Unbelievable part 9: The Apistos

3 January 2020

When searching for the meaning of apistos, a few webpages about the fated ship at the centre of the Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable lore topped the results. One is a tourism-driven description of the shipwreck with locations and scant information about tours time-stamped with dates in the months leading up to the exhibition opening in April 2017. One example seems to corroborate the legend. Another, ArtasMedia run by Grant Cox, apparently a graduate of University of Southampton and digital compositor of archaeological artefacts associated with the British Museum, shows elaborate CGI renderings of the ship. The Netflix film includes a sequence on such compositing work, claiming it was undertaken at Southampton’s Centre for Maritime Archaeology, which, according to the exhibition guide, formed the basis for the scale model in the show. The CMA at Southampton does do this kind of work, including in North East Africa and the Indian Ocean, but there is nothing on its website about the Apistos. The link seems to be with Cox whose website indicates he studied at the centre. The site’s description of the Apistos and surrounding story is highly similar to that detailed on p. 62 of the Treasures exhibition guidebook:

These renders and animations imagine how a legendary Roman-era ship, described in a medieval copy of a manuscript discovered in a Venetian archive, may have looked. The manuscript features a description of a great ship by an eye-witness named Lucius Longinus, who can in turn be cross-referenced against a papyrus excavated at Myos Hormos during the University of Southampton’s fieldwork (1999–2003). According to the manuscript, the vessel was commissioned by Amotan, a hugely wealthy freedman who was long thought to have been nothing more than a legend. Christened the Apistos (which translates as the ‘Unbelievable’), the ship was built to transport Amotan’s huge collection of statuary to a temple complex. The ship sunk, however, probably due to the weight of its cargo. Extracts from the papyrus read:

The ship was of a size never before comprehended by those of us versed in the ways of the sea as being possible to design and construct, and was called the Apistos. As a consequence, all of the timber resources that could be brought here by means of normal trade were insufficient to provide for its construction. Instead, the finest shipwrights of Alexandria, where suitable materials were more readily available, created the primary elements of the vessel before dismantling them and transporting them to Myos Hormos for construction. It measured 137½ cubits from bow to stern, spanned 29 cubits across its widest point, and was furnished with a hold a full 16 cubits in height that the vessel’s master assured me was able to carry 245,000 modii of goods.* Even with the great cargo on board, there was still enough space in the vessel to house a consignment of trade goods equal to the amount normally sent to the Far-Side Ports in a single ship. 

* In Vitruvius (Book III, Ch 1), a cubit is equated to 1½ Roman feet, equaling 444mm. A modii is a Roman measure equating to about 8.73 litres.’

Meanwhile, the exhibition guide asserts that ‘[t]he most reliable extant account of the Apistos was found on a medieval copy of an ancient manuscript and is attributed to a sailor named Lucius Longinus (who is also recorded on a papyrus excavated from the Red Sea port of Myos Hormos)’. I need to look into these claims regarding Longinus in more depth, but in online searches so far Wikipedia bears the most fruit with several entries on records of different men sharing the name Lucius Cassius Longinus, every example of which lived and died before Amotan is said to have been born. However, the knowledge we do have of the former port Myos Hormos comes mainly from excavations led by David Peacock and Lucy Blue at University of Southampton in whose studies there is no mention of Longinus, Amotan or the Apistos.

On the ship’s dimensions, the guide states ‘[t]he ship is calculated to have exceeded over sixty metres in length, its cargo weighing over 460 tonnes’, which seems excessively large for its time. The guide further says that ‘Longinus reports that the component parts were constructed in Alexandria and transported down the Nile before being assembled at Myos Hormos’. This claim led me down quite the rabbit hole to answer the question: would ships have been assembled there?

Before addressing that question, I can’t help but point out the similarities emerging with an all too real shipwreck that has become reinvented and reimagined countless times, namely the Titanic, the largest ship of its time named for the second generation of Greek gods and epitomising the hubris of its designers and operators. The Titanic was assembled in Belfast and moved to Southampton for finishing and fitting before its fated maiden journey. For the past century it has been asserted that the Titanic claimed to be unsinkable, but this is a retrospective imposition to embellish the story, and out of which legend has emerged. The events around its sinking lie in conjecture with evidence pointing to various factors including poor design, disregard for safety measures, incompetence or wilful sabotage from the captain, pressured and dangerous construction conditions, and so on. The Apistos myth is established on a similar level of not knowing. Was it a tempest? Was the ship overweight? Was it constructed properly? Was it poorly captained and/or navigated? Did it or its master full of hubris fall foul of vengeful gods?

Scale model of the 'Unbelievable' with suggested cargo locations, room 23, Palazzo Grassi

As we let our minds wander, archaeologists have been sifting through the evidence, or lack thereof, that might help meet or refute the bold claims in these texts. Firstly, Blue outlines evidence for the location of Myos Hormos, now the site of Quṣeir al-Qadīm, which prior to their excavations in 1999 to 2003 had been unclear. Blue explains of Myos Hormos in the Roman period (p. 139):

With its sister port, Berenike, it articulated trade between Rome and the East, facilitating the import of luxury goods such as spices and silks and the export of Roman fine wares and fine wine to India. Myos Hormos’ critical role in the long distance trade with the Indian Ocean is famously documented in the mid-first century AD Periplus Maris Erythraei (Casson 1989: 51). It is first mentioned by the Greek geographer Agartharchides in 116 BC, although it is believed to have been established some one hundred years earlier by Ptolemy II Philadephus (c. 285–246 BC). Strabo (Geography, 17.1.45) also mentions that Myos Hormos was linked to the Nile at Coptos (modern Qifţ) by a road across the Eastern Desert, providing the shortest route to the coast.’

