Travel by Sea in Ancient Greece
Due to the mountainous features of the Greek landscape, overland travel was difficult. The Greek coastline provided an abundance of harbors and inlets for shipping. In ancient Greece, nearly 700 small communities were within forty miles of the coast. These communities typically enjoyed more wealth than their inland counterparts.
Greece had limited food supplies due to the rocky and mountainous landscape. To make up for this, the Greeks produced goods to trade for food from other areas around the Mediterranean. The bulk of this food was transported by boat. For example, it is estimated that Athens imported over three-fourths of its grain at the height of its population.
In 1967, the wreckage of an ancient Greek cargo ship was discovered near the city of Kyrenia in Cyprus. This wreck gave archeologists great insight into the shipping practices of the ancient Greeks. The cargo of the “Kyrenia” ship included 400 large jars of wine, 10,000 almonds, and over twenty-five millstones. Evidence seems to suggest the ancient ship had a crew of four and was steered by one person with two oars at the rear of the ship. A replica of the ship was built and sailed at about two knots on the Mediterranean Sea.
Although water transportation was a great asset to the ancient Greeks, it was not without dangers. Pirating was common, especially around Delous, until the fifth century when Athens began to patrol the seas with its large navy. Even though the Mediterranean Sea was calm compared to the oceans, terrible storms were another hazard that endangered the ships and their crews. One example of a treacherous voyage was when Alexander the Great sent an expedition of 1000 ships to the Indian Ocean via the Mediterranean Sea. The crews suffered terrible seasickness, and they were exhausted from the long voyage.
Typically, ships sailed during the day and anchored at night. They would sail in sight of land and found harbors or inlets to anchor for the night. Lighthouses were established to guide ships to safe waters.