The Athenian navy versus the US navy

The Athenian Navy was the most powerful the world had yet seen. But how powerful is that? Here are some totally spurious comparisons with the most powerful naval force in the world today, the United States Navy.

Let's start with ships of the line.

Themistocles convinced the Athenians to build 200 triremes. By the peak of their empire they probably had close to 300 triremes.

The United States Navy today has 287 commissioned ships according to their own web site.

So the two fleets were almost exactly the same size.

Of course, you might argue the USN has aircraft carriers (11) and nuclear attack submarines (54), which were distinctly lacking in the Athenian fleet. But keep in mind both fleets are the absolute state of the art for their times.

You can be quite sure Themistocles, who clearly belonged to the peace-through-superior-firepower school of international diplomacy, would have had the Athenians building aircraft carriers if only he'd known about them.

In fact a trireme is the equivalent of a modern destroyer. The trireme was a floating battering ram, the first ship in history designed purely to sink other ships, and the fastest thing on the seas. They even had roughly the same crew size: 200 on a trireme versus 280 for a destroyer.

If you think of the Athenian fleet as being like 300 modern destroyers, you're not far wrong. That's a force strong enough to wipe out almost any navy afloat today.

But wait! We're still not making a fair comparison. America is much larger than Athens.

The population of Classical Athens was about 200,000. The population of the United States is slightly more than 300,000,000. Yet they put the same number of ships on the water. Clearly America can afford to invest much less per person and still get a bigger bang. Let's equalize the naval investment per capita.

Adjusting so there are the same number of ships per head of population, the USN is reduced from 287 to one fifth of a destroyer. My money's on the triremes, even if we don't adjust for 2,500 years of technological advance.

Let's try it the other way. If the US made the same per capita naval investment the Athenians did, they would have not 287 ships, but 430,000. No, I didn't type too many zeroes. Even if you count each carrier as worth a thousand destroyers there's still no comparison. Granted it's impossible to compare across such time with any accuracy, but it seems clear there's no nation today making anything like the naval investment Athens did.

The same outrageous ratios apply when you compare the Athenians to their neighbours. The next largest fleet at the time was Corinth, and they had all of 40 triremes. 40 against 300.

The Athenian fleet was huge.


Winchester whisperer said...

This is a crazy comparison. Athens was a tiny city state which needed to defend its coastline. The US has an uncomparable array of defensive weapons and far less reliance on its navy. A more interesting comparison would be the Persian navy.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Okay, so I had no idea the two fleets were roughly the same size.

I wonder if that says something for the average amount of ships it's possible to use at any given time. Granted, America does have more coastline to defend (and we like to poke around in everyone else's business), but with the air capability of those ships, that factor might be somewhat neutralized.

Interesting food for thought so early in the morning!

Amalia T. said...

Man. Where did Athens PUT them all?! I mean, that's a lot of ships to have banging around in the harbor...

Didn't the Persians have some kind of fleet?

I wonder how many ships the Vikings had at their height...

Merry Monteleone said...

Yowsa, that's a pretty impressive navy. And that doesn't count ships used for trading or fishing? Where did they fit them all?

David J. West said...

Besides the population differences, how about the cost differences? I am sure that to have the navy, the Atheninans spent more than we do today-at least on a per capita basis.

Not that by any means I'm not suggesting they didn't need it. Themistocles was a genuis.

Jm Diaz said...

i loved the comparison. well done. However, I've been told by some members of the US marine corp and US navy that the most powerful navy in the world today is still the British Navy. Her Majesty still commands quite an impressive fleet. I haven't done the diligence to compare the numbers though, so don't take my word for it. I'm just regurgitating what I was told, and remember thinking (at the time) "no way".

That said, i am thoroughly impressed by the Athenians.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

I really do need to get my son reading this blog on a regular basis. He is in the 7th grade, but you are exactly what he would enjoy. He thinks he wants to be a Greek historian when he grows up. he loves all things Greek, Roman, Egyptian...but especially Greek! :-)

Loretta Ross said...

