Friday, April 27, 2007

The Athenian navy: could they beat the 300?

I am going to start by pasting in a post from Adrian Murdoch's blog, Bread and Circuses and my own reply to that post:

The faculty of biological science at Leeds has some interesting research about the fitness of ancient rowers:

We may not be as fit as the people of ancient Athens, despite all that modern diet and training can provide, according to research by University of Leeds exercise physiologist, Dr Harry Rossiter.

Dr Rossiter measured the metabolic rates of modern athletes rowing a reconstruction of an Athenian trireme, a 37m long warship powered by 170 rowers seated in three tiers. Using portable metabolic analysers, he measured the energy consumption of a sample of the athletes powering the ship over a range of different speeds to estimate the efficiency of the human engine of the warship.

By comparing these findings to classical texts that record details of their endurance, he realised that the rowers of ancient Athens - around 500BC - would had to have been highly elite athletes, even by modern day standards.

Thanks fo AJ for passing this over.

And here's what I said, more or less:

[The demos (common citizens) who were paid to row Athenian warships] have often been accused of being a belligerent, imperialistic group because more war meant more pay (and presumably more profit from the empire).

If these guys were a large group of physical fitness fanatics, too, you can see how they might be a rather fearsome political pressure group.
Would you want to face these guys in a heated debate in the assembly -- 6000 overexcited Greeks all determined to exercise the sovereignty of the people?

I still have not seen 300, but when it came out lots of people remarked on the physiques of the Spartan heroes, and somebody said, roughly, that beautiful architecture and literary debates and even democracy were all very well, but sometimes you needed people who could give the opposition a kick where it counted for something.

Even at the time I thought, "Friend, you have no appreciation for the dynamic of Athenian democracy;" now I think, "Friend, who had better sixpacks, the rowers or the infantrymen?"

Bread and Circuses is well worth a look for all sorts of ancient material, especially concerning the Later Roman Empire. See this on a movie on the last emperor in the west.

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