A model of a Maltese design typical of the 16th century, the last great era of the wargalley

A galley is a type of ship propelled by rowers that originated in the Mediterranean region and was used for warfare, trade and piracy from the first millennium BC. Galleys dominated naval warfare in the Mediterranean Sea from the 8th century BC until development of advanced sailing warships in the 16th century. Galleys fought in the wars of Assyria, ancient Phoenicia, Greece, Carthage and Rome until the 4th century AD. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire galleys formed the mainstay of the Byzantine navy and other navies of successors of the Roman Empire, as well as new Muslim navies. Medieval Mediterranean states, notably the Italian maritime republics, including Venice, Pisa, and Genoa, used galleys until the ocean-going man-of-war made them obsolete. The Battle of Lepanto was one of the largest naval battles in which galleys played the principal part.

Galleys were in common use until the introduction of broadside sailing ships of war into the Mediterranean in the 17th Century, but continued to be applied in minor roles until steam propulsion.


Definition and terminology

The term "galley" derives from the medieval Greek galea, a type of small Byzantine galley.[1] The origin of the Greek word is unclear but could possibly be related to galeos, "dog-fish; small shark".[2] The term has been attested in English from c. 1300[3] and has been used in most European languages from around 1500 as a general term for oared war vessels, especially those used in the Mediterranean from the late Middle Ages and onwards.[4]

It is only since the 16th century that the concept of a unified galley concept has been in use. Before that, and particularly in antiquity, there was a wide variety of terms used for different types of galleys. In modern historical literature, "galley" is occasionally used as a general term for various oared vessels, though the "true" galley is defined as the ships belonging to the Mediterranean tradition.[5] Archaeologist Lionel Casson has on occasion used "galley" to describe all North European shipping in the early and high Middle Ages, including Viking merchants and even their famous longships.[6]

In the late 18th century, the "galley" was in some contexts used to describe oared gun-armed vessels which did not fit into the category of the classic Mediterranean-type galleys. During the American Revolutionary War and the wars against France and Britain the US Navy built vessels that were described as "row galleys" or simply "galleys", though they actually were variants of brigantines or Baltic gunboats.[7] The description was more a characterization of their military role, and partially due to technicalities in the administration and naval financing.[8]


Among the earliest known watercraft were canoes made from hollowed-out logs, the earliest ancestors of galleys. Their narrow hulls required them to be paddled in a fixed sitting position facing forwards, a less efficient form of propulsion than rowing with proper oars, facing backwards. Sea-going paddled craft have been attested by finds of terracotta sculptures and lead models in the region Aegean Sea from the 3rd millennium BC. However, archaeologists believe that the Stone Age colonization of islands in the Mediterranean around 8,000 BC required fairly large, seaworthy vessels that were paddled and possibly even equipped with sails.[9] The first evidence of more complex craft that are considered to prototypes for later galleys comes from Ancient Egypt during the Old Kingdom (c. 2700-2200 BC). Under the rule of pharaoh Pepi I (2332-2283 BC) these vessels were used to transport troops to raid settlements along the Levantine coast and to ship back slaves and timber.[10] During the reign of Hatshepsut (c. 1479-57 BC), Egyptian galleys traded in luxuries on the Red Sea with the enigmatic Land of Punt, as recorded on wall paintings at the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari.[11]

Assyrian warship, a bireme with pointed bow. 700 BC

Shipbuilders, probably Phoenician, a seafaring people who lived on the southern and eastern coasts of the Mediterranean, were the first to create the two-level galley that would be widely known under its Greek name, biērēs, or bireme.[12] Even though the Phoenicians were among the most important naval civilizations in early Antiquity, little detailed evidence have been found concerning the types of ships they used. The best depictions found so far have been small, highly stylized images on seals which depict crescent-shape vessels equipped with one mast and banks of oars. Colorful frescoes on the Minoan settlement on Santorini (c. 1600 BC) show more detailed pictures of vessels with ceremonial tents on deck in a procession. Some of these are rowed, but others are paddled with men laboriously bent over the railings. This has been interpreted as a possible ritual reenactment of more ancient types of vessels, alluding to a time before rowing was invented, but little is otherwise known about the use and design of Minoan ships.[13]

Military history

The first Greek galleys appeared around the second half of the 2nd millenium BC. In the epic poem, the Iliad, set in the 12th century BC, galleys with a single row of oarsmen were used primarily to transport soldiers to and from various land battles.[14] The first recorded naval battle, the battle of the Delta between Egyptian forces under Ramesses III and the enigmatic alliance known as the Sea Peoples, occurred as early as 1175 BC. It is the first known engagement between organized armed forces, using sea vessels as weapons of war, though primarily as fighting platforms. It was distinguished by being fought against an anchored fleet close to shore with land-based archer support.[15]

A reconstruction of an ancient Greek galley squadron based on images of modern replica Olympias

The development of the ram sometime before the 8th century BC changed the nature of naval warfare, which had until then been a matter of boarding and hand-to-hand fighting. With a heavy projection at the foot of the bow, sheathed with metal, usually bronze, a ship could render an enemy galley useless by breaking its side planking. The relative speed and nimbleness of ships became important, since a slower ship could be outmaneuvered and disabled by a faster one. Early designs had only one row of rowers that sat in undecked hulls, rowing against tholes, or oarports, placed directly along the railings. The practical upper limit for wooden constructions fast and maneuverable enough for warfare was around 25-30 oars per side. By adding another level of oars, a development that occurred no later than c. 750 BC, the galley could be made shorter with as many rowers, while making them strong enough to be effective ramming weapons.[16]

Early biremes usually had between 15 and 30 pairs of oars and were called triaconters or penteconters, literally "thirty-" and "fifty-oared", respectively. Soon, a third row of oars was added by the addition of an outrigger to the hull of a bireme, a projecting construction that allowed for more room for the projecting oars. These new galley were called triērēs ("three-fitted") in Greek. The Romans later called this design the triremis, trireme, the name it is today best known under. It has been hypothesized that early types of triremes existed in 701 BC, but the earliest positive literary reference dates to 542 BC.[17] According to the Greek historian Herodotos, the first ramming action occurred in 535 BC when 60 Phocaean penteconters fought 120 Etruscan and Carthaginian ships. On this occasion it was described as an innovation that allowed Phocaeans to defeat a larger force.[18]

