Greek Shipping History

From the 8th millennium BC to the 2nd century BC.

It is believed that seafaring people appeared in Greece long before the first farmers and shepherds.

Some 10,000 years ago, according to archaeological discoveries, these seafarers began to explore the Aegean. The open sea held no terrors for these early sailors; on the contrary, it was a positive factor, an incitement to action, movement and adventure. The closeness and clear visibility between the islands must have been an invitation and a challenge to sail across and explore the neighbouring lands. The ancient inhabitants of the Aegean, apart from the needs of survival that pushed them to travel, must also have been full of curiosity to know the islands nearby. This is how the first short exploratory wanderings across the sea must have begun, to become later on hazardous voyages to distant lands. During the Bronze Age ships sailed to every corner of the Aegean. Other factors that played a part in the formation of the sea-loving character of the Aegean dwellers were the climate and geography of the region. The sort spring, long hot summer, wonderful autumn and mild winter make the Greek climate the pleasantest in the Mediterranean. The indented coasts of the Aegean and the sea scattered with islands must have acted as an incentive to the inhabitants to take to a nautical way of life. Hence the sea very early on became a bridge linking Europe and Asia. The distance from island to island is small. A sailing vessel, putting out at dawn from the eastern shore of the Greek peninsula could, with a stern wind, make the opposite coast of Asia Minor by the same evening.

Each bit of the Aegean has its own nautical history to tell and its own evidence to present linking it to the nautical pursuits of the folk that inhabited its coasts.

Scholars have concluded that the Aegean developed a civilization with its own character, having a relationship with the neighbouring civilizations of Egypt, Assyria and others.

In the course of the 2nd millennium BC the Cretomycenean civilization left us striking evidence of the activity of Aegean sailors and their ships. One example is the 15th c. BC fresco, “The Fleet”, which Sp. Marinatos uncovered in 1972 while excavating at Akrotiri on Thera. The destruction of this city goes back to the time of the great eruption of the Thera (ancient “Strongyli”) volcano in the 15th c. BC, which caused the submergence of some two thirds of the original island and great destruction in the south Aegean. It is thought that Crete in particular suffered widespread devastation, which led to the decline of the Minoan civilization and its final replacement by the Mycenean.

Toward the end of the 2nd Millennium (12th century BC) the Trojan War occurred, which together with the adventures of Odysseus, were described much later by Homer in his two epic poems, the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey”.

In the Odyssey, especially, there is a wealth of nautical information and description concerning the types of ships and methods of construction, and also about the maritime activity of the period. For the 1st millennium BC the evidence that has come to light is more extensive and definite, thanks to written records and the representations of ships coins and vases and in paintings, reliefs, sculpture, mosaics and incised works.

All these valuable sources have helped create a more complete picture of the evolution of the ship and of the sailor’s work in the Aegean at this time. We have also gained valuable evidence from explorations of the seabed and the raising of wrecks like that of the Kyrenia ship (4th c. BC).

One of the most important developments of the 1st millennium BC was the period of the Great Colonization (8th to 6thc.). During that time the Greeks launched out beyond the Aegean and founded many colonies all along the shores of the Mediterranean (South Italy, Sicily, Nice and Marseilles). There was now a need to build better ships to carry out these voyages, which were long ones for those days. Distinction also began to appear between war and merchant ships (the warships were long, the merchantmen round).

Another important event in the first millennium was the Persian Wars. The naval Battle of Salamis (480 BC), which decided the fate not only of Greece but of the whole of Western Civilization, gave rise to a great increase in trade and consequently to a more vigorous development of the merchant ship in the Aegean. It was at this period that Athens grew to be the dominant naval sea power in the Aegean, and Athenian trade and merchant shipping underwent an unprecedented expansion (Pericles´s “Golden Age”).

Piraeus became from every point of  view an ideal commercial and naval port with a great many harbour installations and splendid buildings. It soon developed into the most important naval and commercial centre of the ancient world in the 5th c. BC. In the centre of the harbour seafront stoas were built, known collectively as the emporium to facilitate commercial transactions.

The emporium comprised warehouses, a commercial exchange, banks, and brokerage offices for chartering  and for the sale and purchase of goods and ships. Shipyards (neoria) were also built for the construction and repair of ships, and ships-sheds (neossoiki) to house and protect the warships. This harbour was named Kantharos.

