The Lost Technology of Ancient Greek Rowing; May 1996; Scientific American Magazine; by Hale; 6 Page(s)
In the classic age of oared galleys, Greek navies dominated the Mediterranean, and the Athenians dominated the other Greeks. While most states were relying on aristocratic cavalry or yeoman infantry for their military force, Athens mobilized thousands of lower-class citizens to serve as rowers in the fleet. Themistocles, the mastermind of this naval policy, endured rhetorical attacks from conservative rivals who said he had "robbed the Athenians of the shield and spear, and degraded them to cushion and oar." The reference to oars is sufficiently clear: 170 rowers were required to propel each of Athens¿s trireme warships (galleys with three tiers of rowers). But why mention cushions?
This cushion, or rowing pad, presents a riddle, one of many in the history of technology. I have proposed a solution to this mystery that suggests the cushions used by Greek rowers were in fact one of those modest technical advances--like the cavalry stirrup or the medieval longbow--that can decide the fate of empires. An enigma today, the rowing cushion was once so familiar that when the Greek geographer Eratosthenes wanted to describe Mesopotamia, he stated that it was shaped like a rowing cushion. Yet further written description of this object is lacking, and historians must depend on chance clues that have survived the wreck of the ancient world. Like so many items of technical apparatus, the device may never have been described or drawn in detail.