Triremes fought several important engagements in the naval battles of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), including the battle of Aegospotami in 405 BC, which sealed the defeat of the Athenian Empire by Sparta and her allies. The trireme was an advanced ship that was expensive to build and to maintain due its large crew. It was associated with the latest in warship technology around the 4th century BC and could only be employed by sizable states with advanced economies. Triremes required considerable skill to row and oarsmen were mostly free citizens that had a lifetime of experience at the oar.[19]

Greeks and Phoenicians

Early Greek vessels had few navigational tools. Most ancient and medieval shipping remained in sight of the coast for ease of navigation, safety, trading opportunities, and coastal currents and winds that could be used to work against and around prevailing winds. It was more important for galleys than sailing ships to remain near the coast because they needed more frequent re-supply of fresh water for their large, sweating, crews and were more vulnerable to storms. Unlike ships primarily dependent on sails, they could use small bays and beaches as harbors, travel up rivers, operate in water only a meter or so deep, and be dragged overland to be launched on lakes, or other branches of the sea. This made them suitable for launching attacks on land. In antiquity a famous portage was the diolkos of Corinth. In 429 BC (Thucydides 2.56.2), and probably earlier (Herodotus 6.48.2, 7.21.2, 7.97), galleys were adapted to carry horses to provide cavalry support to troops also landed by galleys.

The compass did not come into use for navigation until the 13th century AD, and sextants, octants, accurate marine chronometers, and the mathematics required to determine longitude and latitude were developed much later. Ancient sailors navigated by the sun and the prevailing wind[citation needed]. By the first millennium BC they had started using the stars to navigate at night. By 500 BC they had the sounding lead (Herodotus 2.5).

Galleys were hauled out of the water whenever possible to keep them dry, light and fast and free from worm, rot and seaweed. Galleys were usually overwintered in ship sheds which left distinctive archeological remains.[20] There is evidence that the hulls of the Punic wrecks were sheathed in lead.

Building an efficient galley posed technical problems. The faster a ship travels, the more energy it uses. Through a process of trial and error, the unireme or monoreme — a galley with one row of oars on each side — reached the peak of its development in the penteconter, about 38 m long, with 25 oarsmen on each side. It could reach 9 knots (18 km/h), only a knot or so slower than modern rowed racing-boats. To maintain the strength of such a long craft tensioned cables were fitted from the bow to the stern; this provided rigidity without adding weight. This technique kept the joints of the hull under compression - tighter, and more waterproof. The tension in the modern trireme replica anti-hogging cables was 300 kN (Morrison p198).

Hellenistic era and rise of the Republic

As civilizations around the Mediterranean grew in size and complexity, both their navies and the galleys that made up their numbers became successively larger. The basic design of two or three rows of oars remained the same, but more rowers were added to each oar. The exact reasons are not known, but are believed to have been caused by addition of more troops and the use of more advanced ranged weapons on ships, such as catapults. The size of the new naval forces also made it difficult to find enough skilled rowers for the one-man-per-oar system of the earliest triremes. With more than one man per oar, a single rower could set the pace for the others to follow, meaning that more unskilled rowers could be employed.[21]

The successor states of Alexander the Great's empire built galleys that were like triremes or biremes in oar layout, but manned with additional rowers for each oar. The ruler Dionysius I of Syracuse (ca. 432–367 BC) is credited with pioneering the "five" and "six", meaning five or six rows of rowers plying two or three rows of oars. Ptolemy II (283-46 BC) is known to have built a large fleet of very large fleets with several experimental designs rowed by everything from 12 up to 40 rows of rowers, though most of these are considered to have been quite impractical. Fleets with large galleys were put in action in conflicts such as the Punic Wars (246-146) between the Roman republic and Carthage, which included massive naval battles with hundreds of vessels and tens of thousands of soldiers, seamen and rowers.[22]

Roman Imperial era

Depictions of two compact liburnians used by the Romans in their campaigns against the Dacians in the early 2nd century AD; reliefs from Trajan's Column, c. 113 AD.

The battle of Actium in 31 BC between the forces of Augustus and Mark Antony marked the peak of the Roman fleet arm. After Augustus' victory at Actium, most of the Roman fleet was dismantled and burned. No major fleet actions were fought until the 4th century AD with the Roman civil wars fought mostly on land. The galley crews were disbanded or employed for entertainment purposes in mock battles or in handling the sail-like awnings at the Coliseum (used as sun screens during shows). What fleets remained were treated as auxiliaries of the land forces, and the galley crewmen themselves called themselves milites ("soldiers") rather than nautae, "sailors".[23] Instead, the Roman galley fleets were turned into provincial patrol forces that were smaller and relied largely on liburnians, compact biremes with 25 pairs of oars named after an ancient Illyrian tribe. They patrolled the rivers of continental Europe and reached as far as the Baltic. The Romans maintained numerous bases around the empire: along the rivers of Central Europe, chains of forts along the northern European coasts and the British Isles, Mesopotamia and North Africa, including Trabzon, Vienna, Belgrade, Dover, Seleucia and Alexandria. Few actual battles in the provinces are found in records, but one action in 70 AD at the uncertain location of the "Island of the Batavians" during the Batavian Rebellion was noted, and featured a trireme as the Roman flagship.[24] During the 160s and onwards, fleets not only fought provincial uprisings and invasions, but also Roman contenders for power in the 3rd century. The last provincial fleet, the classis Britannica, was reduced by the late 200s, though there was a minor upswing under the rule of Constantine (272–337), like in the battle of Adrianople of 324. Some time after the battle, the trireme based on the original ancient designs fell out of use, and was eventually forgotten.[25]

Middle Ages

A 13th century war galley depicted in a Byzantine-style fresco.

