We’ve covered several colossal ships here on Megaprojects, from the largest ship ever built, the Seawise Giant, to the monstrous American Nimitz class aircraft carriers and the largest cruise liner ever to set sail, the Symphony of the Seas. The size of what is frequently put to sea these days is quite simply immense.
But what we see today is but the continuation of a long maritime process that stretches back well over 10,000 years. The earliest known boat still in existence is the Pesse Canoe, which can today be found in the Drents Museum in Assen, Netherlands, and is thought to have been dugout around 8,000 BC.
However, if we’re talking about great monsters of the high seas, the ancestors of our modern leviathans if you will, then we can really only start with one boat. A vessel of astonishing dimension that was built around 240 BC and which set sail only once. Widely regarded as the largest ship of antiquity, but only a fragmented myth to us today, this is the story of the Syracusia.
The Original Titanic
Ok, I’m going to get the disclaimer out early here because today we’re discussing a ship that was built around 2,061 years ago and which frustratingly comes with plenty of patchy information. We’re pretty certain it existed, but considering details of this mighty ship have been passed down through countless generations and two tumultuous millennia, they are sometimes hazy and occasionally contradictory.
To put it simply, this was the original Titanic, the first giant of the seas. Designed and built by the Greek wizard of all trades Archimedes at the behest of Hieron II of Syracuse, it was said to be the largest ship ever built at the time by some margin, with some sources stating it was 50 times the size of a standard warship of the age.
But this was much more than simply a warship. The Syracusia was the epitome of luxury in the age of antiquity and was said to include a library, gymnasium, garden, swimming pool and bathhouse, a temple and plenty of art. It was also armed to the teeth and came with siege towers, catapults and a contingent of soldiers thought to number between 200 and 600, depending on your sources.
The size of the ship meant that it could also carry enormous amounts of cargo and was very much a vessel with multiple purposes. It was a luxury cruise liner, a fearsome battleship and a dependable workhouse all rolled into one.
The ship takes its name from its homeport Syracuse, in modern-day Sicily. There are probably few places in the world that have such a culturally diverse history as the island that lies off the Italian mainland. The Phoenician, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals and Ostrogoths, Byzantine Greeks, Aghlabids, Kalbids, Normans, Aragonese and Spanish have all ruled over the small island at one point or another over the last few thousand years.
Back in the 2nd Century BC, the Greeks were firmly in control, but with the growing Roman Empire ballooning in power and greedy ambition, it was certainly only a matter of time until their gaze settled on the island. At the time of our story, Hiero II of Syracuse had been in power on the island since 275 BC and king since 270 BC.
Now, if your history is a little patchy in the BC years, let me just set the scene, because in the Meditteranean at this time there were several fearsome powers and it’s not at all surprising that a ship like the Syracusia would appear at this point. There was of course Rome, at this time still a relatively small, young upstart, but one that had gained control over all of modern-day Italy. Then we have Carthage, the dominant empire of the time which stretched from Southern Spain across much of northern Africa. The Ptolemaic Kingdom incorporated much of modern-day Egypt, but also included the coastal areas in what is today Turkey. Next up, was the Seleucid Empire, which stretched from Turkey to modern Pakistan and finally, we have the League of Corinth, a loose confederation of Greek States.
All of these empires were gathered around the increasingly busy and dangerous Mediterranean sea and over the years fighting back and forth would dramatically alter the political landscape of the area.
The First Punic War
Historically it had been Carthage and the Greek States that had slugged it out for control over the Mediterranean Sea, but with both no doubt eyeing the other, a third force emerged that would go on to crush all that came before it. The First Punic War was fought between Rome and Carthage over 23 years between 264BC and 241BC, making it the longest war of antiquity. It was also the first war that solidified Rome’s position as an emerging empire not to be trifled with and one which saw the beginning of the end for the great Carthage Empire.
This was a war that was fought largely at sea, particular around the island of Sicily. For hundreds of years, Carthage had been the rulers of the open water thanks to their superior navy and in particular the Quinquireme, the most cutting edge warship in existence at the time. But once the Romans managed to capture an intact Quinquireme, they were able to reverse engineer the vessel and suddenly the tables began to turn.
Long story short, Rome won the First Punic War and gained control over Corsica, Sardina and much of Sicily – that is, apart from the small section known as Syracuse.
Perhaps it’s a mere coincidence that the Syracusia was built a year after the end of the First Punic War, but then again, maybe not. The longest war in living memory had shown everybody in the Medittareen just how vital a strong and agile navy was and it’s perfectly conceivable that Hieron II of Syracuse chose to build such a mighty ship as a way of amplifying Syracuse’s prestige at a time when Rome seemed set to snatch the small enclave. But he’s where things get a little strange, you see, the greatest ship ever built at the time was never intended to be used by the Syracusians, it was a gift for one of the rulers that still dominated the area.
Sources claim that the Syracusia was built by 300 skilled labourers over the course of a single year. We’re not sure about the exact size of the ship, but one source put it at 55 metres (180ft) long, 14 metres (46 ft) wide, and 13 metres (42.6 ft) high. It had three enormous sails and the sides of the ship were said to come with statues of the Greek god Atlas with their arms raised as if carrying the deck of the ship. Below the statues, the lower sections of the hull were lined with lead sheets to prevent ramming from other vessels, a common attack method at the time.
