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Bireme: The ancient ship of Samos (or Samaina)

Bireme, a ship with two rows of oars on each side, was the forerunner of the trireme, while it is considered the intermediate link in the evolution process between the penteconter and later designs.

Biremes were built with thirty or fifty oars, while the dimensions of these ships vary: 18-22 meters in length, 3-4 meters wide, 22 tons of displacement, and 4-6 meters long oars.

The famous biremes (or Samaina) were constructed in Samos by the tyrant Polycrates.


Upon completion of data collection, a penteconter bireme was constructed according to the iconographic elements (coins, representations on vases, and models). The hull of the vessel is 27,40 meters long, 2,76 meters wide, 2,42 tall (in the middle of the ship), with a 10-to-1 length to width ratio. Then it was considered that according to the written sources Samaina must had a wider hull and so two more Samaina versions were constructed with the same overall length but with different length to width ratios (8-to-1 and 6-to-1 respectively). The three hulls were compared in terms of their hydrostatic and hydrodynamic characteristics. The results showed that the vessels with the 10-to-1 and 8-to-1 ratios require a particularly low center of gravity and possibly the installation of floats in order to ensure stability. On the other hand, the vessel with the 6-to-1 ratio is relatively stable under the precondition that its payload (15 tons) is placed at the lowest possible position.

 Ancient representation of Samaina

The only representation, which is believed to depict the bow of a Samaina, is the one reproduced on one side of the coins found in Zagkli (a Samian colony in Sicily). The coins depict a ram-like bow with three rows of shingles and an extensive and upright end of the bow. Some engineers recognize the positions of the two rows of oars and an elevated deck, which is protected by a kind of a bulwark and railings. It is also believed that the ram has a particularly square and steep end, which probably indicates the special bow of Samaina.

A silver tetradrachm from Zagkli, depicts a ship’s bow, probably Samaina.

Currency diameter: Approximately 25 mm.

Currency date: 494-489 BC

History of Samaina

Samaina was a distinctive type of ship, created by the tyrant Polycrates of Samos (539-522 BC). Samaina, as shown by its width, served both military and commercial purposes. Sources offer the following information, regarding Samaina:

  • It was a two level ship i.e. a bireme (with two lines of rowers)
  • It use to have a boar headed shaped ram
  • It was quite wide compare to other ships of its time, and
  • It was cover by deck throughout its length.

 Emphasis is given to the type of vessel referred by the name Samaina, which is closely related with the most important and glorious historical period of Samos. The vessels called Samaina are considered to be a penteconter bireme with wide and deep hull and an unusually-shaped bow.

samainaThe source material regarding the study of the ship’s form consists of representations on coins, schematic models of boats, representations on vases, and brief descriptions in written sources.

However, all commentators note and comment the shape of the bow, either by using the word “Simota” or by mentioning that it resembled the head of a boar. Perhaps the form of a boar’s head was a mere embellishment but Samaina ships probably had some special geometric features in ram bows that made them special compare to other ships.

The first photograph is a contemporary effigy exhibited in the Museum of Maritime Heritage



Samaina from Ad Axem on Vimeo.

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