Late medieval maritime warfare was divided in two distinct regions. In the Mediterranean galleys were used for raiding along coasts, and in the constant fighting for naval bases. In the Atlantic and Baltic there was greater focus on sailing ships that were used mostly for troop transport, with galleys providing fighting support.[26] Galleys were still widely used in the north and were the most numerous warships used by Mediterranean powers with interests in the north, especially the French and Iberian kingdoms.[27] A transition from galley to sailing vessels as the most common types of warships began in the high Middle Ages (c. 11th century). Large high-sided sailing ships had always been formidable obstacles for galleys. To low-freeboard oared vessels, the bulkier sailing ships like the carrack and the cog acted almost like floating fortresses, being difficult to board and even harder to capture. Galleys remained useful as warships throughout the Middle Ages since they had the ability to maneuver in a way that sailing vessels of the time were completely incapable of. Sailing ships of the time had only one mast, usually with just one large square sail, which made them cumbersome to steer and virtually impossible to sail in the wind direction. This allowed the galleys great freedom of movement along coasts for raiding and landing troops.[28]

The new type of galley that was to remain essentially the same until it was phased out in the late 18th century descended from the types used by the Byzantine and Muslim fleets. The Byzantine designs were the mainstay of all Christian powers until the 14th century, including the great maritime republics of Genoa and Venice, the Papacy, the Hospitallers, Aragon and Castile, as well as by various pirates and corsairs. The overall term used for these types of vessels was gallee sottili ("slender galleys"). The later Ottoman navy used similar vessels, though generally faster under sail and smaller, but slower under oars.[29] Galley designs were intended solely for close action with hand-held weapons and projectile weapons like bows and crossbows. In the 13th century the Iberian kingdom of Aragon built several fleet of galleys with high castles, manned with Catalan crossbowman, and regularly defeated numerically superior Angevin forces.[30]

During the 14th century, galleys began to be equipped with cannons of various sizes, mostly smaller ones at first, but also larger bombardas on vessels belonging to Alfonso V of Aragon.

The transition to sailing ships

As early as 1304 the type of ship required by the Danish defence organization changed from galley to cog, a flat-bottomed sailing ship.[31]

During the early 15th century, a transition in naval warfare in northern European waters began. Though the transition was obvious in the north, galleys remained the primary warship in the south. The battle of Gibraltar in 1476 has been identified as an important transition point in northern naval warfare. The battle featured mostly full-rigged ships armed with wrought-iron guns on the upper decks and in the waists, and it foretold of the future dominance of sailing warships in the Atlantic and the North Sea.[32]

Early modern period

Painting of the battle of Haarlemmermeer of 1573 by Hendrick Cornelisz Vroom. Note the use of small sailing vessels and galleys on both sides.

From around 1450, three major Mediterranean naval powers established a dominance over the Mediterranenan, all of which used galleys as their primary weapons at sea: the Ottomans in the east, Venice in the center and the Habsburg Empire in the west.[33] The core of their fleets were concentrated in the three major, wholly dependable naval bases in the Mediterranean: Barcelona, Venice and Constantinople.[34] Naval warfare in the 16th century Mediterranean was fought mostly on a smaller scale, with raiding and minor actions dominating. Only three truly major fleet engagements were actually fought in the 16th century: the battles of Preveza in 1538, Djerba in 1560 and Lepanto in 1571. Lepanto became the last large all-galley battle ever, and was also one of the largest battle in terms of participants anywhere in early modern Europe before the Napoleonic Wars.[35]

Occasionally the Mediterranean powers employed galley forces for conflicts outside of the Mediterranean. Spain sent galley squadrons to the Netherlands during the later stages of the Eighty Years' War which successfully operated against Dutch forces in the enclosed, shallow coastal waters. From the late 1560s, galleys were also used to transport silver to Genoese bankers to finance Spanish troops against the Dutch uprising.[36] Galleasses and galleys were part of an invasion force of over 16,000 men that that conquered the Azores in 1583. Around 2,000 galley rowers were on board ships of the famous 1588 Spanish Armada, though few of these actually made it to the battle itself.[37] Outside of European and Middle Eastern waters, Spain built galleys to deal with pirates and privateers in both the Caribbean and the Philippines.[38] Ottoman galleys contested the Portuguese intrusion in the Indian Ocean in the 16th century, but failed against the high-sided, massive Portuguese carracks in open waters.[39]

Galleys had been synonymous with warships in the Mediterranean for at least 2,000 years, and continued to fulfill that role with the invention of gunpowder and heavy artillery. Though early 20th century historians often dismissed the galleys as hopelessly outclassed with the first introduction of naval artillery on sailing ships,[40] it was the galley that was favored by he introduction of heavy naval guns. Galleys were a more "mature" technology with long-established tactics and traditions of supporting social institutions and naval organizations. In combination with the intensified conflicts this led to a substantial increase in the size of galley fleets from c. 1520-80, above all in the Mediterranean, but also in other European theatres.[41] Galleys and similar oared vessels remained uncontested as the most effective gun-armed warships in theory until the 1560s, and in practice for a few decades more, and were actually considered a grave risk to sailing warships.[42] They could effectively fight other galleys, attack sailing ships in calm weather or in unfavorable winds (or deny them action if needed) and act as floating siege batteries. They were also unequaled in their amphibious capabilities, even at extended ranges, as exemplified by French interventions as far north as Scotland in the mid-16th century.[43]

Heavy artillery on galleys was mounted in the bow which fit conveniently with the long-standing tactical tradition of attacking head-on and bow-first. The ordnance on galleys was heavy from its introduction in the 1480s, and capable of quickly demolishing the high, thin medieval stone walls that still prevailed in the 16th century. This temporarily upended the strength of older seaside fortresses, which had to be rebuilt to cope with gunpowder weapons. The addition of guns also improved the amphibious abilities of galleys as they could assault supported with heavy firepower, and could be even more effectively defended when beached stern-first.[44] An accumulation and generalizing of bronze cannons and small firearms in the Mediterranean during the 16th century increased the cost of warfare, but also made those dependent on them more resilient to manpower losses. Older ranged weapons, like bows or even crossbows, required considerable skill to handle, sometimes a lifetime of practice, while gunpowder weapons required considerable less training to use successfully.[45] According to a highly influential study by military historian John F. Guilmartin, this transition in warfare, along with the introduction of much cheaper cast iron guns in the 1580s, proved the "death knell" for the war galley as a significant military vessel.[46] Gunpowder weapons began to displace men as the fighting power of armed forces, making individual soldiers more deadly and effective. As offensive weapons, firearms could be stored for years with minimal maintenance and did not require the expenses associated with soldiers. Manpower could thus be exchanged for capital investments, something which benefited sailing vessels that were already far more economical in their use of manpower. It also served to increase their strategic range and to out-compete galleys as fighting ships.[47]

The North

The Galley Subtle, one of the very few Mediterranean-style galleys employed by the English. Illustration from the Anthony Roll, c. 1546.

