Amazingly huge ancient ships; Archaeology Newsflash 679
I don’t know about you, but at school I found history –
the way it was taught – rather boring.
Mind you, I did like history – at least when at home,
reading it for myself, enjoying the stories of peoples’
lives. Who doesn’t love a good story?
But in that dreary classroom, things seemed different.
As our teacher rolled off dates to be memorized, acts
of parliament, and other dull things (or so it seemed
then), I gazed out of the window.
There, in brilliant sunshine, were lucky people walking
up and down in the street – free from all this.
Wistfully, I thought, “Oh to be an adult – and have no
Well, we do grow up and… surprise!
Never mind. Here’s one surprise you should enjoy. Test
What about Christopher Columbus’ ships?
Do you know, Columbus’ whole expedition could mount
only 88 men. These were separated onto three ships.
Two of these ships were only 50 feet in length, about
the size of a small fishing boat.
Okay, that’s easy to picture.
Now, let’s get into a time machine, so to speak, and
travel back further… further… further…
Back to ancient Greece.
When we think of ancient battleships, we think of the
tiny ships shown in a movie like Ben Hur. They had 50
or so men, and a single tier of oars.
That may reflect our evolutionary thinking that the
ancients, compared to us, were primitive.
While we may flatter ourselves with our imagined
knowledge of ancient history, the actual facts coming to
light tell quite a different story.
You ask, Do we have any descriptions of these ships, so
as to know how large they really were?
Yes, we do. Fortunately we do have a good description of
one of the early 3rd century ships.
In 280 BC a naval battle took place in the Aegean Sea.
The largest ship was named the Leontifera.
It had 8 tiers of oars, with 100 oars per tier. Just
That’s right, on each side were 800 rowers – a total of
But that’s not all. On the upper deck or hatches were
also 1,200 fighting men who were under two special
Although we are not given the dimensions of the ship, the
oarsmen on each tier would have to be at least 3 feet
apart (that being the approximate distance between
For 100 rowers per tier, allowing for a bow and a stern,
this ship could easily have been 400 to 500 feet (120 to
150 meters) long.
We should realise also that those ancient battles were
not just single morning events. The ships could have been
at sea for a few days before and after the battle.
This ship had a crew of over 3,000 men. Can you imagine
the provisions it would have to carry!
Another fleet, built around 294 BC, is briefly described
He says, “Up until this time, no man had seen a ship of
15 or 16 banks of oars… but they had a speed and
effectiveness which was more remarkable than their great
size.” (Plutarch, Lives – Demetrius, Book 1, chapter 43
in the original work. 9:107-109, Loeb Classical Library
No. 101, Harvard University Press, 1996)
Athenaeus describes a large warship built by Ptolemy
Philopator (c. 244-205 BC).
It was 420 feet long, 57 feet wide and 72 feet high to
the top of her gunwale. Its 4 steering oars were 45 feet
It had 40 tiers of oars. When we say 40 tiers we mean 40
levels of rowers!
The oars on the uppermost tier were 57 feet long. The
oars were counterbalanced with lead to make them easier
It had 12 under-girders 900 feet long.
Now, are you ready for this? Are you sitting down?
The crew consisted of 400 sailors, 4,000 rowers and 2,850
men in arms – a total of 7,250 men. (Athenaeus, The
Deipnosophists, Book 5, section 203f-204b. 2:421-425,
Loeb Classical Library No. 208, Harvard University Press,
How on earth could you get enough room for so many
It has been suggested that to array the massive number of
banks (tiers) the vessel may have been twin-hulled. This
would enable the 40 banks to comprise 20 each side.
Some diagrams of smaller vessels show oar openings
sometimes arrayed diagonally. This offset allowed for a
greater number of banks for a given hull height.
Whatever the solutions, it would be a mistake to under-
estimate the ingenuity of the ancients.
Just try to visualise it.
This ship had a crew that was almost twice as large as
that of the largest aircraft carrier we have ever built.
And it would have had to carry provisions for all on board.
Another ship described by Athenaeus had a catapult
designed by Archimedes that could hurl a 120 pound (55
kilogram) stone over 600 feet. (Ibid., Book 5, Section
DOCUMENTS HAVE THE RING OF TRUTH
Now, a word about ancient records. Although we can never
be 100% certain of the accuracy of many ancient
documents, one may trust the document in the absence of
reasons to believe it is a fabrication.
This is the standard procedure in historical research,
whenever a document purports to be giving sober history.
There is consistency to the pattern of ship descriptions
as given by ancient historians, such as Pliny and others,
and no suggestion of exaggeration.
In the light of this, the dimensions of Noah’s Ark as
given in the book of Genesis (300 cubits – 525 feet
long) begins to look more like an authentic historical
OTHER GIANT SHIPS
Egyptian open-sea ships were up to 350 feet long and
60 feet wide, with as many as four decks.
The Pharaohs of the Ramesside dynasty, 1200 BC, were
able to mount expeditions of 10,000 miners across the
Indian Ocean to South Africa and Sumatra.
Ancient China built ships from 250 to 600 feet long –
far larger than anything built by later European
LUXURY ON BOARD
Two Roman ships were found in the 1920s at the bottom
of Lake Nemi, and between 1927 and 1932 were restored,
only to be destroyed by German bombers toward the end
of World War II.
These luxury cruisers contained accommodation for 120
passengers in 30 cabins of 4 berths each, plus crew’s
They were richly decorated with mosaic-tiled floors;
walls of cypress panelling; metal columns, marble
statues; and paintings in the lounge.
There was a library; a ceiling sundial; a salon where
a small orchestra entertained the passengers; a large
restaurant and kitchen; copper heaters which provided
hot water for the baths; and modern plumbing, with
bronze pipes and taps.
The underwater part of the hull was sheathed with lead,
fastened with copper nails.
Large luxury vessels of Greece and Rome contained temples
and swimming pools; also dining halls of marble and
Oh boy! We could go on.
Yes, they travelled all over the world – even as far
Now, if you’d really like to know more, here is how
to get it.
Just go to http://www.beforeus.com and you’ll be blown
away with some of the information.
International explorer, archaeologist and author
Jonathan Gray has traveled the world to gather
data on ancient mysteries. He has penetrated
some largely unexplored areas, including parts
of the Amazon headwaters. The author has also
led expeditions to the bottom of the sea and to
remote mountain and desert regions of the world.
He lectures internationally.