ANCIENT GREEK INFRASTRUCTURE, TRANSPORTATION AND COMMUNICATIONS

ANCIENT GREEK TRANSPORTATION AND INFRASTRUCTURE

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Leather sandal soles
Egyptians, Assyrians and Greeks had chariots. The ancient Greeks seem to have used chariots mainly as transport and racing vehicles. One of the reasons for this was the rugged Greek countryside did not provide enough grazing land to feed a lot of horses, nor did it lend itself to chariot battles which need a lot of flat open space.

The Mycenaeans built roads graded for wagons and chariots. However ships were the primary vehicle for moving goods. Overland travel was difficult. Much fewer goods could be carried and the going was more difficult.

Ancient Greece had a postal system. The cost of sending a letter was around 2 talents and 300 drachmas, a considerable amount of money.

First Wheels and Wheeled Vehicles

The wheel, some scholars have theorized, was first used to make pottery and then was adapted for wagons and chariots. The potter’s wheel was invented in Mesopotamia in 4000 B.C. Some scholars have speculated that the wheel on carts were developed by placing a potters wheel on its side. Other say: first there were sleds, then rollers and finally wheels. Logs and other rollers were widely used in the ancient world to move heavy objects. It is believed that 6000-year-old megaliths that weighed many tons were moved by placing them on smooth logs and pulling them by teams of laborers.

Early wheeled vehicles were wagons and sleds with a wheel attached to each side. The wheel was most likely invented before around 3000 B.C.---the approximate age of the oldest wheel specimens---as most early wheels were probably shaped from wood, which rots, and there isn't any evidence of them today. The evidence we do have consists of impressions left behind in ancient tombs, images on pottery and ancient models of wheeled carts fashioned from pottery.◂

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Greek chariot
Evidence of wheeled vehicles appears from the mid 4th millennium B.C., near-simultaneously in Mesopotamia, the Northern Caucasus and Central Europe. The question of who invented the first wheeled vehicles is far from resolved. The earliest well-dated depiction of a wheeled vehicle---a wagon with four wheels and two axles---is on the Bronocice pot, clay pot dated to between 3500 and 3350 B.C. excavated in a Funnelbeaker culture settlement in southern Poland. Some sources say the oldest images of the wheel originate from the Mesopotamian city of Ur A bas-relief from the Sumerian city of Ur---dated to 2500 B.C.---hows four onagers (donkeylike animals) pulling a cart for a king. and were supposed to date sometime from 4000 BC. [Partly from Wikipedia]

In 2003---at a site in the Ljubljana marshes, Slovenia, 20 kilometers southeast of Ljubljana--- Slovenian scientists claimed they found the world’s oldest wheel and axle. Dated with radiocarbon method by experts in Vienna to be between 5,100 and 5,350 years old the found in the remains of a pile-dwelling settlement, the wheel has a radius of 70 centimeters and is five centimeters thick. It is made of ash and oak. Surprisingly technologically advanced, it was made of two ashen panels of the same tree. The axle, whose age could not be precisely established, is about as old as the wheel. It is 120 centimeters long and made of oak. [Source: Slovenia News]

The wheel and axle were found near a wooden canoe. Both the wheel and the axle had been scorched, probably to protect them against pests. Slovenian experts surmise that the wheel they found belonged to a single-axle cart. The aperture for the axle on the wheel is square, which means the wheel and the axle rotated together and, considering the rough ground, the cart probably had only one axle. We can only guess what the cart itself was like. The Ljubljana marshes are a perfect place for old objects to be preserved. There have been many finds uncovered in this area. Apart from the wooden wheel, axle and canoe, there have been innumerable objects found which are up to 6,500 years old.

A wheel dated to 3000 B.C., was found near Lake Van in eastern Turkey. Wheels with simialr dates have been found in germany and Switzerland. One very old wheel was a wooden disc discovered at an archeological sight near Zurich. The wheel now can be seen in the Zurich museum.

First Domesticated Horses

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horse on the Elgin Marbles
The first domesticated horses appeared around 6000 to 5000 years ago. The first hard evidence of mounted riders dates to about 1350 B.C. Uncovering information about ancient horsemen however is difficult. They left behind no written records and relatively few other groups wrote about them. For the most part they were nomads who had few possession, and never stayed in one place for long, making it difficult for archeologists---who have traditionally excavated ancient cities and settlements of settled people---to dig up artifacts connected with them.

