Wednesday, July 18, 2012


William M. Murray, The Age of Titans: the Rise and Fall of the Great Hellenistic Navies. Onassis Series in Hellenic Culture. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. xxvii, 356. ISBN 9780195388640. $45.00.

Reviewed by Janice J. Gabbert, Wright State University (

Version at BMCR home site


This book is intended as an examination of the Hellenistic phenomena of big ships, insofar as the evidence allows. It is at least as valuable for its appendices and notes as for the text, since it is thoroughly documented and includes numerous figures, maps, and tables. The author has a penchant for technical detail and also for statistics, which he knows are not necessarily reliable, although he uses them to the greatest extent possible. The volume contains seven chapters and each will be discussed in turn.

The Introduction, "Understanding the Big Ship Phenomenon," briefly defines the subject and the problems associated with understanding the issue, including the naming of the ships and their configuration.

Chapter 1, "Frontal Ramming and the Development of 'Fours' and 'Fives'" notes the importance of the Athenian siege of Syracuse in 415-413; bigger ships had already been developed by Dionysius I of Syracuse and they became important toward the end of the century, when they were used by both Syracuse and Carthage. Here and elsewhere, Murray emphasizes that these larger ships were primarily useful for ramming other ships and harbor installations, not for boarding or for supporting artillery fire from their decks.

Chapter 2,"Frontal Ramming: Structural Considerations" is a technical discussion of the Athlit Ram, found in 1980 (probably part of a quadrireme) and the remains of Augustus' Victory Monument at Actium, with stone carvings in which ship's rams were apparently placed.

Chapter 3, "The Development of Naval Siege Warfare" is the heart of the book and by far the longest chapter. Murray paraphrases a number of ancient sources and examines the naval activity they describe. He observes that the primary role of an ancient navy was to disrupt the communications and logistics of the besieged. Indeed, this chapter is primarily about siege warfare. Most combat takes place on land. Bigger ships, and more of them, make it more difficult for the besieged to sneak out of the harbor or for reinforcements to sneak in. Artillery could more easily be emplaced on a larger deck, but this was only useful when the ship was in the harbor, near shore.

Chapter 4, "Philo the Byzantine and the Requirements of Naval Siege Warfare" comprises a discussion of Philo (ca. 220 BC), the purpose of his work, and a rough translation and paraphrase of it.

Chapter 5, "Big Ships, Boarding, and Catapults" concludes that the main purpose of the polyremes was ramming; boarding was often unnecessary once the enemy ship had been eliminated from combat. Artillery might be used against land-based installations when the ship was in the harbor, and was rarely used against other ships.

Chapter 6, "The Culmination of the Big Ship Phenomenon" discusses the evidence and the naming problems, and repeats the earlier assertion that these large vessels were intended as floating siege platforms in a harbor. Bigger was necessarily more expensive, and the truly gigantic ships such as the 40-er designed by Ptolemy III and built by his successor, Ptolemy IV, were designed for show. They demonstrated the wealth of the royal builder.

Chapter 7, "The End of the Big Ship Phenomenon" draws the conclusion that the bigger ships were not necessarily more useful, just more expensive to build and man and, in any case, one needed many ships, including smaller ones, to support the big ships. With the rise of Roman power, the big ships were no longer very useful. Ship to ship combat was never as important as besieging a harbor, and the Hellenistic navies became outmoded.. The Romans built some large ships, mostly fours and fives, but preferred to fight on land, as is well-known.

The six Appendices quote or paraphrase the ancient evidence for all the larger ships and for naval artillery, including the work of Philo of Byzantium.

Those looking for definitive descriptions of the big ships will be disappointed; the evidence is not adequate to be certain of anything, as the author frequently reminds the reader. Indeed, this book does not so much provide answers, as it provides the questions, carefully restated and analyzed. As mentioned at the outset of this review, the text, appendices, and notes are so thorough as to make this a useful reference work.

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