Ships came to this great harbour laden with every kind of merchandise: grain from Pontus, hides from Cyrene, raisins and perfumes from Rhodes, dates, textile materials and papyrus from Phoenicia and Egypt, rugs and materials from Carchedon, cheese from Sicily, slaves from Phrygia, ivory from Libya, foodstuffs and fruit from every part of the Mediterranean, and a host of other goods. Exports were fewer: wine, oil, honey, metal from Lavrion and pottery; works of art were also exported to the East and the West to adorn the houses of the wealthy.

Pericles´s “Golden Age” was followed by the fratricidal Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BC) which brought with it a period of decline. And then we come to the brilliant period of `Philip of Macedon and his son, Alexander the Great, who literally turned the Eastern Mediterranean into a Greek sea. During this period the merchant ship knew a fresh flowering. After Alexander’s early death, however, his descendants proved incapable of holding his vast empire together, and their conflicts resulted  in the gradual weakening of Greek  sea supremacy, thus laying the ground for the conquest of Greece by the Romans.


Roman Period

Little by little the Greek mainland came under Roman domination and the process was finally completed by the destruction of Corinth in 146 BC. During the 1st c. BC the Romans extended their sovereignty over the Aegean and the whole of Mediterranean.

The Roman Period, although, the Greeks had now lost their independence, the Greek maritime trade continued to exist and prosper. The nautical tradition of the Greeks continued and Aegean sailors, with their experience and boldness, continued to voyage across the seas.

Their merchantmen were smaller than the Roman, some of which were to 1200 tons, but they were fast and manoeuvrable and carried on a great deal of trade and transport in the Aegean and the Mediterranean. Greek sailors, with their unrivalled nautical experience and courage, were also employed by the Romans to man Roman –owned vessels.

During the period of Roman domination a State Merchant Fleet was created, financed by wealthy landowners who formed guilds and were obliged by the state not only to construct, but to maintain and manage the ships of the State Fleet.

These vessels, large and heavy, were chiefly used to transport grain cargoes from Alexandria to the docks of various Italian harbours, especially Portus. The later was the port built by Claudius at the mouth of the river Tiber to serve Rome, which Egypt at that time supplied with 1/3 of the grain she needed.


Byzantine Period

When the State of Byzantium was established the Aegean ceased to be under Roman domination and came under the rules of the Byzantines.

Byzantium did not possess much of a navy until 5th c. The Byzantine Empire was vast, however, and in order to meet the needs of all its provinces it required a large merchant navy. Justinian (527-565 AD) understood this necessity, as well as the great importance of the sea for transport and communications, and he set about organising a fleet. Thus Byzantium slowly became the dominant sea power of the time, with the Aegean playing a leading part.

The new capital, Constantinople, became the biggest center of commercial activity.

The large ships that had been built, chiefly for transporting cargoes of grain from Alexandrian to Rome, began to be used less frequently, because most of these cargoes now went to Constantinople, and for the voyage through the Aegean to the Golden Horn the ships had to be smaller and more manoeuvrable. Furthermore the big ships were slow-moving and not suited to evading sudden attacks by pirates, who constituted a real plague for shipping at the time.

These new requirements led to the construction of smaller, swifter vessels, which came to play an important role in the maritime trade of the Aegean during the Byzantine period. At this time there appeared the fast, light mobile ship known as the dorkon (from the ancient word dorkas which means “roe-buck”) a vessel of some 130-140 tons capacity with lateen sails, which gave better steering and maneuverability. In the same century (6th) the dromon appeared, a new type of fast, light vessel with lateen sails and a protective deck above the rowers. The dromons were chiefly warships, but there were also used as merchantmen on long voyages. 

At the end of the 6th c. The State adopted the system of chartering ships from private owners, who during the 7th c. became an important class that was very influential in Byzantine society, since they played a big part in the imperial economy. These shipowners were also often captains and traders themselves.

This was the time when the maritime law was codified and many beneficial and protective measures were taken for sea-trade.



Period of Turkish Domination and the Greek War of Independence.

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 marked the end of the Byzantine Empire. By that time sea trade had already been taken over by the Venetians, Genoese and other strong maritime powers on the Italian peninsula, who were able, with the financial banking of the wealthy houses of the West or with state subsidies, to built and equip the costly galleys and galleasses.

The islands of the Aegean were gradually conquered, and it needed about two centuries after the fall of Constantinople for Turkish domination over them to be complete.

Consequently maritime trade in certain part of the Aegean continued its course for a long period of time, with more freedom but on a more limited scale, mainly with small vessels, which the Greeks constructed under great difficulties.