For similar reasons it is difficult to work out how different horsemen groups interacted and how individuals within the group behaved. What little is known about group interaction has been learned mostly from the work of linguists. Most of what is known about their behavior is based on observations of modern groups or a hand full of descriptions by ancient historians. .

Based on these sources, scholars believe that early nomadic horsemen lived in small groups, often organized by clan or tribe, and generally avoided forming large groups. Small groups have more mobility and flexibility to move to new pastures and water sources. Large groups are much more unwieldy and more likely to generate feuds and other internal problems. On the steppe there generally was enough land for all so the only time horsemen needed to unite was to face a common threat.

The Eurasia steppe is the only place that horses survived after the last Ice Age. Domestication is believed to have occurred around 3000 B.C. when horses suddenly appeared in places where they hadn't been seen before like Turkey and Switzerland. It is difficult to pin down when domestication took place partly because the bones of wild horses and domesticated horses are virtually the same. [Source: William Speed Weed, Discover magazine, March 2002]

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5th century BC figurine
Horses are believed to have been domesticated from wild horses from Central Asia about 6,000 years ago. Ancient men viewed horses primarily as a source of meat and hunted them like other animals. One effective method of hunting horses was driving them over cliffs.

The first domesticated horses are believed to have been horses that were herded rather than hunted. Later they were used as beast of burdens, and later still they were ridden. Horse are believed to have first been ridden to keep track of domesticated animals that ranged over large expanses on the steppe. Some people have speculated that the first horsemen drank the blood of their animals as cattle-herding tribes in East Africa do today.

The first horseback riders and domesticated horses were originally believed to have come from Sredni Stog culture, a site in the steppe areas east of the Dnieper River and north of the Black Sea in what is now the Ukraine, dated between 4200 and 3500 B.C. Russian archeologists excavated Sredny Stog in the 1960s and found scraps of bone and horn that resembled the cheek pieces of bridles plus wear and tear on the teeth of an excavated horse that resembled the wear and tear caused by wearing a bit. Archeologist David Anthony of Hartwick College in New York examined horse teeth found at Sredni Stog sites and concluded the horse teeth dated to 400 B.C., and the site not the home of 6000-year-old riders.

Carts, Onangers and Horses

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Bronze horse
Animals pulling carts preceded mounted riders by as much as 2,000 years. A bas-relief from the Sumerian city of Ur, dated to 2500 B.C., shows four onangers (donkey-like animals) pulling a cart for a king. The first animals used to pull sledges (carts without wheels) were probably oxen (bulls made more docile by castration). The first carts were probably sledges with logs rolled underneath them.

Over time onangers and donkeys---animals that often will not move even when furiously whipped---were later replaced by horses who are less stubborn, faster, and have a lower threshold for pain than a donkeys. In the second millennia B.C. horses were increasingly to pull weights on the Central Asian steppes. These horses were smaller and shaggier than modern horses, and much more difficult to control than oxen. Deep-furrowed plows also began to be utilized by farmers in the second millennia B.C. Muscular oxen proved to be much better suited for this kind of work than horses.

Herdsman at this time had learned to breed sheep, goats, and cattle, and it follows that they applied what they learned about breeding to horses. Through breeding, horses were made manageable enough to attach to carts with the mouth-fitted bit . By contrast donkeys were controlled by reins attached to nose rings and oxen were harnessed to yokes shaped around their shoulders.

First Horse-Pulled Chariots

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Chariots preceded mounted riders by at least 1,000 years. Because oxen were better suited for pulling plows and heavy loads, horses were attached to lighter vehicles that evolved into chariots. Lightweight chariots, employing technology similar to that used to make racing bicycles light, could move quite fast. Ancient Egyptian chariots, pulled by a pair of horses and weighing only 17 pounds, could reach easily reach speeds of 20 miles-per-hour. A cart pulled by oxen, by contrast, rarely exceeded two miles-per-hour.

Chariots preceded mounted horses and saddles in part because the early domesticated horses were small and not strong enough to support men on their backs. The first chariots were probably used by shepherds to help them hunt wolves, leopards and bears that threatened their flocks and were alter adapted for warfare.

The important elements of a chariot were the wheels, chassis, draught pole and metal fittings. Advancement in metallurgy, woodworking, tanning and leatherworking, the uses of glues, bone and sinew all made the construction of chariots possible but the most important development of all was the improvement in physique of horse to pull such a vehicle.

