This book tells the stories of more than 200 individual fighting
ships built before 1900. For the most part, these ships represent a
naval tradition that has its roots in the ancient Mediterranean. The
reason for this particular focus lies in the historiography of the
subject: either the documentary evidence from other early naval
traditions is incomplete, or researchers have yet to unearth the sort
of information contained in this book.
The focus of this book is on vessels built or used primarily
for organized naval warfare as we understand it today, that is, ships
operating in concert with other ships or individually, but within a
discernible hierarchy of command and control determined by the state.
It should be stressed, however, that collectively these ships"
stories touch on only a few highlights of world naval history before
The history of the warship before 1900 can be divided broadly into
three periods. Although sailing ships are of great antiquity, until
the medieval period, naval warfare was confined chiefly to oar-
powered galleys that relied on sails only for auxiliary propulsion.
The end of the galley"s domination coincides with - but did not
result from - the development of the gun in the fourteenth century.
At the same time, there was a synthesis of northern and southern
European shipbuilding traditions that gave rise to the square-rigged
warship from which the ship of the line and frigates of the early
1800s are direct descendants. The final stage in the evolution of
naval warfare under discussion was marked by unprecedented changes in
materials, ordnance, design, and, above all, propulsion. Taken
together, these affected the size, shape, handling, and function of
warships to a greater degree than all other previous developments
The development of the fighting ship alternately parallels
that of ships used for civil pursuits, chiefly merchantmen and
fishing vessels, and takes off on trajectories of specialized
refinement which end, inevitably, with the collapse of the
governments and military bureaucracies that standing navies require
for their maintenance. The earliest warships were doubtless
merchantmen requisitioned for military purposes, usually as troop
transports. Sea battles probably began when a defender first
attempted to prevent an aggressor from making a successful landing.
This could be achieved most easily by boarding an opponent"s ship and
killing its soldiers and crew. Fought at close quarters on a drifting
battlefield, the first sea fights were not unlike infantry battles
fought ashore. Among the first weapons peculiar to sea fighting was
probably the grapnel, a hook that could be thrown onto an enemy ship
so that the two combatants could be joined hull to hull. One of the
most vivid accounts of such a battle is found in Snorri Sturluson"s
thirteenth-century account of the Norwegian king Olav Tryggvason,
whose Ormrinn Langi was the setting for just such a battle in the
This form of combat was essentially antipersonnel in nature.
Ships might be damaged, but they were rarely sunk in such a melee.
The easiest way to sink a ship is to punch a hole in it below the
waterline, which is hard to do with hand weapons. Before the advent
of long-range weapons, the easiest way to sink a ship was to ram it.
The earliest pictorial evidence of the ram dates from about the ninth
century bce. It may have begun as a forward extension of the keel,
but sailors soon began to fit a bronze ram to the end. To support the
weight of the ram, and to prevent the ramming ship from being
shattered by the impact of driving repeatedly into other vessels, the
hulls had to be more heavily constructed. A pentecontor (50-oared
ship, the largest of the period) with all the rowers on the same
level would be 100 feet or longer: such a vessel was heavy, difficult
to maneuver or defend, and an unnecessarily large target for enemy
ships. It is not surprising that the same period saw the development
of the first two-decked ships, which carried the same number of
oarsmen in a hull half as long. The earliest depiction of two-decked
pentecontors is in an eighth-century bce relief showing the
Phoenician evacuation of Sidon and Tyre to Cyprus. With stronger
hulls, ships could also incorporate a raised deck for infantry,
archers, and spear-throwers which gave them a further offensive
By the fifth century bce, the Mediterranean warship par
excellence was the three-decked trieres, or trireme, a vessel with
much greater strength, speed, and hitting power. It is estimated that
the trireme was as much as 30 percent faster than the pentecontor,
which remained the standard warship for smaller city-states lacking
the resources to build or man triremes, which had crews of 200 men.
