Hortator, an Antiquity word for the modern times

Hortator, a Latin word meaning “one who encourages.”

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In the Antiquity and until the end of the XVI century, the Galley boat dominated the Mediterranean. One of the most visible aspects of this type of boat is the parallel lines of rows on each side. Inside the Galley, you would find the manpower that pushed the behemoths between Mediterranean shores.

Galley structure was diverse, but a usual architecture for large ones would put the oarsmen below the deck or below an elevated platform that supported officials and troops. Two or more lines of men on each side, in a coordinated effort, propelled the ship with the sweat of the brow. It was a strenuous and muscular work for sure and anyone that tried to row, even on a static one, knows that it isn’t a child’s play. Anyone that had the chance of experiencing a canoe ride, whether using a row on each side or a single one with two paddles, notices that body coordination is as essential as the strength that you put on the push of the paddle. The row should hit the water with the thinnest area possible and exit the same way. In between the surface area of the paddle should face the force of the water and push it behind. Not an easy skill for a single rower. Now multiply that by 10, 30 or even 170 like the trireme.

During the Roman empire heyday, when their navy still meant something, (although not that much) and mainly during wartime, galley rowers were lower-ranking roman citizens, colonists and freeman. Rowing within this type of boat wasn’t a task that you could throw forced labour upon. The coordination of the job required training, discipline and equilibrium between lines. In dire times when citizens weren’t enough to fill the seats, drafting slaves would be the last option and rarely done. The oarsmen should be focused on the mission of the boat and committed with the general effort. If a large group of able men wasn’t committed to the ship’s goal and became distressed with the mission, it might mean a disaster waiting to happen. Greeks showed the path on how to staff a Galley. Romans followed. But as you might imagine, even with rigorous row training, coordinate so many hands required ongoing supervision and direction.

Front and centre, between the two lines of men, you would find the Hortator. The maestro of oarsmen. As stated at the beginning of this piece, Hortator is a word with Latin origin, and it’s best translated as “the one who encourages”. You’ll find few references to the function and some other names such as Pausarius. But for the intrepid Mediterraneans, it fits the job spec perfectly.

His mission was to mark the pace of the row, set direction and execute complex manoeuvres with some type of musical instrument for coordinating row stride. Greeks were known to use the flute, but there aren’t many Roman depictions of the oarsman coordination. Nevertheless, Hollywood imprinted the image of the drummer marking the pace that you’ll also find corroborated by more reputable sources.

First, it was impossible to adjust each man speed and row. Lines should be well versed in the technique and muscle trimmed for endurance. Strength equilibrium couldn’t be planned ahead by only organizing lines at the beginning of a trip. The effort of a line needed to be averaged out and the Hortator would need to understand which side to favour with slight delays between each stroke while keeping a good momentum. Understanding the levels of energy of the Galley crew was fundamental for reaching any port without exhausting the oarsman.

Second, it is quite probable that an Hortator would find himself with a scarce view of the sea around the ship and would have to rely on the orders of the captaincy officials combined with is internal positioning ability. Even with a less protected structure were rowers and the Hortator would be exposed to open sky, his attention needed to be divided between the top brass orders, his positional awareness and the performance of the rowing crew.

Now imagine all of the above amid a battle. Speed would be critical on these moments, but with short bursts at a time or else no energy would be available for close engagements after boarding enemy ships. Victory or defeat could depend on the energy reservoirs of the Galley oarsman.

If you’ve bear with me up to this point, I hope you’ll also found a set of characteristics that are essential for the newcome product leads or even for intermediary leadership positions were junior management is put up to the test.

  • The process should be as simple as a combination of sounds that mark the pace.

  • Technical teams on the trenches need a guiding force that can coordinate the effort consistently without adjusting each member at a time.

  • Moments of high speed should be in short bursts, and only when the time to market means war.

  • Stamina and strength need to be balanced.

  • Vison is hampered on all sides. Your internal compass is fundamental.

The Hortator is definitely a word that should be recycled for our modern times and a title befitting to the successful leader that strives right where the action takes place.