The trireme was a fast and maneuverable ship that earned its name from its three rows of oarsmen. It was a natural progression from bireme, which held two rows of oarsmen.
The trireme, however, wasn't simply a bigger is better version of the bireme. The steep angle between each of the three tiers of oarsmen allowed them to dramatically increase the ratio of rowing power to ship size. A trireme held 170 citizen oarsmen (as opposed to slaves, used in some other contemporary navies), 31 in the top file, and 27 each in the middle and lower files. They sat one per oar, spaced approximately 2 cubits (2 feet, 9 inches) apart. The oars varied in length from 13 feet to 13 feet and 8 inches, depending on their placement at the ends or in the middle of the ship.
As Aristophanes pointed out, the advantage of sitting in a higher tier wasn't just a better view; there was no doubt an unpleasant odor in the bowels of the ship on long voyages. At sea, with its square sail unfurled to compliment the rowers, a trireme could maintain a speed of approximately 7.5 knots. However, when stripped down for battle the sail was left ashore, and the highly trained oarsmen supplied all of the propulsion and maneuverability that made these ships deadly.
Sitting just beneath the waterline was the key to the trireme's military purpose: a bronze battering ram weighing over 400 lbs. Under full oar the trireme was a waterborne missile, capable of inflicting fantastic damage on its target, in some cases even shearing another ship in half.
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