Ancient Athens, at the height of its power, commanded an empire of millions, covering most of the Eastern Mediterranean. Nominally, they were the foremost city of an alliance, but in practice, they dominated and extracted tribute from settlements in the Cyclades, Ionia on the west coast of Asia Minor, Italy, Sicily, Cyprus, and various points on the north coast of Africa. They even had a couple of colonies in Spain. This whole maritime empire was held together by the trireme, a 120-foot warship alternately propelled by sails or three banks of rowers, with a vicious battering ram on its tip. I’ve mentioned the trireme before, in my Darkened Ages post. It was a mighty weapon, but it had its limitations; it was strictly a coastal vessel, which had to make landfall every night to restock with food and water. Also, very expensive. At its aforementioned height, Athens could only build three or four triremes per year. Usually this was done by selecting one of the city’s richest citizens for the “honor” of funding it, in the form of a charitable endowment called a liturgy (lit. “work for the people”; also an apt term for our religious service, but one wonders exactly how the term got transferred!).
Anyway, suppose you were to go to one of Athens’s busiest shipyards and tell them that, at some point in the past, a man and his three sons, possibly assisted by their wives, had built a ship three times the length of a trireme, and far wider–a boat the size of a modern American football field. That these men had then loaded down said ship with massive amounts of heavy cargo–live animals, and plenty of fodder–and kept it afloat through forty days of nonstop storm conditions, plus an indeterminate period of calm afterwards. Continue reading