It is believed that seafaring people appeared in Greece long before the first farmers and shepherds. Some 10,000 years ago, according to archaeological discoveries, these seafarers began to explore the Aegean. At Franchthi Cave in the Peloponnese tools dating to the 8th millennium BC were found, made of obsidian (a kind of hard volcanic glass) from Melos, showing that this material must have been transported to the Peloponnese in some sort of boat. This is the oldest evidence for the transport of goods by sea. On Syros pottery was found with incised representations of oared boats, which were in use among the Cycladic Islands in the 3rd millennium BC. The inhabitants of the Cyclades were the first to put keels on their boats, which enabled them to voyage in the deep sea (Sp. Marinatos).
The open sea held no terrors for these early sailors; on the contrary, it was a positive factor, an incitement to action, movement and adventure. The closeness and clear visibility between the islands must have been an invitation and a challenge to sail across and explore the neighbouring lands. The ancient inhabitants of the Aegean, apart from the needs of survival that pushed them to travel, must also have been full of curiosity to know the islands nearby. This is how the first short exploratory wanderings across the sea must have begun, to become later on hazardous voyages to distant lands. During the Bronze Age, ships sailed to every corner of the Aegean.
Other factors that played α part in the formation of the sea-loving (thalassoharis) character of the Aegean dwellers were the climate and geography of the region. The short spring, long hot summer, wonderful autumn and mild winter make the Greek climate the pleasantest in the Mediterranean. The indented coasts of the Aegean and the sea scattered with islands must have acted as an incentive to the inhabitants to take to α nautical way of life. Hence the sea very early on became a bridge linking Europe and Asia. The distance from island to island is small. A sailing vessel, putting out at dawn from the eastern shore of the Greek peninsula could, with a stern wind, make the opposite coast of Asia Minor by the same evening.
Each bit of the Aegean has its own nautical history to tell and its own evidence to present linking it to the nautical pursuits of the folk that inhabited its coasts. Scholars have concluded that the Aegean developed a civilization with its own character, having nο relationship with the neighbouring civilizations of Egypt, Assyria and others. Νo other people, for example, has Greek writing.
Ιn the course of the 2nd millennium the Cretomycenean civilization left us striking evidence of the activity of Aegean sailors and their ships. One example is the l5th c. BC fresco,” The Fleet", which Sp. Marinatos uncovered in 1972 while excavating at Akrotiri οn Thera. The destruction of this city goes back to the time of the great eruption of the Thera (ancient "Strongyli") volcano in the l5th c. BC, which caused the submergence of some two thirds of the Original Island and great destruction in the south Aegean. It used to be thought that Crete in particular suffered widespread ιtevastation, which led to the decline of the Minoan civilization and its final replacement by the Mycenean.
Goddess holding a ship's tiller (from a Minoan seal stone) Towards the end of the 2nd millennium (12th century BC) the Trojan War occurred, which together with the adventures of Odysseus, were described much later by Homer in his two epic poems, the "lliada" and the "Odyssey". In the Odyssey, especially, there is a wealth of nautical information and description concerning the types of ships and methods of construction, and also about the maritime activity of the period.
For the 1st millennium BC the evidence’ that has come to light is more extensive and definite, thanks to written records and the representations of ships on coins and vases and in paintings, relief’s, sculpture, mosaics and incised works. All these valuable sources have helped create a more complete picture of the evolution of the ship and of the sailors' work in the Aegean at this time. We have also gained valuable evidence from explorations on the seabed and the raising of wrecks like that of the Kyrenia ship (4th c. BC). One of the most important developments of the 1st millennium BC was the period of the Great Colonization (8th to 6th c.). During that time the Greeks launched out beyond the Aegean and founded many colonies all along the shores of the Mediterranean (South Italy, Sicily, Nice and Marseilles). There was now a need to build better ships to carry out these voyages, which were long ones for those days. Α distinction also began to appear between war and merchant ships (the warships were long, the merchantmen round).
Another important event in the first millennium was the Persian Wars. The naval Battle of Salamis (480 BC), which decided the fate not only of Greece but of the whole of Western Civilization, gave rise to a great increase in trade and consequently to a more vigorous development of the merchant ship in the Aegean. It was at this period that Athens grew to be the dominant naval sea power in the Aegean, and Athenian trade and merchant shipping underwent an unprecederιted expansion (Pericles's "Golden Age").
At this time also Piraeus witnessed a remarkable expansion. Pericles in his wisdom realised the necessity for creating a large, imposing and well-organized port for the maintenance of Athenian naval supremacy and the growth of sea trade. (The Piraeus area with its splendid geographic location had been originally chosen by Themistocles as the most suitable place to build such a harbour). The work was entrusted by Pericles to the famous architect Hippodamus the Milesian, who had experience in town planning and layout.
