The Idealized Ship | Part 1: Curved, crowned, and garlanded
Both the Iliad and the Odyssey play a key role in our understanding of the ancient Greek ship, in her physical and her metonymic appearance. In this section we will consider the epithet korōnis [κορωνίς] that describes the form of the ancient Greek ship. The word in Greek that we translate as ‘form’ is ideā [ἰδέα]. There is also the word eidos [εἶδος]. In Plato there is no real difference between the two words.
The idealized ship that we look at was propelled by single-manned oars. The rowers sat on a single level; one rank on the portside, a second rank on the starboard [amphielissa, “rowed on both sides”], giving the ship the ability to turn “on the spot”, quite like the turning of a chariot.
The number of oarsmen grew from about twenty, to thirty, and finally fifty. By then the ship had reached her optimum length, for reasons of longitudinal strength and limitations imposed by the used materials.
The three-dimensional form of a ship is determined by the rounded curve under the stern, by the water lines, and by the frame sections. For many generations of ship builders, the curves of these three aspects continued to develop, each son of a shipbuilder trying to implement small improvements to the design of his father. Each polis—think of Corinth, Corcyra, Aegina and Athens—followed its own track towards creating the curves of the ideal ship.
The curved form of the ancient Greek ship returns in the contour of the late Helladic ship as presented in Figure 1. The curves of the ship describe the silhouette of the forebody (left) which projects far forward into the shape of a snout-shaped cutwater [steira]. The curvature continuous towards the aft, without interruption, into the keel line and into the rounded shape of the stern of the ship.
The stem post is vertical and the bow is fitted with a closed railing. The horizontal line seems to depict an open railing mounted to vertical struts. The stern quarter (right) carries a steering-oar [pēdalion] and a ladder. The decorated stern post [aphlaston] curves forward, giving the boat her scorpion-like contour.
To build some understanding of the flourishing termination and crowning elements at the extremities of the ship, a comparison is made with the model of a war and trading canoe, fitted with outriggers on the port and starboard side, dated mid-20th century, as shown in Figure 2. The model is made of wood, pigment and cane and originates from the Waropen coast, Teluk Cendrawasih, north coast of Papua, Indonesia. The model provides a lively and detailed impression of the curvature, crowning and garlanding of the forward extremity of an indigenous ship.One more example of a ship with curved silhouette is the slender ship that is represented on a fragment of the François kratēr . The stern post [aphlaston] is decorated with two swans’ heads, facing inward from the stern:
The ship has a keel that is bent longitudinally, so it can be dragged onto a beach. The stern quarter carries two steering-oars.
The next image, Figure 4, shows what remained of the decorated aphlaston, in the form of a red-colored ornament on the stern of a modern Greek caïque:
As said, the curved form of the ancient Greek ship is reflected in the text of Homeric poetry. It provides us with the following occurrences of the “curved ships”, always in a form of the dative plural —for example nēusi korōnisin [νηυσὶ κορωνίσιν] :
- It will be much better for me [= Achilles] to return home with my curved [korōnis] ships
- [Odysseus is speaking] A man chafes at having to stay away from his wife even for a single month, when he is on board the curved [korōnis] ships, at the mercy of wind and sea.
- And if I [= Agamemnon] see any man shirking the fight, or trying to keep out of it at the curved [korōnis] ships, there shall be no help for him.
- I [= Achilles] have honor from Zeus himself, which will abide with me at my curved [korōnis] ships, while I have breath in my body.
- He [= Iphidamas] left the bride chamber and went off seeking the kleos of the Achaeans along with twelve curved [korōnis] ships that followed him.
- I [= Thetis] nurtured him [= Achilles] like a shoot in the choicest spot of the orchard, only to send him off on curved [korōnis] ships to Troy, to fight Trojan men.
Iliad 18.58, Iliad 18.439
- He [= Achilles] keeps Hector at the curved [korōnis] ships and will not give him up.
- Himself [= Zeus] more angry than them all, in that you [= Achilles] keep Hector at the curved [korōnis] ships and will not give him up.
- But Idomeneus went in the curved [korōnis] ships to Ilium.
- But it was by now already the tenth or eleventh day since he (Idomeneus) had departed, sailing off with a fleet of curved [korōnis] ships on his way to Ilion.
The beautifully curved extremities of ships, crowned with flourishing terminations, form a perfect juxtaposition with the poetic moods of mixed feelings, hope, pride, honor, thus not only describing the ship, but also connecting to the epic context. The adjective korōnis, in Homeric poetry, is mostly used for ships, but the related noun, κορώνῃ [korōnē] can also be used to indicate a sea-bird, a door handle, or the tip of a bow onto which the bowstring is fitted:
- Round her [= Calypso’s] cave… great birds had built their nests—owls, hawks, and chattering sea-crows [korōnai] that have their business in the waters.
