Nowadays almost all civilian and military vessel have a name. Was this so in the antiquity, did the ships of Athens, Carthage or Rome have formal individual names?

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    If I own two ships, say a large one and a smaller one, and I always refer to the big one as "the biggun" and the smaller one as "the little'un" would that count as giving them an 'informal' name? I think that you may be better off sticking to formal names (which would have been recorded somewhere and therefore be in the historic record). – Steve Bird Jan 25 '18 at 7:42
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    Since "ancient" is subject to interpretation, perhaps a better wording for the quesiton would be "since when are ships named?" – Bregalad Jan 25 '18 at 8:04
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    The ship Argo was named after the builder. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argo – liftarn Jan 25 '18 at 8:15
  • I don't have a source handy (so comment, not answer), but I believe the Norse named their vessels. Maybe not as ancient as you want. – mickeyf Jan 25 '18 at 13:55
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    People name their pet rocks (insert some other innocuous example). Why would you think that humans wouldn't, "at least informally", name something (almost anything, let alone something as large as a ship)? – Makyen Jan 25 '18 at 16:24

Xenophon in his Hellenica (an account of the last yearsof the Peloponessian War and its aftermath) mentions several named ships, for example, "Paralus" and "Salaminia". Thus, we can infer that at least some of Greek ships were named in IV century BC, and maybe earlier. Also, Homer in his Iliad, which is dated to 8th century BC, does not give any names for any of numerous Achaean ships - that might be just a coincidence, but also may point to the tradition of giving ships names emerging later.

As for the Romans - again, this is circumstantial evidence, but Aeneas ships' in the "Aeneid" all have names, so we can argue that by 20 BC Roman ships at least sometimes were given names.

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    I did notice the same thing about Homer. But in his defense, Odysseus went though ships like potato chips. – T.E.D. Jan 25 '18 at 16:42
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    @T.E.D. Well, I was talking about Iliad (the one about the Troy war) and it had significantly more ships than the Odyssey (over a thousand!) - and not even one ship there is named. I get that Homer wouldn't give us a list of thousand names, but you'd think that there'd be at least one ship among a thousand notable enough to be mentioned by name. – Danila Smirnov Jan 25 '18 at 16:56
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    @T.E.D. And, well, the Odyssey didn't have a lot of vessels - Odysseus left Troy with 12, then all but one of them were destroyed, but that one that was left was intact almost up to the end. And there's that Pheacian ship that carried Odysseus to Ithaca (and got turned into stone by Poseidon). 13 ships in all - not that many. but they are still all nameless. – Danila Smirnov Jan 25 '18 at 16:58
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    What about the Argonauts (1300BC) and their ship the Argo? – Philipp Jan 26 '18 at 17:52
  • @Philipp First and foremost, no evidence on Argo's existence (or any prototype in the given timeframe) was found yet. Second, while the story is set in ~1300 BC, first mentions of the story in written sources are by authors of Homer's age - and the oldest texts that were found by now are dated even later, around 3rd century BC... when the tradition of naming ships was already there. So I didn't use that as an argument. – Danila Smirnov Jan 27 '18 at 4:31

The autobiography of Ahmose, son of Abana, a Egyptian soldier in the early Eighteenth Dynasty (1550-1600 BC), mentions the names of a few the ships he was on. "Wild Bull", "Northern" and "Rising in Memphis" according to this translation

  • I expected Egypt to be among the most ancient in terms of ship-naming. They put eyes on their ships, so they should at least get names right? – John Hamilton Jan 29 '18 at 13:41

The idea of naming ships goes back several thousand years but, unsurprisingly, there is very little evidence from the earliest days of sailing.


If we accept names from mythology, then we might consider the Ancient Egyptian god Ra's solar barque, the Atet, which was known by two names:

The solar barque the people saw during the day was called the Mandjet, and the one which navigated through the underworld was known as the Meseket.

Other evidence from the time of the Old Kingdom only seems to indicate what we now term classes of ships. For example, Henet-ships and Shabet-ships were two kinds of funerary boats, and there does not seem to be any evidence of these having names: in the tomb of Seneb, the inscriptions simply state '"rowing in a Shabet-ship" and "sailing in a Henetboat". Even the name of the well-preserved 'Khufu ship' is unknown, assuming that it even had one (but there is evidence from the New Kingdom, as shown in user91876's post).


From Ancient Greece, Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson mentions that very few ship names are known before the end of the 5th century BC, but

...from 377-322 BC, the Athenian naval lists preserve about 300 names given to galleys in the fleet.

Among the names mentioned are

Aktis, Anysis,... Eucharis,...Hikane,...Prote,...Salpinx

Among the favourite names were 'Nike' and names which referred to a ship's ability and 'sureness to succeed'. Geographical and animal names were also used, as well as deities, adjectives ('golden') and abstract nouns. These names were mostly given to triremes, a few to quadriremes

Triremes "Fleet of triremes made up of photographs of the modern full-sized replica Olympias" Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/df/Greek_Galleys.jpg


For the Hellenistic period we know much less but there is the Syracusia which

was probably the largest transport ship of antiquity build after an order of Hieron II, king of Syracuse, by Archias of Corinth around 240 BC, later it was given as a gift to Ptolemy III Euergetes of Alexandria and it was renamed to Alexandria (or Alexandris). Designed by Archimedes. Used a variant of his screw to pull the unfinished ship into the sea where the work was completed.

Syracusia Source: gcaptain via Wikipedia An exaggerated depiction of the Syracusia from 1798

This was surpassed in size by the Tessarakonteres, built by Ptolemy III's son Ptolemy IV but was apparently (according to Plutach) for exhibition only (so maybe this one shouldn't count).


Casson says that the sources for ships names are 'much richer' for Ancient Rome. Details are given in Chapter 15 of Ships and Seamanship. In another book, The Ancient Mariners, Casson says that

A Roman man-of-war was given a name but it was not inscribed on the hull as today. Instead an illustrative carving was set on the bows, for example, a relief of a god if the ship was called after one

He also notes that, for names, there was

an understandable preference for deities of the sea like Neptune, Nereis, Triton, or for such sailors' favorites as Isis and Castor and Pollux. A number of ships bore geographical names, and here there was a tendency, natural enough, to go in for rivers; at one time or another all the great rivers of the ancient world, the Tigris, Euphrates, Nile, and Danube, were represented in the fleets. But quite a few were named after abstract qualities, and the fact that it was a peacetime navy seems reflected in the choice: names such as Triumphus or Victoria are rare; the christeners preferred Concordia^ lustitia, Libertas, Pax, Pietas, and the like.

  • I wonder if it might be appropriate to analogize the name Tessarakonteres to something like a modern ship class, rather than an individual name. Despite that they only built one, it's of the same pattern as broad size groupings used throughout classical antiquity, like 'pentekonter', 'trireme', and 'quinquereme'. – David Reed Jan 25 '18 at 14:47
  • You may have a point, though Wikipedia refers to it as 'the' - but at the same time the name translates as 'forty-rowed', which does indeed sound more like a class. – Lars Bosteen Jan 25 '18 at 15:17
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    Arrgh you beat me to it. And don't forget the Isis, the huge Roman grain ship that made a huge impression during a rare visit to Athens. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isis_(ship) – MAGolding Jan 25 '18 at 17:52
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    @MAGolding. I guess that's happened to most of us at one time or another :) – Lars Bosteen Jan 26 '18 at 4:43

protected by Semaphore Jan 29 '18 at 10:02

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