Navigare necesse est: To sail is necessary

The KNVTS has a proud tradition to connect its vision on the future with a view on the historic past of shipbuilding practice. Time for the chair of the KNVTS Ship of the Year Committee Rien de Meij to take a step back and reflect on the idea of “vision”. Here is the story of “Navigare necesse est” or “To sail is necessary.

In 730 BCE, the Corinthians sailed out to settle and found new cities: first they took over Corfu from the Eretrians; an island with good timber for ship construction [xýla néia]. Corfu was a stepping stone for the trade route to Italy, where Corinth settled at Syracuse on Sicily. Together with eight other sponsor-cities, Corinth also founded the colony of Naukratis in Egypt.

At first, Naukratis was nothing more than some camps on the sides of the Nile, but later trade volume increased and Naukratis became an important trading post [empórion]. Many other colonies were started from this mother-city [metropolis] and a class of wealthy Corinthian merchants [naúcraroi] developed.

Two ancient Greek ship forms, depicted on the rim of a kylix (530-510 BCE). Representation of an ancient Greek ship. On the bow, the apotropaic ophthalmós (eye) and the cutwater (shaped as a wild boar). Détail d’une coupe à figures noires datée v.530-510. Louvre. From Wikimedia Commons. Author (photo) Poecus.

Poverty, overpopulation, and a drive for colonisation always went hand in hand. In Corinth, where fertile land was scarce, trade and navigation were not a luxury, but a necessity. As you went up the Acrocorinthus, the mountain peak above the city, you could not only see the altars to Helios and Aphrodite, but behind those were the sanctuaries of Bia [force] and Anankè [necessity]. From the latter we inherit the maxim pleîn anankè, better known as “navigare necesse est”. It means “to sail is necessary”.

Modern style of naval architecture

In modern idiom we can add that necessity was “the mother of invention”. The first reports of a modern style of naval architecture come from Corinth. (‘It is said that the Corinthians were the first to approach the modern style of naval architecture, and that Corinth was the first place in Hellas where galleys were built’ [Thucydides 1].)

The new ship was the Archaic dieres; a ship with two ranks [stoikhos] of rowers on the portside and two on the starboard side; each rank on one side working the oars from a slightly different vertical level. Ships with slots for so many benches, that travelled so many “key-places”, were in dual meaning “many-slotted vessels” [neí polykleidi]: well-travelled ships.

The dieres was an extension of the fifty-oared long-ship, the pentekónteros, and a first step towards the later development of the “trireme”. The dieres had a small draught and a broad bottom, allowing the ship to run in shallow waters. The cutwater [steira] was appended with a bronze or iron sheathed protrusion [émbolos].

Pompey filled the seas with ships

Later, the expression about the necessity of navigation would be revived and extended by the Roman statesman Pompey. He was responsible for the grain transports to Rome, at a time that the population of Rome was starving.

When he was about to set sail with his grain-carrying ships, there was a violent storm at sea and the ship captains hesitated to put out. Pompey ordered them to weigh anchor, crying with a loud voice: ‘Pleîn anankè, zèn ouk anankè’ (to sail is necessary; to live is not, in Latin: “Navigare necesse est, vivere non est necesse”).

By his leadership, he filled the sea with ships and the markets with grain, ‘so that the excess of what he had provided sufficed also for foreign peoples, and there was an abundant overflow, as from a spring, for all.’ (Plutarch, The Parallel Lives, The Life of Pompey 50.1-2.) Here, the motto gained the meaning that the interest of the state prevails over the interest of the individual.

Rotterdam city hall

Nowadays, the words of Anankè, in their Latin form and without the addition of Pompey, decorate the municipal coat of arms in the top of the dome of the Rotterdam city hall. The expression fits the Rotterdam tradition in which swift action is preferred above lengthy words.

Picture (top): Archaic diērēs depicted on a Greek vase found at Vulci in Etruria. Greek diērēs , c. 500 BCE. Illustrator not credited – Ancient and Modern Ships – Part I – Wooden Sailing Ships by Sir George Holmes. From Wikimedia Commons.

Series of articles

This is the third in a series of articles. The other articles are:

The articles are written by Ing Rien de Meij. 

Author: Mariska Buitendijk

Mariska Buitendijk is one of SWZ|Maritime's journalists as well as the magazine's copy editor.