The Athenian Navy
With thousands of kilometers of coastline and hundreds of islands, the Greek world was likely to be dominated only by a naval power. A generation after the establishment of democracy Athens became such a power under the influence of Themistokles. The fleet was made up of triremes, wooden warships that carried 170 rowers manning three banks of oars. The ships were 100-120 feet long and about 20 feet wide. At her peak, Athens had a fleet of 400 ships, a force requiring close to 80,000 men. These rowers, mainly drawn from Athens' poorer citizens, were paid and were seldom slaves. These citizen oarsmen were recognized as early as the 5th century B.C. as a significant force in the maintenance of the democracy.
Now, in discussing the Athenian constitution, I cannot commend their present method of running the state, because in choosing it they preferred that the masses should do better than the respectable citizens; this, then, is my reason for not commending it. Since, however, they have made this choice, I will demonstrate how well they preserve their constitution and handle the other affairs for which the rest of the Greeks criticize them.
My first point is that it is right that the poor and the ordinary people there should have more power than the noble and the rich, because it is the ordinary people who man the fleet and bring the city her power; they provide the helmsmen, the boatswains, the junior officers, the look-outs and the shipwrights; it is these people who make the city powerful much more than the hoplites and the noble and respectable citizens. This being so, it seems just that all should share in public office by lot and by election, and that any citizen who wishes should be able to speak in the Assembly. ("Xenophon," Constitution of the Athenians 1.1-2)
Oared ships appear on Athenian vases from the 8th to the 5th century B.C., and several of the 372 shipsheds that lined the harbors of the Piraeus have been excavated. These sources, supplemented with ancient descriptions and inscriptions listing naval equipment, allow an accurate reconstruction of one of these ancient warships.