Robin Alington Maguire
An Athenian trireme warship undertook a crucial 340-kilometre journey almost 2,500 years ago. The trireme was the principal instrument of naval power from the 7th to the 4th century BC, but surprisingly little information about its design has come down to us from ancient sources. Some is in the form of inscriptions or vase paintings, with relatively few written references.
Much of what we now know about the trireme (or think we know) comes from an epic feat of experimental archaeology – the conception and construction of a full-scale working replica of a trireme, the Olympias, which was launched in 1987 and trialled extensively in the years that followed. The Olympias experiment informs the question this article poses: what was the special food that energised this mission of 200 men?
The Rescue Mission to Mitylene
In 427 BC, the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta was in its fourth year. The historian Thucydides (c.460–400) recounts that, following a revolt against Athenian dominion led by the city state of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, Athenian forces conquered the city. Lesbos lies in the eastern Aegean Sea close to the coast of Asia Minor, about 340 kilometres by sea from Athens.
The Athenian Assembly, where the citizens gathered to determine public policy, resolved that all the men of Mitylene, numbering some ten thousand, should be killed and all the women and children enslaved. In Ancient Greece this was by no means an exceptional course of action following the capture of a city. A trireme warship was despatched to carry the verdict of the Assembly to Paches, the commander of the Athenian forces now in control of Mytilene.
However, the following day the citizens of Athens had second thoughts and resolved that the Mytilenians should be spared. A second trireme was sent to proceed at maximum speed so as to catch up with the first in time to effect the reprieve. Here is the account of the rescue mission given by Thucydides, in a modern translation:
[The Athenians] sent at once a second trieres [trireme] as quickly as possible, in case, if the first trieres got there first, they might find the city destroyed. It had a start of about a day and a night. The Mytilenian representatives at Athens gave wine and barley bread for the ship and promised great rewards if it arrived first. The crew [of the second ship] made such haste that they [did not stop for meals but] pulled and ate at the same time, barley bread mixed with wine and olive oil, and [they did not bivouac for the night but] some slept and others pulled, turn and turn about. By good luck they had no contrary winds, and while the other ship did not make haste on such a disagreeable errand, the other hurried in the way described. The first ship did in fact arrive first by enough time to allow Paches to read the decree and start taking steps to carry it out, but the second ship put in just after it and was in time to prevent the actual executions. (3.49.3, tr. J.S. Morrison)
Afterwards the Athenians executed the ringleaders of the revolt but the remainder of the population were left unharmed.
So the Mitylenian ambassadors supplied food for the rescue mission in order that the crew could row day and night, with the result that it arrived in the nick of time.
The more usual practice was for triremes to come on shore each evening so the crew could buy a day’s food, eat and sleep. Apart from food, it was usual to carry water for one day at the rate of some 10 litres per man. My view is that each man would have held on to his own water supply, as he did his food, thus avoiding the anxiety that someone else might get more than his fair share of a communal supply. Food and water might have been carried in skin bags (much lighter than clay pots, and easier to stow) and hung inside the hull between the ship’s timbers, adjacent to a crewman’s rowing position.
We can suppose that the rescue trireme would have been one of the two state triremes, the Paralus and Salaminia, which were kept in commission all year round and reserved for urgent and important missions. These were the very finest vessels with crack crews. According to the available evidence, a trireme might be expected to take around three days to travel from Athens to Lesbos in the ordinary way.
The trireme’s main propulsive power came from 170 hardworking oarsmen closely packed in three tiers below decks. The entire crew consisted of 200 men including the captain, petty officers, deck crew and a party of soldiers. The ship’s main weapon was a bronze ram fixed below the bow.
The Rations on the Trip to Mytilene
The passage from Thucydides given above says the crew were supplied with rations by the Mitylenian ambassadors in Athens and that they “pulled and ate at the same time barley bread mixed with wine and olive oil”. This sounds rather as if barley bread, wine and oil were mixed together in a wet mush – possibly nutritious but not very appetising, and perhaps not easy to eat in the cramped conditions on board, especially while continuing to row. Perhaps we can arrive at some other conclusion about the nature of the crew’s food.
If we look closely, the description of the rations shown in italic type in this quotation may not be the only valid interpretation of the words used by Thucydides. The equivalent phrase in the original is οἴνῳ καὶ ἐλαίῳ ἄλφιτα πεφυραμένα (oinōi kai elaiōi alphita pephuramena).
- Thucydides makes no mention of bread as such – just of barley, ἄλφιτα (alphita), a word which can denote either cooked or uncooked grain.
- The word πεφυραμένα (pephuramena) for “mixed” can equally well mean “kneaded”, in the sense of kneading dough.
- There seems to be no ambiguity about the words for wine, οἴνῳ (oinōi) and for olive oil, ἐλαίῳ (elaiōi).
