I recently finished reading Barry Strauss’ The Battle of Salamis, which is an enthralling account of the epic naval encounter between the Hellenic League of Athenian, Spartan and other Grecian city-state navies and the Persian forces under the command of King Xerxes. Strauss devotes considerable attention to describing the trireme, which was the standard battleship of the day.
In the ancient world, sea-faring was accomplished in one of two ways- by the power of wind, or by the power of muscle. Warships, for the most part, employed the latter. The triremes that were used in the battle of Salamis by both forces get their name from the number of rows of oarsman in the lower decks. Three levels of oarsman (trireme means ‘three-oarer’) combined to power the trireme, with each row’s length of oar extending further out than the lower levels.
A trireme was made of wood, and usually extended 130 feet or so in length. They were built for speed, so they were fairly narrow- only about 18-20 weet wide, which made them fast but also extremely fragile. Thus, triremes would usually avoid the open sea and hug the coasts as they travelled from place to place, as sudden storms could quickly devastate a fleet. (Indeed, part of the reason that the Greeks were successful at Salamis is that prior to the engagement at least a third of Xerxes’ fleet had been lost to a storm. Despite this setback, the Persian fleet still outnumbered the Greeks 2 to 1 at Salamis.)
Since triremes were built for speed, they had to maximize the space for the crew. A triremes crew generally consisted of about 200: 170 oarsman, 10 marines, 4 archers, various petty officers and seaman, a captain and the helmsman or pilot.[1. Barry Strauss, The Battle of Salamis, p.xviii] Although the crew was this large, only the marines and archers were armed, since armor and weapons are heavy. Some ships were equipped with bulwarks to help keep the marines and archers from falling off during tight turns, ramming actions and rough seas; however, bulwarks added weight which reduced speed, so there was a very precise calculus involved. Needless to say, communication and cooperation were a matter of life and death.
The main tactic of the trireme was ramming, accomplished by a battering ram which extended 7 feet or so beyond the prow of the ship. The captain would order the trireme to ramming speed while the helmsman steered the ship towards its target.
Once the ramming had occurred, the tactic was to immediately reverse course so as to not allow the enemy a chance to counter-attack either with its own ramming or with its archers. The first ramming was rarely the killer stroke- while triremes were fragile as ships go, they were also made to take abuse in war. A successful ramming might kill a few of the oarsman and dislodge some of the crew on deck, but its strategic value lay in a number of things. First, the enemy ship would be momentarily paralyzed. If the crew was sufficiently caught of balance, there might be a chance to back up and ram again. Secondly, the battered ship might become water-logged. Such an occurrence might not prove to be fatal since the oarsman could bail water, but that would distract from their rowing, and in the heat of battle every second, every stroke mattered. Thirdly, if a ship became sufficiently paralyzed, one could then do a boarding action. The ship would pull alongside (or perhaps, as happened at Salamis, ram and become lodged in the enemy ship) and then the marines would board and begin to fight, which became known as the ‘law of hands.'[2. Barry Strauss, The Battle of Salamis, p.67] Rarely would the marines slaughter the entire crew, as they might abandon ship and swim for safety; this, however, gave the archers easy targets, and so abandoning ship was not necessarily a better option.
Of all the crew members, none was more important than the helmsman. A good helmsman could prove the difference between victory and death. In the straights of Salamis, competent helmsman led the Hellenic forces to victory over their Persian foes. The Persian navy (which, in all actuality, had no Persian ships but was a mixture of Egyptian, Ionian, and Phoenician ships as well as a host of other nationalities) had the Greeks outnumbered nearly two to one, and had them surrounded, for all intents and purposes. The Persian navy was also lighter and faster. However, Themistocles, the Athenian admiral who concocted the strategy for the defense of Salamis, was able to use this against them. Knowing that the winds that racked the straights of Salamis would buffet the Persian fleet more than the heavier Greek ships, the Greek fleet waited until the opportune time to begin their offensive. In this battle, the Greeks used the Persian navy’s numbers against them. Since there were so many ships, the Persian fleet quickly became disorganized, and often ran into each other as often as being rammed by enemy ships. (Indeed, one captained by Queen Artemsia intentionally rammed an ally to escape being pummeled by a Greek ship.)[3. Barry Strauss, The Battle of Salamis, p.181] Additionally, as the field of battle, so to speak, was so crowded, the speed and agility advantage held by the Persian fleet was negated and even turned against it by the force of the winds and waves.
In such a scenario, Greek helmsman were able to pilot their heavier ships more successfully and score a surprising number of kills. Triremes used two side rudders to pilot the craft, which were incredibly efficient.[4. Barry Strauss, The Battle of Salamis, p.181] The rudders were not fixed- they had to be lowered and raised according to the tactic being used. If the rudders were in the water, they increased drag which reduced speed, and even a small reduction of speed could prove fatal in the midst of battle. Of course, at the same time the enemy ship was conducting its own maneuvers, so navigation was a combination of intuition, strategy and a little bit of luck. For a successful ship that not only survived but emerged victorious, all components had to be functioning as one, less as a machine of war and more a living, breathing body.
