The Role of Warships
After 30 years of research, historian Bill Murray uncovers new perspectives on ancient naval warfare.
TAMPA, Fla. (May 8, 2012) – Shipping and Greek culture connect University of South Florida Professor William Murray and Aristotle Onassis, a legendary titan in the shipping industry – a connection born of Murray’s lifelong love of sailing and the Onassis legacy.
More than three decades of research about some of the world’s oldest ships made Murray the perfect choice to launch a new book series sponsored by the prestigious Onassis Foundation in cooperation with Oxford University Press. The new Onassis Series in Hellenic Culture features books on topics presented in the Foundation’s highly-respected University Seminar Program, which selected Murray as a professor in 2007.
Others selected for the series include Professors Alain Bresson, University of Chicago; Simon Goldhill, University of Cambridge; Edith Hall, University of London; Mary Lefkowitz, Wellesley College; Henry Maguire, Johns Hopkins University; Claudia Rapp, UCLA; and Tim Whitmarsh from Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Each author is an eminent authority on an aspect of Hellenic or Byzantine history or culture.
In March, Murray introduced the first volume of this new series to a standing-room only audience in the Atrium of the Olympic Cultural Center in Manhattan. His groundbreaking book, The Age of the Titans: The Rise and Fall of the Great Hellenistic Navies, tells the story of the world’s first naval arms race. He explains, using fascinating new insights, how powerful kings built warships that were longer than football fields and crewed by thousands of men.
Murray, The Mary and Gus Stathis Professor of Greek History, in the Department of History at USF, always tries to marry archaeology with history, particularly as concerns the sea and maritime culture. That pursuit has led him to numerous archeological projects in Greece, Israel and Turkey, on land and underwater.
Having immersed himself in examining the artifacts and details of life from ancient Greece and Rome, Murray speaks with great authority. His love of the subject infuses his descriptions of the period with the kind of enthusiasm that makes his students feel he’s reporting from experience.
He’s particularly fascinated by the warships. Though none have survived in their entirety, shipwrecks have provided important pieces of evidence to support descriptions recorded from that era.
“We know that the largest weighed hundreds of tons and were crewed by more than a thousand men,” Murray said. “An important feature was the ship’s bow ram, a large bronze warhead of extraordinary workmanship and technical sophistication.”
He traces the roots of the naval arms race to slightly before 400 BC, when warships were first used to support siege warfare, attacking one another in prow-to-prow collisions. The game changer came in 332 BC.
“When Alexander used his navy to attack the island city of Tyre, it was as if he dropped an atomic bomb,” Murray said. “He used ships fitted with artillery and siege machinery to pound the city walls and break through the harbor defenses in ways that astounded both his friends and enemies. Thereafter, naval warfare was never the same.
“Alexander owed his success to his father Philip II, who had put together an ‘army corps of engineers’ whose R&D efforts jump-started the evolution to enormous vessels armed at the bow with ponderous bronze rams, driven by hundreds of oarsmen seated on multiple levels.”
When asked what drove such military research, Murray said, “policymakers and need. Phillip challenged his engineers to shorten his sieges of coastal cities and they responded by drawing up the plans that his son put into practice at Tyre. Alexander’s use of warships as integral parts of a new naval siege unit was revolutionary.”
Past researchers have focused their efforts on the big ships themselves – theorizing how they were rowed – but Murray wanted to know the answer to another question, namely, “what were big ships built to achieve?”
To get the answer, he combed through ancient texts and became more and more convinced that concrete strategic objectives drove the invention and development of larger than normal galleys. “The answer was so simple,” he said, “I wondered why no one else had come up with it before. The big ships were developed to attack and defend coastal cities – to literally bash through physical barriers strung across harbor mouths – and not to participate in duels with other big ships in set naval battles.”
A chance string of discoveries by others – one in 1913, another in 1980 – followed by a few “eureka” moments of his own started Murray on this line of reasoning.
While a graduate student at the American School of Classical Studies in Greece, he saw the partially excavated, overgrown weed-filled site of an ancient victory monument. It had been built by Augustus to commemorate his victory over Anthony and Cleopatra in the famous Actian War. More than 200,000 troops and 800 ships are said to have taken part in that historic fight for control of the Roman Empire.
“Overlooking the battle zone, on the side of a hill where Augustus had pitched his tent, one can still see the ghostly outlines of warship rams preserved in the stone facade of the monument,” Murray said.
When he first saw the site in 1973, he recognized its importance but was unable to explain how oddly shaped holes in the facade held bronze warheads from the enemy fleet. The key was pulled from the sea seven years later in 1980, when an intact warship ram was found near Haifa, Israel.