Ah, but to really do a comparison we need to compare ship to ship. Here are the specs for the class of destroyer currently in use by the US Navy:
General Characteristics, Arleigh Burke class

Builder: Bath Iron Works, Northrop Grumman Ship Systems
SPY-1 Radar and Combat System Integrator: Lockheed-Martin
Date Deployed: July 4, 1991 (USS Arleigh Burke)
Propulsion: Four General Electric LM 2500-30 gas turbines; two shafts, 100,000 total shaft horsepower.
Length: Flights I and II (DDG 51-78): 505 feet (153.92 meters)
Flight IIA (DDG 79 AF): 509½ feet (155.29 meters).
Beam: 59 feet (18 meters).
Displacement: DDG 51 through 71: 8,230 L tons (8,362.06 metric tons) full load DDG 72 through 78: 8,637 L tons (8,775.6 metric tons) full load DDG 79 and Follow: 9,496 L tons (9,648.40 metric tons) full load.
Speed: In excess of 30 knots.
Crew: 276
Armament: Standard Missile (SM-2MR); Vertical Launch ASROC (VLA) missiles; Tomahawk®; six MK-46 torpedoes (from two triple tube mounts); Close In Weapon System (CIWS), 5” MK 45 Gun, Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) (DDG 79 AF)
Aircraft: Two LAMPS MK III MH-60 B/R helicopters with Penguin/Hellfire missiles and MK 46/MK 50 torpedoes.

What are the figures for a trireme? #G#

Loretta Ross said...

BTW, I don't understand half of what I just posted. ;) Did the Athenian navy have that same annoying habit of talking in acronymns, do you suppose?

Gary Corby said...

Hi Winchester, welcome! I didn't use the Persian fleet because firstly, Herodotus has already done it much better than I could, and secondly, it still wouldn't help most modern readers because I'd be comparing two unfamiliar things.

But here's the comparison if it helps, as taken from the order of battle at Salamis, the only moment for which we have reasonable numbers:

The Greeks put in about 370 ships. Of these, 180 were Athenian (20 of the 200 had already been lost in previous fighting). So Athens on her own equalled all the other city-states put together.

The Persians put in about 800 ships. (Herodotus says 1200, but this is very much doubted today.) The Persian fleet was the combined contributions of every city in what today are Turkey, Lebanon (Phoenicia), Israel and Egypt. But the core of this fleet was certainly Phoenician, as the core of the Greeks was Athenian. The Persian fleet was made of individual city contributions, same as the Greeks, and having far more cities to call on, Xerxes consequently had more ships. If anyone exceeded the Athenian contribution, it would have been Tyre, but no one knows.

Gary Corby said...

Jm, according to Wikipedia, which as we all know is never wrong, the Royal Navy has 88 commissioned ships.

If the two of you decide to refight the War of 1812, I'm backing your team.

Gary Corby said...

Merry, Amalia, and probably everyone else wondered where they put all the ships.

The answer is Themistocles took a small neighbouring fishing town to the south of Athens, a place called Piraeus, and turned it into a massively defended naval port. Then they built the Long Walls to connect Athens to Piraeus.

Thanks very much for the idea! Piraeus is worth its own post some time.

A fair amount of the action in my stories happens in Piraeus, because it's the dodgy end of town. Lots of drunken sailors and hookers, fisherfolk, and people washing in from exotic locales.

Gary Corby said...

David, cost comparison is tricky. To work it out accurately, you need a comparitive GDP, and the numbers simply don't exist.

If you want to have a go here's some information:

The average wage in Athens was a drachma a day. They paid crews the same = 73,000 drachmae a year.

It appears to have cost about 48,000 drachmae to maintain one trireme for a year. (There are surviving accounts)

A trireme cost 60,000 drachmae to build = 165 times the average yearly income. That's a third of a drachma per head of population. Be warned that 60K is very rubbery and probably a base price. But even if you up it, the cost palls compared to...

A US destroyer costs about $3.3 billion = 65,000 times median yearly income, and is $11 per head of population.

I'll note in passing, and without any proof whatsoever, that Athenian dockyards were probably more efficient than modern defence contractors by several orders of magnitude.

Now you need to compare the drachmae of 2,500 years ago against US dollars, and do it without knowing relative GDP. Good luck. :-)

Gary Corby said...

Here you go Loretta, the stats for a trireme:

Builder: Piraeus Dockyards

Date Deployed: 460BC

Propulsion: 174 rowers. Comprising citizens and mercenaries, but never slaves.

