Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Rowing means Rowing Well!

The Athenian fleet developed muscular bonding among a larger proportion of the total population than ever fought in Sparta's phalanx. In 483 B.C., when Themistocles persuaded the Athenians to build a fleet of triremes, the citizens who manned the oars found themselves in a situation that required prolonged and precise movement in unison. The three tiers of oars had scant clearance. Every oarsman had to keep pace with those in front and behind, while also keeping his oar out of the path of those banked above or below him. Deviation of more than a few inches, and mistiming by a fraction of a second, meant a tangle of oars and loss of momentum. Precision was absolutely vital, and it took considerable practice for a crew to settle into a smooth, effective rhythm.

Rowing flexes the same arm and leg muscles as marching and dancing, and a seated posture may not diminish the emotional effect of keeping together in time that results from such exercises when people stay on their feet. Unlike contemporary rowers, ancient trireme crews pulled their oars in unison by conforming to the beat of a mallet on a special sounding board; and this may have strengthened their visceral response to keeping together in time. If so, the Athenians, too, were in a position to provoke the same sort of emotional solidarity that the Spartans did, with the difference that the upwelling of common feeling among the Athenians concentrated among citizens too poor to equip themselves for the phalanx, and who, instead of fighting on land, rowed in the fleet almost every summer between 480 and 404 B.C.

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