Earliest Evidence of Chariots

John Noble Wilford wrote in the New York Times, “In ancient graves on the steppes of Russia and Kazakhstan, archeologists have uncovered skulls and bones of sacrificed horses and, perhaps most significantly, traces of spoked wheels. These appear to be the wheels of chariots, the earliest direct evidence for the existence of the two-wheeled high-performance vehicles that transformed the technology of transport and warfare.[Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, February 22, 1994]

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“The discovery sheds new light on the contributions to world history by the vigorous pastoral people who lived in the broad northern grasslands, dismissed as barbarians by their southern neighbors. From these burial customs, archeologists surmise that this culture bore a remarkable resemblance to the people who a few hundred years later called themselves Aryans and would spread their power, religion and language, with everlasting consequence, into the region of present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India. The discovery could also lead to some revision in the history of the wheel, the quintessential invention, and shake the confidence of scholars in their assumption that the chariot, like so many other cultural and mechanical innovations, had its origin among the more advanced urban societies of the ancient Middle East.

New analysis of material from the graves shows that these chariots were built more than 4,000 years ago, strengthening the case for their origin in the steppes rather than in the Middle East. If the ages of the burial sites are correct, said Dr. David W. Anthony, who directed the dating research, chariots from the steppes were at least contemporary with and perhaps even earlier than the earliest Middle East chariots. The first hint of them in the Middle East is on clay seals, dated a century or two later. The seal impressions, from Anatolia, depict a light, two-wheel vehicle pulled by two animals, carrying a single figure brandishing an ax or hammer.

"Scholarly caution tells me the matter is not resolved," said Dr. Anthony, an anthropologist at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y. "But my gut feeling is, there's a good chance the chariot was invented first in the north." While praising Dr. Anthony's work, Mary Littauer, an independent archeologist and co-author of "Wheeled Vehicles and Ridden Animals in the Ancient Near East" (Brill, 1979), was not ready to concede the point. "It's still debatable," she said. "A spoked wheel is not necessarily a chariot, only a light cart on the way to becoming chariots."

Other archeologists and historians said they would not be surprised to learn that the chariot had originated in the steppes. After all, pastoralists there were probably the first to tame and ride horses; as Dr. Anthony determined in other research reported four years ago, this may have occurred at least 6,000 years ago. Then they developed wagons with solid disk wheels, and many centuries later learned to make the lighter spoked wheels, the breakthrough invention leading to the fast, maneuverable chariot. The results of Dr. Anthony's dating research was presented at a meeting of the American Anthropological Association and an interpretation of the results was published in Archaeology, the magazine of the Archeological Institute of America.

Petroleum in the Ancient World

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Misfired clay lamps
The first references to oil were made on cuneiform tablets in Babylonia in 2000 B.C. It was referred to as naptu , which means "that which flares up." Naptu was used in construction, road building, waterproofing, skin ointments and cements. One cuneiform tablet from that era read: "If a certain place in the land naptu oozes out, that country will walk in widowhood. If the water of a river bears...oil, want will seize on the peoples." Another states: "May donkey urine be your drink, naptu your ointment."

In the 5th century B.C. Herodotus described a famous spot in Persia where oil oozed from the ground. He wrote that a man with a wineskin "makes a dip with this, draws the liquid up, and then pours it over the receptacle, from there it passes into another, where it turns into three different shapes; the salt and the asphalt solidify while they collect on clay containers."

In ancient times oil came primarily from seepage. No one thought of drilling for in the ground until the 19th century. In the 1st century B.C., the Greek historian Diodorus wrote: "of all the marvels of Babylonia the most amazing is the mass of asphalt produced there...Uncountable numbers of people have drawn from it, as from some vast spring, yet the supply remains intact."

In the 1st century A.D., the Greek geographer Strabo wrote: "if naphtha is brought near a flame, it catches fire, and if you smear some on the body and come near a flame, the body will catch fire. It cannot be quenched with water---it just burns harder---unless a whole lot is used, but it can be smothered and quenched with mud, vinegar, alum or birdlime."

Romans burned petroleum in the their lamps instead of olive oil. The Byzantines used naptha for their Greek Fire weapons.

Ships in Ancient Greece

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building a ship
Greek ships were built of wood and had shelters to protect the crew from the fierce Mediterranean sun. Over the open sea they traveled using hand-woven square sails. Some were also outfit with oars. The planks were usually made of a soft wood like sealed pine placed across tennons of live oak and fastened with oak pegs and sealed with sap and resin. The keels and steering oars were made from a hard wood such as oak.

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the largest human-power ship ever was a catamaran galley with 4,000 rowers built in Alexandria Egypt in 210 B.C. for Ptolemy II. The vessel was 420 feet long and had 8 men on each 57-foot oar.

