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Thursday, August 15, 2002

Arts & Letters

A Great Thing, In Truth…

The Greeks and the Sea: Hellenic Ships from Ancient Times Through the Twentieth Century, an exhibition of models of ships from the Hellenic Maritime Museum, Foundation for Hellenic Culture, New York, June 19– September 30, 2002.

A great thing, indeed, is the control of the sea. Just think: if we were islanders, who would be more unassailable?
– Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 1.143.5-6

In 1990, the Alexander S. Onassis Center for Hellenic Studies at New York University (NYU) awarded Professor Robert S. Browning its first biennial Gold Metal for Excellence in Hellenic Studies and organized a conference, The Greeks and the Sea, in his honor. The conference focused on the diachronic involvement of Greeks with the sea, and was held in conjunction with an exhibit at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery of ship models, photographs, lithographs, paintings, maps, prints, sculpture, and coins. Twelve years later, the Hellenic Maritime Museum, which had contributed a number of artifacts to the exhibit at the Grey Gallery, and the Foundation for Hellenic Culture have organized a second exhibit on the same subject, under the same title.

As stated in the catalogue of The Greeks and the Sea: Hellenic Ships from Ancient Times Through the Twentieth Century, the “ultimate objective” of this exhibit is to provide a continuous historical narrative of Greek engagement with the sea. The continuity that characterizes this engagement is expressed in the show’s arrangement into five chronological sections that examine the maritime activities of Greeks from antiquity to today: “Prehistoric and Ancient Times,” “Greek Explorers and Seafarers in Antiquity and the Byzantine Period,” “Byzantium and the Sea,” “Greek War of Independence (1821-28) and Ships of the Nineteenth Century,” and “Twentieth Century: War and Dominance of the Greek Merchant Marine.”

One might question the artistic and educational merits of this show, given that the conference and exhibit at NYU had approached the concept of the Greeks and the sea in what appeared to be a comprehensive manner. While, however, the dynamics of the encounter between Greeks and the sea were analyzed both through the presentations at the conference and the exhibition of a wide variety of objects and artifacts in 1990, the current exhibit at the Foundation for Hellenic Culture looks into the complex maritime history of the Greeks mainly through different ship models of the five historical periods into which the show is divided. As indicated by the exhibit’s subtitle, Hellenic Ships from Ancient Times Through the Twentieth Century, the 16 beautiful models provided by the maritime museum are the focal point of the exhibit, which also includes a small number of paintings, maps, and one amphora.

Ships and the development of maritime technology constitute the most critical elements in the Greeks’ encounter with the sea. The evolution of boat construction, the development of sailing, rowing and propulsion techniques, and the sophistication of technical details are vital in understanding both the transformation of the ancient Greek poleis into naval powers, and the political, economic, social, cultural, and geographic consequences of this transformation. To see G. Rallis’s brilliantly constructed model of an Athenian trireme is to begin to understand the mental processes of the people who built and used it. As Seth Benardete argued (“The Poet-Merchant and the Stranger from the Sea,” The Greeks and the Sea, 1993, pp. 60-61), “The transgressiveness of knowledge comes to light especially clearly when it shows up with imperialism: For Thucydides, Athens as a sea power is linked closely with its restless innovativeness, so that its ultimate ambition seems to have been to be a floating city, to be everywhere and nowhere, rootless and all-powerful. For the young, Thucydides says, the Sicilian expedition expressed their longing for an absent sight and vision, which could never be satisfied no matter how far Athens expanded.” The technological innovations of the Athenian trireme express the “innovativeness” of the city. Fast, sleek, maneuverable, with increased rowing and ramming power, the trireme is a powerful ship conditioned by Athens’s political and economic ambitions.

Moving from Rallis’s model of an Athenian trireme to his model of a Byzantine dromon, one becomes immediately aware of the different military, political, economic, and geographic elements determining the ship’s construction, technical details, and features. Differences in frame construction, and in the presence of defensive and offensive features, show that the dromon is a response to the needs of a bureaucratic empire. The heaviness of the dromon’s frame in contrast to the trireme’s sleekness tells an observer a great deal about the different philosophies behind the building of the two ships.

It is exactly when it comes to dealing with technical details, however, that the exhibit appears to be problematic. Technical information about boat construction, rowing and sailing techniques, propulsion, and cargo space, among other issues, is very important material that is not offered to the visitor. Liberty ships, for example, played a monumental role in the modern success of the Greek merchant marine. The ship was the product of a revolutionary innovation in boat construction. Following the production model of the automotive industry, Americans undertook the massive production of the “Liberty” by assembling the hull in the shipyard and prefabricating other sections of the ship in nearby locations. The introduction, for the first time, of welding in building a Liberty hull made for lighter, stronger, and easier-to-produce ships. The evolution in constructing a Liberty hull played an important role in allowing shipowners to purchase large numbers of the ships after the Second World War. Massive production let the United States make the ships available at favorable prices and the speed of their assembly allowed Greek shipowners to become competitive quickly – which, of course, was a significant factor in developing Greek-owned fleets. The technical details of constructing a Liberty hull are not offered to the visitor, however.

As someone obsessed with building models of ships, trains, and airplanes, I went to the exhibit expecting to find adequate information on both the technical details of constructing the models of these ships, as well as on the craftsmen who built them. All the models in the exhibit are meticulously detailed works of art representing ship design as it has developed from antiquity to today. In an exhibit that seeks to narrate the history of Greeks and the sea through models of ships, however, the lack of any information on craftsmen, sources, and technical details of constructing the models, is a serious omission. As I finished viewing the stunning model of the Athenian trireme, it became evident to me that the curatorial intentions in organizing the exhibit were to construct a continuous narrative of the engagement of the Greek people with the sea. Unfortunately, the exhibit fails in this goal since the Greek involvement with the sea is a complex process that cannot by any means be articulated through ship models alone. For those, however, who view the development and building of ships as a way of understanding the political, social, economic, and cultural factors surrounding the people who created them, the beautiful models exhibited at the Foundation for Hellenic Culture provide an excellent introduction to this complex process.

In addition to being a co-founder of, Stelios Vasilakis is a classical philologist and a former associate of the Speros Basil Vryonis Center for the Study of Hellenism.
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