Ancient Greek trading ships
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Greek trading ships

drawing of greek trading ship
Reconstruction of the Antikythera trading ship

Many Greek men were traders, who sold things from one place to people who lived someplace else. Greek traders sailed all around the Mediterranean Sea, from Spain to Phoenicia and from Egypt to Italy, and to Greece of course. These traders travelled in cargo ships, that could carry a lot of stuff, even though they didn't go fast like triremes. Even when traders were just carrying things from one Greek town to another, they generally went by sea, because Greece is so mountainous that it is hard to transport things by ox-cart, up and down the mountains.

These cargo ships used both sails and oars to get where they were going. They were not very good at sailing against the wind, and usually tried to sail when the wind would be behind them, so it could push them along. Even with the wind, they could only go about five knots (while warships could go as fast as 14 knots).

In the 500s BC and 400s BC (the Archaic and Classical periods), most of these ships weighed about 150 tons. Later, in the Hellenistic period, people built bigger ships, about 400 tons. These bigger ships - like the one in the picture - sometimes had two or even three masts, so they could carry more sails.

Cargo ships carried a lot of different kinds of things. Often they carried wine, wheat, olive oil, perfume, glass cups and vases, jewelry and clothing, grindstones, and metal tools.

Learn by doing: spend a day on a boat
More about Greek warships

Bibliography and further reading about Greek ships and boats:

Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World, by Lionel Casson (1971).

The Ancient Mariners, by Lionel Casson (2nd edition 1991).

More about Greek warships
Go on to Roman sailing ships
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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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Now that the weather's nice, try some of these outdoor activities! How about bicycle polo, or archery for a Medieval Islam day? Or kite flying or making a compass for a day in Medieval China? How about making a shaduf for a day in Ancient Egypt? Holding an Ancient Greek Olympic Games or a medieval European tournament? Building a Native American wickiup?