Oared vessels remained in use in northern waters for a long time, though in subordinate role and in particular circumstances. During the Dutch Revolt (1566-1609) against the Habsburg empire, both the Spanish and Dutch (including those who remained loyal to the Habsburgs) employed galleys in amphibious operations in shallow waters where deep-draft sailing vessels could not enter.[48] In the Italian Wars, French galleys brought up from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic posed a serious threat to the early English Tudor navy during coastal operations. The response came in the building of a considerable fleet of oared vessels, including hybrids with a complete three-masted rig, as well as a Mediterranean-style galleys (that were even attempted to be manned with convicts and slaves).[49] Under king Henry VIII, the English navy used several kinds of vessels that were adapted to local needs. English galliasses (very different from the Mediterranean vessel of of the same name) were employed to cover the flanks of larger naval forces while pinnaces and rowbarges were used for scouting or even as a backup for the longboats and tenders for the larger sailing ships.[50]

While galleys were too vulnerable to be used in large numbers in the open waters of the Atlantic, they were well-suited for use in much of the Baltic Sea by Denmark, Sweden, Russia and some of the Central European powers with ports on the southern coast. There were two types of naval battlegrounds in the Baltic. One was the open sea, suitable for large sailing fleets; the other was the coastal areas and especially the chain of small islands and archipelagos that ran almost uninterrupted from Stockholm to the Gulf of Finland. In these areas, conditions were often too calm, cramped and shallow for sailing ships, but they were excellent for galleys and other oared vessels.[51] Galleys of the Mediterranean type were first introduced in the Baltic Sea around the mid-16th century as competition between the Scandinavian states of Denmark and Sweden intensified. The Swedish galley fleet was the largest outside of the Mediterranean, and served as an auxiliary branch of the army. Very little is known about the design of Baltic galleys, except that they were overall smaller than in the Mediterranean and they were rowed by army soldiers rather than convicts or slaves.[52]

Mediterranean decline

After 1650, war galleys were used primarily in the wars between Venice and the Ottoman Emprie until the 1720s and between Bourbon France and the Habsburgs in Spain and Italy until 1700 (when a Bourbon king took the Spanish throne). Christian and Muslim corsairs had been using galleys in sea roving and in support of the major powers in times of war, but largely replaced them with xebecs, various sail/oar hybrids, and a few remaining light galleys in the early 17th century.[53] Spain still waged "classical" amphibious galley warfare in the 1640s by supplying troops in Tarragona in wars against France.[54] No large galley battles were fought after the gigantic clash at Lepanto in 1571, and galleys were mostly used as cruisers or for supporting sailing warships as a rearguard in fleet actions, similar to the duties performed by frigates outside of the Mediterranean.[55] They could assist damaged ships out of the line, but generally only in very calm weather, as was the case at the battle of Malaga in 1704.[56]

For small states and principalities as well as groups of private merchants, galleys were more affordable than large and complex sailing warships, and were used as defense against piracy.[57] The largest galley fleets in the 17th century were operated by the two major Mediterranean powers, France and Spain. France had by the 1650s become the most powerful state in Europe, and expanded its galley forces under the rule of the absolutist "Sun King" Louis XIV. In the 1690s the French Galley Corps reached its all-time peak with more than 50 vessels manned by over 15,000 men and officers, becoming the largest galley in the world at the time.[58] Though there was intense rivalry between France and Spain, not a single galley battle occurred between the two great powers, and virtually no battles between other nations either.[59] During the War of the Spanish Succession, French galleys were involved in actions against Antwerp and Harwich[60], but due to the intricacies of alliance politics there were never any Franco-Spanish galley clashes. In the first half of the 18th century, the other major naval powers in North Africa, the Order of Saint John and the Papal States all cut down drastically on their galley forces.[61] Despite the lack of action, the French Galley Corps received vast resources (20-25% of the French naval expenditures) during the last decades of the 17th centuries and was maintained as a functional fighting force right up until its abolishment in 1748. Its primary function became to symbolize the prestige of Louis XIV's hard-line absolutist ambitions by patrolling the Mediterranean to force ships of other states to salute the King's banner, convoying ambassadors and cardinals, and obediently participating in naval parades and royal pageantry.[62]

The last recorded battle in the Mediterranean where galleys played a significant part was at Matapan in 1717, between the Ottomans and Venice and its allies, though they had little influence on the final outcome. Few large-scale naval battles were fought in the Mediterranean throughout most of the remainder of the 18th century. The Tuscan galley fleet was dismantled around 1718, Naples had only four old vessels by 1734 and the French Galley Corps had ceased to exist as an independent arm in 1748. Venice, the Papal States and the Knights of Malta were the only state fleets that maintained galleys, though in nothing like their previous quantities.[63] By 1790, there were less than 50 galleys in service among all the Mediterranean powers, half of which belonged to Venice.[64]

Baltic revival

The second battle of Svensksund in 1790 between the Swedish and Russian navies was the last major naval battle between forces that included large numbers of galleys and other oared vessels.

While galleys had been introduced to the Baltic in the 16th century, details of their design is not well known. They could have been built in a more regional style, but the only known depiction from the time shows a typical southern-style vessel. There is conclusive evidence that Denmark became the first Baltic power to build classic Mediterranean-style galleys in the 1660s, though they were generally too large and less useful in its wars against Sweden. Sweden and especially Russia began to launch galleys and various rowed vessels during the Great Northern War in the 1700s.[65] Sweden was late in the game when it came to building an effective oared fighting fleet while the Russian galley forces under tsar Peter I developed into a supporting arm for the sailing navy, as well as a well-functioning auxiliary of the army which infiltrated and conducted numerous raids on the eastern Swedish coast in the 1710s.[66]

Sweden and Russia became the two main competitors for Baltic dominance in the 18th century, and built the largest galley fleets in the world at the time. They were used for amphibious operations in Russo-Swedish wars of 1741-43 and 1788-90. The last galleys ever constructed were built in 1796 by Russia, and remained in service well into the 19th century, but saw little action.[67] The last time galleys were deployed in action was when the Russian navy attacked Åbo (Turku) in 1854 as part of the Crimean War.[68]


