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"How were Roman and Carthaginian galleys painted?" Topic


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Zookie05 Apr 2018 7:14 p.m. PST

I got some miniatures of warships for the Punic Wars but I am a little unclear how to paint them. The lower hulls were covered in pitch so I am guessing black near the waterline. Sails would be mostly off white. But I am unsure on how to paint the hulls. Some sources I've seen said the Romans used red paint on ship but was that the entire hull or just some decorative highlighting? I haven't found anything about Carthaginian ship coloring or painting.

Were hulls of warships of this era completely painted? If not was the wood stained or just bare? Did the Romans and Carthaginians use different color schemes?

Any other tips on painting galleys of this period would be appreciated.

evilgong05 Apr 2018 8:12 p.m. PST

Read Virgil's Aeneid,

OK, it's fiction but presumably reflects plausible practice.

He mentions ships names, colours, decorations.

David F Brown

KhivaJoe06 Apr 2018 1:11 a.m. PST

..with big brushes?

GildasFacit Sponsoring Member of TMP06 Apr 2018 1:27 a.m. PST

Red was a favoured colour throughout the wooden ship era because red lead pigment inhibited the attack of various marine animals. Wood preservatives were not always black, mid to dark brown would be equally accurate.

The reality is that we don't have any evidence that there were 'official' colour schemes or even any measure of commonality in ancient galley fleets. We do have notes and comments (at many different times) that indicate that painted and decorated ships were common, or at least, not uncommon. A few mention specific colours (though sometimes because of their perceived significance in religious or cultural terms) but never enough to give us even a local snapshot.

It is, I think, reasonable to assume that decoration of some sort was 'normal' pretty well throughout the period. What we don't know are the details.

Prow and stern were important parts, as was the ram – they probably got the most decoration. Beyond that I'd say it was guesswork.

Swampster06 Apr 2018 2:21 a.m. PST

There are a number of surviving murals and mosaics which show merchant and military ships from Imperial Roman times. The similarities between colours used centuries apart shows in the Pompeii murals and Piazza Armerina mosaics, though there are also differences the Pompeii pictures use a wider range of colours. Since there was little variation in the first three or four hundred years of the Empire, it is possible that similar designs were used earlier.


There are limits based on the medium but nothing which looks glaringly unrealistic. It would be pretty much impossible to decide what decoration is fanciful rather than actually used the mosaic of Ulysses' ship at Thugga is very decorated but I would not automatically assume this style wouldn't appear.
Red certainly appears a lot though there is work which is purely decorative.

The main proviso is that in the 1st PW especially, Roman warship production was extremely fast, so decoration is likely to have been pretty minimal. However, since painting has benefits beyond decoration, they may have used different colours in different sections anyway, as with the Pompeii murals.


There are lots of online pics a search for Roman ship murals or mosaics takes you to many.

Hopefully, the increasing number of finds of ships in the Black Sea will help to extend our knowledge. When they are so well preserved that masts are still erect and ropes cover the decks, the preservation of paint work doesn't seem impossible.

WarWizard06 Apr 2018 4:06 a.m. PST

I think Osprey has several books on this subject including
link

darthfozzywig06 Apr 2018 8:45 a.m. PST

I was going to chime in with "by hand", but KhivaJoe got here firstest with the mostest.

williamb07 Apr 2018 9:36 a.m. PST

Although from a later period there are paintings of the galleys at the battle of Lepanto which show the variety of decoration and color. the replica of the Real at the museum in Spain shows how highly decorated a flagship could be link

The Hellenistic kingdoms may have done something similar as there was a completion of sorts between Macedonia and Ptolemy's Egypt for building larger and larger galleys.

Ancient statues were painted quite colorfully and their ships may also have been. Eyes were usually painted on the bow so the ship could "see" where it was going. Swampster has excellent suggestions for sources painting ships.

Plasticviking306 Dec 2018 4:18 p.m. PST

My twopenneth..In the Roman era fleets were recognisable by different coloured towers. Mosaics show ships with finely painted panels at bow and stern, motifs along the oarbox or gunwale but otherwise 'wood coloured- i.e. with tar on wood. Pliny says that by 1st century AD caustic paints were used on ships (wax-based).The Pompeii frescoes show this maybe. Pottery from Greece has red and black colouring and Homer mentions red prows and black. There is a famous description of a snake painted along the side of a trieres. Ships had statues at the stern and or bow of protective deities – these would be coloured. The rule seems to be coloured areas , often very finely detailed with gods heroes and soldiers and sea monsters,- these along the bow and stern-highly visible features could be coloured, flagships gilded, with everything else tarred. This would be golden yellow on new ships, turning to black on ships 5 yrs old or so. A galley could last 40 years in service, being tarred every year.

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