Sailing through the Ages Part 2: A Mediterranean Odyssey

Map of Mediterranean Sea and surrounding countries

The Mediterranean Sea has been influencing human civilization and culture for over 10,000 years. Its unique size and structure connects Europe, Africa, and Asia, making the Mediterranean unlike any other body of water found on the planet. Throughout much of ancient history the Mediterranean was used as a means to communicate, travel, trade, and wage war. Beginning several thousand years ago sailors from Crete, Egypt, and Phoenicia started mapping the coastline and establishing some of the first trade routes. With the development of standardized trade routes goods, information, and ideas were able to be passed between several regions and cultures. This level of connectivity between the coasts and islands of the Mediterranean was bolstered by the ships and boats of the age.

Greek trireme being tested in the Mediterranean

During the Bronze Age, prior to the 1st millennium BCE, ships were often multipurpose. The same type of ship would be used for trade, travel, and warfare. These ships were of modest size and their primary method of propulsion was through rowing. It was not until the start of the classical era, around the 8th century BCE, when ships evolved from the multipurpose vessels of the late Bronze Age, to more specialized ships that were dedicated to a specific purpose. All of these ships were powered by either sails or rowers. The most common rigging of these boats was a large square sail on a single mast or, on larger ships, two square sails on two masts.

Ancient Mediterranean naval battle (artist rendition)

Some of the most important ships sailing in this era were merchant and trade ships. Merchant ships engaging in coastal trade were very large, reaching over 30 meters in length and could carry hundreds of tons of cargo. However, average merchant ships were smaller and ranged in size from about 15–20 meters. These midsized vessels were able to transport around 75 tons of cargo and were some of the most common ships sailing the Mediterranean. On the opposite end of the spectrum were the small fishing boats that measured only a few meters in length. These boats were only able to travel a few miles from shore, but they were critical in providing food to the villages and cities surrounding the Mediterranean.

Ancient harbor on Mediterranean Sea (artist rendition)

In addition to these more common vessels, at different times through history a wide range of warships also patrolled the Mediterranean. These ships were propelled by oar so they didn’t have to rely on wind during a naval battle. While these ships did not have to rely on wind for propulsion, they required very large crews that were expensive to maintain, limiting their range and effectiveness. There were several warship designs and sizes, some even able to lay siege to coastal cities. The most common warship of the age was the trireme. A trireme is a ship that has three banks of rowers. These ships primarily carried several dozen soldiers but they were also modified to carry catapults, ballistae, and other large siege equipment. Another warship that was favored by the Romans was the liburna. This ship was smaller and lighter than the trireme as it only had one row of oars. Because of their fast speed, these ships were often used for scouting and small scale naval battles.

Coastal cities were, in and of themselves, highly specialized to life on the shores of the Mediterranean. Ancient ports and harbors had many specialized vessels that were dedicated to keeping the ports operational. Specialized vessels included barges used to transport cargo from ships to shore, tugboats powered by teams of rowers to pull ships in and out of the harbor, and dredging vessels to remove excess sand and silt build up.

Sewn boat ship building technique example

Because sailing was so engrained into Mediterranean culture, many shipwrecks have been discovered and studied by archeologists. From these studies we have learned that ships were built in one of two ways during the classical era. In both methods, shipwrights would first construct the outer planking of the vessel before a framework was added inside the vessel for reinforcement. The difference in construction technique comes from how the outer planks were joined. One method was to sew the edges of planks together by passing cordage through holes that were drilled near the edge of the plank. The cordage was used to hold the planks tightly against each other. Wooden laths, or slats, were then used to hold the cordage and keep the seams and drill holes watertight. The construction of these ships was fairly efficient and, although it was not the most durable, resulted in a ship that was very flexible. The second method utilized what were known as mortise-and-tenon joints. This type of joint is made up of two parts. The tenon, which functions as a peg, and the mortis, the slot on a separate piece into which the tenon is inserted. These joints were then locked in place using multiple small pegs.

While the mortise-and-tenon was a more time consuming ship building technique, this method yielded vessels that were very strong and durable and could reach incredible sizes. Because of these advantages, by the time the Roman period began, around 27 BCE, the mortise-and-tenon method became more popular than any other technique.

In the ancient Mediterranean, navigation was based primarily on observation. Sailors would learn how to observe the sun, stars, and weather to guide them comfortably around the Mediterranean. Often sailors would stay in view of land in order to mitigate the risks of sailing. However, this was not ideal for long voyages that had to cross large areas of the Mediterranean. When routes took sailors out of the sight of land they had to rely on the sun and stars to guide their way.

Overall, the Mediterranean Sea acted as a major means of travel, communication, and trade throughout history. The Mediterranean was better connected during the Roman period than at any other point in time until the 19th century. From carrying ancient Phoenician traders who helped establish the Greek alphabet, to scholars carrying knowledge to and from the great library at Alexandria, to the countless empires and countries that filled the sea with warships, the Mediterranean Sea undeniably shaped the course of history in that region, as it continues to do today. In fact, several Mediterranean countries would find themselves at the forefront of the next great age in maritime history, the age of exploration.


Image 1: Photo © Peter Hermes Furian,

Image 2: Photo © aerial-drone,

Image 3: Photo © Erica Guilane-Nachez,

Image 4: Photo © Morphart,

Image 5: Photo © Seda Servet,

Author: Andrew Pressly, Education and Engagement Coordinator at FMM

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