I recently read Nic Fields' 'Ancient Greek Warship: 500-322 BC'. In it, he makes the claim:

Control of the seas in the modern sense was impossible for a trireme navy, and sea power, therefore, had distinct limitations. Nevertheless, it did allow a maritime state to strike at very great distances; Athens could reach as far as southern Italy, Cyprus or Egypt, the last location being some 1,400km (870 miles) from Peiraieus. Much closer to home, Athens could raid up and down the Peloponnesian coast.

I interpret this as meaning a Mahanian-style "control of the seas", though it does not necessarily have to mean that. However, I think Mr Fields is stretching for a definition which is meaningless for Athens and Her Allies. Please note that Mr Fields does not define what exactly he means by 'modern sense' 'control of the seas', hence my interpretation of this as completely trying to forbid the enemy from taking to say, as for example the British tried, not necessarily succeeded, in the Napoleonic Wars against the Franco-Spanish alliance.

In no place, for example, while reading Thucydides did I get the impression that a Clausewitzian 'Total War' was what the Athenians had in mind. I have seen interpretations of the Athenian refusal to support Corcyra with full strength in the beginning of the war, alongside with their willingness to allow Attica to be laid waste to, brought up as examples of endless (total) war (war for creating a total hegemony), but I am not entirely certain that holds up to scrutiny. And while Athenian sailors were not employed in any other field and could stay at sea for a long time, I imagine they would have had regular breaks during a year if only to avoid the winter seas (or, at least, avoided very major expeditions in those time periods) (no proof of this except vague recollections from Mr Hale's book on the Athenian navy).

However, this hasn't really brought me closer to my question. What I am trying to say here is that I don't think the Athenians tried to ever totally "control the sea" because that idea did not come to them as an existential strategy. While the creation of outstanding forts near Spartan properties was common enough, this never seemed to be a permanent goal as opposed to trying to gain a short-term benefit (for leverage in later negotiations -- especially true with the captured hoplites after Sphacteria, etc).

So, the question: Is it right to discuss 'control of the seas' in the 'modern sense' as an Athenian objective in the Peloponnesian War and why?

Note that I have steered away from the reasoning of whether 'control of the sea' was impossible as it has secondary relevance, and because it is also far more opinion-based. If someone, however, can utilise factual information to prove or disprove this, you are welcome to add this to your answer.

  • Have you read Thucydides from to back, or a concise summary of the Peloponnesian War? Any statement of intention or policy as regards sea power is mostly likely found in there. It is a rare bit of history (for all of the author's personal biases) and one of the few sources of merit for that time period in terms of providing some insights into what Athenian leadership was on about, policy wise. Been a quarter of a century since I read it, so I can't remember where I might suggest you look within the text. Commented Jul 7, 2017 at 16:35
  • @KorvinStarmast: I read it back to back last year, but I imagine there are people here who have been using the text for years and know it more intimately than their local Sainsbury's. However, even after this brief time I cannot remember many statements on official policy as opposed to speeches which could have made policy. Not quite the same, and I guess rather more overturnable. Still, as you say, that is the main source we have
    – gktscrk
    Commented Jul 7, 2017 at 23:06
  • 1
    It may take some reading between the lines to pull that level of policy out of the text, but since Mahanian visions of sea power would not be ideated until over two millenia after the war, I am not sure this question isn't based on an anachronism. Commented Jul 7, 2017 at 23:08
  • @KorvinStarmast: You're welcome to interpret Mr Fields' statement in a different context (and I'd be very interested to hear it), however, as Mr Mahan essentially founded modern naval strategic thinking from a great power perspective, I find it difficult to think that Mr Fields was using another idea for the basis of his statements (especially without referencing it further) -- and it is his conclusion I am questioning here.
    – gktscrk
    Commented Jul 7, 2017 at 23:12
  • Again, if Fields is using an anachronism, he's demanding a philosophical and conceptual approach to sea power that had not yet been crystalized. That to me makes the answer approach the value of mu -- Should implies can. Commented Jul 7, 2017 at 23:13

2 Answers 2


Given the lack of a clearer definition by the author, I would imagine that your interpretation of "Control of the seas in the modern sense" being "Mahanian" is probably a good starting point.

From A.T. Mahan's perspective, sea power has two aspects; the protection of your interests at sea (and overseas) and your ability to interfere with your enemy's ability to do the same. It's important to bear in mind that the concept of "sea power" wasn't purely about military power. There was little to be gained from a having powerful navy if there wasn't a similarly powerful merchant fleet to reap the economic benefits (and help pay for the navy). By extension, if you can cut off your enemy's sea trade then you can put a strangle-hold on their economy and their ability to wage war.

Mahan's theory was based on his analysis of the rise of British naval power in the later 18th and early 19th centuries, and consquently has a global scope. The British had a widespread empire which required both a large navy to protect and an even larger merchant navy to exploit. The industrial revolution feed the British ability to create the materials, goods and vessels required and the logistics operation required to support them. In addition, the British ships were designed and built with this in mind and, compared to their European contemporaries, they could remain at sea much longer.

