Sackers of Cities, Rowers of Ships:
Eastern Mediterranean Naval Warfare
The Problem of Bronze Age Sea‐Power
Military uses of the sea in the LBA eastern Mediterranean have been comparatively ignored. This is partly due to issues of evidence, but also to the
views of scholars such as Chester Starr. Starr’s belief is that there could be no concept of “sea‐power” prior to c.500 BC, because of a lack of political
units with sufficient resources to operate a fleet, and the limited sea‐keeping capabilities of the galley.
It is my belief that there is now sufficient evidence to make this stance worth revising, and in this presentation I seek to not only demonstrate
evidence for the organised use of sea power in the LBA Mediterranean, but also suggest precisely how that power was enacted.
Evidence For Bronze Age Sea-Power
EGYPT: Tuthmosis III used vessels to LEVANT: Levantine powers were,
transport troops to attack Syria, and intense users of the sea, often as the
reports the capture of Syrian vessels. proxies of the Great Powers (Egypt
After this, the use of sea‐power in and the Hittites). The Hittites
Egypt appears to decline, and appear to have been able to make
Ramesses III’s victory over the “Sea significant demands of the Ugaritic
Peoples” took place in the Nile Delta fleet, and may have used Levantine
rather than in the open sea. vessels in order to defeat the fleet of
The West House Fresco At Akrotiri
AEGEAN: Evidence for Aegean naval seafaring is provided
by the West House Fresco at Akrotiri, although opinion is
divided on whether it represents a Cretan, Cycladic, or
Mainland Linear B records indicate interest in the
construction and crewing of vessels. Mycenaean military
An Egyptian warship of Ramesses III. activity at sea may be inferred from the discovery of a naval A Levantine vessel depicted on the
fresco at Pylos, and also the unrest in the Aegean islands in wall of an Egyptian tomb.
the period LH I – LH II, corresponding to the formation of
the mainland palatial centres.
The Nature of LBA Naval Warfare
Representations from Egypt, the Levant, Cyprus, and Crete
indicate a general tradition of eastern Mediterranean ship‐
building, in which vessels were constructed with a crescentic
hull and a curved keel. Such vessels were primarily
designed to be sailed rather than rowed, and could not be
Warfare using such vessels would take place in the form of
sea‐battles rather than troop landings. This is again
indicated by evidence from across the eastern
Mediterranean: the long spears shown at the bow of the
vessels in the West House Fresco at Akrotiri, the Hittite
account of a naval battle which talks of “seizing” ships “to An Egyptian vessel of c.1400 BC, typical of the eastern
set fire to them in the sea”, and the depictions of Egyptian Mediterranean style of ship‐building.
soldiers using grappling hooks to overturn Sea Peoples
vessels at Medinet Habu. Mycenaean vessels broke from this general eastern Mediterranean
pattern. Mycenaean vessels were galleys which were designed to be
primarily rowed, and featured a flat keel which would allow rapid
beaching. Such galleys would be used for raid‐type warfare involving
the landing of troops, rather than engagements at sea.
Such a discovery is interesting in light of the events of the latter part of
the Bronze Age: the spread of Mycenaenan culture into the Aegean, the
apparent rise in the levels of Mediterranean piracy, and the “Sea People”
Mycenaean vessels, showing the flatter keel raids which brought the LBA to a close.
to allow rapid beaching
Stephen O’Brien, SACE, The University of Liverpool, Hartley Building, Liverpool, L69 3GS