From the New York Times:
Lionel Casson, who melded his mastery of classical literature with the findings of underwater archaeology in scholarly but accessible books about the history of ancient seafaring, from the primitive dory to the vast armadas of the Roman Empire, died July 18 in Manhattan. He was 94.
The cause was pneumonia, his daughter Andrea Casson said.
Drawing from an array of sources — the writings of the historian Thucydides and the speeches of Demosthenes; cargo manifests kept by unknown captains; images of ships on sculptures; the dating and typing of timbers taken from sunken vessels — Dr. Casson’s gracefully written books traced the trade routes that bound the ancient world and described the early evolution of shipbuilding and naval warfare.
A particularly useful source for Dr. Casson were amphorae, the earthenware freight containers of antiquity that carried products like honey, olive oil, wine, frankincense and myrrh from port to port. Markings preserved on many amphorae identified not only the point of embarkation but the year and the month.
Dr. Casson, a professor of classics at New York University from 1961 to 1979, wrote 23 books on Greek and Latin literature and the maritime history of the ancient Western world.
In one of his best-known works, “The Ancient Mariners: Seafarers and Sea Fighters of the Mediterranean in Ancient Times” (Macmillan, 1959), he wrote of the Egyptians, Minoans, Mycenaeans, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans and how they ventured from timid voyages hugging the coasts to bold dashes across open seas.
He described how maritime commerce progressed from nearby exchanges to an integrated network stretching from the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas to shores as distant as Britain and India. With commerce and politics fomenting rivalries, warships evolved from flat-bottomed rowboats into leviathans bearing hundreds of oarsmen and warriors. The Athenian trireme, for example, was a war galley with 170 oars arranged in three banks; rowing was synchronized to the piping of a flutist.
“A trireme could sprint at a seven-knot speed or spin about in little more than its own length,” the book says. “Despite its size and power, it was light and shallow enough for the crew to run it up on a beach” so crew members could cook, eat and sleep on shore.
But there were even larger ships in the ancient world, the “supergalleys” built by Egyptian pharaohs and their Macedonian rivals. One, built by Ptolemy IV, Dr. Casson wrote, “was over 400 feet long and 50 feet wide; the figureheads on the prow and stern towered more than 70 feet above the water, and there were no less than 4,000 rowers manning its benches.”
Dr. Casson did not limit himself to ancient maritime history. His 1964 book “Illustrated History of Ships and Boats” (Doubleday) traces water travel from the days when men floated across a river on an inflated animal skin to the days of steel-skinned nuclear submarines.
Dr. Casson also published “Libraries in the Ancient World” (Yale University Press, 2001). By piecing together findings from archaeological digs, references from literary texts and even epitaphs relating to libraries, he offered a succinct view of the development of reading, writing and book collecting in Mesopotamia, Greece and the Roman Empire. He sprinkled the book with amusing asides, including all-time best-seller-list assessments. “Homer led by a wide margin, with the ‘Iliad’ favored over the ‘Odyssey,’” he wrote.
In 2005, Dr. Casson received the Gold Medal Award for Distinguished Archaeological Achievement from the Archaeological Institute of America.
Born in Brooklyn on July 22, 1914, Lionel I. Cohen (he later changed his name to Casson) was one of two sons of Abraham and Bess Cohen. His father owned a lumberyard.
Besides his daughter Andrea, he is survived by his wife of 63 years, the former Julia Michelman; another daughter, Gail Casson; and two grandchildren.
Dr. Casson received his bachelor’s degree in 1934, his master’s degree in 1936 and his doctorate in 1939, all from New York University, and was hired as an instructor at N.Y.U. In World War II, he served as a Navy officer, interrogating Japanese prisoners of war.
Andrea Casson said that when her father was a teenager, he and a friend bought a small sailboat and soon began plying the waters of Long Island Sound. In 1952, while teaching at N.Y.U., he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. It allowed him to study ancient maritime commerce and spend a year examining the site of every important ancient harbor on the European coast of the Mediterranean and most of those on the coasts of Asia and Africa.
The majesty of masts and billowing sails enraptured him throughout his life. When replicas of the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria made their way below the towers of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in July 1992, in observance of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America, Dr. Casson was standing on the shore of New York Harbor.
“They looked fine, until they dropped their sails,” he said. “Then they kept on moving, and you realized they had motor power.”