The Romans did not contribute much to ancient ship design, being satisfied with simply using the designs which had been handed down through the years from the Hellenistic Greeks and utilizing designs which the Greeks had last seen fit to use. Both the Roman warship and merchant ship construction seems to have resembled greatly those designs which were last embodied by the Greek shipbuilders centuries previously, and then only when the Roman world was forced by happenstance to utilize fleets to carry out their military plans. Since there have been more pictures of Roman ships which have survived the ages than Greek pictures, it is common to think of the Roman ship designs as having been a later set of ideas. This is currently believed to be a wrong view of shipping design in the ancient times.
Two sources of Greek ship design come down to us. The first being a set of verses (passage) from the “Odyssey” by Homer (V, 228-261). The second is a vase-painter by the name of Exekias, who did an illustration on a cup which has been dated to the sixth century BC*. This boat was shown to be a vessel which could be either rowed or sailed. It was an illustration of a pirate vessel. The ship described in the “Odyssey” could be used as a sailing vessel only. Figure (1) is based on the picture featured on the cup with a few details added to it which come from some additional smaller period references.
The surprising thing about both of these references is the degree of technical information given in each one. In the story of the “Odyssey,” the hero was kept on an island by the nymph Calypso for some long period of time. When he is at long last permitted to leave the island, he is given both tools and a location of timber suitable for ship construction, rather than summoning a vessel by magic. It is shown that the hero (Odysseus) is not only a warrior and a seasoned explorer, but he is also a master of ship construction and design, in which, clearly, the author made the assumption that his readers would understand these ideas with little difficulty.
Exekias, in creating a scene of fantasy, did so in a very detailed manner . He was careful to draw the vessel in a careful design reflecting many of the ship’s design aspects and a detailed view of it’s resulting operation.
In later discussions we will move from oared vessels to sailing vessels but first we must address a major difference in all types of Roman and Greek vessels as compared to modern wooden ships. This difference, while not obvious in the pictures of these ships, is made quite obvious both in Homer’s account of the ship construction as well as from many archaeological findings in the recovery of ancient shipwrecks.
*Arias-Kirmer-Shefton, “A History of Greek Vase Painting,” (Thames & Hudson, London, 1962), plate XVI. (See; http://ByzantiumNovumMilitarium.blogspot.com)
Reference:--J.G. Landels, “Engineering In The Ancient World,” (Univ. of Calif. Press -- Berkley, Los Angles, & Oxford -- 1981) Pages 135-36; [ISBN 0-520-04127-5]
To be continued :--