Casson, Lionel. Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World.

Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971.

Casson was a professor of classics at NYU but he was known to aficionados of naval history as the leading expositor of maritime archaeology. He also wrote several books on the subject for young readers, which was how I discovered him long ago, in my junior high library, but this volume is his most important work.

What it is, very simply, is the most thorough and complete survey available in English of the development of boats and ships, from the first Neolithic inflated cow-skin through Egyptian and Mesopotamian river craft, to Greek and Roman trading vessels and warships in the eastern Mediterranean. He intended this to be the final say on the entire subject (it still generally is, forty years later) and to that end he cuts the reader no slack.

Descriptions of vessels and their rigging and operation are very detailed, based largely on wall inscriptions, vases, and tomb carvings. I know that new finds on the floor of the Med in the past couple of generations have borne out almost every conclusion he draws here. The language is often technical, frequently with Greek and Latin terminology in the later chapters. Every second line includes a superscript and up to half of each page consists of discursive footnotes.

The final third of the volume presents nearly two hundred photos and drawings (cited frequently throughout the text), followed by a lengthy glossary of nautical terms in English, Greek, and Latin, and three indexes — a general one, another to citations (so the reader can locate the ancient authors referred to), and a third to ships’ names.

This isn’t really the sort of book you can sit down and read through. It’s the sort you keep handy as a reference while reading any other book on the early history of ships.

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Published in: on 2 July 2015 at 10:49 am  Leave a Comment  
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