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Black-figure vase showing a sailing ship with rowers at the oars - Greek ships

Greek ships: A sailing ship with rowers at the oars

Early Greek sailing

Because Greece was so mountainous, and every place in Greece was so close to the sea, a lot of people in Greece used boats to get from one place to another, even starting as early as the Stone Age, when people sailed to the islands to get obsidian, and also went out in boats to catch tuna fish.

Earlier history of boats
Greece in the Stone Age
All our Ancient Greece articles

Probably the very first people who came to Greece already knew how to use boats – they may even have come to Greece from West Asia in small wooden boats.

Sailors setting sail on a Greek warship - Greek ships

Sailors setting sail on a Greek warship

Fishing, trade, and piracy

Greek people used boats to fish, and to trade with other places, and also to sail to other cities and fight them and take their stuff. Sometimes the Greeks hired out their ships to fight for other countries, too. Sometimes they fought as pirates, capturing other people’s trading ships.

Mercenary soldiers
History of fishing
The Greek economy

Greek sailors had different kinds of boats for all these things – small rowboats for fishing, and big trading ships, and fast warships.

(More about Greek cargo ships)

By the 600s BC, the Greeks were among the best sailors in the Mediterranean Sea (along with the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians).

More about Phoenician sailing
Carthage and North Africa

Greek stories about sailing

Exekias: Dionysos turning a ship into vines (Athens, ca. 530 BC)

Exekias: Dionysos turning a ship into vines (Athens, ca. 530 BC)

Because the Greeks spent a lot of time sailing, they told a lot of stories about sailing and the dangers of being out in boats. The Greek poet Homer told the story of Odysseus, who was shipwrecked on his way home from Troy.

Homer’s Odyssey
Damon and Pythias
Arion and the dolphins
Dionysos and pirates

Greek people told the story of Pythias, who was shipwrecked on his way to save his friend Damon. They told the story of Arion, who was attacked by pirates and saved by dolphins. They told about Dionysos, who turned the pirates themselves into dolphins.

Sails and enslaved rowers

Like other people at this time, Greek ship-builders built their ships from the outside in, first the hull and then the insides. They used only one big square sail, made of coarse linen cloth.

More about linen cloth
Women and cloth-making

Sailors rowing trading ships (Athens ca. 550 BC)

Sailors rowing trading ships (Athens ca. 550 BC)

There were some improvements in sails by the time of Aristotle in the 300s BC. Aristotle seems to say that sometimes sailors squeezed down one side of the sail, the way you can squeeze one end of your window blinds, in order to catch the wind.

When even that didn’t catch enough wind, Greek captains forced slaves to row their ships with wooden oars.

More about ancient Greek slavery

Invention of the astrolabe: better navigation

An Islamic astrolabe (832 AD)

An Islamic astrolabe (832 AD)

Even though the classical Greeks were great sailors, they didn’t like to go out of sight of land if they could help it. That’s because they didn’t have compasses or astrolabes or any way to tell where they were if they couldn’t see land. Mostly they sailed near land, following the coast around the Mediterranean. That was a long way to go, and it took a long time.

Then about 140 BC, just as the Romans were conquering Greece, Hipparchus of Rhodes invented the astrolabe.

What is an astrolabe?

Learn by doing: Greek Olympics
More about Greek warships
Go on to Roman sailing

Bibliography and further reading about Greek ships and boats:

More about Greek cargo ships
Go on to Roman sailing ships home