What Is The Trireme Exactly?

Key Point: A trireme is an ancient warship with three rows of oars, widely used by Mediterranean civilizations, such as the Greeks, for naval warfare and transportation.

This time we will be discussing the trireme. The naval weapon was used throughout the Mediterranean. You will see everything, from the size of the average trireme, how it was used in battles, and what naval weapon replaced it. So, before we continue here is a little sneak peek.

Key Takeaway Of The Article:

The trireme was a swift and agile warship that played a vital role in naval warfare during ancient times. It was approximately 120 feet long and could accommodate up to 170 oarsmen, who worked in three tiers. The ship’s design allowed for quick changes in direction and enabled it to ram enemy ships with great force. Its speed and maneuverability made it a formidable weapon on the seas of the Mediterranean.

Interested in seeing how the Roman trireme differs from its cousin the Greek trireme? You will find out. But first, let’s take a look at the origins of The Roman Trireme.

Origins Of The Trireme

The origin of the trireme, can be traced back to ancient Greece.

These remarkable ships were the result of centuries of naval innovation and played a pivotal role in Hellenistic supremacy.

Triremes were first introduced by the Corinthians. They were sleek and agile, powered by three banks of oars, which made them faster and more maneuverable than their predecessors.

What’s interesting is that the word “trireme” itself reflects the ship’s design, with “tri” meaning three in Greek. These triremes were built for both speed and combat, equipped with a bronze-sheathed ram at the prow to pierce enemy ships during naval battles.

The trireme’s invention revolutionized naval warfare, and it soon became a symbol of Greek naval power and the backbone of the Athenian and other Greek fleets. Over time, other Mediterranean civilizations adopted and adapted the trireme design, leaving a lasting legacy in the annals of maritime history.

With that part of the way lets take a look at the average size of the trireme.

The Size Of The Trireme

The trireme was a large warship that measured approximately 120 feet (36.6 meters) in length and 16 feet (4.9 meters) in width. It was powered by 170 oarsmen divided into three tiers, with each rower responsible for a single oar. The topmost tier consisted of 54 oarsmen, the middle tier had 54 oarsmen, and the lowermost tier had 62 oarsmen.

According to this book, the oar system on a Roman trireme for example went like this:

The traniti formed the upper row: they used oars about 12ft in length. The zigiti were the oarsmen of the middle row, and managed rows of about 10ft. The talamiti formed the lower row with oars 6ft long.

from “Republican Roman Warships 509-27 B.C.”

In addition to the oarsmen, the Roman trireme for example had a complement of soldiers who served as marines. The number of marines onboard varied depending on the specific mission, but it was typically around 20-30 soldiers. These guys took over when the trireme rammed the enemy ship. Their job was to board the enemy ship and kickass.

Despite its size, the trireme was also surprisingly agile, thanks to its lightweight hull and relatively shallow draft.

This allowed it to navigate shallow waters and engage in close-quarters combat with enemy vessels.

Now, let’s take a look at a few famous battles where triremes took part.

Famous Naval Battle With Roman Triremes

There were several famous naval battles where triremes were used. Here are three examples:

Battle of Mylae (260 BC) This was the first recorded naval battle where the Romans used triremes. They faced off against the Carthaginians. Who had dominated naval warfare up to that point. Despite being outnumbered, they were able to use their superior tactics and the innovative corvus boarding bridge to capture many Carthaginian ships.
Battle of Ecnomus (256 BC) This was another important battle between the Romans and Carthaginians during the First Punic War. The Roman fleet consisted of over 330 ships, including triremes, and was able to defeat a Carthaginian fleet of similar size.
Battle of Actium (31 BC) This was a decisive naval battle between the forces of Octavian (later known as Augustus) and those of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. The Roman fleet, which included triremes, was able to defeat the Egyptian fleet and secure Octavian’s position as the sole ruler of Rome.

Naval Tactics – How The Trireme Was Used

The trireme was used in several different ways throughout the centuries. The most innovative use came from the Romans with their use of the Corvus.

Which was a boarding bridge that was attached to the front of the ship and could be dropped onto an enemy vessel. This allowed Roman soldiers to board enemy ships and engage in hand-to-hand combat, which was a departure from traditional naval warfare.

Another tactic employed by those with triremes was the use of grappling hooks to immobilize enemy ships. Once a ship was secured, the trireme could ram it or use archers and other ranged weapons to attack from a distance.

The Romans for example also developed sophisticated naval formations, such as the “wedge” and the “crescent,”. These tactics allowed their triremes to outmaneuver larger enemy fleets. The wedge formation was designed to break through enemy lines, while the crescent formation was used to encircle and isolate enemy ships.

Now, given how the trireme was used for centuries in the Mediterranean, why did they go extinct? Well here is why.

Why The Trireme Fell Out Of Use

The trireme, like many ancient technologies, eventually fell out of use for a couple of reasons.

One of the main factors was the cost of building and maintaining such large and complex warships.

Another factor was the changing battlefield of the late Western empire By the end of the Roman Empire, there was no other major naval empire in the Mediterranean hence maintaining a fleet of ships (like the triremes) was pointless. So, bigger ships like the trireme simply fell out of use.

To see how the trireme faired against one of its naval rivals, the “quadrireme” then click here.

And lastly, the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD marked the end of an era in Mediterranean naval history. The complex and sophisticated technology of the Roman trireme was largely forgotten, replaced by simpler and more practical designs.

In Conclusion

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you learned a thing or two. If you wish to continue learning I suggest taking a look at my article on the Phoenician bireme here. The ship that came before the trireme model.

Sources: Republican Roman Warships 509–27 BC (New Vanguard)

Take care!