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Volume 13, Issue 5: HIstoria

Real History in the Aegean

Chris Schlect

October 25, 2000, saw the passing of a great historian. John Sinclair Morrison was 87. Morrison did what any scholar does these days: he wrote heady books and published articles in peer-reviewed journals. A respected classicist, he was the first president of Wolfson College, Cambridge. But his greatest legacy cannot be relegated to a stuffy ivory tower. His legacy displaces 45 tons and presently sits about one hundred meters from the water at Piraeus, the ancient harbor of Athens. Morrison's legacy was commissioned by the Hellenic Navy in 1987: a warship called a trireme. This vessel, christened Olympias, inspired the present writer and his son to fabricate a cardboard reconstruction. Indeed, no modern scholar's work has inspired such noble imitation.

Olympias is a floating hypothesis that one writer described as "the most exciting drama in classical studies of the past century." She is the incarnation of Morrison's theory of what the great triremes of ancient Athens were actually like. Because triremes never sank none are preserved on the sea floor. Thus, no obvious evidence remains of their design. Even their most basic traits have been debated for centuries—until John Morrison and his Olympias. In August of 1987, 170 oarsmen pulled a trireme through Aegean waters for the first time in over two thousand years.
The distinguishing feature of a trireme is its ominous bow, fitted with a bronze ram. With its ram, triremes disabled enemy vessels by holing them at the waterline, by means of a deliberate and violent collision. Under the controversial leadership of Themistocles, Athens devoted new revenues from a silver mine to construct the fleet that defeated a formidable Persian armada in 480 b.c. The victory inspired Herodotus to declare Athens to be the savior of Greece. With the Persian threat now out of the way, Athens used her fleet to advance her interests throughout one of the greatest eras of literary, philosophical, artistic, and political activity ever known. The Golden Age of classical Athens was built upon the trireme. Thanks to John Morrison, the trireme sails again.
The basic dimensions of an Athenian trireme (37 meters long, 5.4 meters wide) can be inferred from the ship sheds that housed them, which were excavated in the 19th century. Inscriptions describe a typical crew consisting of a captain, about a dozen deckhands and officers, fourteen soldiers and archers, and 170 oarsmen. How could 170 oarsmen be efficiently arranged in such a confined space, in a seaworthy vessel that is quick and maneuverable? Many speculated that three men had to be assigned to each oar. But it was Morrison's comprehensive analysis of an array of evidence—coins, epigrams, pottery, sculpture, and even jokes in Aristophanes' plays—that led him to propose an oar-system that accounted for all the evidence: one man per oar, arranged in three tiers. Morrison published his ideas in 1941, and more fully in the 1968 book Greek Oared Ships.
So much for speculative scholarship. The incarnation Olympias was conceived when a Suffolk banker, Frank Welsh, shared a bottle of wine with a lawyer and a classical scholar. They discussed the puzzles related to the Athenian trireme, particularly its top speed. They agreed on one thing: building one was the only way to settle the question. Welsh turned to John Morrison with the idea. Morrison in turn called fellow triremephile John Coates, who had served as Chief Naval Architect of the British Royal Navy. Thus the Trireme Trust was formed in 1983 with the purpose of reconstructing a trireme. The Hellenic Navy agreed to fund the project, which carried a price tag of $700,000.
John Coates's contributions were essential. Whereas Morrison refuted other hypotheses on the basis of evidence, Coates could pronounce them unseaworthy. Coates demonstrated that the hull of an Athenian trireme was more hydrodynamically advanced than any ship of the modern era up through the 19th century.
The Trireme Trust conducted extensive sea trials of Olympias in 1987, 1988, 1990 and 1992. The data they collected would overwhelm a baseball statistician. The performance of Olympias matches that of the ancient trireme as described in the ancient accounts. The gainsayers have been answered by the test of reality, and Morrison's floating hypothesis has been verified. Olympias is, indeed, a trireme.
A lesson we learn from John Morrison is just how limited book learning can be. It's one thing to say scholarly things about an ancient warship. It's another thing entirely to build one and row it. The first oar crew on Olympias back in 1987 was made up of trireme-loving classicists, and the results were comical. By the `90 and `92 trials, the Trireme Trust had realized that rowing the ship required experiencedathletic rowers—oarsmen who could row like an Athenian. You see, Athenian oarsmen were highly disciplined and well paid; unlike Roman galleys, Athenian triremes were too nuanced for slave labor. Moreover, the act of rowing Olympias has illuminated many pieces in the historical puzzle that had hitherto been obscure. Peer-reviewed journals, by contrast, don't get exhausted in a headwind nor blister their hands and butts. And unlike heady journals, Olympias is a beautiful sight—more like a medieval cathedral or a renaissance portrait than any academic article I have read.
John Sinclair Morrison is survived by his wife and their five children. Because of him, schoolboys everywhere have a new reason to study ancient history. The second edition of The Athenian Trireme (Cambridge University Press) by J.S. Morrison and John Coates, with a new chapter by Olympias rowing master Boris Rankov, was published just before Morrison's passing. I recommend it.

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