Piraeus became from every point of view an ideal commercial and naval port with a great many harbour installations and splendid buildings. It soon developed into the most important naval and commercial centre of the ancient world in the 5th c. BC. In the centre of the harbour seafront stoas were built, known collectively as the emporium, to facilitate commercial transactions.
The emporium comprised warehouses, a commercial exchange, banks, and brokerage offices for chartering and for the sale and purchase of goods and ships. Shipyards (neoria) were also built for the construction and repair of shίps, and ship-sheds (neossoiki) to house and protect the warships. This harbour was named Kantharos. Aristophanes gives us a short description of it: Εϊς μέν έστίν ο Κάνθαρος λιμήν καλονμενος έν ιυ τά νεώρια έξήκοντα, είτα 'Αφροδίσιον, είτα κυκλω του λιμένος στοαί πέντε, which means:"There is α harbour called Kantharos with sixty shipyards, next is the Aphrodision, and next five stoas in a ring around the harbour". Later on Strabo mentions that the harbour of Kantharos accommodated 400 vessels, while Pliny gives the figure as 1000.
Ships came to this great harbour laden with every kind of merchandise: grain from Pontus, hides from Cyrene, raisins and perfumes from Rhodes, dates, textile materials and papyrus from Phoenicia and Egypt, rugs and materials from Carchedon, cheese from Sicily, slaves from Phrygia, ivory from Libya, foodstuffs and fruit from every part of the Mediterranean, and a host of other goods. Exports were fewer: wine, oil, honey, metal from Lavrion and pottery; works of art were also exported to the East and the West to adorn the houses of the wealthy.
Near Piraeus, to the east, the two natural harbours of Zea and Munichia were also planned as smaller naval bases.196 ship-sheds were built at Zea and 82 at Munichia. High unassailable walls that were connected to Athens by the Long Walls enclosed the three harbours of Kantharos, Zea and Munichia. The entrances of all three harbours were closed by heavy chains; Aristophanes mentions that εχει δέ ο Πειραιεύς λιμένας τρείς, πάντας κλειστους, which means:” Piraeus has three harbours, all of them closed".
Piraeus's commercial activity continued with various ups-and-downs during the following centuries. (Thίs splendid pοιnt was to be totally destroyed and devastated by the Roman Sulla in 86 BC).
Το return, however, to our historical, review: Pericles's "Golden Age" was followed by the fratricidal Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) which brought with it a period of decline. And then we come to the brilliant period of Philip ΙΙ of Macedon and his son, Alexander the Great, who literally turned the Eastern Mediterranean into a Greek sea. During this period the merchant ship knew a fresh flowering. After Alexander's early death, however, his descendants proved incapable of holding his vast empire together, and their conflicts resulted in the gradual weakening of Greek sea supremacy, thus laying the ground for the conquest of Greece by the Romans.
Roman Period Little by little the Greek mainland came under Roman domination, and the process was finally completed by the destruction of Corinth in 146 BC. During the 1st c. BC the Romans extended their sovereignty over the Aegean and the whole of the Mediterranean.
Ιη the Roman period, although the Greeks had now lost their independence, the Greek maritime trade continued to exist and prosper. The nautical tradition of the Greeks continued and Aegean sailors, with their experience and boldness, continued to voyage across the seas. Their merchantmen were smaller than the Roman, some of which were up to 1200 tons, but they were fast and manoeuvrable and carried on a great deal of trade and transport in the Aegean and the Mediterranean. Greek sailors, with their unrivalled nautical experience and courage, were also employed by the Romans to man Roman-owned vessels.
It should be underlined here that during the period of Roman domination a State Merchant Fleet was created, financed by wealthy landowners (navicularu). The acicular formed guilds and were obliged by the state not only to construct, but also to maintain and manage the ships of the State Merchant Fleet.
These vessels, large and heavy, were chiefly used to transport grain cargoes from Alexandria to the docks of various Italian harbours, especially Portus. The latter was the port built by Claudius at the mouth of the river Tiber to serve Rome, which Egypt at that time supplied with 1/3 of the grain she needed.
On Delos there are the remains of the imposing dwellings of Roman ship owners, who would probably have manned their ships largely with Greek sailors. This view receives confirmation from the inscriptions on the gravestone relieves (steal) on Rhenia of sailors lost at sea, most of whose names are Greek, (Philemon, Kerdon, Dionysios, Timokrates, Aphrodisios, Theodoros, Theodotos, Alexandros etc. It should also not be forgotten that Roman sailors feared the open sea.
Throughout the period of Roman domination Aegean sailors maintained their activity and continued their nautical tradition in the Aegean.
At this point we should pause and make special mention of two islands that for many centuries played very important roles in the history of Aegean shipping: Delos, the sacred island of Αpοllοn, and Rhodes, the island of the god Helios.