Ancient and modern

The ancient Greek ship that was too big for any harbour

21 May 2022

9:00 AM

21 May 2022

9:00 AM

The biggest cruise ship yet builthas just been launched, but in like-for-like terms, it comes nowhere near the Syracusia,built c. 240 bc on theorders of the Sicilian tyrant Hiero II. A small ancient Greek freighter mightbe about 45ft long, a trireme 120ft, a large merchantman 130ft. The Syracusiawas nearly three times longer, constructed out of enough material to build 60triremes.

It had three floors. The lowest contained the cargo. On thesecond were the 30 cabins, covered in multicoloured mosaics telling the storyof Homer’s Iliad. The cooks’ galley came complete with a seawaterfish-tank, with a 20,000-gallon freshwater cistern in the bow. The top levelfeatured a gymnasium, promenades, gardens of ivy, grapevines, lilies and otherplants, all watered, and a shrine to Aphrodite, paved with agate; its wallswere panelled with cypress, ivory and cedar. Next to that was a library, and abathroom with three bronze tubs and a 50-gallon washstand. Archimedes, it issaid, designed the bilge-pump, invented the windlass in order to launch it and(among many other defensive armaments on its three huge turrets) a catapultwhich could throw stones weighing 180lb and javelins.

But it certainly was not designed for cruising. Greeks werenot stupid enough to want holidays on unpredictable seas. It was a cargo ship,carrying (on one calculation) 1,500 tons of wheat, 400 tons of salt fish, 403tons of wool and 403 tons of other merchandise. But unhappily for Hiero, it wasfar too big for any harbour, so he renamed it Alexandris (‘LadyAlexandria’) and donated it to his friend Ptolemy III, the Egyptian pharaoh.There it sailed – never to be heard of again.

Perhaps inspired by this, the Roman emperor Caligula (d. ad 41) did build two luxuriouslyequipped barges for cruising (and, presumably, orgies) on Lake Nemi, bothroughly 240ft by 70ft, with super-structures. They did not survive his reign.They were recovered in 1932 when the lake had been drained, but were destroyedby fire in the second world war.

Fabulous – or follies? The ancients, too, debated thequestion.

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