(the word is also used in this sense at Odyssey 12.417, 14.308
- He took off his khitōn he gave it to the good old woman, who folded it tidily up, and hung it for him over a peg by his bed side, after which she went out, pulled the door to by a silver catch [korōnē], and drew the bolt home by means of the strap.
(the word is also used in this sense at Odyssey 7.90, 21.46)
- A worker in horn had made them into a bow, smoothing them well down, and giving them a tip [korōnē] of gold.
(the word is also used in this sense at Odyssey 21.138, 21.165)
The adjective korōnis may also be used to indicate the horns of a cow, providing us with the not uncommon poetic connection between sea and land. Lastly, korōnis can point at the flourish with the pen at the end of a line, or, metaphorically, the end of something, as well as a wreath or garland.
This, and the tenor of the citations, supports the secondary meaning of korōnis as crowning or garlanding: crowning, not in the exclusive sense of a crowning element, but with the idea of a termination, as a head or horn. After Homer, the usage of the word includes the tip of a plow-pole, any tip, a crown, or a culmination of a festival.
Some detailed examples of “crowning” ornaments, best described as talismanic, on stem and stern, in this case representing birds, flowers and butterflies, are shown in the Frieze, known as the “Thera Flotilla Fresco”, Late Bronze Age, Late Minoan I Period, pictured below:
That the use of bird ornaments crowning the stern post of a ship, is not limited to antiquity or to the Levant, is shown in the image below. The photograph shows a peacock holding a twig in its beak on the stern device of a traditional, but modern yacht:
 “No absolute distinction can be drawn between εἶδος and ἰδέα in Plato. But ἰδέα may be used to carry the notion of “apprehended aspect” which I think is more pertinent here than the metaphysical entity of the idea, though of course Plato would affirm that. Cf. 379 A, Unity of Plato’s Thought, p. 35, What Plato Said, p. 585, Class. Phil. xx. (1925) p. 347.” From notes by Paul Shorey to his translation, at Perseus Plato Republic 6.508e.
 John Morrison (2000. The Athenian Trireme: The History and Reconstruction of an Ancient Greek Warship. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge) suggests that κορωνίς alludes to the beaklike bow on Geometric ships. This interpretation seems unlikely since Homer uses the word steira to denote the beaklike bow or, more properly, the cutwater of a ship. See also Lenz, J.R. 1998 and Mark, S. 2005.
 The terms portside and starboard are not used in Homeric poetry, but they respectively indicate the left side of the ship (when looking from aft to forward) and the right side. The English expressions may originate from the Old Norse, the language spoken by the Vikings. They had the steering oar (stýri) mounted to the right-side board (borða). They would tie up at the wharf on the other side, hence the left side was called port.
 The word amphielissa, from amphi, “both sides,” and elissa, to “turn” or “twist,” may allude to the ship’s ability to make a short turn, like the turn [elissa] of a chariot. A plausible translation could be “rowed on both sides,” (Iliad 2.165, 2.181, 9.683, 17.162, 18.260, Odyssey 3.162, 10.91, 14.258, 17.427). See also Mark, S. 2005. Homeric Seafaring p99, Texas A&M University Press.
 Thucydides The Peloponnesian War Book 1.
 Model of a war and trading canoe Papua, Indonesia. Tropen Museum Amsterdam, object number: TM-3303-25, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 License.
 The term aphlaston is used in the Iliad, when Hector seizes a ship by the stern, and “would not loose his hold but held on to its curved stern [aphlaston]”. (Homeric Iliad 15.716, adapted from Sourcebook)
 Swans were sacred to Apollo. Plato Phaedo 84e–85b
 Caïque: traditional small fishing boat.
 “Les navires sont décrits par κορωνίσι seulement au datif pluriel (17 fois)….Il n’y a donc qu’une seule façon dont on puisse expliquer cette limitation fréquente d’une épithète à un cas ou à certains cas grammaticaux: c’est par le sens ornemental de l’épithète fixe.” (from Parry.1928. L’epithète traditionnelle dans Homère “IV. Le Sens distinctif de l’épithète dans l’épos”, § 1. — L’Épithète fixe peut-elle avoir un sens particularisé?).
—“Ships are described by κορωνίσι only in the dative pural (seventeen times). …There is therefore only one way to explain the frequent limitation of an epithet to one case or to certain grammatical cases: the ornamental meaning of a fixed epithet.” (Translation: authors.)
 Donlon, J. e.a., 2014, “Oinops and Oxen” in the Oinops Study Group series, on this website.
