The Hexareme – Romes Massive Ship

Key Point: A hexareme was an ancient warship with six rows of oars, commonly used in the Mediterranean during the Greco-Roman era.

This article will discuss the hexareme. Or the ancient warship which reportedly had six levels of rows on each side. So, strap yourself in because, by the time you finish this article, you will know everything there is to know about hexaremes.

Now, before we begin, as always let’s establish a few things first.

The hexareme was a warship reportedly used by the Ancient Romans. It was a massive warship with 6 rows of oars on each side. Its existence was mentioned by Roman historians such as Pliny the Elder and Aelian. Reportedly the massive design of the ship originates from Syracuse.

Now, let us examine, what we can about the origins of the hexareme.

The Hexareme Origins And History

There is surprisingly little information about the hexareme warship design. What we know, comes from Roman historians like Pliny and Aelian. From their view, the hexareme originated from Syracuse. And was present in the fleet of Dionysius the second in the 4th century B.C. And could have been present in the navy of his father before him.

The Romans were quick to copy what worked and the hexareme design was no different.

The Size Of A Hexareme

This quote from the book on Republican Roman Warships sums up best how truly massive these ships were:

The dimensions suggested by Pitassi for such a ship are an overall length of 57m (186ft), with an overall beam of 10.4m (34ft) and a deck above the waterline of about 3.4m.” pg. 39

How They Were Used

Given their size the hexareme warships were used in a few different ways. As massive warships that carried a huge number of soldiers. Which could either board an enemy ship or hit it from afar with projectiles. Or as a warship that carried artillery. Which was of course sued to hit enemy ships from afar.

Alongside that, given its size and the protection it offered, it was also used as a vessel for commanding officers. Why not, it offered great protection and if it came to that it could reach great speed and run away. Saving the officers. The Romans had a term for that it was called “navis praetoria”.

The fact that hexaremes were often sued as flagships can be derived from this quote by the Roman poet Silius Italicus:

“the ship of the Roman commander proceeded faster than the wind pushed by six orders of oars”

Silius Italicus in his poem Punic

Why The Hexareme Stopped Being Used?

The reason why hexaremes stopped being used is the enormous maintenance cost. Maintaining a fleet of massive ships drains a lot of resources from the treasury. And after Rome took care of Carthage and later Egypt, there was no need for them anymore.

So, why invest money in building and maintaining large ships when you are the sole superpower in the Mediterranean? They reduced the size of their ships because it was the cheaper option and poured most of the military budget into the land forces. Which they in fact needed.

The hexareme met the same fate as the Roman Quinquireme. It was just too big and useless after a certain point.

In Conclusion

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I know it’s a short one, but there is surprisingly little information out there on the larger polyreme ships like the hexareme. What I found helpful as a resource on Roman Warships was the book “Republican Roman Warships” by Raffaele D’Amato. It’s a good read.

If you wish you can continue reading about naval weapons from history by taking a look t my article on the Liburnian warships also used by the Romans, among others. Check it out here.

That’s all from my end.

Take care!

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