Reviewed By: Alistair Forrest, author of historical fiction
My fascination with a) ships and sea warfare and b) ancient history led me to believe that I had a good grasp of the way early ships were built and performed - useful in my own writing. But as is often the case, I quickly discovered how frugal that knowledge was as I read McGrail's excellent exposition.
The author covers his subject in three main sections: Concepts and Techniques, The Mediterranean and Atlantic Europe. The techniques of early boat-building run throughout as the story is told, how log raft and hollowed log gave rise to different techniques of planking while hide boats, particularly on inland waters, developed in parallel. The latter two sections reveal the different seagoing conditions of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic coast, with the interesting common thread of Caesar's observations in his annals concerning NW Europe.
The techniques involved, especially with plank fastenings, are superbly illustrated showing "sewn" or lashing techniques, mortise and tenon plank fastening, wooden ("treenails") pegging, clenched iron nails and clamps, and caulking methods. How planks were made and then constructed, the development of sail, oar and rudder, together with flotation, steerage and navigation, are covered in the first section but then developed in more detail in both the Mediterranean and Atlantic sections.
For those engrossed in the "speed v size" debate as illustrated by Antony and Cleopatra's disaster in the Battle of Actium (31BC), McGrail has covered the naval science with a superb discussion on hull shape, size, draft and propulsion to show how Agrippa's fleet, for example, would always be superior in the heat of battle. Examples of which abound throughout the history of naval warfare.
This section gives insight into the trade routes employed and the conditions that gave the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans their seafaring fame. There are several written sources, notably Homer. The Odyssey describes early Greek vessels as constructed of alder, poplar and fir (omitting cedar and oak, for example) but importantly describes locked mortise and tenon fastening, while in the Iliad there is a clear reference to "sewn" fastenings as the cords in the Greek ships beached at Troy had rotted.
Discussion of different types of vessel centres on Herodotus - 30- and 50-oar galleys used for settlement voyages, broad-beamed merchant ships and fighting galleys with rams. Fifty-oared penteconters were the mainstay of Greek shipping with the ability, apparently, to tack seven points off the wind. I found the account of different types of ram illuminating - a pointed single ram for piercing a hull, a blunt ram not to pierce so much as loosen sewn planking, and the trident for maximum damage.
Biremes (double ranked oars) of the sixth and fifth centuries BC gave rise to the Triremes recorded by Herodotus and Thucydides. This allows McGrail to focus on the 1980s reconstruction of Olympias, illustrated with Dr John Coates' plans and photographs of the Trireme under oar and sail. She was based on conjecture as much as archaeological evidence of course, but nonetheless impressive!
Naturally, the Phoenicians, as the "rulers of the sea", are given prominence. Strabo eulogised their navigational expertise, endorsed by Pliny. The Phoenician mastery is illustrated with reference to Ursa Minor's orbit of the celestial pole to give a truer north, resulting in the constellation becoming known in the Classical world as "Phoinike". Furthermore, mortise and tenon joints were called coagmenta punicana by the Romans - "Phoenician joints".
However, it was in Roman times that the mortise and tenon joint spread beyond the Mediterranean, as far as Ireland in the West and eastwards to Vietnam (the next McGrail book covers this in more detail). So a John Cleese of Life of Brian times might well have been given the reply to his question "What have the Romans done for us?" - "Better ships!"
You may be aware that Caesar had high praise for the ships of the Veneti of western France. They were more seaworthy and better suited to the seas of the region - and therefore a better prospect for transporting troops to Britannia and returning cargoes of booty!
McGrail's study gathers pace with the development of shipping in NW Europe; he is excellent on cargo ships including several reconstructions, and the rise of the "cog" which probably emerged after King Alfred's decree that he wanted ships that were neither Frisian nor Danish in design (AD 879). These evolved into the typical ship of the next 400 years. A late example is the image on the Seal of Stralsund (1329) with its straight, raked bow and stern posts, deep clinker-built hull, castles bow and stern, centre-line rudder and a single sail stepped nearer bow than midship.
Thereafter, Dias and da Gama explored the route to India and Columbus the Americas in more advanced vessels. But the Vikings had already done the latter without chart, compass or sand-glass!
Alistair Forrest is a magazine editor and author of historical fiction.
Click Here for More and to Purchase