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G - 105 : Have Forest - Have Empire

North-Western Coast of Corsica with the typical Mediterranean Shrub Forest

Sailing along the rocky shores of the Mediterranean is always a treat for the eyes. The colors of the turquoise sea, the yellow rocks, the dark blue sky and the green forests are spectacular. Some of my best photos capture these scenes. These landscapes make up for half the Mediterranean coast. The forests in these places are not traditional forests though. The trees are shrubs with no trunk, branches are thin and long, their foliage is as dark green as it gets. Wild oaks and almond trees constitute a large part of these coastal forests. In other places, pine trees reign supreme. They grow so fast they displace any other tree.

Forest Density today - about 3'000 years ago, still 80% of the Land was covered by Forests

The Mediterranean enjoys a healthy degree of biodiversity and is often called one of the world’s diversity hotspots. The number of different tree is high. In total, there are 245 species. In northern Europe there are only about 40 native species. But the Mediterranean climate tends to be drier than other subtropical ones. Total rainfall ranges from 14 to 35 inches. Also, limestone is not good for retaining water. The water shortage prevents many trees from developing their natural architecture and forces them into dwarf shapes. Such trees display their true shape only after a long period without disturbance, when cultivated in plantations or in gardens.

This gets me to the topic of my blog today. How were the Greek and the Romans able to build large fleets? Wooden ships require large and straight trees for planks, keels, ribs and masts. You cannot build boats from shrubs. It was also challenging to find Roman ship yards. Where were they? Seems that the topic did not interest many researchers. A few young archeologist now shed light onto the secret though. Recent excavations in Naples and Portus (Ostia) found remains of ancient ships and ship yards. Modern forensic tools allow the precise definition of the wood found and AI based research algorithms can track where the wood was grown and when it was cut.

Portus, the Hexagonal Port of the Imperial Capital. The Hexagon can be seen from the airplane when you fly into Roma-Funincino

The result is amazing. Precipitations are highest in the Apennine and the Greco-Albanian Mountain and so is biodiversity. Viewed with the eyes of an ancient shipbuilder: the forests in Italy and Greece produced tall trees in the variety that make ship building easy. Wood with high raisin content was used to make tar to water proof the ships. Sturdy and strong oaks were perfect for keel, ribs and the floors. The soft wood of pine trees ideal for flexible planks and bendable masts. Roman shipyards were discovered in Portus (Ostia). The raw tree trunks were floated from the Apennine down the Tiber river.

Artist Impression of a 470 meters long ship yard building in Portus (Ostia)

It is equally interesting to ask in which part of the Mediterranean good forests could not grow. The list is long. All of North Africa. A big part of the Levant. Most of Croatia. Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica. A big part of Spain. Now the slowness of Carthage’s ship building program makes perfect sense. They could not match the speed of Roman ship building.

Even thought far longer in the naval business, Carthage lacked the raw materials for large ship building programs. The Roman had in addition forest plantations and groomed trees with sufficient space. I experienced the same with my own oak trees. After my pine trees burnt in a large forest fire 20 years ago, the oak, elm, birch and wild cherry trees started to grow. Within a year they developed a proper crown and took the shape of stately trees. All they needed was sun, water and space.

Given time, this little Shrub will develope into a tall,

straight Oak Tree in Chantrou

It now makes perfect sense why Venice, Genoa and Noli became maritime powers. They all had ample supply of wood. Their beaches and laguna were perfect for building ships. Well protected from intruders by their geography, they took over when Italy descended into chaos. These city states first built ships to defend themselves and then to dominate the sea.

Also wonder whether this was not another reason for the Kingdom of Spain to offer an alliance to Genoa. The Spaniards had plenty of money but never enough materials to build a fleet for both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. If Spain did not have the long Atlantic coast in the north, the Kingdom might not have had the wood to build its treasure fleet that linked it to its colonies in Latin America.

The Royal Navy bringing the captured Foudroyant and Pégase into Portsmouth (1782)

From this perspective, it is almost a foregone conclusion as to why both France and England became the dominant ship builders in the 17th century. They had very large oak forests. Today, France and England’s oak is used to make barrels to mature wine, cognac and whiskey. The sturdy oak still makes good building materials for ships - but metal or carbon fibre has mostly replaced it..

France has still many Oak Forests - but they are now used for "spiritual" Purposes

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