 These additional, non-Homeric, meanings are given in LSJ, at Perseus.
 Lenz, J.R., “Homer’s νηυσὶ κορωνίσι,” in Appendix to Chapter 8 of Wachsmann, S. 1998. Seagoing Ships & Seamanship in the Bronze Age Levant. Texas A&M University Press. For references, beginning with Stesichorus 25:151.
 Marinatos, S. 1972 Life and Art in Prehistoric Thera (Proceedings of the British Academy, lvii: Albert Reckitt Archaeological Lecture, 1971). London. Oxford University Press. Strasser, Thomas F. “Location and Perspective in the Theran Flotilla Fresco”, Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 23.1 (2010) 3–26.
 The most famous ship ever, the Argo, garlanded with talismanic ornaments, left others far behind, because her prow could speak and render prophecies. “Argus, by Athena’s advice, built a ship of fifty oars named Argo after its builder; and at the prow Athena fitted in a speaking timber from the oak of Dodona.” Apollodorus, Library 1.9.16.
- Autenrieth, George. 1891. A Homeric Dictionary for Schools and Colleges. New York. Harper and Brothers. Online at Perseus
- Casson, 2014. Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World. Princeton University Press. Available online at Project MUSE, Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore
- Donlon, J. e.a, 2014, “Oinops and Oxen” in the Oinops Study Group series, online at the Kosmos Society.
- Homeric Iliad. Translated by Samuel Butler, revised by Timothy Power, Gregory Nagy, Soo-Young Kim, and Kelly McCray. Published under a Creative Commons License 3.0. Available online at CHS.
- Homeric Odyssey, Translated by Samuel Butler, Revised by Soo-Young Kim, Kelly McCray, Gregory Nagy, and Timothy Power. Published under a Creative Commons License 3.0. Available online at CHS.
- Kirk, G. S. 1949. “Ships on Geometric Vases.” The Annual of the British School at Athens 44: 93–153. doi:10.1017/S0068245400017196.
- Lenz, J.R., “Homer’s νηυσὶ κορωνίσι,” in Appendix to Chapter 8 of Wachsmann, S. 1998. Seagoing Ships & Seamanship in the Bronze Age Levant. Texas A&M University Press. For references, beginning with Stesichorus 25:151.
- Liddell, Henry George. Scott, Robert. A Greek-English Lexicon. revised and augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones with the assistance of Roderick McKenzie. 1940. Oxford. Clarendon Press. Online at Perseus.
- Marinatos, S. 1972 “Life and Art in Prehistoric Thera” in Proceedings of the British Academy, lvii: Albert Reckitt Archaeological Lecture, 1971. London. Oxford University Press.
- Mark, Samuel. 2005. Homeric Seafaring. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, Available online at Project MUSE.
- Morrison, J.S. ea. 2000. The Athenian Trireme: The History and Reconstruction of an Ancient Greek Warship. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
- Nagy, Gregory: The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours, “Hour 23: The living word II: Socrates in Plato’s Phaedo”. Available online at CHS.
- Parry, Milman. 1928. L’epithète traditionnelle dans Homère: Essai sur un problème de style Homérique. Available online at CHS.
- Shorey, Paul. 1969. Plato in Twelve Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. From notes to Plato Republic 508e, Online at Perseus.
- Strasser, Thomas F. 2010 “Location and Perspective in the Theran Flotilla Fresco”, Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 1 (2010) 3–26.
- Wachsmann, Shelly. 2008. Seagoing Ships and Seamanship in the Bronze Age Levant. Ed Rachal Foundation Nautical Archaeology Series. Texas A&M University Press. College Station, Texas.
- Exekias, black-figure kylix, c 530 BCE. Staatliche Antikensammlungen, München. Bibi Saint-Pol (photo) Dionysus in a ship, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
- Model of a war and trading canoe Papua, Indonesia (bow right). Model of a war and trading canoe Papua, Indonesia. Tropen Museum Amsterdam, object number: TM-3303-25, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- License.
- Detail of the François kratēr: the ship of Theseus (fragment from vase). Detail of Egisto Sani (photo) François Vase: side B: Theseus and the 11 Athenian youths. Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr
- Red-colored ornament on the stern post of a modern Greek caï Photograph by authors.
- Details of the “Thera Flotilla Fresco” showing the port of departure. Detail from pano by smial (photo), Akrotiri Ship Procession, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
- Bird ornament on the stern of a traditional, but modern yacht. Photograph by authors.
Attributions are based where possible by those shown by museums, or on Wikimedia Commons, at the time of publication on this website.
Websites accessed January 2019.
Rien and Hélène are members of the Kosmos Society.