For more than 500 years, scholars have argued over how the ancient Greeks and others rowed the warships they called triremes. The starting point has always been that the number three in ‘trireme’ (trieres in Greek, triremis in Latin) referred to oars at three levels. Each level was assumed to have had a fore-and-aft file of oarsmen on either side, so that there were six files of oarsmen in all. But the starting point was wrong: the ‘three’ referred to the total number of files. Centuries of argument was based on what might unkindly be called a schoolboy howler.
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