The earliest warships, and their historical context

I’ve been reading a really interesting book recently, called The Sea and Civilization, by Lincoln Paine. One of the things that I have learnt in reading it is that the Phoenicians were the first to use specialist warships.

This is, I suppose, hardly surprising, given their reputation as the leading merchants and seafarers of the early Iron Age. But for me the interesting thing was that the Minoans had not (so far as we know) developed a war fleet, and therefore specialised warships.

Sculptural relief of a Phoenician warship found in the Assyrian place of Nineveh (Creative Commons)

Why not the Minoans?

The Minoans were the traders and seafarers of the early-to-mid-second millennium BC who dominated the eastern Mediterranean – that is, of the later Bronze Age. There is strong evidence that piracy was rampant in the Mediterranean at that time, and Greek authors of the fourth century BC claimed that the Minoans had had a trading empire, complete with colonies, in the Aegean. Surely they would have needed warships to protect their trading ships?

Perhaps the key is in the fact that the Phoenicians flourished in the early Iron Age and not in the Bronze Age. In the Bronze Age, all but a tiny elite effectively remained in the Stone Age.

Is Sea Power an Iron Age phenomenon?

Bronze is far too expensive a metal to be used for anything other than warfare and high-status jewellery or ceremonial objects. Certainly no ordinary farmers could hope to use metal tools, so ploughs, hoes and other agricultural implements were made of flint, wood, antler and bone, as they had been for millennia. Artisans also had to make do with tools made of similar materials.

(Actually, this was not completely the case. I was surprised to see a Minoan bronze saw in the museum of Heraklion, on the island of Crete. However, this was found at the palace of Knossos, and I assume that it was a rare example of a high-status implement, perhaps even one used in religious ceremonial.)

This of course meant that Bronze Age farmers were no more productive than their Stone Age forebears had been, and apart from in certain favoured locations the food surpluses they could have delivered would have been miniscule.

This probably did not make too much difference to farmers living in the fertile river valleys of the Tigris/Euphrates, the Nile and Indus, where the earliest civilizations had matured. These were such productive environments that iron technology may not have made much difference. It would, however, have made a big difference in most places, which needed hard work to bring soils to their productive potential. In the early Iron Age, not only was much new land brought under cultivation (one thinks of the swamps and forests of the Ganges plain being drained and cleared by Iron-Age settlers), but land which was already being farmed would have produced a greater surplus.

The Phoenicians and sea power

All this means that, whilst during the Bronze Age maritime trade would probably have been almost exclusively confined to expensive luxury goods, in the Iron Age such staples as wheat would have become available to trade. The Phoenicians – their cities situated on coastal sites in Syria with very limited agricultural hinterlands, but right on the great trade routes of the ancient Levant – would have been able to ship inexpensive corn in to feed their populations, in exchange for luxuries such as the purple dye made from local snails from which they got their Greek name.

For the Phoenicians, therefore, maritime commerce became, not just a useful addition to their economy, but a matter of life and death. They were probably the first people for whom this could be said. The development of ships designed specifically for war – to keep the sea lanes open – was probably inevitable in such circumstances. They were the earliest society to see the considerable expense of building and maintaining large numbers of warships, which were completely unproductive in economic terms, as an investment rather than simply a cost.

The Mediterranean – a nursery for sea power

Naval warfare of course developed further with the Greeks. This is no surprise, given that the economies of many Greek city-states were geared to the sea. Overseas colonies and trade were the things which were the foundations for Greek prosperity in the Classical period. And much of this trade was in staples, with colonies planted in fertile coastlines shipping large quantities of grain back home to their mother cities. The emergence of large navies was a natural development.

Modern reproduction of a squadron of Greek galleys (Creative Commons) 

Similarly under the Romans, who have traditionally not been seen as sailors, sea power would prove crucial in extending their rule over the entire Mediterranean basin and its hinterland. The imperial capital, Rome, grew into such a huge city that it came to utterly depend on grain shipments from Sicily, North Africa and Egypt.

The Mediterranean was indeed the prime nursery of naval warfare; and the Iron Age was almost certainly the first time in human history when this could have occurred.

By Peter Britton