Super-oarsmen vs. Lying Historians

A story about a study (reported in the New Scientist in 2007) purporting to show that modern fit athletes can’t match the performance of ancient oarsmen was the subject of an email discussion over the past few days. Here is the gist:

In 427 BC, the Greek city-state of Athens crushed a revolt in Mytilene on the Aegean island of Lesbos. The Athenian assembly decided that all men in Mytilene should be killed in punishment and dispatched the order by the fastest means it knew – a trireme, the classic oared warship of the ancient Mediterranean. The next day, the assembly relented and sent a second trireme to call off the massacre. Mytilene was 340 kilometres away and the first ship had a day-and-a-half start – but by rowing non-stop for 24 hours, the crew of the second ship arrived in time to stop the slaughter. Modern crews who tried to match this feat in a reconstructed trireme have never come close. Were ancient Athenian oarsmen supermen?

…Even the most practised crew, though, came nowhere close to matching the [endurance of their forebears. They managed just under 9 knots in a sprint – a reasonable ramming speed – but could keep it up for only a few seconds. Over distance they could sustain a top speed of no more than 5 knots. Yet the historian Xenophon implied that even a moderately good crew could manage 7 knots for many hours. In the race to Mytilene, as recounted by Thucydides, who had himself once commanded a fleet of triremes, the pursuing ship must have averaged this sort of speed for more than 24 hours.

While it’s possible that ancient oarsmen were super-rowers, isn’t it at least as plausible that our data about ancient feats is suspect? If history is written by the victors, sports history is written by the over-testostoroned victors.

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