Saturday 3 October 2020

Talking Athenian Oarsmen 2500 years after Salamis


It’s 2,500 years since the Greek fleet, led by the Athenians, defeated Xerxes’ Armada off the island of Salamis, in one of several battles that kept mainland Greece out of the Persian Empire and launched democratic Athens’ 75-year seapower-based empire. I’m speaking at a rather splendid virtual conference starting today of which the President of the Hellenic Republic no less,  Katerina Sakellaropoulou, is patron. Other speakers include such heavyweight Greek historians as Josh Ober and Paul Cartledge, with a male/female ratio sadly typical of such events (32:4).

In my paper I ask why there is so little recognition in classical Athenian art that Athenian power was based on the millions of oar-strokes made by her large class of professional oarsmen, many of whom lived in the harbour area of the Piraeus or on Salamis island itself. Their champion was Pericles, yet you could never tell from the sculptures of the Acropolis temples he commissioned that the sovereign power lay with the democratic majority of lower-class rowers, rather than with wealthier hoplites or cavalrymen.

There were, however, subcutaneous compliments to seapower in the overall design of the Acropolis experience. When visitors enter the Propylaea from the east, they can see the mountains in the centre of the island of Salamis, but when they exit, almost all the island comes come within their sightline. The massive statue of Athena in hoplite gear, later named Athena Promachos, stood thirty feet high between the Propylaea and the Parthenon. She was set up there in 456 BCE, and commemorated the land battle of Marathon. But Pausanias pointed out that she speaks loud to sailors, since she served as a seamark, helping ships to steer towards her city (1.28.2). 

Nike with aphlasta

A very few artefacts refer to maritime warfare. Two wine cups have personifications of Salamis painted on them, with her name inscribed. Amongst the smaller Acropolis fragments, one shows a male figure holding an aphlaston (the beak of a conquered ship), being crowned by either Athena or Victory (Nike). A tiny votive shield shows a beautiful Nike with an aphlaston in each hand. Another Nike of around the same date, with relief, holds an aphlaston too.Two larger vases made in Athens portray Athena or Poseidon wielding an aphlaston.  But these are slim pickings, perhaps used in private symposia or individual dedications.

Athena holds aphlaston

The visual record would therefore give us little suggestion of the millions of oar-strokes made by Athenians during the imperial period, carefully synchronised by the keleustēs or boatswain and the penetrating rhythm of the reeded pipe called the aulos. But in five of Aristophanes’ plays, we have intense discussion of rowing affairs, designed to flatter the working-class majority in the audience that Aristophanes needed to applaud if he were to win the drama competition. 

Salamis Personified

It is from comedy that we even know what the orders given by the keleustēs sounded like (ōop), and the antiphonal responses of the oarsmen (appapai) In one of the Athenian naval inscriptions that makes me tingle with time-travelling excitement, we can even learn the names of these important ship-crew members in about 410 BCE: one boatswain was Charias of Acharnae, and his pipe-player was a man from Siphnos island by name of Sogenes.

My own involvement with rowing consists of little more than circling the lake in the University Park at Nottingham in a canoe in about 1970. But those amazing Athenian oarsmen, thanks to Aristophanes, can still speak loud to us of their skill, expertise, and camaraderie.

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