Review: Ancient Greek Warship: 500–322 BC

Ancient Greek Warship: 500–322 BC
Ancient Greek Warship: 500–322 BC by Nic Fields
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

While I find this a good introduction to Athenian ships, I find the book does a less good work on actually fulfilling its promise on discussing “Greek” ships. Overall, the ships’ military performance is not very well assessed with Corinth and Corcyra not mentioned except in a few short paragraphs. However, speaking historiographically, some other conclusions Mr Fields made sound more like conjecture than actual science, and I feel that quite a few other books are a better look at Athenian triremes (which is invariably the city and ship this book focusses on) and at least do not pretend to deal with other topics.

I will briefly mention the other topics: Mr Fields describes “positive buoyancy” as the main reason why triremes have not come through the ages, while it has always been my understanding that the salinity of the Mediterranean along with the biological organisms there (vis-a-vis the low salinity Baltic Sea and the oxygen-deprived Black Sea, for example) are the main reason why wooden ships in the area have not been well preserved (in general).

Secondly, Mr Fields also makes it sound as if the trireme was the cause for the Athenian defeat in the Syracusan Expedition, and that is not quite how I would read Thucydides (who admittedly is not the most unbiased author). There are some other similar claims made about other battles along with not mentioning some of the most famous Themistoclean statements on triremes which one should consider a mainstay of any book on Athenian navies. Also, I find Mr Fields’ incapability to not refer to Athens as an “empire” quite poor, especially where in a book of this length accuracy of statements should be paramount (hence, “Athens and Her Allies”…).

Lastly, Mr Fields says that “control of the seas in the modern sense was impossible for a trireme navy”. This could be the beginning of a discussion longer than any worthy of this post here, but in short, I think he is wrong. I think that conceptually war had a different purpose in that time and age, and no one even thought of a “control of the seas” à la Mahan.

The illustrations, however, are superb as ever.

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Of Greece, and of People

In a similar line to my earlier post on Scotland, I have now returned (well, a week ago it was) from a good twelve days in Greece (the locations: Korinthia and Thera) which were not only very educative in the traditional higher educational sense (of geology and volcanology), but also of people — including myself.

While the locations I saw were not numerous, the time in Korinthia was well spent. Unfortunately, Akrokorinth is something I missed even though my hotel was only fifteen minutes away. Oh the times!.. Yet, there was one ancient settlement that I did get to visit in the region, and that was Heraion/Iraio (Ηραίο). It is difficult to describe the feelings that take hold when I look upon the work of people from two-and-a-half millenia away — what stays from that moment with me though is the consideration that to have their work survive for this long is representative of the great care and skill with which those stones were laid down once upon a time.


The Thera part of the trip brought to my mind a lot of interesting problems, the majority of them related to history. For example, outside of Fira itself is a small cape and on that cape used to be a settlement-fortress. But as a fortress, the location was not all that useful. So, was the purpose to guard the people or to be guarded from them?

The old city of Akrotiri was quite spectacular (not even to mention that there was a house in that city called The Admiral’s House — what a beauty!) if somewhat lacking in the explanatory side. I dare say the evolution of that side of the island when looked at from a both human and volcanological point of view makes for an interesting story that probably deserves a fair bit of thought. I guess, however, that the one thing that is difficult to figure out is where indeed could there be other old settlements under the meters-thick layer of Minoan eruption sediments.

The Admiral's House
The Admiral’s House

One thought stayed with me the entire time from landing on Thera to leaving the place — it is immensely spectacular to see a place so naturally endowed for being a harbour. If it was in any way more strategically placed, it would be quite easy to lament the Admiral who chooses some other island/town for his flag-station. Looking down at the caldera — there were few fleets that I could think of which would not fit into this amazing enclosure. Sure, by the present day the eruptions have opened nearly a quarter of the bay to marine breezes, but even so one could have hidden and guarded a fleet here for some time. The one impulsive wish I did get was to travel to Truk, to Scapa Flow, to other renown harbours to see what sort of an impact they make. Do they look as good ports as Thera?..

And the people… let’s just say that there was plenty of opportunity for reflection on a variety of topics. The Mediterranean Sea always does seem like a very good place to go to for thinking — the combination of warm air, a sea breeze, the gleaming moon, waves breaking against the coast, the dark skies, and potentially a glass of the local quality drink make for a very beautiful moment. Pensiveness is certainly enhanced by this atmosphere. And it makes one wonder…

DSC_0054Also, over the course of this trip I could see that Dutch music is becoming more and more to my liking. I am not entirely certain why, but De Dijk’s line ‘Swalkend op de oceaan’ is a part of the cause.