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a visit to athens - and to the olympias!

This summer I was lucky to have the opportunity to go back to Athens, so naturally I went to check out the Olympias! It is a true-scale trieres replica built in 1985-87 by a group led by the classical historian James Morrison, the naval architect John Coates (lead designer for the County class!) and Frank Welsh, who also wrote a short book about the building process which I briefly reviewed here. Morrison and Coates, along with Boris Rankow, also wrote a book, The Athenian Trireme, which explains everything they thought about a trieres before building it: what their assumptions were, what were the reasonings behind all the construction choices they made, what they thought Olympias should have looked like and how they felt it should perform (you must buy this book, by the way).

It is impossible to overestimate Olympias' significance for ancient naval history. Much of what we know about the performance of triereis at sea has been either discovered or confirmed thanks to the extensive Olympias sea trials which took place during the '90s with volunteer crews (lucky guys!!). The results of these trials are available in an Olympias final report which is a trove of information for galleys enthusiasts, and also includes the Andrew Taylor article on battle tactics on the basis of which I wrote my two-parts diekplous post.

Moreover, not many people know (I didn't) that before Olympias we did not even agree what a trieres would look like! In fact there used to be a long and bitter argument between historians about what was the oars distribution on a trieres. Morrison was a key proponent of the theory that considered that the "tria" in the word "trieres" (which literally means "three orders") referred to three oars, each manned by a single rower, placed one above the other on three different levels. Up until the late '70s, before the Olympias, this was still an open question and many believed in different arrangements, e.g. that the "tria" referred to the number of rowers, not the number of oars. Many considered a three-level oared system impossible to operate! It took the construction of Olympias to put an end to the debate once and for all, and to give us the trieres as we know it.

A "trieres" according to an older theory - you got three guys, you see? Picture taken from "The Athenian Trireme"

Olympias is now in the official list of active Greek navy vessels (its proper name is therefore Hellenic Ship Olympias) and is hosted at the Navy's floating museum Averof, in Paleo Faliro. This, by the way, is fantastic and basically consists of Olympias and the battleship Averof, which was the most powerful ship in the Balkans in 1912 and the key to the Hellenic Navy predominance at sea over the Ottomans. Actually Averof was an Italian-built Pisa class armored cruiser.

The glorious HS Giorgios Averof

It is tricky to reach the museum, though... you must get the green metro line towards Piraeus and get down at Faliro. Then it's confusing because there are two stadiums nearby and it's tricky to get the direction right... but you must go upstairs towards the Olympiakos stadium, then do a 180° turn and cross the bridge towards the sea, then go downstairs to the left and you will find the tram station. You get down at Trocadero stop and in 2 minutes' walk you are there (phew!). So here is the Olympias, in all its glory!

And here it is from behind:

Unfortunately, as you can see in the first picture, the ship was moored precisely in such a way that you would face the sun if looking at it from the prow... I tried to ask the four sailors hanging around there if they could let me step out of the line in order to get a picture of it on the right side of the sun, but to no avail. Here's a closer look at the prow:

And a detail of the ram and the eye (it's painted, not painted marble as they usually were). Only the bronze sheat of the ram weights 200 kgs!

Here is still the prow, but from behind. You can clearly see how the epotis, the little frontal platform which protrudes horizontally from the prow, is designed to protect the parexeiresia, the outrigger where the thranites row, during a ramming action. This is also where the anchor would be operated from. Also, check out the little prow castle where the bow officer would stay to help the helmsman in navigation.

Now a closer look at the body. Look how close the thalamians' oarports are to the sea surface! Now I really get why triereis might only sail with perfect seas, and also why any minimal movements of people above deck would disturb the rowers - as confirmed by the Olympias rowers' experience. This was why the epibatai, the marines, are always depicted as sitting on the deck, and javelinmen were trained to shoot from a sitting position!

Another look at the body. Here you can clearly see the hogging effect which make the ship's keel bend at the center. This is because of the waves impact on the keel when the center of the ship is more buoyant than the prow and stern. To combat this effect and its opposite, the sagging, triereis had ropes stretched internally from end to end and kept in tension, the hypozomata.

Now let's go to the stern. Here's were the trierarch sits majestically, and the kybernetes, the helmsman, manouver the rudder. He would be standing on that small platform between the deck and the rowers' level, right in front of the seat, so that only the upper part of his body would be above deck and he would have one rudder for each hand. In action, the four archers would also probably be standing here at the stern to protect both.

Here you have better view of the structure of the deck, how it is built and raised. Right below the trierach's seat there is a space, which is where they would probably derive a small cabin for the use of the trierarch or of a VIP passenger such as Xerses - that would be the only closed space in the ship!

A close up of the rudder.

And of the raised stern ornament. Beautiful, isn't it? I also love how the Greek Navy correctly flies its flag from a flagpole attached to the raised stern, instead of from the mast. This is how the ancient Hellenes would fly flags in battle, when they would have had no masts onboard!

Finally a total shot from above and afar - namely, from onboard the Averof! The picture is cropped because I took it with my phone, turning it to 45° to get the bigger shot possible. I could not use the camera because it's forbidden to bring it onboard the Averof!! They might be afraid of espionage...

That's pretty much it for the floating museum. Unfortunately, it does not offer much in terms of triereis souvenirs and stuff... there is a single book available which looks nice, but is only available in Greek. However, I did buy a very elegant Averof polo shirt which is the same dark blue as the Greek navy uniforms. Even the wife had to agree it is quite cool!

But in Athens of course there are several interesting nautical-themed things to see. I had very limited time so I am sure I missed so many things. I went to the National Archeological Museum were I expected to see some stuff - a complete panoply of armour, helmet and shield from Marathon, in particular - but could not find it. I was in a rush so might have overlooked it. There was quite a lot of spectacular bronze age stuff, I have to say. Was really tempted to send the Alkedo range a few centuries back, also because of a huuge potential for raiding campaigns (just check out the map in the pictures below...).

I was also able to see the War Museum. It is supercool in general and you must definitely visit it, especially if interested in Balkan wars. But they do have some cute ancient naval stuff also. First if all, they have some lovely models, mostly of pentekonteres.

They also have a beautiful collection of helmets. This pilos is particularly good, but they have several more.

They also have a very nice collection of plaster casts of naval-themed marbles (the originals are in many different museums). Here below you see a IV cent. stele taken from the cenotaph of an Athenian, Democledes, who's depicted sitting at the prow of a trireme. He looks sad, probably because he was killed in a naval battle away from home.

They also have a nice copy of the famous Lenormant relief (the original is the Acropolis museum). This is a key piece of archeological evidence about the triereis' oarage, and was also one the main evidences used by Morrison to support his theory. The ships depicted on the marble is actually supposed to be the sacred Athenian State ship, the Paralos!

Look how clearly the marble depicts the three oars orders (and the effort and strain of the poor rowers!). I depicted in red the oars: thranites are fully visible, then below and shorter you can see the zygians' and even shorter the thalamians'. In blue I highlighted the structure of the parexeiresia, the outrigger from where the thranites would row, including the brackets which supported it from below.

Finally, this is from Eleusis, 350 b.c. Not particularly nice, actually, but still a significant evidence of a three-tiered oar system.

Fantastic trip all in all. Only thing is, I discovered that Olympias got a serious case of teredo navalis, had to have some planks substitutions, and has been declared not fit for navigation. So my dream of being one day a crew member (thranite, thank you...) seems to be gone...

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