The Age of Titans: The Rise and Fall of the Great Hellenistic Navies

The Age of Titans: The Rise and Fall of the Great Hellenistic Navies

The Age of Titans: The Rise and Fall of the Great Hellenistic Navies

The Age of Titans: The Rise and Fall of the Great Hellenistic Navies


While we know a great deal about naval strategies in the classical Greek and later Roman periods, our understanding of the period in between--the Hellenistic Age--has never been as complete. However, thanks to new physical evidence discovered in the past half-century and the construction of Olympias, a full-scale working model of an Athenian trieres (trireme) by the Hellenic Navy during the 1980s, we now have new insights into the evolution of naval warfare following the death of Alexander the Great. In what has been described as an ancient naval arms race, the successors of Alexander produced the largest warships of antiquity, some as long as 400 feet carrying as many as 4000 rowers and 3000 marines. Vast, impressive, and elaborate, these warships "of larger form"--as described by Livy--were built not just to simply convey power but to secure specific strategic objectives. When these particular factors disappeared, this "Macedonian" model of naval power also faded away--that is, until Cleopatra and Mark Antony made one brief, extravagant attempt to reestablish it, an endeavor Octavian put an end to once and for all at the battle of Actium. Representing the fruits of more than thirty years of research, The Age of Titans provides the most vibrant account to date of Hellenistic naval warfare.


[Ptolemy II] Philadelphus stood apart from all other kings in wealth and strove so zealously
in regard to all his constructions that he surpassed everyone even in the number of his
ships. Indeed, the largest of his ships included two “thirties,” one “twenty,” four
“thirteens,” two “twelves,” 14 “elevens,” 30 “nines,” 37 “sevens,” five “sixes,” and 17
“fives.” He had twice as many ships as these from “fours” to triemioliai; and the ships sent
to the islands and to the other cities he ruled and to Libya numbered more than 4000.

—ATHEN. deip. 5.203D (tlg, 5.36.11–21)

The general subject of this book concerns the genesis and evolution of a distinctly Macedonian model of naval power during the last four centuries bce. At the core of my investigation lies a unique period dubbed “The Age of Titans” by Lionel Casson, when an intense arms race developed among the most powerful successors of Alexander the Great. in the space of a single generation, we detect a burst of naval development that produced warships of increasingly large size. the term we traditionally apply to warships larger than triremes (“threes”), the standard warship in major fleets during the fifth and fourth centuries bce, is “polyremes,” from the Greek polyereis but such a term—which translates roughly as “many fitted”— never existed in antiquity. the ancients either called these ships by their class name (a number plus the -eres root) or by a descriptive term “cataphract” (kataphraktos) which means something like “armored” or “fenced” in the sense of having reinforced decks and sides to protect the oarcrew

1. See Casson 1995, 127–42, who uses the term as a chapter title.

2. While this term reflects the root -eres found in names applied to these large ships, e.g. tetreres (“fours”) or dekeres (“tens”), it does not appear until the 6th century (Agathias 5.22 = tlg, 192.23), well after the big ship phenomenon had run its course, and is applied to small skiffs (epaktridas… polyereis, “many-oared skiffs”) of a completely different build. Modern practice applies the term polyreme to ships rated as “fours” or larger.

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