Names of ancient Greek ships

Did the ancient Greeks name their ships? The answer to that is yes. And with rare exception, the ships were given female names.

Josho Brouwers

In the game Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, the player eventually gets a ship called the Adrestia. A reader sent in a question to ask if, historically, the ancient Greeks did indeed name their ships. The answer to that is: yes.

Literary evidence

The earliest evidence that the Greeks named their ships comes from the story of Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece, which was already known to Homer (ca. 700 BC). The Fleece itself was located in Colchis (modern Georgia). Jason gathered heroes from all around Greece to get this object, and to reach their destination they made use of a ship called the Argo (“Swift”, a male name) in honour of its builder, Argos (Latinized: Argus). The heroes who sailed in the vessel were the Argonauts, from Greek Argonautai; nautai means “sailors”.

We have no idea if the thousand ships that the Greeks used in the Iliad to reach Troy had names. Homer doesn’t tell us. Likewise, we have no idea if Odysseus’ ships were named, since this is left unmentioned in the Odyssey. It seems likely that unless the ship was somehow special, like the Argo, a poet wouldn’t bother with burdening his audience with the names of his heroes’ ships.

In an earlier version of this article, I wrote that the next earliest reference to named ships is Xenophon, but this isn’t correct. On our Facebook page, David Harthen helpfully pointed out that the Salaminia is mentioned in Aristophanes’ play The Birds. The play in fact mentions not just the Salaminia, but also another ship called the Paralos. The play was performed in Athens in 414 BC, meaning that this reference predates Xenophon.

Both vessels were so-called “sacred ships”, used by the Athenians mostly as messenger ships or to transport special delegations to, for example, Delphi. In Xenophon’s Hellenika, the Paralos was used to convey news about the loss at Aegospotami (405 BC) to Athens (Xen. Hell. 2.1.28-29 and 2.2.3). Incidentally, the Salaminia is named after the island of Salamis, where the Athenian fleet had won a major victory over the Persians in 480 BC.

In the sixth book, Xenophon mentions both the Paralos and the Salaminia. The date for the second reference is 373 BC: if these are the same ships as mentioned by Arisophanes, that means they served in the Athenian fleet for more than four decades. It’s also possible that these ships were at some point replaced by new ones that carried the same names.

Attic inscriptions

In any event, the ancient literary evidence for ancient Greek ship names is a bit meagre. Fortunately, we also have a series of inscriptions from Athens that are known as the Tabulae Curatorum Navalium. These inscriptions date to the fourth century BC, between 377 and 322, and are currently in the Epigraphical Museum in Athens. These inscriptions, often fragmentary, are inventories of Athens’ fleet and its equipment, and were compiled each year. They give an overview of ships and what equipment is missing or damaged for each of them, such as ladders, masts, rudders, and sails.

On his Classics Pages, Andrew Wilson gives a brief rundown on the Tabulae Curatorum Navalium and provides an overview of the names immortalized in the inscriptions. The names – all female – are derived from heroines and goddesses (like Pandora and Aphrodisia), places (including Hellas and Eleusis), animals (e.g. Dolphin), objects (e.g. Sling), concepts (e.g. Freedom, Breeze, Justice), descriptions (e.g. Swift, Conquering, Beast), and even two verbs. The lists preserve around 300 names in total.

The inscriptions themselves are also available online. You can start at IG II² 1614 and then use the navigation options along the top to work your way to IG II² 1628. Even if you don’t know any ancient Greek, you’ll be able to make out some names from Andrew Wilson’s list even on the very first of the pages about these inscriptions, such as Euetêria (“Prosperity”), Parataxis (“Fighting alongside”), Asklepia (the daughter of the healing god Asclepius).

Closing thoughts

Of course, the Greeks weren’t alone in naming their ships. In chapter 15 of his Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World (1995 [1971]), Lionel Casson describes how the ancient Egyptians, long before the rise of Athens, had named their ships primarily after the king (e.g. Ramses II Who Propitiates the Aton or Merenptah Beloved of Sakhmet), but sometimes also after other deities, animals, or the country itself.

For the Romans, we have a wealth of evidence, especially for the Imperial period. They named their vessels in a similar manner to the Athenians, except that they included many male names, such as Cupido, Hercules, Aquila (“Eagle”), Taurus (“Bull”). The inclusion of Cupido might seem strange, but the Julio-Claudian imperial dynasty was descended via Julius Caesar and Aeneas from his mother, Venus (Aphrodite). As an aside, the Athenians also named triremes after the goddess, such as the Aphrodisias.

And finally my thanks to David Harthen for pointing out the fact that Aristophanes refers to the Salaminia in his play The Birds, making it the earliest Greek reference to a named non-mythological ship; I’ve updated the article to incorporate this information (14 May 2019).