Odysseus and the Sirens: the Problem of the Trireme

A.F. Tilley explains how the Greeks propelled their boats.

The scene above is from an Attic red-figure vase, made between 490 and 480 B.C., now in the British Museum. It shows Odysseus, bound by his own order to the mast of his ship, the only man to hear the Siren’s irresistible song and to survive it; while his crew, their ears stopped with beeswax, row stolidly on. The nautical details have been carefully depicted. The ropes for furling the sails and for hauling round the yard are quite clear; and the fitting at the mast-head seems to have been drawn by someone who had studied his subject. But some features of this ship might, at first, give the impression that the artist, who clearly knew the ropes, blundered badly when it came to rowing.

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