A Sailor's Life

Rayyan Maker

Culture and technology are closely intertwined and there is much debate on whether technology influences culture or vice versa. In order to understand the complex relationship between the two terms, they must first be defined individually. Culture can best be described as a holistic view of the arts, beliefs and customs that distinguishes one group of people from another. Technology, on the other hand, is a means of applying knowledge to technical processes in order to improve or expedite human activities. For a technology to develop there must be preexisting cultural factors that drive the creation of that technology, whether it is the need for alternative food production methods due to increasing populations, or improved weaponry due to heightened external threats. This paper analyzes how Ancient Greek maritime culture resulted in the development of coastal city states as well as technological advancements in sea trade and naval warfare.

Greece is a peninsular country that possesses a few thousand islands spread throughout the Mediterranean Sea. The climate is warm and sunny, and the sea is usually a calm blue. When moving inland, Greece is surrounded by mountain ranges to the North and West, and contains river systems that are relatively small. It is therefore not difficult to imagine that the inhabitants of Ancient Greece developed a deep affection and dependence on the sea. Greeks looked to the sea for their sustenance and developed a natural talent for seafaring. The affinity of the Ancient Greeks to the sea is clearly manifested through their art and mythology. Many sculptures and deities were of or related to the sea, most notably Poseidon, God of the Sea. Greek voyagers would pray to these deities in the hope of receiving guidance and safe passage during their journey. This fact indicates how closely the lives of Ancient Greeks were tied to the sea and sets the stage for technological development related to maritime activities.

A lack of cultivable land for agriculture resulted in domestic shortages of food items and basic raw materials in Greece. However, primary trading centers such as Egypt and Turkey are in close proximity to Greece and were able to address this issue by supplying the necessary goods. A resource imbalance therefore stimulated trade as Ancient Greeks would import essential items such as timber, grains and minerals, and exported items such as metal goods, pottery, wine, oil and fabrics. The Greek’s connection to the sea coupled with the proximity to other major trading centers resulted in sea trade becoming the most important activity. Geographical factors provided a favorable environment for marine trading, with an indented mainland coastline full of natural harbors as well as a multitude of accessible islands. Cities of Ancient Greece were therefore primarily located on or near the coast, as the most important function a city could serve at the time would be as a port. City states would act as hubs or transit sites where the exchange of goods and services occurred on a massive scale. Each city acted as a market, with a sphere of influence stretching to adjacent areas and attracting people from inland region. This attraction resulted in the migration of people from the inland regions of the country to the coast in the hope of higher living standards. Due to the Greek sea trading culture, coastal cities experienced large amounts of urbanization and technological development as Chant writes, “Cities first developed as a result of intensive trading in the Eastern Mediterranean region, including the Aegean Sea” (Chant 2.1). The populations of city states expanded at an exponential rate resulting in a great amount of ethnic diversity as well as specialization. Markets in the city ranged from selling basic food items such as fish, to intricate garments and jewelry. This point is discussed by Chant as he writes how Ancient Greek cities were primarily based on trade rather than imperial power or on the control of an agricultural surplus (Chant 2.1). City states of Ancient Greece blossomed as trading increased throughout the region. A large amount of importance was given to urban planning, especially near the harbor. Cities were developed near, but not directly on the coast as a precaution to naval hostilities. City walls were extremely tall, especially those facing the sea, and were heavily fortified with weapons such as catapults. The Greek city states developed on the basis of sea trade and technological progress was therefore directed toward maritime activities and not inland. This point is manifested through the fact that Ancient Greeks greatly ignored land routes and focused on sea trade and transport as Casson notes, “Greece in the thirteenth century (BCE) probably had a better system of roads than it did in the third” (Casson, 1974, p.27). It can be observed through the development of the city state how Greek maritime culture drove technological progress in terms of urban expansion.

The development of city states resulted in competition for access to resources. Each city state wanted to dominate the trading routes and this ushered a period of technological innovation directed to military expansion. As Greek life revolved around the sea, the greatest proportion of military might was in terms of naval capabilities. Increased trading and military competition therefore stimulated technological advancements in ship building. Greek ships were initially designed to be solely driven by wind and had sails tied to a central mast. However, it was observed that oars increased the speed and maneuverability of the ships, providing a tactical advantage. This resulted in the development of biremes, which were ships that had two banks of oarsmen, usually slaves, on either side. These ships were relatively light and easy to position in naval combat. The design of the bireme was further improved and resulted in the creation of the trireme, which had three banks of oarsmen instead of two. The trireme was longer and faster, and proved to be more effective in combat than its predecessor. Greek ships were also modified at the bow with the addition of bronze beaks which enabled them to ram and sink enemy ships. Naval technology had grown so rapidly that the Greeks were able to oppose the large fleets of the Persian Empire. A clear example of Greek naval might was at the Battle of Salamis during the Greco-Persian War. The Persian fleet stood at over a thousand ships while the Greeks had only a few hundred. Despite being outnumbered, the Greeks had superior ships and naval tactics that ultimately led them to victory. Greek naval expansion also helped boost trade as there was a huge demand for timber that had to be imported from other regions. City states with powerful navies were able to control the majority of trade in the Mediterranean. Athens for example, dominated trade routes between the Black Sea and the Aegean by forcing trading vessels to dock in its harbor. The city was therefore able to secure food supplies for its growing population. Cargo ships were also improved and used a square rig sail arrangement which proved economical and provided more space to store goods. The development of Ancient Greek navies and ships is another clear example of how a culture heavily tied to the sea resulted in technological advancements.

Sea trade in Ancient Greece paved way for the creation of many specialized technologies that improved the process of transporting goods. Many technological devices were used in Greek ports that assisted in loading and unloading goods. Large cargo ships would remain anchored in the harbor while their loads would be transferred to barges and then the shore. Cranes were used for unloading heavy commodities such as timber and marble, and later on pulleys were developed to offload material. A swing beam with a weight on one end and a bucket on the other was used to remove loose grain from the cargo hold of ships (Piraeus). Many specialized methods and technologies were created to cater to the growing demands of expanding trade in Ancient Greece which is indicative of how the sea faring culture was able to stimulate innovation.

The Ancient Greeks were one of the most notable and impressive civilizations in history. Their innate love for the sea and their ingenuity resulted in a period of great innovation especially in terms of the development of city states, naval expansion and trading. The Greeks represent how geography and environmental factors influenced culture, which in turn acted as the driving force that created specific technologies.


Chant, Chapter 2, Greece

Casson, (1974) Travel in the Ancient World, London, George Allen and Unwin

Robert Garland, The Piraeus, From the Fifth to the First Century B.C. , Cornell University Press (1987)





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