So far, so plausible for the Amotan story, but what kind of ships would have docked there? Blue explains (p. 149):

The precise nature of the vessels utilising the harbour has yet to be identified, in fact, it is still a subject of much debate for the region in general both in the Roman and Islamic periods [in the early second millennium] (Casson 1971; Hourani 1995). However, some clues have been revealed. Re-used timbers have been recovered from the only two mud-brick graves excavated within the Islamic necropolis. Two sets of timbers covering the cist-type graves appear to be re-used ship timbers, one fastened by iron nails and the other sewn (teak) planks with coconut coir stitches and wooden dowels still in situ. The nature of these timbers would suggest that they might have been used in the construction of Indian Ocean/Arabian-type vessels.
      The discovery of wooden deadeye, sheaths and possibly even rigging brails of wood and horn also provide additional clues as to the operation of square-rigged vessels at Myos Hormos in the Roman period (Thomas & Whitewright 2001: 37). However, we have yet to establish whether lateen or square-rigged vessels were the predominant type of rig, or what method of construction was used to build the vessels and how they fared against the strong prevailing northerly winds of the region in both the Roman and Islamic period.’

More is revealed in continued research published by Steven E. Sidebotham (University of Delaware) on the types of ships and harbour facilities there would have been at these ‘premier Red Sea ports in Egypt in the early Roman period (p. 305). Finds from extensive fieldwork included imported items such as animals, plants, common trade goods and luxury items from Gaul, Spain, Axum, South Arabia, coastal sub-Saharan Africa, the Persian Gulf, India, Sri Lanka and possibly Thailand, Vietnam and eastern Java. 
His evidence of the appearance of the ships is based on ship and shipping artefacts and the uncovered architecture of the harbours. As I’ll get into in later posts, evidence of east-west exchange emerged in the finds (p. 308):

Close parallels to the Berenike material have been excavated at Quseir al-Qadim from this period [early Roman, c. 50–75 CE], including ropes used as shrouds and stays, running rigging to raise and trim the sails, sheaves (wooden pulley blocks), brailing rings made of wood and horn, lead hull sheathing, copper tacks, possible lifting nets, and, most recently, a mid-first-century A.D. sail of Indian manufacture with brailing ring attached.’

On shipbuilding at these ports, Sidebotham outlines (pp. 308–9):

While the Coptos Tariff of May A.D. 90 refers to the transport of a ship’s mast to the Red Sea coast from the Nile and there was possible occasional ship construction at some of the Red Sea ports (Clysma/Suez being the best candidate given the proximity of the Nile-Red Sea canal and the reduced shipping cost it allowed), one must surmise, given the long distances from the Nile and the high cost of transport overland, that the bulk of the maritime-related “construction” activities probably involved ship repair rather than ship construction, certainly at Berenike, anyway. Yet recently remains of one or more dismantled ships’ hulls of cedarwood have been found in a cave immediately west of the Middle and early New Kingdom port of Wadi Gawaseis, suggesting that ship assembly (at least of smaller vessels) took place along the Red Sea coast. Of course, it is possible that heavier timbers for shipbuilding, more likely repair, could have been conveyed by sea to Berenike from more northerly Red Sea ports, especially from Clysma/Suez.’

Excavations found artefacts including a graffito dated to around 50–70 CE that indicate (p. 310) ‘the peak of maritime commercial activity between the Mediterranean/Berenike and the “East.” The graffito depicts a ship in harbor with sails furled and with two lifts above and two braces trailing down from the main yardarms and tied off below. There is a pennant clearly waving in a strong wind, above the spindle. This provides a good idea of the appearance of the ships plying the Red Sea-Indian Ocean trade routes in the early Roman period.’ The shape is not dissimilar to that shown in Cox’s renderings, but the size and scale when comparing the ship with the sail rig is substantially larger in the latter.

Both sets of studies found that the ports of Berenike and Myos Hormos experienced problems with silting during the early Roman period that necessitated relocation away from their original Ptolemaic settlements. Although Roman piers have been found, Sidebotham points out that (p. 314) ‘[t]he port at Quseir al-Qadim was very primitive and not at all monumental [as evidenced in various studies since 1979], as seems to have been the case at Berenike.’ It seems some of the structures (amphoras) found were more likely part of a land reclamation process. However, he continues that (pp. 316–17) [a]s known from recent excavations at Quseir al-Qadim, there was continued vibrant activity there in the second century, especially in the Trajanic-Antonine periods, suggesting that, for whatever reason, Myos Hormos seems to have played a larger role than Berenike in the “Eastern” commerce in the Red Sea at that time. This situation did not last too long, as archaeological evidence from Myos Hormos indicates that the port there ceased to operate sometime in the third century A.D.’

What we can draw from this archaeological evidence base is that there is just enough breathing space for a story like the Amotan-Apistos legend to fill in the gaps. This is where apistivism must be applied; there is not enough evidence to confirm such a story and it must be questioned and regarded sceptically until more indicative evidence arises. What we’ve seen here is an aspect of the exhibition and its story that treads a very fine line between truth and possibility.


Lucy Blue, ‘Myos Hormos/Quṣeir al-Qadīm. A Roman and Islamic port on the Red Sea coast of Egypt — A maritime perspective’, Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies
Vol. 32, Papers from the thirty-fifth meeting of the Seminar for Arabian Studies held in Edinburgh, 19-21 July 2001 (2002), pp. 139–150

Steven E. Sidebotham, ‘Archaeological Evidence for Ships and Harbor Facilities at Berenike (Red Sea Coast), Egypt’, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome. Supplementary Volumes, Vol. 6, The Maritime World of Ancient Rome (2008), pp. 305–324


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