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E + 6 : A Sea Full of Sail - The Tyrrhenian

It is going to be a sailing day today. Before going to bed last night we sailed to Panarea, the island owned by 25 families – looks and feels like a luxury resort. We left after breakfast to visit the Stromboli. Then it was time to head east into the Tyrrhenian Sea and sail for Tropea on Calabria’s north coast.

The Stromboli volcano with the signature smoke cloud


The Tyrrhenian Sea is quiet these days. There is the occasional container ship or ferry boat on the horizon. 4’000 years ago, it was different though. The Tyrrhenian was full of sails. It was the main waterway from the Eastern Mediterranean to Cadiz and Cornwall. There were large copper deposits in Cyprus and Anatolia but almost no tin - needed to make bronze. Tin was only found in Afghanistan, southern Spain and Southern England. The Phoenicians were the first to recognize this trade opportunity and headed west where they founded Cadiz. From there their ships ventured into the Atlantic to sail to Cornwall.

Phoenician Trade Routes to Cadiz followed the Coasts of Italy, France and Spain


There is a navigational challenge though. Westerlies dominate the African coast of the Mediterranean. Sailing along this coast is one-directional: from West to East - not in the opposite direction. Anybody travelling East to West has to take the northern route in an anti-clock wise circle: first along the Levante, then Anatolia, then across the Ionian Sea, continue north through the Tyrrhenian and eventually sail south following the French and Spanish Coast. Whether Greek or Phoenician or Etruscan, this applied to everybody.

Etruscan Sailboat with its typical, almost northern, viking like design


Benefitting from astronomical observations over centuries, the Greek and Phoenician were up to the challenge. They could sail on the open sea following the stars. Could not find any data when they started to come to the Tyrrhenian. But there is ample evidence of them being in the region around 1’000 years BC. The Sea was not empty though. Etruscan People were already here. They were not only skilled warriors but also talented sailors. They had plenty of timber and good harbors and knew how to build ocean going vessels. Formally, the first Greek colony in the Tyrrhenian was established in the 8th century on Pithecusae (Ischia today). It was home to 5’000 – 10’000 people from Greece, Phoenicia and Etruscans. A few miles away from Neapolis on the Italian mainland, it was a peaceful place for trading.


This Etruscan Vase illustrates Dionysus turning sailors into dolphins


Until 474 BC, when decisively defeated by Syracuse, the Etruscan ruled the Tyrrhenian Sea. Etruscan vessels were so dominant that – according to legend - they captured Dionysus, the Greek God of Wine. He only escaped after turning the Etruscans sailors into dolphins. Well guess what! We met an entire of group Etruscan sailors on our way to Tropea.

8 Etruscan sailors - they seemed to be quite happy in their bodies


Today, relatively little is known about the Etruscans as they got absorbed into the Roman Empire early. Etruscan never united into a single political entity. They lived in small city states which jealously protected their independence. The Romans though successfully played them against each other and by the 4th century started to absorb them. By the 3rd century, there were no independent Etruscan towns any longer.


Etruscan Settlement Area - it was not a State


The disappearance of the Etruscan, then the Phoenician and eventually the Greek sailors did not reduce maritime traffic in the Mediterranean. To the contrary. It boosted the commercial shipping since Rome imported such an enormous volume of goods.

Could not find a photo of the Roman Grain Fleet - this Photo from Ben Hur of the Roman War Fleet may give you some idea - of course the Grain Ships had only sails


If my calculation is correct, Rome consumed about 400’000 tons of grain per year. This requires 1’300 merchant vessels to ship the grain from Egypt and Sicily through the Straits of Messina to Ostia. A typical grain freighter could transport about 300 tons. Add to this the 2 million hectoliters of wine Rome consumed – makes another 200’000 tons that needed to be shipped. The tonnage is mind boggling. The peak of the sailing season was July and August – the same time we travel. Were we sailing 2’000 years earlier, the sea would be full of sail.

We arrived in Tropea on Calabria's coast by 4 pm - now its leisure time


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