Although larger vessels were built, the trireme seems never to have
been improved upon for speed. Exactly how the larger polyreme galleys
functioned is open to question. As types, they are referred to in
ancient literature by numbers: fives, eights, twelves, and so on, up
to a forty. Careful study of the constraints on design and
comparisons with better documented Renaissance galleys, such as those
of the Venetians, suggest that these polyremes never had more than
three banks (horizontal rows) of oars. The numbers probably refer to
the number of oarsmen in each column of oars. That is to say, a four
might have had two banks of oars, with two men per oar, and an eight
might have had three banks of oars, with the top and middle oars
pulled by three men each, and the bottom oar by two men. The maximum
number of oarsmen per oar was probably eight, and the highest such
rating in a single hull would therefore be a twenty-four.
Warship design in antiquity reached its apogee following the
death of Alexander the Great. The most notable innovator was
Demetrius the Besieger (336-283 bce), a Macedonian king who is
credited with being the first to put more than one man on each oar.
The immediate reason for the need for stronger, bigger ships was to
accommodate catapults, the first shipboard artillery. Alexander the
Great had used shipborne catapults during the siege of Tyre, but the
seagoing catapult did not come into its own until the development of
super-galleys by Demetrius and his successors. The most extreme of
these Hellenistic-era vessels was the unnamed forty of Ptolemy IV
Philopator (Macedonian king of Egypt from 210 to 180 bce), which
maritime historian Lionel Casson interprets as a catamaran warship
made up of two twenties with a raised platform deck spanning the two
hulls. The dimensions given by Athenaeus (who wrote in the second
century ce) seem fantastic but credible: 50 feet wide, 400 feet long,
with room for 4,000 oars, 2,850 marines, and 400 deckhands of various
sorts. It is also likely that thirties, and possibly some smaller
vessels, were also twin-hulled. Nor were such vessels complete
rarities. The only catamaran galley known by name is Demetrius"s
eight, Leontophoros, of the early third century bce, but the 336
vessels in the fleet of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (r. 308-246 bce)
included two thirties and a twenty.
At this time, the focus of naval activity was shifting to the
west, where Rome vied with Carthage for control of Sicily and the
western Mediterranean in the three Punic Wars (264-41, 218-201, and
149-46 bce). Originally a Phoenician trading colony with roots in the
eastern Mediterranean, Carthage dominated the trade routes of the
western Mediterranean. After three years of inconsequential fighting
on land, the Romans - never enthusiastic seamen - decided to build
a fleet of 100 quinqueremes (with 300 crew per ship) and 20 triremes
(170). The Carthaginian ships were better built and their crews more
experienced, so to take advantage of their infantry, the Romans
invented a combination grapnel and boarding plank called a corvus.
When lowered onto the deck of the opposing ship, it held fast while
soldiers rushed across. The corvus was used to brilliant effect at
Mylae, in August 260, when the Romans captured 44 ships and killed or
took prisoner 10,000 Carthaginian sailors. Through imitation and
persistence and an almost endless supply of men and materiel, the
Romans eventually defeated the Carthaginians, the decisive blow
coming at the Battle of the Aegates Islands in March of 241.
For hundreds of years, Rome relied on naval power to keep the
Mediterranean free of pirates and open to trade, especially along the
vital grain ship route from Alexandria to Rome. Octavian consolidated
his position in a brilliant naval campaign that culminated in the
Battle of Actium in 31 bce, and as the emperor Augustus he
established Rome"s first standing navy, with bases at Misenum on the
west coast of Italy and Ravenna on the Adriatic. As the empire
expanded, subsidiary naval bases were established in the eastern
Mediterranean, in the Black Sea, and on the Danube and Rhine Rivers.
Excavations at Mainz, Germany, have yielded the remains of fourth-
century patrol craft typical of these imperial riverine outposts.
The economic downturn that accompanied the decline of the
Roman Empire forced Constantine (285-337) to adopt smaller thirty-
and fifty-man ships, which evolved into the dromon ("racer") of the
fifth century, and later still the moneres and galea of the Byzantine
navy in the tenth century. Designed for fighting at close quarters,
their armament included antiship weapons such as catapults and Greek
fire. This seventh-century flame-thrower consisted of a flammable
liquid pumped from a bronze siphon, and it is credited with having
given the Byzantines a crucial edge over Arab fleets in the Aegean
Sea and the Sea of Marmara.
