The Ignored Amazingly Huge Ships of Ancient History


Here’s one surprise you should enjoy. Test your knowledge.



What about Christopher Columbus’ ships? Do you know, Columbus’ whole expedition could mount only 88 men. These were separated onto three ships. Two of these ships were only 50 feet in length, about the size of a small fishing boat. Okay, that’s easy to picture.

Now, let’s get into a time machine, so to speak, and travel back further… further… further… Back to ancient Greece. When we think of ancient battleships, we think of the tiny ships shown in a movie like Ben Hur. They had 50 or so men, and a single tier of oars. That may reflect our evolutionary thinking that the ancients, compared to us, were primitive.

While we may flatter ourselves with our imagined knowledge of ancient history, the actual facts coming to light tell quite a different story.



You ask, Do we have any descriptions of these ships, so as to know  how large they really were? Yes, we do. Fortunately we do have a good description of one of the early 3rd century ships. In 280 BC a naval battle took place in the Aegean Sea. The largest ship was named the Leontifera. It had 8 tiers of oars, with 100 oars per tier. Just calculate that. That’s right, on each side were 800 rowers – a total of 1,600 men. But that’s not all. On the upper deck or hatches were also 1,200 fighting men who were under two special commanders.

Although we are not given the dimensions of the ship, the oarsmen on each tier would have to be at least 3 feet apart (that being the approximate distance between airline seats). For 100 rowers per tier, allowing for a bow and a stern, this ship could easily have been 400 to 500 feet (120 to 150 meters) long. We should realise also that those ancient battles were not just single morning events. The ships could have been at sea for a few days before and after the battle. This ship had a crew of over 3,000 men. Can you imagine  the provisions it would have to carry!

Another fleet, built around 294 BC, is briefly described by Plutarch. He says, “Up until this time, no man had seen a ship of 15 or 16 banks of oars… but they had a speed and effectiveness which was more remarkable than their great size.” 
(Plutarch, Lives – Demetrius, Book 1, chapter 43 in the original work. 9:107-109, Loeb Classical Library No. 101, Harvard University Press, 1996)

Athenaeus describes a large warship built by Ptolemy Philopator (c. 244-205 BC). It was 420 feet long, 57 feet wide and 72 feet high to the top of her gunwale. Its 4 steering oars were 45 feet long. It had 40 tiers of oars. When we say 40 tiers we mean 40 levels of rowers! The oars on the uppermost tier were 57 feet long. The oars were counter-balanced with lead to make them easier to handle. It had 12 under-girders 900 feet long. Now, are you ready for this? Are you sitting down? The crew consisted of 400 sailors, 4,000 rowers and 2,850 men in arms – a total of 7,250 men.
(Athenaeus, The Deipnosophists, Book 5, section 203f-204b. 2:421-425, Loeb Classical Library No. 208, Harvard University Press, 1987)



How on earth could you get enough room for so many oarsmen? It has been suggested that to array the massive number of banks (tiers) the vessel may have been twin-hulled. This would enable the 40 banks to comprise 20 each side.

Some diagrams of smaller vessels show oar openings sometimes arrayed diagonally. This offset allowed for a greater number of banks for a given hull height. Whatever the solutions, it would be a mistake to under-estimate the ingenuity of the ancients. Just try to visualise it.

This ship had a crew that was almost twice as large as that of the largest aircraft carrier we have ever built. And it would have had to carry provisions for all on board.

Another ship described by Athenaeus had a catapult designed by Archimedes that could hurl a 120 pound (55 kilogram) stone over 600 feet. (Ibid., Book 5, Section 204c-209e. 2:425-447)


Now, a word about ancient records. Although we can never be 100% certain of the accuracy of many ancient documents, one may trust the document in the absence of reasons to believe it is a fabrication. This is the standard procedure in historical research, whenever a document purports to be giving sober history.

There is consistency to the pattern of ship descriptions as given by ancient historians, such as Pliny and others, and no suggestion of exaggeration. In the light of this, the dimensions of Noah’s Ark as given in the book of Genesis (300 cubits – 525 feet long) begins to look more like an authentic historical report.



Egyptian open-sea ships were up to 350 feet long and 60 feet wide, with as many as four decks. The Pharaohs of the Ramesside dynasty, 1200 BC, were able to mount expeditions of 10,000 miners across the Indian Ocean to South Africa and Sumatra.

Ancient China built ships from 250 to 600 feet long – far larger than anything built by later European explorers.

Zheng He’s ship compared to Columbus’ Santa Maria


Two Roman ships were found in the 1920s at the bottom of Lake Nemi, and between 1927 and 1932 were restored, only to be destroyed by German bombers toward the end of World War II. These luxury cruisers contained accommodation for 120 passengers in 30 cabins of 4 berths each, plus crew’s quarters.


They were richly decorated with mosaic-tiled floors; walls of cypress panelling; metal columns, marble statues; and paintings in the lounge. There was a library; a ceiling sundial; a salon where a small orchestra entertained the passengers; a large restaurant and kitchen; copper heaters which provided hot water for the baths; and modern plumbing, with bronze pipes and taps. The underwater part of the hull was sheathed with lead, fastened with copper nails. Large luxury vessels of Greece and Rome contained temples and swimming pools; also dining halls of marble and alabaster.

Oh boy! We could go on. Yes, they travelled all over the world – even as far as Antarctica.
Jonathan Gray  –

PS: Ancient, HUGE sea-vessels
Contrary to Hollywood movies, ancient vessels were often extremely large, many with between 5 and 40 rows of oars. (As in 40 levels or stories of oars-men.) Records of large, ancient sea-vessels abound, including this account of the Leontifera by Ussher:

“When Antigonus, surnamed Gonatas, the son of Demetrius Poliorcetes, heard how Seleucus was murdered, he made an expedition into Macedonia. He planned to get there before Ceraunus could, with his army and naval forces. However, Ceraunus had all Lysimachus’ fleet in readiness, and set out and met him in a good battle formation at sea. In his navy, ships were sent from Heraclea in Pontus, some of six, some of five tiers of oars. These kinds of ships were called “Aphracta”.
The largest ship of all had eight tiers of oars and was called the Leontifera. She was admired by all for her large size and exquisite construction. In her were a hundred oars per tier, so that on each side there were eight hundred rowers which made 1600 in all. On the upper deck or hatches there were 1200 fighting men who were under two special commanders. When the battle began, Ceraunus won and Antigonus was forced to flee with all his navy. In this fight, the ships from Heraclea performed the best and among them the Leontifera did the best of all.

Imagine a vessel with a crew of over 3000!

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