The subsequent disputes over possession of the islands and control of the Aegean sea among the great powers of the time (Venetians, Russians, Turks, Franks, Dutch and Anglo – Saxons) in the end proved advantageous for the Greek merchantman, particularly from the 18th c.

Each of these powers wishing to have control of the Aegean, which was a vital area between East and West endeavoured to win the collaboration of the inhabitants of the islands and coasts, in order to exploit the knowledge and experience of those seamen for their own advantage and especially of the island seamen, whom they regarded as the best in the known world.

Moreover, the French Revolution (1789) and the Napoleonic Wars gave the Aegean islanders the change to take advantage of the decline in French commerce and to extend their voyages as far as Spain to take the place of the French merchantmen. They even found opportunities to set up in competition for the sea trade and to displace the Westerners in some parts of the Mediterranean.

Hydra, Spetses, Psara and other Greek islands acquired great wealth at this time for maritime transport and so were able to built large merchantmen, which were also suitable armed for defence and raids and to show their colors in all the harbours of Christendom. They carried grain, various other products and raw materials from Turkey to Italy, the Adriatic, France and Spain, and even beyond the Straits of Gibraltar.

In 1804 three ships from Hydra crossed the Atlantic and arrived at Montevideo, where their sold their cargoes of wine and returned with cargoes of hides.

The profits from the commercial ventures of the islanders were considerable. It was said that on their return from every voyage the ships brought back not ballast but silver and gold.

The six years 1808-1814 were a “golden period” for Greek Shipping. At that time large Greek merchant houses were formed and flourished in Syros, Chios, Constantinople, Odessa, Trieste, Marseilles and London, as well as in different Spanish and Italian ports. From the profits of these six years, on Hydra alone, 40 new ships were built. In 1813 the islands of Hydra, Spetses, Psara, Myconos, Kastelorizo, Skopelos, Kasos, Symi, Santorini and Andros together with Galaxidi and other Greek ports possessed a total of 615 merchant ships, with a tonnage of 153,580 tons, 17,526 men and 5,878 cannon. The Greek merchant fleet continued to grow and by 1816 numbered about 700 ships and 18,000 men.

The Revolution of 1821 for Greek independence from the Turkish rules found the Greek merchant fleet ready for the struggle.

The merchantmen were automatically converted into warships and began action against the Turkish conqueror.

The 18,000 sailors manning the merchant ships, who had acquired useful experience in the course of blockade-running and repelling pirate attacks, were ready for war when the uprising began, and threw themselves into the struggle with great courage. Without the merchant fleet the War of independence would probably never have been won.

The events that followed stirred the interest of the western world and turned public opinion in favour of the Greek Cause. The three great Powers of Britain, France and Russia intervened, and in 1827 the naval battle of Navarino took place.


Period from the Greek War of Independence to the end of the Century.

In 1828 Southern Greece and the islands of the central Aegean were officially proclaimed. The few overage, worn-out merchantmen that remained after the war formed the nucleus for the expansion of the Greek Merchant Marine until the end of the 19th c. The experience captains and sailors played a decisive part in the rebuilding of the fleet and in the new ventures. Greece acquired its first steamships in 1856 with the founding of the Hellenic Steam Navigation Company. Syros grew into the most important mercantile shipping center in the Aegean. In 1861 a steam –powered iron-works was opened on Syros, later to be known as the “Syros Drydocks and Engineering Works” (Neorion), with an Englishman as chief engineer. In it old ships were repaired and new ones built, and it was also the first training establishment for the steam engineers who manned the ever – growing fleet of Greek steamships.

Syros was filled with many shipping offices, bunkering stations, repair units, shipyards, insurance companies and banks. Merchant and shipmasters gathered in Hermoupolis from all the nautical islands of the Aegean and especially from Chios, Spetses, Hydra, Psara, Andros, Myconos, Kasos and Santorini. This great shipping activity on Syros continued until almost the end of the century, with a parallel development following later on in Piraeus.

By the end of the century the decrease in sailing ships became more rapid, and they began to give place to mechanically propelled ships. The beginning of World War found the Greek Merchant Marine with 475 steamships and some 1,100 sailing ships.

In the 20th c. the Greek Merchant Marine underwent great fluctuations. In the midst of them, however, the Greek’s close ties with the sea, his inherent seamanship, his stubbornness, courage and faith in the value of shipping remained unchanged, and these qualities helped the Greek merchant fleet at the beginning of the 1980´s to take first place in the world


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