Throughout Greek and Roman history, naval warfare played a prominent role. Gaining, exerting and contesting sea power was an important characteristic of many a conflict from the Archaic period right down to Late Antiquity; indeed, from the Persian to the Punic wars, contesting control of the sea was often at the very centre of the conflict. Yet despite its importance naval power in general and naval action in particular is extremely poorly understood, and already the most basic questions regarding an ancient naval action – what could and what did actually happen – remain to this day mostly unanswered. Operational details lie mostly in the dark; what little research has been done on the tactical employment of warships has focused almost exclusively on the trireme and naval warfare of the 5th c. BC (Lazenby 1987, Whitehead 1987, Holladay 1988, Morrison 1991, Taylor 2012).
Partly this is due to the fact that experimental archaeology can produce significant results with regard to ancient land warfare by putting tactics and technology – within limitations – to the test of practice, but cannot do so in a similar way to naval warfare, for the obvious reason. While however experimenting with reconstructions is not a viable proposition when it comes to naval actions involving dozens of ships and thousands of crewmembers, modern simulative technology can, to some degree at least, provide a useable substitute. Tests with the trireme reconstruction Olympias, originally built in the 1980s to test a hypothesis on the rowing system of ancient triremes (Rankov 1994, Morrison/Coates/Rankov 2000), have yielded a wealth of performance data that to this date remains largely untapped. While Olympias is not the perfect trireme reconstruction – something it was never meant to be in the first place – its performance data is by far the largest amount of material available on ancient polyreme performance. Putting this data into context with what little operational information can be taken from ancient sources makes it possible to constitute a simulative model enabling to analyze the operational movement of not only one polyreme, but several.
The constitution of such a model and its employment as an analytical tool for researching trireme and polyreme warfare is the main aim of “Diekplous!”, a British-German cooperative research project that is currently in its initial stages. The paper will first give a general introduction into the capabilities and limitations of simulative approaches – a methodology still in its infancy in the field of Digital Humanities/Digital Classics – before then providing a brief overview over the available data and discussing how the simulative model is best constituted and where its strengths and weaknesses are in the particular context of ancient polyreme warfare.
Holladay, A. J. 1988. Further thoughts on trireme tactics. Greece and Rome 35, 149-51.
Lazenby, J. F. 1987. The diekplous. Greece and Rome 34, 169-78.
Morrison, J. S. 1991. The Greek ships at Salamis and the diekplous. Journal of Hellenic Studies 111, 196-200.
Morrison, J. S., Coates, J. F. and N.B. Rankov. 2000. The Athenian Trireme (2nd. ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rankov, B. 1994. Reconstructing the past: the operation of the trireme reconstruction Olympias in the light of the historical sources. The Mariner’s Mirror 80, 131-46.
Taylor, A. 2012. Battle Manoeuvres for Fast Triremes. B. Rankov (ed.) Trireme Olympias. The Final Report. Oxford: Oxbow, 231-243.
Whitehead, I. 1987. The periplous. Greece and Rome 34, 178-85.