In the earliest days of the galley, there was no clear distinction between galleys of trade and war other than their actual usage. River boats plied the waterways of ancient Egypt during the Old Kingdom (2700-2200 BC) and sea-going galleys are recorded bringing back luxuries from across the Red Sea in the reign of pharaoh Hatshepsu (c. 1479-1457). Fitting rams to the bows of vessels sometime around the 8th century BC brought about distinct split in the design of warships, and set trade vessels apart, at least as the primary tools for naval warfare. The Phoenicians used galleys for transport that were less elongated, carried fewer oars and relied more on sails to propel them. Carthaginian galley wrecks found off Sicily that date to the 3rd or 2nd century BC had a length to breadth ratio of 6:1, proportions that fell between the 1:4 of sailing merchant ships and the 10:1 of war galleys. Merchant galleys in the ancient Mediterranean were intended as carriers of valuable cargo or perishable goods that needed to be moved as safely and quickly as possible.[69]

Most of the surviving documentary evidence comes from Greek and Roman shipping, though it is likely that merchant galleys all over the Mediterranean were highly similar. In Greek they were referred to as histiokopos ("sail-oar-er") to reflect that they relied on both types of propulsion and actuaria (navis) ("ship that moves") in Latin, stressing that they were capable of making progress regardless of weather conditions. As an example of the speed and reliability, during an instance of the famous "Carthago delenda est"-speech, Cato the Elder demonstrated the close proximity of the Roman arch enemy Carthage by showing his audience a fig claimed to have been picked in North Africa only three days past. Other cargoes carried by galleys were honey, cheese, meat and live animals intended for gladiator combat. The Romans had several types of merchant galleys that specialized in various tasks, out of which the actuaria with up to 50 rowers was the most versatile, including the phaselus (lit. "bean pod") for passanger transport and the lembus, a small-scale express carrier. Many of these designs continued to be used until the Middle Ages.[70]

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the early centuries AD, the Mediterranean economy collapsed. Its eastern successor, the Byzantine Empire, neglected to revive overland trade routes but was dependent on keeping the sea lanes open to keep the empire together. Bulk trade fell around 600-750 while the luxury trade increased. Galleys remained in service mainly in the trade of luxuries, which set off their high maintenance cost.[71] In the 10th century, there was a rise in piracy which resulted in larger ships with more numerous crews built by the city-states of Italy who were emerging as the dominant sea powers at the time, including Venice, Genoa and Pisa. Inheriting Byzantine designs, the new merchant galleys were similar dromons without artillery, but both faster and wider. They could be manned by crews of up to 1,000 men and were employed in both trade and warfare. A further boost to the large merchant galleys was the upswing in Western European pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land[72]

In Northern Europe, Viking longships and their derivations, knarrs, dominated trading and shipping, though developed separately from the Mediterranean galley tradition. In the South galleys continued to be useful for trade even as sailing vessels evolved more efficient hulls and rigging; since they could hug the shoreline and make steady progress when winds failed, they were highly reliable. The zenith in the design of merchant galleys came with the state-owned great galleys of the Venetian Republic, first built in the 1290s. These were used to carry the lucrative trade in luxuries from the east such as spices, silks and gems. They were in all respects larger than contemporary war galleys (up to 46 m) and had a deeper draft, with more room for cargo (140-250 t). With a full complement of rowers ranging from 150 to 180 men, all available to defend the ship from attack, they were also very safe modes of travel. This attracted a business of carrying affluent pilgrims to the Holy Land, a trip that could be accomplished in as little 29 days on the route Venice-Jaffa, despite rough weather.[73]

From the first half of the 14th century the Venetian galere da mercato ("merchantman galleys") were being built in the shipyards of the state-run Arsenal as "a combination of state enterprise and private association, the latter being a kind of consortium of export merchants", as Fernand Braudel described them.[74] The ships sailed in convoy, defended by archers and slingsmen (ballestieri) aboard, and later carrying cannons. In Genoa, the other major maritime power of the time, galleys and ships in general were more produced by smaller private ventures.

In the 14th and 15th centuries merchant galleys traded high-value goods and carried passengers. Major routes in the time of the early Crusades carried the pilgrim traffic to the Holy Land. Later routes linked ports around the Mediterranean, between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea (a grain trade soon squeezed off by the Turkish capture of Constantinople, 1453) and between the Mediterranean and Bruges— where the first Genoese galley arrived at Sluys in 1277, the first Venetian galere in 1314— and Southampton. Although primarily sailing vessels, they used oars to enter and leave many trading ports of call, the most effective way of entering and leaving the Lagoon of Venice. The Venetian galera, beginning at 100 tons and built as large as 300, was not the largest merchantman of its day, when the Genoese carrack of the 15th century might exceed 1000 tons.[75] In 1447, for instance, Florentine galleys planned to call at 14 ports on their way to and from Alexandria.[76] The availability of oars enabled these ships to navigate close to the shore where they could exploit land and sea breezes and coastal currents, to work reliable and comparatively fast passages against the prevailing wind. The large crews also provided protection against piracy. These ships were very seaworthy; a Florentine great galley left Southampton on 23 February 1430 and returned to its port at Pisa in 32 days. They were so safe that merchandise was often not insured (Mallet). These ships increased in size during this period, and were the template from which the galleass developed.


Illustration of an Egyptian rowed ship of c. 1250 BC. Due to a lack of a proper keel, the vessel has a truss, a thick cable along its length, to prevent it from losing its shape.

Galleys have since their first appearance in ancient times been intended as highly maneuverable vessels, independent of winds by being rowed, and usually with a focus on speed under oars. The profile has therefore been that of a markedly elongated hull with a ratio of breadth to length at the waterline of at least 1:5, and in the case of ancient Mediterranean galleys as much as 1:10 with a small draught, the measurement of how much of a ship's structure that is submerged under water. To make it possible to efficiently row the vessels, the freeboard, the height of the railing to the surface of the water, was by necessity kept low. This gave oarsmen enough leverage to row efficiently, but at the expense of seaworthiness. These design characteristics made the galley fast and maneuverable, but more vulnerable to rough weather.