Length: 121 feet

Beam: 18 feet

Weight: 45 tons

Speed: 8 knots long distance. 14 knots in a sprint.

Crew: 200

Armament: 1 ram. Used to stave in enemy hull. 4 archers (missiles). 14 spearmen (marines).

Gary Corby said...

Your son's very welcome here, Shannon!

I know from site stats there are a couple of schools reading the blog.

My elder daughter's going into year 6, and she reads this too. Unlike your son, both my girls are determined to never be Greek historians.

Loretta Ross said...

I knew you'd have the figures on a trireme, or else you'd find them. :)

I think the population comparison is a bit irrelevant (sorry). But a more pointed comparison would be the operating area.

The US Navy operates over most of the seas on the globe, while the Athenian Navy, with a comparable number of vessels, was concentrated in a much smaller theater of operations. So they'd have had more ships per square mile, or, rather, fewer square miles per ship.

On the other hand, US vessels can stay at sea for months at a time, whereas the triremes had to land on pretty much a daily basis.

Gary Corby said...

You're dead right on the vastly different operational areas Loretta. Which is the value of an aircraft carrier over a battering ram. Also a nuclear power plant beats rowers.

Kosmos said...

I thought the Persian fleet made good bridges when lashed together across the Hellespont but weren't as manoeuvrable as the Athenian fleet.

*now demonstrating it's been a long time since I studied this*

Gary Corby said...

Hi Kosmos, the Persians did indeed make some very cool bridges. Also, they had some astonishing ropes. Herodotus says the Phoenician triremes were heavier but it didn't help them in the straits at Salamis.

Amalia T. said...

Gary-- Why didn't they use slaves as rowers ever?

Gary Corby said...

Amalia, here's the problem: you have 200 guys on a warship. If 170 of them are slaves. What are the odds the slaves will decide this is a good moment to sail into the sunset?

Alternatively, if you mix slaves in with free citizens, all doing the same work and subject to the same discipline, it's a recipe for a riot.

Kosmos said...

To add to the slave comments, there was possibly the belief that only free citizens would fight with the necessary 'to the death' zeal for their city state and that slaves would rather be captured, and possibly freed by the enemy. Whereas free citizens were fighting to (a) defend their property and families and (b) would often fight to the death to avoid becoming enslaved by their enemy. Employing slaves to fight/row would be like expecting a public servant to work as hard as private sector employees ;) (sarcasm included - ex public servant here :P )

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Kosmos, you're dead right of course!

Matthew Delman said...

This comparison reminds me of hearing someone compare the armies of the Crusades with the armies of today. All I can remember thinking is "well of course today's military would win. they have guns."

Gary Corby said...

Sure, so they would! It's Athens' massive investment in naval force relative to the size of the society which interests me, not which side would win in a straight up and down fight. (And I did use the word "spurious").

Though having said that, if you could put Alexander's Companions up against, say WW1 cavalry, the outcome might not be certain. But that's a different point entirely.

Loretta Ross said...

Another interesting aspect of this comparison is looking at how navies have evolved. The ships and weapons are basically the same. They've just become more powerful and more cost effective. Propulsion has gone from oarsmen to nuclear power plants and the spears are now Tomahawk missiles. And military tactics have evolved as well.

What's camouflage, after all, but another way to bring Burnham Wood to Dunsinane?

Linkmeister said...

"Though having said that, if you could put Alexander's Companions up against, say WW1 cavalry. . ."

You're venturing into Harry Turtledove's "Guns of the South" territory there.

(For those unfamiliar with it, the premise is that a South African paramilitary unit time-travels from the 21st century to the US during the Civil War and provides Lee and his armies with AK-47s and Grant's battle plans. Guess who wins the Civil War.)

Gary Corby said...

Hi Linkmeister,

Yes, it is a bit like that. There've been a number of stories in which modern soldiers end up in a different time. The earliest I know of is Janissaries, by Jerry Pournelle, written some time in the 70s I think, and well worth reading.

I also recall a short story (but not the title and author unfortunately) in which a modern fighter pilot & his plane finds himself in WW1. He thinks it'll be a breeze, until he discovers biplane engines aren't hot enough for a heat seeking missile to detect, and he can't fly slow enough to shoot them!

Bane of Anubis said...

Outstanding research, sir.