By Periklis Deligiannis
The Early Successors of Alexander gave a boost in the use and the development of the polyeres-type warships (multimeremes), using them widely in their wars (321 BC – early 3rd century BC). The Successors have built fleets comprised of numerous large warships, reaching the building of colossal vessels such as the ‘eikoseres’ (20reme, with twenty oarsmen on each vertical group of oars) and the enormous ‘tessarakonteres’ (40reme, with forty oarsmen on each vertical group of oars). These warships resembled to floating fortresses, very similar in size to the modern large battleships and aircraft carriers. The tessarakonteres had a crew of 6.000 men (officers, oarsmen, sailors, marines and others), as many as a modern aircraft carrier.
As it has been pretty much accepted in the scientific community, the number of the horizontal rows of oars in an ancient polyeres could not have been more than three, as it was demonstrated by the experimental researches of the Italian naval city-states of the Renaissance (Venice, Genoa, Pisa and others). The same is demonstrated by the Roman relief depictions which never depict more than three rows of oars. As it was also demonstrated by the experimental researches of Renaissance Italy, the larger number or oarsmen who could handle an oar was eight. Based on these data, the largest polyeres vessel which could be constructed was the ‘eikositetreres’ (24reme) that is a “trireme” with eight oarsmen on each oar (twenty-four oarsmen on each vertical group of oars).
The aforementioned distribution of horizontal rows and number of oarsmen (on each oar) was operational enough up to the ‘dekahexeres’ (16reme) mentioned by the ancient authors: for example, Perseus, the last king of Macedonia, used a dekahexeres as his flagship. However the ancient Hellenic sources mention also a ‘tessarakonteres’ (40reme), the flagship of Ptolemy Philopator, king of Ptolemaic Egypt, and they quote that it was propelled by 4,000 oarsmen. This term corresponds to forty oarsmen on each vertical group of oars and its technical explanation still causes perplexity to the researchers.
A number of explanations have been given for the distribution of the 40 oarsmen on each vertical group of this undoubtedly huge vessel, but the theory of L. Casson remains the most plausible. Casson proposed that the tessarakonteres was actually a catamaran-type ship which consisted of two eikoseres (20remes) stably bound together by a common deck. This theory is supported by a number of cases of bound ships during the Hellenistic Age, e.g. during the siege of Syracuse by the Romans (212 BCE) when the latter bound together two quinqueremes with a common deck to place on it an ‘helepolis’ that is a Hellenic siege tower, in order to capture the seaside walls of the city (depiction below).
According to Casson’s view, each of the two eikoseres (20remes) bound to comprise the tessarakonteres, would have 2,000 oarsmen that is 1,000 on each side. These 1,000 men would be distributed on three horizontal rows of oars with 50 oars in every row. This means 50 vertical groups of oars with 20 oarsmen on each row. These 20 rowers would be distributed as follows: eight ‘thranitae’ (that is the upper row of oars), seven ‘zygitae’ (middle row) and five ‘thalamitae’ (lower row). Casson’s theory for the tessarakonteres as a catamaran-type vessel may sound ‘bizarre’ but actually is the most coherent compared to other views. For example, a philologist of the 19th century supposed that the tessarakonteres had 40 horizontal rows of oars with only one oarsman on each oar.
The tessarakonteres was a costly ship, ponderous and unwieldy to navigate, an actual naval failure. It seems that its builders knew these disadvantages before they started constructing it. But Ptolemy Philopator, the wealthier king of his time, would not have any financial difficulties to cover its maintenance costs.
Taking into account the crew needed for the tessarakonteres’ navigation, its officers, its military guards and the rest of the staff, and of course the 4,000 oarsmen, the total personnel of the vessel would be around 6,000 men, the same number with that of a modern carrier’s crew. The sole advantages of the tessarakonteres were its size and its deck. This kind of vessel, enormous even for the modern standards, was appropriate to demonstrate the power of the Ptolemaic Kingdom to enemies and allies. Additionally, if it was used in military operations its deck could carry catapults and ‘helepoleis’ of colossal size, and/or large numbers of troops.
The use of these enormous polyeres-warships was gradually abandoned by the Hellenistic fleets, due to the high maintenance costs and the difficulty of their navigation. The only actually useful polyeres-type warships were the tetreres (quadrireme), the penteres (quinquereme), the hexeres, the hepteres, the hocteres and the deceres, but mostly the first three mentioned.