On the funerary monument of the Egyptian king Sahure (2487–2475 BC) in Abusir, there are relief images of vessels with a marked sheer (the curvature along its length) and seven pairs of oars along its side, a number that was likely to have been merely symbolical, and steering oars in the stern. They have one mast, all lowered and vertical posts at stem and stern, with the front decorated with an Eye of Horus, the first example of such a decoration. It was later used by other Mediterranean cultures to decorate sea going craft in the belief that it helped to guide the ship safely to its destination. These early galleys apparently lacked a keel meaning they lacked stiffness along their length. Therefore they had large cables connecting stem and stern resting on massive crutches on deck. They were held in tension to avoid hogging, or bending the ship's construction upwards in the middle, while at sea.[77] In the 15th century BC, Egyptian galleys were still depicted with the distinctive extreme sheer, but had by then developed the distinctive forward-curving stern decorations with ornaments in the shape of lotus flowers.[78] They had possibly developed a primitive type of keel, but still retained the large cables intended to prevent hogging.[79]

Modern reconstruction of a cross-section of an ancient Greek trireme, showing the three levels of rowers.

The design of the earliest oared vessels is mostly unknown and highly conjectural. They likely used a mortise construction, but were sewn together rather than pinned together with nails and dowels. Being completely open, they were rowed (or even paddled) from the open deck, and likely had "ram entries", projections from the bow lowered the resistance of moving through water, making them slightly more hydrodynamic. The first true galleys, the triaconters ("thirty-oarers") and penteconters ("fifty-oarers") were developed from these early designs and set the standard for the larger designs that would come later. They were rowed on only one level, which made them fairly slow, likely only 5-5.5 knots. By the 8th century BC the first galleys rowed at two levels had been developed, among the earliest being the two-level penteconters which were considerably shorter than the one-level equivalents, and therefore more maneuverable. They were an estimated 25 m in length and displaced 15 tonnes with 25 pairs of oars. These could have reached an estimated top speed of up to 7.5 knots, making them the first genuine warships when fitted with bow rams. They were equipped with a single square sail on mast set roughly roughly halfway along the length of the hull.[80]


The ram bow of the trireme Olympias, a modern full-scale reconstruction of a classical Greek trireme.

By the 5th century BC, the first triremes were in use by various powers in the eastern Mediterranean. It had now become a fully developed, highly specialized vessel of war that was capable of high speeds and complex maneuvers. At nearly 40 m in length, displacing almost 50 tonnes, it was more than three times as expensive than a two-level penteconter. A trireme also had an additional mast with a smaller square sail placed near the bow.[81] Up to 170 oarsmen sat on three levels with one oar each that varied slightly in length. To accommodate three levels of oars, rowers sat staggered on three levels. Arrangement of the three levels are believed to have varied, but the most well-documented design made use of a projecting structure, or outrigger, where the oarlock in the form of a thole pin was placed. This allowed the outermost row or oarsmen enough leverage to complete their strokes without lowering the efficiency.[82]

Roman era

Galleys from 4th century BC up to the time of the early Roman Empire in the 1st century AD became successively larger and heavier. Three levels of oars had proved to be the practical limit, but it was improved on by making ships longer, broader and heavier and placing more than one rower per oar. Naval conflict grew more intense and extensive, and by 100 BC galleys with four, five or six rows of oarsmen were commonplace and carried large complements of soldiers and catapults. With high freeboards (up to 3 m) and additional tower structures from which missiles could be shot down onto enemy decks, they were intended to be like floating fortresses.[83] Designs with everything from eight rows of oarsmen and upwards were built, but most of them are believed to have been impractical show pieces never used in actual warfare.[84] Ptolemy IV, the Greek pharaoh of Egypt 221-205 BC is recorded as building a gigantic ship with forty rows of oarsmen, but without specification of its design. A suggested construction was that of a huge trireme catamaran with up to 14 men per oar.[85]

The size of ancient galleys, and fleets, reached their peak in ancient times with the defeat of Mark Antony by Octavian at the battle of Actium. Well-organized contenders for the power over the Mediterranean did not appear again until several centuries later, during the Roman civil wars of the 4th century, and the size of galleys decreased considerably. The huge polyremes disappeared and were replaced by triremes and liburnians, compact biremes with 25 pairs of oars that were well suited for patrol duty and chasing down pirates.[86] In the northern provinces oared patrol boats were employed to keep local tribes in check along the shores of rivers like the Rhine and the Danube.[87] As the need for large warships disappeared, the design of the trireme, the pinnacle of ancient war ship design, was forgotten. The last known reference to triremes in battle is dated to 324 at the battle of the Hellespont. In the late 5th century the Byzantine historian Zosimus declared the knowledge of how to build them to have been long since forgotten.[88]

Middle Ages

Typical specifications

The earliest galley specification comes from an order of Charles I of Sicily, in 1275 AD.[89] Overall length 39.30 m, keel length 28.03 m, depth 2.08 m. Hull width 3.67 m. Width between outriggers 4.45 m. 108 oars, most 6.81 m long, some 7.86 m, 2 steering oars 6.03 m long. Foremast and middle mast respectively heights 16.08 m, 11.00 m; circumference both 0.79 m, yard lengths 26.72 m, 17.29 m. Overall deadweight tonnage approximately 80 metric tons. This type of vessel had two, later three, men on a bench, each working his own oar. This vessel had much longer oars than the Athenian trireme which were 4.41 m & 4.66 m long.[90] This type of warship was called galia sottil.[91] According to Landström, the Medieval galleys had no rams as boarding was considered more important method of warfare than ramming.

Medieval galleys like this pioneered the use of naval guns, pointing forward as a supplement to the above-waterline beak designed to break the enemies outrigger. Only in the 16th century were ships called galleys developed with many men to each oar.[92]

At the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, the standard Venetian war galleys were 42 m long and 5.1 m wide (6.7 m with the rowing frame), had a draught of 1.7 m and a freeboard of 1.0 m, and weighed empty about 140 tons. The larger flagship galleys (lanterna, "lantern") were 46 m long and 5.5 m wide (7.3 m with the rowing frame), had 1.8 m draught and 1.1 m freeboard. and weighed 180 tons. The standard galleys had 24 rowing benches on each side, with three rowers to a bench. (One bench on each side was typically removed to make space for platforms carrying the skiff and the stove.) The crew typically comprised 10 officers, about 65 sailors, gunners and other staff plus 138 rowers. The "lanterns" had 27 benches on each side, with 156 rowers, and a crew of 15 officers and about 105 other sailors, gunners and soldiers. The regular galleys carried one 50-pound cannon or a 32-pound culverin at the bow as well as four lighter cannons and four swivel guns. The larger lanterns carried one heavy gun plus six 12 and 6 pound culverins and eight swivel guns.