Anchors were damaged or lost so often that ships often carried several of them. Rock was used as ballast. Early anchors were made of stone. Anchors from the 5th century B.C. had a lead core and wooden bod and looked like a Christian cross with a pick ax head, perpendicular to the cross, at the bottom. The weight of the lead help drive the pick-ax part of the anchor into the sea bed.

Many ships had decorative “eyes” placed on the bow of the ship to help guide the ship through the sea and avoid trouble. They were generally made from marble and were found on both merchant ships and war vessels. The custom remains alive today. One the roads of Turkey, truck drivers have “eyes” painted on their bumpers that serve a similar purpose.

Book: Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson

Ancient Greek Merchant Ships

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cargo boat
Merchant ships were generally sailing ships designed for sea travel or river travel. They had a few oars for maneuvering close to shore or in shallow water. They did not have large numbers of oars like fighting ships, which were designed to ram enemy ships.

Much of the cargo--- usually grain, olive oil or wine---was carried amphorae (large clay jars) with two handles near the mouth that made it possible to pick them up and carry them. They generally were two to three feet tall and carried about seven gallons. Their shapes and markings were unique and these helped archaeologists date them and identify their place of origin.

A ship found off Cyprus, dated to 300 B.C., was 65 feet long and capable of carrying 2,000 to 3,000 amphorae. It was made of pine planks joined edge to edge with great skill.

The wreck of a merchant ship dated to 440-425 B.C., during the Greek Golden Age, was found in waters less than 100 meters deep off the west coast in Turkey about 40 kilometers south of Izmir. The ship was carefully excavated by archaeologists and its contents were brought to the surface and analyzed. The mid-size vessel was most likely used for coast-hugging, short-haul trips, most likely around the island of Chios. It mostly likely went down in a storm. The wooden hull had deteriorated but the shape of the ship could be determined by the contents that had been left behind. [Source: George Bass, National Geographic, March 2002]

Mostly what was discovered was amphorae. There were also hydria, kraters, drinking cups and pitchers made in nearby Chios, and they appear to have been cargo. Among the more interesting find were amphorae with cattle bones; oil lamps, one-handled cups; and the lead cores of wooden anchors.

See Rome, Trade, Archaeology

Large Ancient Greek Ships

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fighting ships
As time went the ships became larger and larger. Galleys rated as "fours," "fives," and "sixes" were introduced between 400 B.C. and 300 B.C. They were followed up by "16s," "20s" and "30s." The Emperor Ptolemy IV built a massive "40." The numbers refereed to the number pulling each triad of oars. Ships with more than three bank were built but ultimately they proved to be impractical.

Describing one of the largest boats, a 2nd century Greek wrote: "It was [420 feet] long, [58 feet] from gangway to plank and [72 feet] high to the prow ornament...It was double-prowed and double-sterned...During a trial run it took aboard over 4,000 oarsmen and 400 other crewmen, and on deck 2,850 marines."

In the late 1990s an English-Greek team built a 170-oar trireme at a cost of around $640,000. Held together with 20,000 tenons fastened with 40,000 oak pegs, it set sail with a an international crew of 132 men and 40 women. Describing, the team in action, Timothy Green wrote in Smithsonian, "the crew rowed together and sang together, getting up high spirits and up to seven knots.

Sea Travel and Routes in Ancient Greece

Xenophon described a "long day" journey by an oared vessel of 140 miles between Byzantium to Heracles on the southern shore of the Black Sea. The long day was believed to be 16 hours traveled at seven or eight knots an hour.

It was originally thought trade vessels hugged the coast within view of land and that Homer’s descriptions of open seas voyages and battling fierce storms was pure fantasy. Evidence for this was the fact that most shipwrecks were found near the shore.

But now it appears that ships regularly crossed the open Mediterranean out of site of land from Italy to Carthage in Northern Africa. These routes saved time and earned merchants sizable profits but some times ships was sunk in storms.

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Greek colonies in Italy

Evidence of this includes a Greek shipwreck, dated to 300 B.C., found in 10,000-foot-deep water in the middle of the eastern Mediterranean about 200 miles southwest of Cyprus. Surrounded by about 2,500 amphorae used to carry wine, the ship is the deepest ancient shipwreck and is believed to have been carrying wine from Rhodes to Alexandria. It was found by a team searching for a sunken Israeli submarine. The island of Rhodes controlled much of the sea trade in the eastern Mediterranean until the Roman era.

Fighting Ships, See Military

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum, Boat pictures from the Terra Romana Project / Forum Navis Romana

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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