Like the Romans, the Arabs did not have an indigenous naval
tradition to draw on, but they were masters of recruitment and
imitation. In 641, an Arab army captured the Byzantine navy"s
homeport at Alexandria. Arab fleets captured Cyprus and raided Rhodes
and Sicily, and in 655 a Syro-Egyptian fleet of 200 ships routed a
Byzantine armada of 500 ships in the Battle of the Masts, or dhu-al-
Sawari, off the coast of Lycia in Asia Minor. In an engagement
reminiscent of the Battle of Mylae, the lubberly Arabs triumphed by
creating a situation in which their superior infantry might prevail.
Lashing their ships to those of the enemy, the Arabs carried the day
in a series of classic boarding actions that left "the water of the
sea saturated with blood."1 The fleets of the Caliph resumed their
assault on the heart of the Byzantine Empire in 669, and Arab fleets
threatened Constantinople off and on until the early 700s.
The campaigns against the Byzantine Empire had been conducted
by a unified caliphate. After 750, Islamic states on the periphery
began to break away, the first to secede being the Ummayad Caliphate
of Córdoba in Spain. The development of an Umayyad fleet could not
have been more timely, for in 844 a Viking fleet of some eighty ships
sailed up the Guadalquivir River and looted Seville. The Muslims
reacted swiftly: they sank thirty Norse ships in a battle off
Scandinavians had begun to expand out of the Baltic and its
tributaries in the eighth and ninth centuries. In the east, they
established trading centers at Novgorod, which gave them access to
the Dnieper River, which flows to the Black Sea, and the Volga, which
flows to the Caspian. Westward expansion began in 793, with the raid
on Lindisfarne Abbey in Scotland and soon, as the Annals of Ulster
record, "no haven, no landing-place, no stronghold, no fort, no
castle might be found, but it was submerged by waves of Vikings and
pirates."2 On the Continent, Charlemagne ordered the creation of a
defense force to guard the Frisian coast, but after his death the
Norse exploited his divided legacy ruthlessly, sailing their ships up
the Rhine, the Scheldt, the Seine, the Loire, and the Gironde to
conquer such prosperous centers as Hamburg, Utrecht, Paris, Nantes,
and Bordeaux. By the time the seafaring Vikings reached the
Mediterranean, via Muslim Spain, they had overreached themselves. The
Vikings tended to move in relatively small numbers, and a relatively
high proportion of them settled among the people they raided.
However, they retained the seafaring skills honed over generations.
During the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066, William the Conqueror
sailed with his Mora and perhaps one thousand other vessels to seize
the English throne then occupied by Harold. This was a logistical
triumph, but by no means the first such seaborne invasion. Julius
Caesar had achieved much the same end in Britain in the first century
bce, and there are numerous other examples of seaborne invasions from
antiquity and the medieval period throughout the Mediterranean and in
The period from the 1100s to the 1400s saw a number of
complementary developments that together would make the conduct of
naval warfare almost unrecognizable to any previous generation of
sailors. The Crusades opened the commerce of the eastern
Mediterranean and Black Seas and the spice trades (among others)
beyond. The primary beneficiaries of this expansion were the
Venetians and Genoese, who built large merchant fleets and navies to
protect them. They also began trading with northern Europe, first
overland and then, by the 1200s, by sea to the Low Countries.
This brought about the first direct meeting of the distinct
Mediterranean and northern European shipbuilding traditions, and a
technical revolution in ship design. Two distinct ship types had
evolved in the Mediterranean, the galley, or long ship, used for
warfare (and in the medieval period as merchant ships), and the round
ship, a wide, high-sided vessel with large volume and
multitiered "castles" fore and aft. As important, Mediterranean
shipwrights built ships by constructing a skeleton frame to which
they fastened the outer skin of planks laid edge-to-edge.
Mediterranean sailors had also abandoned the square sail common in
antiquity in favor of the fore and aft lateen sail, and the largest
ships had two or even three masts. Although such a rig enabled ships
to point closer to the wind, they were cumbersome when tacking and
required large crews.
In northern Europe, the hull was formed first, with
overlapping planks fastened to one another with clenched (bent)
Excerpted from Warships of the World to 1900 by Paine, Lincoln P. Excerpted by permission.
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