As I was reading this book, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the words St. James has in his epistle about the power of the tongue:
Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways.
Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.
When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.[5. James 3:1-6, NIV]
When we think of boats in the modern world, we usually think of the personal craft that one might take to the lake. We fill the engine up with gas, turn a key and a steering wheel, and one can navigate with relative ease. However, in James’ day a boat would still have been powered by the same means as the ships at Salamis: either by wind (as James describes) or by oar. For the triremes, having the entire ship functioning as one was critical- the oarsman had to row in unity, (sometimes by a chant of O opop, O opop)[6. Barry Strauss, The Battle of Salamis, p.xx] the marines and archers had to be aware of their surroundings and the actions about to be taken, the captain had to be aware of his targets and any approaching enemy vessels, and the helmsman had to navigate with utmost precision; every decision had to occur in a split-second and had to be accurate. For the trireme crew, if any part was out of sync it could very well mean the doom of the ship.
Nor was James the only ancient writer to understand or muse about the importance of the helmsman. Lucian of Samosata describes a merchant vessel in similar terms:
I say though, what a size that ship was! 180 feet long, the man said, and something over a quarter of that in width; and from deck to keel, the maximum depth, through the hold, feet. And then the height of the mast with its huge yard; and what a forestay it takes to hold it! And the lofty stern with its gradual curve, and its gilded beak, balanced at the other end by the long rising sweep of the prow, and the figures of her name-goddess, Isis, on either side. As to the other ornamental details, the paintings and the scarlet topsail, I was struck more by the anchors and the capstans and the windlasses, and the stern cabins. The crew was like a small army. And they were saying she carried as much corn as would feed every soul in Attica for a year. And all depends for its safety on one little old atomy of a man, who controls that great rudder with a mere broomstick of a tiller! He was pointed out to me; Heron was his name, I think; a woolly-pated fellow, half-bald.[7. Lucian, The Ship: Or, The Wishes]
James considers the tongue to be the rudder of the person- how you speak determines the course of your life and your faith. It can bring goodness and virtue and blessing, or it can end in disaster. As the pilot of a ship determines whether or not it remains intact and survives the buffets of the wind and waves, so our words can bring us safely to harbor or shipwreck us upon the rocks. (St. Luke, his Greek blood pulsing with the love of the sea, describes a helmsman’s poor decision that led to shipwreck for him and Paul in Acts 27.)
No doubt James has in mind Jesus’ words that ‘from the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.’ However, he may also be thinking of the writing of another Jesus, Jesus ben Sirach, who wrote this of the tongue:
The whisperer and the double tongue is accursed: for he has troubled many that were at peace. The tongue of a third person has disquieted many, and scattered them from nation to nation. It has destroyed the strong cities of the rich, and has overthrown the houses of great men. It has cut in pieces the forces of people, and undone strong nations. The tongue of a third person has cast out valiant women, and deprived them of their labours. He that hearkens to it, shall never have rest, neither shall he have a friend in whom he may repose. The stroke of a whip makes a blue mark: but the stroke of the tongue will break the bones. Many have fallen by the edge of the sword, but not so many as have perished by their own tongue.
Blessed is he that is defended from a wicked tongue, that has not passed into the wrath thereof, and that has not drawn the yoke thereof, and has not been bound in its bands. For its yoke is a yoke of iron: and its bands are bands of brass. The death thereof is a most evil death: and hell is preferable to it. Its continuance shall not be for a long time, but it shall possess the ways of the unjust: and the just shall not be burnt with its flame. They that forsake God shall fall into it, and it shall burn in them, and shall not be quenched, and it shall be sent upon them as a lion, and as a leopard it shall tear them. Hedge in your ears with thorns, hear not a wicked tongue, and make doors and bars to your mouth. Melt down your gold and silver, and make a balance for your words, and a just bridle for your mouth:
And take heed lest you slip with your tongue, and fall in the sight of your enemies who lie in wait for you, and your fall be incurable unto death.[8. Sirach 28:15-30, newadvent.org]
For the helmsman of the ships at Salamis, one decision could be the difference between life and death. James urges us to consider that our tongues hold the same dreadful power, and so to choose our words wisely, no matter what the situation. As he will go on to say:
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.[9. James 3:13-17 NIV]
Jesus, Savior, pilot me
Over life’s tempestuous sea;
Unknown waves before me roll,
Hiding rock and treacherous shoal.
Chart and compass come from Thee;
Jesus, Savior, pilot me.