The main deck was a crowded place with 8 siege turrets. These were commonly used to attack land fortifications at the time but it’s not immediately clear how they would have functioned on the Syracusia. Separate sources claim that the turrets were either manned by archers or that each turret may have contained a catapult capable of either firing 5.4 metres (18 ft) arrow or 81 kg (180 pounds) stone.
The catapults in the towers seem slightly unlikely because of the force required to launch them, but who knows. However, we are pretty sure that there were two catapults located at the bow of the ship on the deck facing forward. Let’s just say if the Syracusia pulled up alongside you, you were probably going to do exactly as you were told.
Mixed in with the turrets and sails, were plants, statues and perhaps even a promenade area for the passengers to stroll through. It was an odd mix of the deadly and the decadent. The Syracusia used materials sourced from across Europe, with pine and fir from the forests on Mt Etna, cordage (used for the ship’s rigging) from Spain and hemp and pitch for caulking (waterproofing) from the Rhone Valley area of France. It was also said to include ivory and marble, while the floors in the public spaces were covered in giant mosaics depicting the story of the Iliad.
There was a great deal of thought put into the design of the boat with one particularly interesting aspect being the apparent attempts to protect the hull from biofouling, by coating it with horsehair and pitch. Biofouling is essentially the accumulation of plants of microorganism on any object that’s in water for a considerable amount of time and this may well be the first example of the use of a proactive antifouling technology.
Just like today’s modern cruise ships, there were cabins of all sizes, designed for all levels of society. Passengers had the upper decks, while the crew and soldiers on board were accommodated in the lower levels. There were 142 first-class cabins on the second deck with a library and reading room, a gymnasium, a temple dedicated to Aphrodite, a dining room and a bathhouse.
Below deck was where you would find the Syracusia’s ample storage areas, supposedly large enough to carry 60,000 measures of grain, 10,000 jars of pickled Sicilian fish, 20,000 talents of wool, as well as 20,000 talents other of additional cargo. A talent is an old measurement used in the Mesapotomaian era, with one talent thought to equal the weight of a man at the time. The ship also had stables for 20 horses and could carry roughly 78 tons of freshwater for those onboard.
The lowest level was reserved for the oarsmen and we think that Syracusia came with two sets of twenty oars, one on either side. In terms of weight, the vessel was an absolute monster at the time, thought to weigh in the region of 2,000 tons.
If the Syracusia is now but a distant memory, one gadget that was included on the boat has defied the ages. A problem with the Syracusia was that because of its size, it regularly took on water coming in through the hull. The accumulation of water on a boat obviously isn’t great, but luckily the entire project was under the supervision of a true visionary.
The water screw first appeared in Egypt sometime before the 3rd Century BC but Archimedes decided to take the next step and his design, known as Archimedes’ screw, is still commonly used today. Composed of a screw inside a hollow pipe, the simple design could be used to drain or transfer water quickly and effectively and was included on the Syracusia in case water levels became too high.
The Greatest Gift
After building such a colossal, exquisite boat, it seems odd that it was almost immediately given away, but that’s apparently exactly what happened. The Syracusia was said to have always been designed and built as a gift for Ptolemy III Euergetes, ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom. We’re not entirely sure why, but having come so soon after the end of the First Punic War and with Rome now breathing down the neck of Syracuse, it may well have been an attempt to sway favour with the empire to the south.
The Syracusia only made one trip during its lifetime, the short journey from Syracuse to what is today Alexandria in Egypt. If the slightly mythical tales are anything to go by, the size of the ship meant that it couldn’t be moved into the water by manpower alone. Archimedes was said to have arranged a series of levers and pulleys which he then operated single-handedly to slowly inch the vast vessel down the gangplank and into the water. No doubt, everybody who witnessed the event held their breath and waited to see if the Syracusia would float.
And of course, it did, otherwise, the tone of this video may well have been very different. We assume that Hieron II of Syracuse was on board the giant ship as it made its way south to Alexandria and one can only begin to imagine the reaction of the local people when the imposing bulk of the Syracusia first appeared on the horizon then gradually crept towards the city.
The story of the Syracusia runs out at this point, but it’s thought that the ship never set sail again. Whether this was down to structural problems or not we aren’t sure, but had the ship been truly seaworthy, you would have thought Ptolemy III Euergetes would have been eager to show it off. One source suggests its name was changed to Alexandreia shortly after its arrival and may have been used as a floating pleasure palace rather than a sea-worthy vessel. Whatever happened to the ship at this point we can’t be completely sure, but it seemed to simply disappear from history.
Just like the Titanic nearly 2,000 later, the Syracusia was both the largest ship of its time and perhaps the most luxurious. It also only made a single journey, but thankfully icebergs in the Mediterranean are pretty rare. This ship was built so long ago that it can be difficult to place it in the context of our modern naval exploits, but it set a colossal precedent when it was built back in the 2nd Century BC. Like much of the age of antiquity, our knowledge and understanding of it is patchy at best, but its legendary, almost mythical status places this ancient ship in a league of its own.