“At the time, I was helping to excavate Herod’s harbor at Caesarea,” Murray said, “and someone casually suggested I hop on the bus up to Haifa to see what they’d found.” Murray smiled as he recalled the moment when he first saw what is now known as the Athlit Ram. “Someone threw a switch on the light bulb in my head and I experienced the biggest eureka moment of my professional life.” Thereafter he knew how the rams were mounted in the peculiar holes on Augustus’ victory monument.
Murray was now certain that the wall displayed 37 warheads cut by the victor from the bows of Antony’s and Cleopatra’s biggest ships. “The number surely represented a tithe or 10 percent dedication from the 370 warships that Augustus captured during the war,” Murray explained.
The holes also exhibited a range of sizes, and all held much larger rams than the one from Israel, which weighed half a ton.
“Anthony and Cleopatra clearly revived the big ship phenomenon after a period when big ships were being used less and less, just as the ancient histories tell us,” Murray said. “And their defeat at Actium spelled the end of an era in naval history.”
Faced with the size, weight, and raw power these rams represented, Murray began to question old theories and formulate new answers. The ram from Israel and the enormous warheads from Actium were telling a new story and Murray wanted to piece it together.
He read all he could about ancient warships, known by different names that referred to their relative oar power – the most popular being “threes,” “fours,” and “fives,” the smallest being “ones,” the largest a “forty.” Murray gathered the evidence for their different crew sizes, the armaments they carried, and their characteristics in battle. But he wanted to know more. He began to question a lot of assumptions and presumptions historians had made up to this point.
Hints and clues would come from some of history’s most colorful leading characters: not only Alexander the Great, and his father Phillip II of Macedon, but also the generals who fought for his empire after he died in 323. These included men like Antigonus “One Eye,” Demetrius “The Besieger of Cities,” and a long line of Ptolemies, including Cleopatra VII and her Roman ally Marcus Antonius.
The precise plans of these last two have been the subject of speculation since the period of their infamous love affair and war with Augustus Caesar, then known as Octavian.
Dio Cassius, a Greek historian who lived two centuries after their defeat, wrote that the pair intended to invade Italy and oust Octavian and his men from power. Later historians thought Cassius was speculating. Murray’s conclusions about big ship navies and their uses, however, support Dio’s assertion and challenge long-held assumptions about the pair’s ultimate objectives.
“When I started the book, I did not intend to say anything new about Actium, but when I got to this point of the narrative, the big ships made no sense unless Antony and Cleopatra really planned to invade Italy. Otherwise, we must conclude they were ignorant of three centuries of naval history.”
But this was only part of the story. Murray was not entirely satisfied with historians’ other assumptions about how big ships were used in battle.
“Most everyone agrees that the smaller ships relied on their light weight and superior maneuverability to attack their enemies with ram strikes. But monstrous rams and the big ships they armed must have been used for purposes other than combat in set naval battles.”
It was an ancient handbook that became the lynchpin of his new way of looking at things – the writings of an ancient ‘military consultant’ – Philo of Byzantium. His Compendium of Mechanics provided Murray with the “how-to” book on conducting sieges of coastal cities during the height of the big ship era. It supports Murray’s new assertion that yesterday’s navies used their bow rams not only on other ships but on harbor fortifications – a new idea at the core of Murray’s new book.
Long troubled by the fact that no other scholar came to this conclusion before, he found that Philo’s work was largely unreadable prior to 1920. As a result the document was ignored by 19th and 20th century scholars who formulated the current models of naval power. Thereafter, when a readable text of Philo was published, no one noticed his advice about using big ships to attack cities. This was true until Murray read the text in 1996 and was rewarded with a goldmine of information about the uses of big ships in siege warfare.
According to Murray, much remains to be done. In 2009, for example, he enlisted the help of USF’s Alliance for Integrated Spatial Technologies (AIST) who scanned the Actium Victory Monument with 3D laser scanners.
Working from these data, Murray and a team of computer modelers are creating “virtual rams” to fit the complex holes of the monument.
“With the scan data, we can do some ‘reverse’ engineering to recreate not only the rams, but also the timbers of each warship’s bow,” he said.
The ultimate goal? To conduct crash tests on the different sizes of ships they produce.
Murray eventually hopes to simulate battle maneuvers and thus gain a sense of the physical reality involved in ship attacks on one another – and on land fortifications. When he does, he’ll have even more to share with his fellow scholars at the Onassis Foundation and beyond. This month he’s sharing his research and details from his book during a cruise of the Aegean and will join an expedition in Sicily searching for ancient warship rams.
“When you dig into the details, you can end up rewriting history or at least furthering the discussion,” Murray said. “That, and the use of new technologies to visualize and then refine what we could only dream about as recently as 10 years ago ... that’s what makes this work so exciting and so satisfying.”