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TESSERACONTE´RES The invention of war-ships larger than the trireme, viz. quadrireme and quinquereme, belongs to the epoch which follows that of the Peloponnesian War. In the first half of the 4th cent. B.C. the Athenians possessed a few quadriremes; but the quinquereme, which was destined to be the line-of-battle ship of the succeeding century, had not yet become common. At the siege of Tyre (Curt. 2.4) Alexander had only one quinquereme as his admiral's ship. Later on we find the Carthaginian fleet consisting mainly of vessels of five banks of oars; and from one of these which fell into their hands, and was used as a model, the Romans constructed those fleets which were engaged at Mylae and Ecnomus and the Aegates Insulae. According to Pliny (7.56), it was Alexander who conceived the idea of constructing still larger vessels, and gave orders for building ships of seven or even ten banks. It remained, however, for his successors to carry out these plans, of whom Demetrius Poliorcetes was the most energetic and successful in matters of naval construction. Demetrius himself superintended the building of vessels of fifteen and sixteen banks (Plut. Dens. 43), and this passion for huge ships seems to have continued among the Macedonians (cf. Liv. 33.16, “Regiam unam inhabilis prope magnitudinis quam sedecim versus remorum agebant” ). Ptolemy Philadelphus had fourteen ships of eleven, two of twelve, four of thirteen, one of twenty, and two of thirty banks of oars. To surpass these latter, Ptolemy Philopater constructed the Great Eastern of ancient days, the famous Tesseraconteres, a triumph of naval architecture in point of construction, but useless for practical purposes, and in reality only the splendid toy of a despotic king. Her dimensions, as given in Athen. 5.203, are as follows:--Length, 420 ft. breadth (within parodi), 57 ft.; height, forward 72 ft., aft 79 ft. She had four rudders, each 45 ft. long, and her upper tier of oars (θρανιτικαὶ) were 57 ft., weighted with lead inboard. She was δίπρωρος and δίπρυμνος; had seven beaks, of which one was longer than the rest; also beaks projecting from the catheads (κατὰ τὰς ἐπωτίδας). She had twelve ὑποζώματα, each 900 ft. long; that is, sufficient to gird her from stem to stern. Her proportions were graceful, and her ornamentation elaborate. Figures of animals, 18 ft. in length, adorned both stem and stern, and every available surface was covered with painting, the whole of the rowing space from the keel upwards being decorated with ivy wreaths and thyrsi. The rowing complement was over 4,000; the marines numbered 2,850; there were 400 seamen (?) for the service of the ship; and below decks a vast multitude of people.

Such, in brief, are the details preserved concerning this remarkable vessel, which however, probably after her trial trip, was left for show in the dock specially constructed for her by a Phoenician engineer.

As regards dimensions, she was about the same as H.M.S. Warrior (420 ft. [multi] 58 ft.), an ironclad of a type now becoming obsolete. It is not possible to be certain as regards the meaning of δίπρωρος and δίπρυμνος, but Graser's view seems plausible, that she was, in construction, anticipatory of the class of twin vessels (such as the Castalia and Calais-Douvres), which have been tried of late with varying success. It would seem however, from the mention of the seven beaks, that the double prow was prolonged into one, at all events above the water-line, and, in all probability, the double stern likewise, so that the Acrostolia and Aphlasta would be as in other vessels. The four rudder paddles would thus probably have been carried two on each side, as often seen in Egyptian vessels, though Graser seems to suppose one on each side of the two sterns. The disposition of the rowers in the Tesseraconteres has been a matter of much controversy. It is interesting to find that Graser in his detailed description of the Tesseraconteres has adopted for her as for all the larger rates above quinquereme a reduced scale, allowing only 7 instead of 8 square ft. per man for rowing space, and the vertical distance of the banks from 2 ft. to 1 foot. Probably this is also nearer the true measurement in the smaller rates from quinquereme downwards.

Allowing 20 ft. for draught, the Tesseraconteres gave a height of 44 ft. on either side for the insertion of 40 banks of oars. The curvature of the vessel fore and aft, and the consequent contraction of the rowing space, would necessarily diminish the number of men in each tier from the highest to the lowest. Graser, by an ingenious calculation, brings the total number of oarsmen to 4054 (Athen.: ὀλίγῳ πλείους τῶν τετρασχιλίων). For the disposition of these (allowing 7 ft. interscalmium) there was for the topmost bank on each side a longitudinal space of 367 ft., in which were seated on either side the 53 thranites (the topmost men of 53 complexus, diagonal lines, of oarsmen), and for the lowest, or thalamite bank, a longitudinal space of 345 ft. Of the 53 complexus, 40 were complete, giving a sum of 1600 on each side. In the remaining 13, incomplete complexus, 427 men found their places on either side (3200 + 854 = 4054). The principle of the ζύγωσις must have been similar to that of the trireme [see NAVIS], benches (ζυγὰ) being fitted between the vessel's side and the διαφράγματα, though in the case of the Tesseraconteres these were probably divided by decks at certain intervals. The upper tiers of oars, when fastened to the σκαλμὸς or thowl pin, were almost at equilibrium between the outboard and inboard portions, so that the movement of the whole would not be difficult. The oar-ports of the thalamites must have been dangerously close to the water. Graser places them at 2 1/4 ft. above the water-line less than those of the trireme, which were not under 3 ft. And perhaps this is the reason of the terms in which Plutarch speaks of her (Dem. 43): ἀλλὰ θέαν μόνην ἐκείνη παρέσχε, καὶ μικρὸν ὅσον διαφέρουσα τῶν μονίμων οἰκοδομημάτων φανῆναι πρὸς ἐπίδειξιν, οὐ χρείαν, ἐπισφαλῶς καὶ δυσεργως ἐκινήθη.


hide References (2 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (2):
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 7.56
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 33, 16
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