Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Themistocles & The Trireme

In this scene, a young Themistocles has wandered away from his family and makes his way to the harbor of Pherelon, where he meets Mnesiphilus and Dionysus of Phocea, men who will have a huge impact on him later in the story. Themistocles has just boarded Dionysus' trireme The Siren and is allowed to tour the ship. This particular section is crucial because it introduces both Themistocles and the reader to the vastly important trireme, the war vessel that would be the deciding factor in the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE. Enjoy!

I wandered the deck from one end to the other, inspecting everything I saw. I sat on the captain's chair, inspected each spoke of the steering wheel, attempted to row the large pair of oars alongside it (they were too big and kept going in different directions), puzzled over the two strange platforms attached to the sides of the ship and marveled at the bronze ram and it's three tiered edges. I made my way down beneath the deck, wrinkling my nose as the pungent smell of pine grew heavy in the air. Early morning light streamed in through the open spaces near the rowers' benches, allowing me to take note of a large pile of stones sitting on the ship's bottom and a series of taunt ropes that stretched from one end of the haul to the other. I poked around the area where the rowing oars and lattices were kept and made a note of everything I liked, as well as things that I felt could be improved. Satisfied I had seen all there was to see, I made my way back onto the deck.

When I returned the men were by the captain's chair in serious discussion. Mnes said something I did not catch, and the Phocean snorted contemptuously. “No offense to you Citizen, but this land of yours is nothing but rocks, cliffs, goats, grapes and figs. There is no gold and little silver. There is no abundance of mullosks for casting dye, no exotic animals or flowers or spices, and no room for palaces and parks. No, I wouldn’t worry about the Medes coming here. It is said the Great King casts his eye north towards Scythia, where the threat to his kingdom’s border is very real.”

“My inspection is finished,” I interrupted, walking over to them. Dionysius chuckled down at me and patted the wooden chair next to him. “Have a seat, Themistocles, and tell us what you think of my ship. Does she meet with your approval?” I scooted onto the solid pine, my feet dangling a good way above the deck. I was a bit nervous. I did not want to insult the captain, but…finally, I took a deep breath and began my report.

“I think I like it. But I noticed it has some things that are wrong with it.” The captain raised an eyebrow. “Wrong?” I ticked off the numerous errors with my fingers. “Well, I saw the oars were of different size. So are the windows. And the ship’s cheeks are all puffy and the eyes look mean. The mast is missing too.” That bothered me; how was I to escape the Sirens’ call if I had no way to be tied to the ship? “Oh. And there are ropes and rocks on the bottom. That's silly. And I don’t like the smell. It smells like a pine tree. I want my ship to smell like the sea.” Dionysius began to laugh but I was not finished. “ And the ram looks strange. It has three beaks, like a funny goose. And those two big oars near the wheel don’t need to be there. And why is this chair at the back and not the front?” “Sharp as a Scythian razor, this one is!” the captain chortled and bent down to ruffle my hair. Mnes merely frowned. “You don’t miss much, do you Themistocles?” “The trireme is broken,” I insisted. Dionysius shook his head. “Actually, the ship is in perfect condition, Navarch. All those things are supposed to be the way they are." He gestured around the ship as he explained.

"You see, the two big oars are to help steer, and the captain’s chair allows allows you to see the whole length of the ship and what the men are doing. You have to keep an eye on them.” That was true; Odysseus had very much to restrain his own men. “ The ram has three levels in order to do the most damage to another ship by cutting through its hull, and it helps the prow slice through the waves so water doesn’t get inside the ship. The port holes and oars are different sizes because the ship is not the same size and length from stem to stern nor are the rowers on the same level. See how it narrows at the ends? The oars must be longer there to reach the water. ” “Oh.” “The ship is very light—you need only a hundred or so men to carry it up and down the shore, but it is vulnerable in a storm, so the ropes are there to hold the ship together nice and tight. Otherwise the waves will break it apart." "Like Odysseus' ship when Poseidon sent a big storm," I concluded. "Exactly. Now, the eyes are important because they look for safe passage upon the waves, and in war they are meant to frighten the enemy. The cheeks are actually the outer part of the trireme where the men on top row. As for the mast and sails, they are onshore getting repairs. We were hit by a sudden storm not long ago. But know this, Navarch: in battle we leave them on the beach because a mast and sail are useless in a fight unless you plan to run away. Only cowards take their main sail into a battle.” I nodded. That made sense. “As for the smell, that is pine pitch. It helps keep water and ship worms out." I blinked. "Worms?" "Strange to hear I know. Yet it's true. Worms can eat through the wood and cause terrible damage to the ship. At any rate Navarch, take care of her and The Siren will serve for years to come.” I was pleased to hear it.

“I want to buy your ship. I have ten obols. You can have eight." The adults hooted at that. I scowled, sensing they were mocking me. "A trireme costs far more than that, I'm afraid," Dionysius told me between laughs. "Besides, you still need to become navarch. You are not quite in command yet." "How can I become a Navarch then?” Mnes answered that one.

"You must become a great military man and a great man of the polis. A man of many good words and a knack for leadership.” “And anyone can do this?” “It depends on your status as a citizen, Themistocles,” Mnes said slowly, eyeing my hair. “Do you know your class?” “My class? “Is your father a knight? A noble? Can you name your tribe?” “The Leontid.” Mnes brightened. “Ah. Well then. It’s possible you can become a great man. The Leontid are an ancient tribe as I recall, if no longer powerful. Even if money is a problem a good marriage can solve that. By the way, how old are you now, Themistocles?” “Seven.” “Then you are just starting your education?” “I know how to spell my name.” Indeed I did—just the other day I had scratched out the name Exekias on a vase and wrote my own. For reasons I did not understand my step-mother had been furious. Mnes tapped a finger against his lips, peering at me carefully. Finally he nodded. “Would you like to learn how to be a good speaker? So that one day you can lead men and maybe one day be a Navarch?” “And have my own ship?” “If you wish.” "And I can start learning now?" Mnes laughed. "Well, first you need to ask your father for permission. I dare say that will take some persuasion as sophists are not always a popular group." "But you could convince him, right?"

"That is the nature of what I do. To speak wise words and convince men to listen to them. Come along, then. You shall have your first lesson of the day: how to open up men's minds when they are closed."

*This is actually an older draft of this particular chapter. It has since been re-edited.