In what ways did the triremes promote democracy and in what ways did they promote imperial dominance in Athens and the Mediterranean?

What are triremes and how were they used by the Athenians?

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In the fall of 480 BCE, Xerxes, the King of Persia, attacked Greece on land and at sea. While the land battle that ended with a Spartan stand to the last man at Thermopylae, has been burned into the collective memory of western civilization – think of the movie 300 – it was the Greek navy that repelled Xerxes’ assault and saved Athens from certain defeat. What saved Greece from the encroachment of an empire that had already consumed much of western Asia? The Athenian navy employed an innovative ship design called the Trireme. Built for speed and agility and designed as an offensive weapon, the trireme allowed the ancient Greeks to destroy most of the Persian fleet and stop the western advance of the imperial Persian king. This Inquiry Unit focuses on the technology of ancient naval warfare. Students will analyze primary and secondary source documents and engage in hands-on Formative Performance Tasks as they explore the connections between naval technology and the principles of democracy.

This inquiry unit was developed by Laurie A. Bisconti, World History teacher, Heritage Middle School, Livingston, N.J. and revised for REACH.

In preparation for teaching this Inquiry Unit, teachers are encouraged to refer to three authors, Murray, Morrison, and Hale.  Each of these scholars has spent a significant amount of time researching the Athenian Trireme, and each makes a unique contribution to our overall understanding of the trireme and its importance to ancient Athens.  Here you will find three excerpts from these authors, the combination of which serves as an adequate starting point for understanding the concepts that comprise the foundation of the REACH Trireme Inquiry Unit.

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Supporting Questions

  • The Zea Harbour Project (ZHP) – a combined land and underwater archaeological investigation of the ancient harbours of Zea and Mounichia. ZHP’s mission is to survey, excavate, and publish the archaeological remains of the naval bases of the Piraeus, including the harbour fortifications and the shipsheds that housed Athens’ fleet of triremes. (Be sure to click on the “history” link).

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  • STEM Interdisciplinary – Hull Engineering: From TryEngineering: Lesson focuses on how the shape of ship’s hull can impact its speed and stability potential in water. Teams of students design their own ship’s hull on paper, and build it using Styrofoam and other everyday materials.”

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  • STEM Interdisciplinary – Sail Away: From TryEngineering, “Lesson focuses on watercraft engineering and sailing. Students explore what marine engineers and naval architects do, and work in teams to design a sailboat out of everyday objects that can catch a breeze from a fan, stay afloat with a set load, and sail one meter.”

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  • STEM Interdisciplinary – Fun with Speedboats!: From TryEngineering, “Lesson focuses on how engineers and ship designers have developed boats with a goal of breaking a water speed record. Students work in teams to develop a boat out of everyday materials that will prove to be the fastest in the classroom covering a distance of 5 ft or 150 cm along a classroom trough.”

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  • During a trip to Greece, Robert Colburn, IEEE History Center Research Coordinator took photos associated with the REACH Greek Trireme Inquiry Unit, including the “Olympias,” the world’s only working full-sized sea-going replica of an ancient Athenian trireme. The photos may be seen here along with captions and insight provided by Mr. Colburn.

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