So Thucydides may have meant “barley kneaded with wine and olive oil”, the barley being uncooked when mixed, with subsequent baking unstated but implied. It seems clear from the syntax that the wine was not (as has been supposed) carried as a separate commodity with which the sailors could wash down a somewhat emetic diet of bread and olive oil.
We can make a few definite deductions from circumstances about the nature of the food on the rescue trireme.
- The relief ship was clearly despatched as a matter of extreme urgency. The Mytilenian ambassadors, of all people, would not have sanctioned any food preparation procedure which could delay the ship’s departure. We can therefore feel certain that stocks of the food supplied must have been immediately available to send on board.
- Another constraint concerns the barley. Humans cannot readily digest barley in its raw form; it must be cooked or otherwise prepared over a period of time. Such procedures could not have been carried out on board a speeding trireme. The food taken on board must have been in a form ready to eat, so the barley must already have been cooked or otherwise rendered edible.
- The wine probably resembled modern retsina, as wine in Ancient Greece was typically stored in containers lined with resin.
I speculate that the barley, wine and oil must have been already prepared in some edible form analogous to the ship’s biscuit or hard tack of later centuries. Perhaps Athens maintained a limited stock of such rations as supplies for urgent missions, provided they came in a form with a reasonable shelf-life. At a minimum, they might have kept enough in stock to supply the Paralus or Salaminia for a high-speed dash of a few days across the Aegean. Indeed, it would arguably have been irresponsible of them not to do so, at a time of war with a great deal of naval activity taking place. (A supportive passage from Aristophanes will be discussed below.)
If prepared food was used, the involvement of the Mytilenian ambassadors would presumably have been to pay for that food in return for the Athenians agreeing to release rations from naval stocks. Looking at the text, perhaps they paid in wine and barley.
A combination of barley (in digestible form), wine and oil would not supply all of the body’s nutritional needs, and if relied on for any length of time it would have to be supplemented with foods containing vitamins and trace elements, just as the Greeks supplemented their normal core diet of bread with garnishes of various kinds. But a simple diet of just these three foodstuffs would have supplied plenty of energy and protein, and would surely have sufficed by itself (together with water) for a few days.
The question that remains is whether Thucydides’ somewhat unpromising list of ingredients – barley, resinated wine and olive oil, mixed or kneaded together – could realistically be treated as a recipe for producing a usable and tolerably durable ship’s biscuit. A practical attempt was necessary.
Making Athenian Ship’s Biscuit
I decided to see whether Thucydides’ description could serve as the basis for making a ship’s biscuit of some sort. It turns out that by using barley flour, wine and olive oil as the ingredients, plus a pinch of salt, and working from some simple modern biscuit recipes, it is possible to bake edible – if dry and unexciting – biscuits. Retsina is used as the wine. This adds something to the flavour of the biscuit without making it unpalatable by adding any obvious taste of turpentine.
The biscuits produced in this way somewhat resemble modern oatcakes or crispbread. It is rather difficult to imagine doing hard physical work for several days with nothing but biscuits such as these as sustenance. This suggests that trireme rations might have contained some other ingredient not mentioned by Thucydides to make them more palatable and less dry in taste. Honey is the obvious choice.
Adding honey produces a far more palatable biscuit, not dry-tasting and with a pleasant flavour, which seems much more plausible as a complete emergency diet than the plainer version. It is not difficult to eat several such biscuits at a time. I refer to this variant as ‘trireme biscuits’.
Adding honey should not be seen as an anachronism. The Greeks commonly used honey as a sweetener, just as they did for such purposes as medicine, energy food for athletes, and a preservative for fresh fruit. They might have regarded a barley biscuit flavoured with honey as an acceptable temporary substitute for a usual diet of bread with garnishes.
The trireme biscuit has a very respectable energy content of some 19 megajoules per kilogram (80 kilocalories/kg), much more than bread. So one kilogram will supply more than enough energy to power an oarsman for a full day of hard work. (Wine is excluded from the calculation of caloric content as most of its energy will be in the alcohol, and this will presumably be driven off in cooking.)
The biscuit is baked twice in order to increase crispness and shelf-life. It is best eaten fresh but can keep for over a month if stored in an airtight container. Loosely packed, one kilogram of biscuit occupies about 1.5 litres.
If the rescue ship were provisioned for (say) two days, each crewman might have gone on board carrying two ten-litre water bags and up to two kilograms of trireme biscuit. In this case, the food and water for the entire crew would have weighed about 400 kilograms and four tonnes respectively. As for who might have manufactured such rations in quantity for the Athenian navy, there is good evidence of commercial bakers operating at Athens in the 5th century BC.
In summary, it is quite easy to manufacture effective ships biscuits from the foodstuffs mentioned by Thucydides. It seems at least possible that the food supplied to the trireme crew for the rescue mission to Mytilene in 427 BC took some such form.
