Ancient Naval Base Discovered Underwater Near Athens
In 493 BC, Greek general and politician Themistocles urged Athens to build a naval force of 200 triremes as a bulwark against the Persians, who’d attacked and been repelled in 490 on land at the Battle of Marathon. Within three years, Persia unsuccessfully attacked Greece again, including by sea this time. So instead of the West being influenced by Persia, it remained under the sway of Greek religion and culture, including the democratic style of government that is purportedly the epitome of civilization.
The fortunes of the Greek navy waxed and waned over the centuries, but for nearly five centuries its main base was just outside Athens at Piraeus, which has been under exploration for 15 years.
This week, a Danish archaeologist heading the underwater archaeological expedition said that he has found the remnants of the ancient Athenian naval base in the city of Piraeus’s Mounichia and Zea harbors.
Dr. Bjørn Lovén of the Zea Harbor Project and University of Copenhagen, leading a group of Greek archaeologists, calls the ship-sheds and fortifications one of the ancient world’s largest structures. They were a key feature of Greece’s defenses and a base for offensives against its enemies around the length and breadth of the Mediterranean Sea for centuries.
Ship-sheds with a ship at bay in a drawing from the University of Copenhagen
“Based on pottery and carbon-14 dating from a worked piece of wood found inside the foundations of a colonnade, we dated the ship-sheds to around 520-480 BCE, or shortly thereafter, and this means that these sheds probably housed the ships which were deployed to fight the Persian invasion forces during the famous Battle of Salamis 480 BCE,” says Lovén in a press release. “This naval battle was a pivotal event in Greek history; it is difficult to predict what would have happened if the Greek fleet had lost at Salamis, but it is clear that a Persian victory would have had immense consequences for subsequent cultural and social developments in Europe. The victory at Salamis rightly echoes through history and awakens awe and inspiration around the world today.”
A video from Copenhagen University (see below) says: “The Greek fleet was greatly outnumbered … Against the odds, the Greeks won the battle of Salamis and stopped the Persian invasion. The key element of this victory was the 200 Athenian triremes. This huge historic victory meant the modern world was influenced by Greece rather than Persia, and the Athenian navy developed into the backbone of Europe’s first democracy.”
The video calls it the victory against Persia an “extraordinary historical development.”
Video produced by Dr. Bjørn Lovén of the Zea Harbor Project on the Battle of Salamis
While many see Western culture and Greek in particular as the height of achievement, the ancient Persians had culture, government and religions that were second to none. An article on Livius.org explores “whether the Athenians, in the age after the Persian Wars (say after 479), have adapted Persian ideas on the fields of architecture and government.”
Some might say the ancient Persians were more advanced because while Greece was built on slave labor, Cyrus the Great had abolished slavery before the Greek and Persian wars.
The Greeks built the harbor so it could be closed off by huge gates fortified by towers on both sides. They built additional fortifications that could barrage any attacking ships, which would have made an assault on the naval base nearly suicidal, says Ha’aretz. Additionally, the Greeks could pull a huge chain across the harbor mouth to delay any bombarding attackers.
“We have identified, for the first time, the 5th century BC naval bases of Piraeus – the ship-sheds, the slipways and the harbor fortifications," Lovén, told Haaretz.
The discovery of the two naval bases at Piraeus, one at Zea Harbor and one at Mounichia Harbor, came in 2010, when an old fisherman led guided the archaeologists to them. He told them he used to fish from the top of an ancient column in Mounichia Harbor when he was a boy.
The harbors of Mounichia and Zea are so polluted today that special equipment is needed to dive there. (Zea Harbor Project photo)
"Some days, underwater visibility in the harbour was as low as 20 centimetres so we have had extremely poor working conditions,” Dr. Lovén says in the press release. “However, we did finally locate the remains and excavated six ship-sheds that were used to protect the Greek ships from shipworm and from drying when they were not needed on the sea. And the sheds were monumental: the foundations under the columns were 1.4 by 1.4 metres, and the sheds themselves were 7-8 metres tall and 50 metres long.”
From 480 BC on Greece would go on to have naval and land battles with Sparta; the Persians in Thrace, Asia Minor and Egypt; Corinth, Sicily and Italy; Macedon; and Rome, after which war the harbor and ship-sheds in Piraeus were destroyed in 86 BC. The Spartans had destroyed the harbor’s defenses and ship-sheds once before, in 404 BC.
For a short history of Greek naval and military affairs, see this link.
Top image: An archaeologist excavates a ship-shed at Mounichia Harbour on a very rare day of good visibility in the waters. (University of Copenhagen photo)
By Mark Miller