Byzantine navy

The primary warship of the Byzantine navy until the 12th century was the dromon and other similar ship types. Considered an evolution of the Roman liburnian, the term first appeared in the late 5th century, and was commonly used for a specific kind of war-galley by the 6th century.[93] The term dromōn (lieterally "runner") itself comes from the Greek root drom-(áō), "to run", and 6th-century authors like Procopius are explicit in their references to the speed of these vessels.[94] During the next few centuries, as the naval struggle with the Arabs intensified, heavier versions with two or possibly even three banks of oars evolved.[95]

The accepted view is that the main developments which differentiated the early dromons from the liburnians, and that henceforth characterized Mediterranean galleys, were the adoption of a full deck, the abandonment of rams on the bow in favor of an above-water spur, and the gradual introduction of lateen sails.[96] The exact reasons for the abandonment of the ram are unclear. Depictions of upward-pointing beaks in the 4th-century Vatican Vergil manuscript may well illustrate that the ram had already been replaced by a spur in late Roman galleys.[97] One possibility is that the change occurred because of the gradual evolution of the ancient shell-first construction method, against which rams had been designed, into the skeleton-first method, which produced a stronger and more flexible hull, less susceptible to ram attacks.[98] At least by the early 7th century, the ram's original function had been forgotten.[99] Belisarius' invasion fleet of 533 was at least partly fitted with lateen sails, making it probable that by the time the lateen had become the standard rig for the dromon,[100] with the traditional square sail gradually falling from use in medieval navigation in the Mediterranean.[101]

The dromons that Procopius described were single-banked ships of probably 25 oars per side. Unlike ancient vessels, which used an outrigger, these extended directly from the hull.[102] In the later bireme dromons of the 9th and 10th centuries, the two oar banks were divided by the deck, with the first oar bank was situated below, whilst the second oar bank was situated above deck; these rowers were expected to fight alongside the marines in boarding operations.[103] The overall length of these ships was probably about 32 meters.[104] The stern (prymnē), which also housed a tent that covered the captain's berth.[105] The prow featured an elevated forecastle (pseudopation), below which one or more siphons for the discharge of Greek fire projected.[106] A pavesade on which marines could hang their shields ran around the sides of the ship, providing protection to the deck crew.[107] Larger ships also had wooden castles on either side between the masts, providing archers with elevated firing platforms.[108] The bow spur was intended to ride over an enemy ship's oars, breaking them and rendering it helpless against missile fire and boarding actions.[109]


A schematic of the mortise and tenon technique for shipbuilding that dominated the Mediterranean until the 7th century BC.[110]

The documentary evidence for the construction of ancient galleys is fragmentary, particularly in pre-Roman times. Plans and schematics in the modern sense did not exist until the 17th century and nothing like them has survived from ancient times. How galleys were constructed has therefore been a matter of looking at circumstantial evidence in literature, art, coinage and monuments that include ships, some of them actually in natural size. Since the war galleys floated even with a ruptured hull and virtually never had any ballast or heavy cargo that could sink them, not a single wreckage of one has so far been found. The only exception has been a partial wreckage of a small auxiliary galley from the Roman era.[111]

The first dedicated war galleys fitted with rams were built with a mortise and tenon technique (see illustration), a so-called shell-first method. In this, the planking of the hull was strong enough to hold the ship together structurally, and was also watertight.[112] The ram, the primary weapon of Ancient galleys from around the 8th to the 4th century, was fitted onto a structure that was attached to hull rather than directly on the hull. This way galleys would not be holed if the ram was twisted off in action. It consisted of a massive projecting timber with a thick bronze casting with horizontal blades that could weigh from 400 kg up to 2 tonnes.[81]

Strategy and tactics

In the earliest times of naval warfare boarding was the only means of deciding a naval engagement, but little to nothing is known about the tactics involved. In the first recorded naval battle in history, the battle of the Delta, the forces of Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses III won a decisive victory over a force made up of the enigmatic group known as the Sea Peoples. As shown in commemorative reliefs of the battle, Egyptian archers on ships and the nearby shores of the Nile rain down arrows on the enemy ships. At the same time Egyptian galleys engage in boarding action and capsize the ships of the Sea Peoples with ropes attached to grappling hooks thrown into the rigging.[113]

A schematic reconstruction of a defensive circle of galleys seen from above.

Around the 8th century BC, ramming began to be employed as war galleys were equipped with heavy bronze rams. Records of the Persian Wars in the early 5th century BC by the Ancient historian Herodotus (c. 484-25 BC) show that by this time ramming tactics had evolved among the Greeks. The formations could either be in columns in line ahead, one ship following the next, or in a line abreast, with the ships side by side, depending on the tactical situation and the surrounding geography. There were two primary methods for attack: by breaking through the enemy formation (diekplous) or by outflanking it (periplous). The diekplous involved a concentrated charge in line ahead so as to break a hole in the enemy line, allowing galleys to break through and then wheel to attack the enemy line from behind. The periplous involved outflanking or encircling the enemy so as to attack them in the vulnerable rear or side by line abreast.[114] If one side knew that it had slower ships, a common tactic was to form a circle with the bows pointing outwards, thereby avoiding being outflanked. At a given signal, the circle could then fan out in all directions, trying to pick off individual enemy ships. To counter this formation, the attacking side would rapidly circle, feigning attacks in order to find gaps in the formation to exploit.[115]

