Trireme vs Quadrireme – What Is The Difference?

Key Point: The difference between a trireme and a quadrireme is the number of rows of oars, with a trireme having three rows on each side and a quadrireme having four rows on each side.

Here we will discuss the topic of trireme vs quadrireme. You will see the background of both warships and you will see the 5 main differences between the two. So, get ready because you’re about to go into detail about warships that safeguarded Empires in antiquity.

Now, before we begin I will just lay out the 5 differences to you in an easy-to-understand format. Then we will take a look at each point one by one.

So, trireme vs quadrireme, what are the 5 main differences?

The 5 main differences between a trireme and a quadrireme are:

  • The Number Of Levels: Trireme has 3 levels of oars, while quadrireme has 4 levels.
  • Their Size: Size Quadriremes are larger and heavier than triremes.
  • Cost: Quadriremes are more expensive to build and maintain.
  • Speed: Triremes are faster and more maneuverable than quadriremes.
  • Usage: Quadriremes were used less frequently in naval warfare.

Those were the 5 main differences between the trireme and the quadrireme. Now, let’s take look at each a little more in detail.

Trireme Vs Quadrireme – The Number Of Levels

The main difference between a trireme and a quadrireme is in the number of levels of oars each had. The word “trireme” comes from the Latin “triremis,” which means “three-oared”. Referring to the three levels of oars used to propel the ship through the water.

Replica of a trireme

Similarly, “quadrireme” comes from “quadriremis,” meaning “four-oared,” referring to the four levels of oars used on that type of ship.

Drawing of a quadrireme

The decision to add a fourth level of oars on a quadrireme was likely driven by a desire to increase the ship’s speed and carrying capacity. But, having more levels of oars also made the ship, heavier, and more difficult to maneuver.

So in battle, the number of levels of oars on a ship could be both an advantage and a disadvantage. A ship with more levels of oars had the potential to be faster and more powerful. Although it was also less maneuverable and harder to control. This meant that a ship with fewer levels of oars, like a trireme, could be more nimble and agile. Which made it better suited for certain battle tactics.

Their Size Difference

The trireme and quadrireme were both ancient warships. But there were significant differences in size between the two.

A trireme was typically around 120 feet long and 15 feet wide, with three levels of oars and a crew of approximately 170 men. In contrast, a quadrireme was larger, measuring around 150 feet long and 20 feet wide, with four levels of oars and a crew of approximately 300 men. The larger size of the quadrireme allowed for greater firepower and maneuverability in battle, but it also made the ship more difficult to control and maneuver in narrow waters.

Now, let’s proceed to the cost difference between the two.

Trireme Vs Quadrireme – The Difference In Cost

The trireme and quadrireme were both expensive ships to build.

But there was a significant difference in cost between the two. A trireme was a smaller ship, with fewer levels of oars and a smaller crew, which made it less expensive to build and maintain than a quadrireme. And given the size difference it was also more expensive to maintain.

The larger size of the quadrireme also required more expensive materials, such as larger sails and thicker planks for the hull. This further increased the cost of construction. Despite the cost difference, both were considered vital components of ancient navies. So, their expense was seen as a necessary investment in the security of the state.

Now, let’s see which was faster.

The Speed Difference

The trireme was a smaller, lighter vessel by comparison with three levels of oars, which allowed it to reach speeds of up to 9 knots or 10 miles per hour. This made the trireme one of the fastest ships of its time. And its speed was a significant advantage in naval battles. In contrast, the quadrireme was larger and heavier with four levels of oars. This made it slower and less maneuverable than the trireme. But not by much, since according to sources:

In good wind conditions, these galleys could reach an excellent speed, thanks to their squared sail, mounted on the single mast.” pg. 16 – Republican Roman Warships 509 – 27 B.C.

The added weight of the quadrireme also meant that it required more time and effort to accelerate and turn, which could make it less effective in battle. Despite its slower speed, the quadrireme was still an important component of ancient navies. Mainly due to its greater firepower and ability to carry more soldiers and supplies.

Trireme Vs Quadrireme – Difference In Usage

While the quadrireme did have some advantages and was used in certain situations, it was not as versatile or widely used as the trireme. The main reason was its size and the cost associated with it. Navies back then preferred speed and they wanted fast and agile ships that were not costly to replace and could still do a relatively good job.

So, the use of the trireme was more widespread than the use of the quadrireme.

So, Which Ship Was Better?

In my opinion, the quadrireme was better. The reason was its size. Yes, the trireme was faster, but so what?

The naval tactics of the era dictated that you rammed the other ship in order to sink it, or you boarded it and annihilated everyone on the ship. Guess what? The quadrireme was larger, so it getting rammed by the trireme and sunk is less likely. Plus, if a war quadrireme gets boarded, good luck. You will have a multitude of soldiers on board ready to repel any attack.

Given the tactics used in that era, I prefer the quadrireme over a trireme. It was just a superior weapon, considering how naval ships were used as a weapon back then.

In Conclusion

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you learned a thing or two. And I hope to see you at the next one. If you wish to continue learning about ancient naval weapons I suggest taking a look at my article on the difference between the bireme and the trireme right here.

Or take a look at how the trireme compares to the Byzantine dromon, just go here .

Take care!