wooden model of greek trireme

The Ship that Retrieved Helen of Troy and Invented Democracy

January 27, 2015

wooden model of greek trireme

The boat that invented democracy

I am fascinated by sailing ships and subject to severe seasickness.   So I have to be satisfied with making models.   This one is a scratch-built Greek Trireme, which featured three banks of a total of 170 free-born rowers.   The sails were used merely to move the ships to battle.  As they approached the enemy, the fully articulated masts were lowered into a slot between the banks of rowers.   Under full human power,  the trireme could reach speeds of ten knots, enough to penetrate the hulls of enemy ships with the bronze ram attached to the bow of the ship.   (Backing out so they didn’t stay stuck was tricky.)   They could also and perhaps more frequently did sideswipe the enemy ship, breaking off their oars.   The sail on my model, constructed by Carole out of fabric and thread, is of a Gorgon, a popular figure in Greek mythology.  Translated, gorgon means “dreadful” and her gaze was thought to turn enemies into stone.   It seemed a fitting emblem, although there is no hard evidence that it was ever used on a Greek sail.   Which reminds me, the best depiction of ancient Greek warships (at least of the single bank of rowers kind) I’ve ever seen on film was in the recent movie “Troy.”


But my reason for sharing all this with you is that this is the ship that invented democracy.   It took 170 citizens of the polis (city state) to row the ships and at one point Athens had dozens of them, if not hundreds.   If you’re asking 170 free-born citizens to do the dirty and dangerous work of rowing, especially if you have, let’s say, fifty ships to fill, it follows that those folks might demand to know what they were fighting for.    The aristocrats (i.e.: large landowners) of ancient Greece weren’t dumb  (they invented philosophy) so decided in was in their interests to listen to the concerns of their neighbors, which was tantamount to giving them a vote and which quickly became universal suffrage for male citizens.   And thus democracy was born of a sailor’s complaint.


Modern Greece may be having its problems today, but that doesn’t diminish the contribution they made to Western Civilization.   After all, they also invented literature and architecture.





One Comment

  1. Thomas Cline says:

    The citizen-sailors who volunteered to serve in the U.S. Navy in World War Two (and those who go down to the sea in ships today) are the heirs of those Greek sailors, working on behalf of democracy today.

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