Imperial Rome   :|:   Analysis

The use of the lateen sail in the ancient Mediterranean

ref. : en.1743.2018 | 6 December 2018 | by Francis Leveque
first half of Ier millennium AD
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The use of the Latin sail has long been attributed to the only medieval period. It was considered that antiquity did not know this form of sail and that sailors could not sail close-hauled. Recent analyzes tend to negate what appeared to be a clear achievement. The documents resulting from recent excavations and the proofreading of older documents are revolutionizing our knowledge of the use of lateen sail in the Mediterranean at the beginning of the first millennium AD.

Such scholar studies have generally focused on the date at which the lateen was introduced into the Mediterranean, and in some cases have attempted to identify an origin, either cultural or geographical, for the emergence of the lateen rig. Iconographic evidence relating to lateen-rigged ships from the late-antique eastern Mediterranean allows the diagnostic features of such vessels to be identified.

Julian Whitewright characterises the Mediterranean lateen rig of the late-antique period (on the basis of published iconographic depictions) by outlining an identifiable and repeated set of rigging components which can be associated with the Mediterranean lateen sail and try to find the continuity between late-antique lateen-rigged ships and those from the medieval Mediterranean.


Two forms occur in the iconography of the ancient Mediterranean. One is a fully triangular sail, the other a quadrilateral sail with a short luff. In his explanation, Julian Whitewright define fully triangular sail will be referred to as a ‘lateen’, while the quadrilateral sail will be referred to as a ‘settee’ (like Moore, 1925: 88; Pomey, 2006: 329). The term «Eastern lateen sail» has been used to refer to the quadrilateral sail on the basis of the terminology set out by Beaudouin (1990).

The origin of the lateen/settee sail has often been attributed by scholars to the Indian Ocean and its introduction into the Mediterranean traditionally ascribed to the Arab expansion of the early-7th century. It follows that the Indian Ocean origin of the lateen/settee rig was founded on its predominance in the waters of the Indian Ocean in recent times.
Such theories have been superseded by unequivocal depictions of lateen/settee-rigged Mediterranean sailing vessels which pre-date the Arab invasion.

An older use than it seems

There is no firm archaeological evidence for the lateen sail until the end of the 1st millennium CE. Although some ambiguous, yet plausible, literary references exist, for example Procopius (Vand. 1.13.3), the iconographic material remains the primary source for understanding this significant shift in how the mariners of the ancient world rigged and used their sailing vessels from late antiquity onwards.

J. Whitewright (2018) explains the earliest firmly dated depiction of the lateen rig is currently placed in the 2nd century AD with an example from Piraeus on a tombstone ascribed to ‘Alexander of Miletus’ . Although the date of the earliest example might have been expected to be pushed backwards by new discoveries, no such thing has happened, at least not from a securely dated context, in the subsequent 60 years.

This vessel in this mosaic from the port of Kelenderis in southern Turkey has been the subject of recent detailed discussion : the debate has revolved around the status of the vessel as a Mediterranean square-sail (Friedman 2007; Friedman and Zoroglu, 2006) or lateen/settee-rigged vessel (Pomey, 2006; cf. Pomey, in press; Roberts, 2006). The mosaic is dated to the late-5th or early-6th century AD (Friedman and Zoroglu, 2006: 108–09) and the vessel is shown entering the harbour of the town. It is depicted with a quadrilateral sail with a short luff and has a crosier-shaped masthead where the halyards go. And the Kelenderis vessel is also depicted with a forestay, supports around the base of the mast, and a large pair of steering-oars. A series of vertical posts is shown in the bow of the vessel.

The lateen rig seems to become more widespread in late antiquity before eventually supplanting the square sail as the sailing rig of choice in the Mediterranean during the medieval period (Whitewright, 2009). Typical iconographic imagery often shows a triangular sail-form, which, with the heavily inclined yard, suggests the vessel is rigged with a lateen sail. In this example from Kellia, 7th century AD, the mast is supported with a forestay and the artist has depicted a double halyard that runs from the yard through a prominent hook-shaped masthead (or "Phrygian cap", L. Basch) before returning to a large block above the deck. The form of the hook-shaped masthead is repeated at the bow of the vessel, possibly suggesting the presence of a foremast.

The rigs of the Kelenderis and Kellia ships exhibit obvious similarities, and J. Whitewright says Pomey (2006) is clearly correct when he concludes that the Kelenderis ship represents a vessel rigged with a form of lateen sail. Using the nomenclature outlined above it can be classified as a settee sail.

The characteristics of latten/settee ships

The settee sail was therefore in use in the Mediterranean from at least the late-5th or early-6th century AD, and the lateen sail from at least the late-6th or early-7th century, and maybe since the second century .

The depictions of lateen/settee-rigged vessels briefly described above share certain characteristics which can be positively identified in the iconographic record (cf. Pomey, 2006: 327–8). These include: a multiblock halyard system running from the masthead to a large block-and-tackle at the stern of the vessel ; a hook-shaped masthead which facilitates the halyard system running to the yard; a long yard, which is roughly the same length (or slightly longer) than the vessel itself; and the presence of vertical supports and lashing around the base of the mast.

However the presence of brails or brail-rings would indicate that a vessel would be rigged with a Mediterranean square-sail.

By following this description of the characteristics of the lateen rigging, J. Whitwright rightly questions the nature of the ship represented by a graffito of Corinth and dating to the 5th or 6th century AD (Basch, 1991a). This vessel carries a hook-shaped masthead, a complex halyard system running from the masthead to the stern of the vessel, structure supporting the mast, and a row of vertical posts in the bow. An element interpreted as the lowered yard runs the length of the vessel (Basch, 1991a: 18). The depiction of the vessel contains all the elements required for the depiction of a lateen/settee-rigged ship during late antiquity, even though the sail is not shown.

J. Whitwright goes even further: since the front mast has the same equipment as the central mast, as noted by L. Basch, this may represent a foremast, in which case the Corinth vessel represents the earliest currently-identified example of a two-masted lateen/settee-rigged ship in the Mediterranean.

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