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The penteconters emerged in an era when there was no distinction between merchant and war ships. They were versatile, long-range ships used for sea trade, piracy and warfare, capable of transporting freight or troops. A penteconter was rowed by fifty oarsmen, arranged in two rows of twenty-five on each side of the ship. A midship mast with sail could also propel the ship under favourable wind. Penteconters were long and sharp-keeled ships, hence described as long vessels (Greek: νῆες μακραί, nḗes makraí). They typically lacked a full deck, therefore they were also called unfenced vessels (Greek: ἄφρακτοι νῆες, áphraktoi nḗes).
According to some contemporary calculations, penteconters are believed to have been between 28 and 33 metres (92 and 108 ft) long, approximately 4 meters wide, and capable of reaching a top speed of 9 knots (18 km/h). However, modern reconstructions of penteconters as well as other ancient ship designs such as triremes which were manned by modern untrained amateurs attained that top speed fairly easily on initial sea trials, which implies that the top speed of that type of ship in the ancient era had to be substantially higher. Ancient Greeks also used the triaconter (also triacontor, Greek: τριακόντορος), a shorter version of the penteconter with thirty oars. There is a general agreement that the trireme, the primary warship of classical antiquity, evolved from the penteconter via the bireme. The penteconter remained in use until the Hellenistic period, when it became complemented and eventually replaced by other designs, such as the lembos, the hemiolia and the liburnians.
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