The ordinary Greek diet included significant quantities of legumes which largely made good the dietary deficiencies of bread. The recipe for trireme biscuits can be supplemented in a similar way by introducing a legume in the form of chickpea flour in place of some of the barley flour. This does not have a noticeable effect on the flavour and makes the biscuit into more of a complete food. We know that in ancient times the flour of legumes was often blended with wheat flour to make bread. The Greeks presumably recognised that a grain-based diet without legumes was unhealthy, so we may suppose that they might have incorporated legume flour into trireme biscuits.
Evidence from Aristophanes
Aristophanes’ play The Frogs won first prize at the Lenaia festival in Athens in 405 BC. In it, the god Dionysus, despairing of the state of Athens’ contemporary tragedians, descends to the Underworld to bring back to life the playwrights Euripides (who had died the year before) and Aeschylus (who died in 456 BC). At one point these two argue about the merits of their respective works. Euripides claims his dramas had the merit of being true to life, while Aeschylus asserts that his own idealized characters encouraged virtue. Aeschylus say that the plays of Euripides encouraged frivolity:
… καὶ τοὺς Παράλους ἀνέπεισεν
ἀνταγορεύειν τοῖς ἄρχουσιν. καίτοι τότε γ᾽ ἡνίκ᾽ ἐγὼ ’ζων,
οὐκ ἠπίσταντ᾽ ἀλλ᾽ ἢ μᾶζαν καλέσαι καὶ ‘ῥυππαπαῖ’ εἰπεῖν.
… and stirred up the men of the Paralus to argue with their commanders. In my time, all they were up for was shouting for barley-cake and singing out “ruppapai”.
The operative word, μᾶζαν (māzan), refers to flat barley-cake.
The topical references in the plays of Aristophanes are generally thought to be drawn from real life, so this could imply that the crew of the Paralus, at least from time to time, were supplied with rations cooked from barley.
Recipe for Trireme Biscuits
240 grams barley flour
200 grams retsina
80 grams extra virgin olive oil
100 grams honey
5 grams (1 teaspoon) salt
Mix ingredients and spread in a thin layer on a flat baking tray.
Bake in a fan oven at 200 Centigrade for about 25 to 30 minutes until golden brown.
Cut into biscuits, spread out on a wire tray and leave to cool for an hour.
Bake for a second time at 140 Centigrade for about 15 minutes until biscuits start to turn brown.
Leave to cool for an hour before placing in an airtight container.
Makes about 400 grams.
(If desired, substitute chickpea flour for a quarter of the barley flour.)
Robin Alington Maguire is a former civil engineer and banker with a keen and longstanding interest in ancient history and culture. He likes to seek out new deductions from fragmentary ancient sources, particularly in matters of science and technology. He has translated and edited Napoleon Bonaparte’s Commentaries on the Wars of Julius Caesar (Pen & Sword Books, Barnsley, 2018). His earlier essay for Antigone argued that Cicero should have taken a different tack during the Catilinarian Conspiracy of 63 BC.
Morrison on the Olympias is a book well worth reading (although I hold differing views about hypozōmata). Davidson gives a fine description of the food and other passions of Ancient Athens. Kagan gives a magnificent account of the Peloponnesian War, including compelling analysis of the political and strategic considerations which drove the decisions of the protagonists.
The following books and articles are referred to in this article:
J. Davidson, Courtesans and Fishcakes: the Consuming Passions of Classical Athens (Chicago UP, 1997).
P. Garnsey, Cities, Peasants and Food in Classical Antiquity: Essays in Social and Economic History (Cambridge UP, 1998).
D. Kagan, The Peloponnesian War (Viking, New York, 2003).
R. Krivec, “Rowing times from Athens to Mitylene,” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 45 (2016) 199–201.
J.S. Morrison, J.F. Coates, & N.B. Rankov, The Athenian Trireme (Cambridge UP, 2000).
B. Rankov et al., Trireme Olympias The Final Report (Oxbow, Oxford, 2012).
L.A. Moritz, Grain-Mills and Flour in Classical Antiquity (Oxford UP, 1958).
|⇧1||See Morrison et al. (2000) passim.|
|⇧2||History of the Peloponnesian War 3.2–50.|
|⇧3||Kagan (2003) 111.|
|⇧5||Davidson (1997) 21.|
|⇧6||As the etymology of ‘biscuit’ suggests: bis coctum, “twice cooked”!|
|⇧7||Moritz (1958) 34–6.|
|⇧8||Garnsey (1998) 242.|
|⇧9||Aristophanes, Frogs 1071–3; my translation. The word ruppapai is thought to have been called out as an aid to keeping time while rowing.|
|⇧10||Garnsey (1998) 223.|