So can we apply this concept to Athens?

Certainly from a geographic view point, it would appear that there was a lot to be gained in the Greek world by controlling the seas. In the Peloponnesian War, Athens and her allies were spread around the coasts and islands of the Aegean Sea so trade, military support and communications between them were all dependent on sea travel. If you can control the seas, you prevent invasions of the islands you hold, force the enemy armies to travel overland (which in most cases would be slower), prevent the enemy from being resupplied/reinforced from the sea or even cut off trade to them all-together. At the same time, control of the seas will allow your own forces to move quickly and freely, likewise with trade, speedy diplomacy and military communications.

Naval blockades are important tools in the pursuit of sea power. They perform two functions; the first is to prevent significant enemy naval forces putting to sea and the second is to prevent commercial traffic from flowing in or out. The first protects your own naval and commercial vessels, while the latter directly interferes with the enemy's ability to finance, and therefore wage, war.

In the case of the British in the Napoleonic Wars, these two blockading functions were performed in different ways. The first, keeping the French fleet in port, was done by stationing fleets that (extreme weather permitting) directly blockaded the main French naval bases (Breast, Toulon, etc.) for months at a time. The secondary function, of choking off trade, had to be performed in a much looser fashion. There were simply too many commercial ports and harbours to assign standing fleets and squadrons too. Therefore, British naval cruisers (in the original sense of the word) and privateers would rove along the sea lanes looking for likely targets (both commercial and military).

The Greek trireme wasn't particulary suited to either of these blockading styles.

The trireme was accordingly light and comparatively frail, and was not equipped to endure rough weather for long, thus restricting its ability to remain at sea for any period of time...Normally a trireme would put into shore at the first sight of a storm, for the crew's midday meal and then again for the night...Obviously, if a trireme had to put to shore twice a day, no navy was capable of blockading a single coastal state, let alone an island.

Ancient Greek Warship, 500-322 BC, Nic Fields, (Osprey, 2007)

Similarly, its ability to function as a cruiser was limited, since any engagement, which would involve ramming the target vessel, could very likely require repairs to the trireme itself. In contrast, cruisers (on both sides) during the Napoleonic wars were able to capture multiple enemy vessels on a single multi-month voyage without having to put into port.

In addition, the ability to sustain a blockade (and therefore make it effective) is heavily dependent on the blockading forces capability to resupply and maintain their forces at sea. In the case of the Napoleonic wars, the British navy was supported by a massive (industrial) maintenance and logistics operation that, much of the time, was hard-pressed to keep sufficient ships on station and on patrol. I can find little evidence that even Athens had anything like it in the ancient Greek world.

So in conclusion, I would say that "control of the seas" would have been a worthy goal during the Peloponnesian War but there wasn't the structure or tools available at the time to support it.

  • I'm accepting this answer because I think you've answered the various points of the question. I don't actually agree that for a determined opponent the shoring of a set of triremes would have been a problem (crews in shifts, needs maybe three times more hulls/crews, but it is possible, especially if the logistical capacity of the enemy has been restricted to a very narrow field -- but I agree it would be difficult) but it could have been enough of an innovation for the Athenians to never think of it, hence rendering it moot as a point.
    – gktscrk
    Commented Jul 7, 2017 at 23:14

I interpret that claim as alluding to galley tactics.

Galleys of Antiquity and the Medieval period had severe limitations; cruising relied on wind power which was slow, and in combat they relied on many rowers. Thus any naval action required lots of men, food and water.

  • They could not blockade, in the modern sense, of cutting off all sea trade and transport from a significant coastline
  • Even if blockading a small location was possible, it was easy to run it, as naval combat was very short range, relying on archers, ramming and boarding
  • They could not maintain a permanent presence out at sea, particularly during winter, to interdict an enemy fleet
  • To watch a port, it was often necessary to secure a nearby shore to store provisions and rest the troops

For example, despite having a clear naval supremacy at the time, Athens could not prevent Sparta from landing an intervention force during the Sicilian Expedition.

  • While answering the addendum, you have missed out the part on whether Athens actually thought of denying the sea to the enemy. If she did not, it is useless to talk of her not being capable of doing so (which I still think she could have if she had wanted to, as a permanent presence would only have required enough hulls to drain half of them while the crew took another ship to sea). Also, based on Thucydidean claims on Athenian speed, ships of the line were considerably slower (3 or 4 kn vs 7 to 9 kn) so that claim does not hold up either (for trained crews). Admittedly, frigates would have...
    – gktscrk
    Commented Jul 7, 2017 at 7:15
  • ...been faster, but as far as I know speeds above 14 kn are quite unheard of pre-steam (and would only have been possible late 18th century with coppering and very streamlined hull design), including the small cutters which raced around the world with news and such.
    – gktscrk
    Commented Jul 7, 2017 at 7:16

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