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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.

Looking at the port side of the ship, we see four oarsmen, six oars—not counting the steering oars —and seven oar-ports. The oarsman on the right, looking over his shoulder, is, as one would expect, using the oar nearest the stern; but there is another oar that he is not himself using; and, if the picture is to make any sense at all, this oar must run across the midriff of the man we see into the hands of a man we cannot see. The next man presents no difficulties. The third, whose head obscures the knee of the bound Odysseus, is like the first we considered: he is using an oar, and there is another oar which, it appears, must cross his chest and be worked by someone the artist has not shown. Finally, the man nearest the bows is working his own oar, though there is an empty oar-port handy.

Are we to suppose that these oddities were artist’s errors? I believe that the vase painter, who dealt with the sailing gear in such a seamanlike way, did the same for the oars; and that, from above, one would have seen twelve oarsmen in three rows, as in diagram A. The black figures are the oarsmen actually shown on the vase.

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