Paralus


The crew of the Paralus were called the Paraloi. They were all Athenian citizens, and fiercely opposed to Spartan rule.


But they were more than a normal ship’s crew: they were a political party. They acted under their own orders, in ways they thought would change the world according to their own desires.


Poseidon sculpture in Copenhagen. The Paraloi claimed to be descended from Paralos, the son of the sea-god Poseidon and the inventor of warships. Image source: Creative Commons


Escape from Aegospotami


In 405 BCE, the leader of the Spartan fleet, Lysander, attempted to control the Bosphorus. This was a vital water passage, used to deliver food to Athens. Lysander’s plan was to stop food being delivered. To avoid starving, Athens sent out 180 ships to destroy the Spartan fleet.


The Athenians camped at a nearby island. 30 of their ships sailed out before the others, to lure the Spartan ships out into a sea battle.


The plan worked, but too well! Not only did the Spartans come out to fight, but they destroyed the 30 ships much quicker than the Athenians thought they would!


By the time the rest of the Athenian ships were heading out to offer help, the Spartans had already gathered reinforcements, and were coming straight for them! Bloody battle broke out — Spartan ships rammed into Athenian ships, breaking their hulls and splintering their masts. They moved swiftly from one trireme to another, carving through the Athenian fleet. The sea was heavy with Athens’ soldiers.


Ancient triremes would fight sea battles by ramming into each other. Image source: https://sites.psu.edu/hellenisticwarfare/navy/

Out of 180 Athenian ships, only 9 escaped. One of these surviving ships was the Paralus.


The Paraloi fled to Athens, to tell the people about what had happened. As the story passed between the lips of the Athenians, a great sorrow overtook the city. “We are doomed!” they cried. They knew that they would starve with the Spartans in control of the Bosphorus, and that, after 27 years, the war was lost!


Sparta took control of Athens, but the Paralus survived, being used as a diplomatic boat for many decades afterwards.

 

CREATE


An absolutely essential skill for being a good sailor is knot-tying. Have a go at these sailor’s knots, and see if you can master them!



Materials:

  1. Rope

  2. A parent, guardian, sibling, or friend to help you. These can be quite tricky, so it’s good to have an extra hand!

It may take a few goes to get these knots, but once you do, you’ll be ready to sail your ship across the seven seas!


Bow-line knot. This knot is for making a fixed loop at the end of the rope.


Here are five different knots! The square knot, the clove hitch, the figure 8 knot, the round turn, and the taut line! After this, you’ll be ready for any adventure!


If you master your knots, let us know! Ask a parent or guardian to take a photo of your knots and send it to education@hellenic.org.au. We’d love to see what kind of sailors you guys are!


Until next time, λεῖος πλόος!

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