Peter Jones

The ancient Greek ship that was too big for any harbour

The ancient Greek ship that was too big for any harbour
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The biggest cruise ship yet built has just been launched, but in like-for-like terms, it comes nowhere near the Syracusia, built c. 240 bc on the orders of the Sicilian tyrant Hiero II. A small ancient Greek freighter might be about 45ft long, a trireme 120ft, a large merchantman 130ft. The Syracusia was nearly three times longer, constructed out of enough material to build 60 triremes.

It had three floors. The lowest contained the cargo. On the second were the 30 cabins, covered in multicoloured mosaics telling the story of Homer’s Iliad. The cooks’ galley came complete with a seawater fish-tank, with a 20,000-gallon freshwater cistern in the bow. The top level featured a gymnasium, promenades, gardens of ivy, grapevines, lilies and other plants, all watered, and a shrine to Aphrodite, paved with agate; its walls were panelled with cypress, ivory and cedar. Next to that was a library, and a bathroom with three bronze tubs and a 50-gallon washstand. Archimedes, it is said, designed the bilge-pump, invented the windlass in order to launch it and (among many other defensive armaments on its three huge turrets) a catapult which could throw stones weighing 180lb and javelins.

But it certainly was not designed for cruising. Greeks were not stupid enough to want holidays on unpredictable seas. It was a cargo ship, carrying (on one calculation) 1,500 tons of wheat, 400 tons of salt fish, 403 tons of wool and 403 tons of other merchandise. But unhappily for Hiero, it was far too big for any harbour, so he renamed it Alexandris (‘Lady Alexandria’) and donated it to his friend Ptolemy III, the Egyptian pharaoh. There it sailed – never to be heard of again.

Perhaps inspired by this, the Roman emperor Caligula (d. ad 41) did build two luxuriously equipped barges for cruising (and, presumably, orgies) on Lake Nemi, both roughly 240ft by 70ft, with super-structures. They did not survive his reign. They were recovered in 1932 when the lake had been drained, but were destroyed by fire in the second world war.

Fabulous – or follies? The ancients, too, debated the question.