Sunday 11 August 2013
Slaving in the navy
I guess most of us have seen Charlton Heston rowing his heart out as the galley slave Ben Hur. I'm sure some of us have even read General Lew Wallace's 1880 novel of the same name...again featuring our Jewish hero slaving away in the depths of a Roman warship chained to the floor and facing certain death if the ship should sink. It's a graphic picture of hardship and very important to Wallace's narrative. The trouble is...the Roman's didn't use galley slaves. Think about it - if you're going to take an expensive warship off to war (a trireme was worth $4.8-million in today's terms), do you really want to trust its primary motive power to bunch of slaves who may well prefer the other side to win?
The Romans, like the Greeks and Carthaginians relied on trained professionals to row their warships. They were paid well and they trained hard. The Greek Trireme used 170 rowers while the Romans needed 280 for their Quinremes. But that's not to say they were at the drum all day long. These ships were under sail most of the time, or cruised with only some of the rowers working. The full crew only came into play during what we would call 'battle stations'. At this point the crew's full compliment would be at the oars in a 1 + 1 + 1 fashion on a three decked trireme or a 2 + 2 + 1 on a three deck Quinreme. The oarsmen were need for the explosive acceleration ancient warships relied on to approach the enemy, avoid the enemy or ram the enemy. The modern day trireme replica 'Olympia' has achieved nine knots with a largely untrained crew - so imagine what ten-year veterans would be capable of. For more history on the Roman navy - check out 'Mischance and Happenstance' - available on Amazon, just follow the links