Ramming itself was done by smashing into the rear or side of an enemy ship, punching a hole in the planking. This did not actually sink an ancient galley unless it was heavily laden with cargo and stores. With a normal load, it was buoyant enough to float even with a breached hull. It could also maneuver for some time as long as the oarsmen were not incapacitated, but would gradually lose mobility and become unstable as it flooded. The winning side would then attempt to tow away the swamped hulks as prizes. Breaking the enemy's oars was another way of rendering ships immobile, rendering them into easier targets. If ramming was not possible or successful, the on-board complement of soldiers would attempt to board and capture the enemy vessel by attaching to it with grappling irons. Accompanied by missile fire, either with bow and arrow or javelins. Trying to set the enemy ship on fire by hurling incendiary missiles or by pouring the content of fire pots attached to long handles is thought to have been used, especially since smoke below decks would easily disable rowers.[116]

The speed necessary for a successful impact depended on the angle of attack; the greater the angle, the lesser the speed required. At 60 degrees, 4 knots was enough to penetrate the hull, but this increased to 8 knots at 30 degrees. If the target for some reason was in motion towards the attacker, less speed was required, especially if the hit came amidships. War galleys gradually began to develop heavier hulls with reinforcing beams at the waterline, where a ram would most likely hit. There are records of a counter-tactic to this used by Rhodian ship commanders where they would angle down their bows to hit the enemy below the reinforced waterline belt. Besides ramming, breaking enemy oars was also a way to impede mobility and make it easier to drive home a successful ramming attack.[117]

Despite the attempts to counter increasingly heavy ships, ramming tactics were superseded in the last centuries BC by the Macedonians and Romans who were primarily land-based powers. Hand-to-hand fighting with large complements of heavy infantry supported by ship-borne catapults dominated the fighting style during the Roman era, a move that was accompanied by the conversion to heavier ships with larger rowing complements and more men per oar. Though effectively lowering mobility, it meant that less skill was required from individual oarsmen. Fleets thereby became less dependent on rowers with a lifetime of experience at the oar.[21]

The Byzantine fleet repels the Rus' attack on Constantinople in 941. The Byzantine dromons are rolling over the Rus' vessels and smashing their oars with their spurs.

Middle Ages

By late antiquity, in the 1st centuries AD, ramming tactics had completely disappeared along with the knowledge of the original trireme and its high speed and mobility. The ram was replaced by a long spur in the bow that was designed to break oars and to act as a boarding platform for storming enemy ship. The only remaining examples of ramming tactics was passing references to attempts to collide with ships in order to roll it over on its side.[118]

With the collapse of the unified Roman empire came the revival of large fleet actions. The Byzantine navy, the largest Mediterranean war fleet throughout most of the early Middle Ages, employed crescent formations with the flagship in the center and the heavier ships at the horns of the formation, in order to turn the enemy's flanks. Similar tactics are believed to have been employed by the Arab fleets they frequently fought from the 7th century onwards. The Byzantines were the first to employ Greek fire, a highly effective incendiary liquid, as a naval weapon. It could be fired through a metal tube, or siphon mounted in the bows, similar to a modern flame thrower. The properties of Greek fire were close to that of napalm and was a key to several major Byzantine victories. By 835, the weapon had spread to the Arabs, who equipped harraqas, "fireships", with it.[118]

Byzantine ship attacking with Greek fire. Madrid Skylitzes manuscript, 11th century.

Once the fleets were close enough, exchanges of missiles began, ranging from combustible projectiles to arrows, caltrops and javelins. The aim was not to sink ships, but to deplete the ranks of the enemy crews before the boarding commenced, which decided the outcome. Once the enemy strength was judged to have been reduced sufficiently, the fleets closed in, the ships grappled each other, and the marines and upper bank oarsmen boarded the enemy vessel and engaged in hand-to-hand combat. On Byzantine galleys, brunt of the fighting was done by heavily armed and armored troops called hoplites or kataphraktoi. These would attempt to stab the rowers through the oarports to reduce mobility, and then join the melée. If boarding was not deemed advantegous, the enemy ship could be pushed away with poles.[118]

Early modern period

Contemporary depiction of the battle of Lepanto in 1571 that shows the strict formations of the opposing fleets. Fresco in the Gallery of Maps in Vatican Museum.

In large-scale galley engagements tactics remained essentially the same until the end of the 16th century. Cannons and small firearms were introduced around the 14th century, but did not have any immediate effect on tactics; the same basic crescent formation in line abreast that was employed at at the battle of Lepanto in 1571 was used by the Byzantine fleet almost a millennium earlier.[119] Artillery was still quite expensive, scarce and not very effective. The galley therefore remained the most effective warship in the Mediterranean since it was the type of vessel that could be most effective in boarding actions and in pulling off amphibious operations, particularly against seaside forts that had still not been adapted to heavy artillery.[120] Artillery on galleys was initially not used primarily as a long-range standoff weapon since the distance at which early cannons were effective, c. 500 m (1600 ft), could be covered by any galley in about two minutes, much faster than they could be reloaded.[121]

The estimated average speed of Renaissance-era galleys was fairly low, only 3 to 4 knots, and even lower, about 2 knots, when holding formation. Short speed bursts of up to 7 knots were possible for periods of no more than 20 minutes, but only at the expense of driving the rowers to the limit of their endurance and risking their exhaustion. This made galley actions relatively slow affairs, especially when they involved fleets of 100 galleys or more.[122] The sides and especially the rear, the command center, were the weak points of a galley, and were the preferred targets of any attacker. Unless one side managed to outmaneuver the other, battle would be met with ships crashing into each other head on. Once the fighting began with galleys locking on to one another bow to bow, the fighting would be over the front line ships. Unless one was captured by a boarding party, fresh troops could be fed into the fight from reserve vessels in the rear.[123] The armament of 15th and 16th century galleys usually held their fire until the last possible moment and unleashed just before impact to achieve maximum amount of damage before the melee began. The effect of this could often be quite dramatic, as exemplified by an account from 1528 where a galley of Genoese commander Antonio Doria instantly killed 40 men on board the ship of Sicilian Don Hugo de Moncada in a single volley from a basilisk, two demi-cannons and four smaller guns that were all mounted in the bow.[124]

Surviving examples

Original vessels

The naval museum in Istanbul contains the galley Kadırga (Turkish for "galley", ultimately from Byzantine Greek katergon), dating from the reign of Mehmed IV (1648–1687). She was the personal galley of the sultan, and remained in service until 1839. She is presumably the only surviving galley in the world, albeit without its masts. It is 37 m long, 5.7 m wide, has a draught of about 2 m, weighs about 140 tons, and has 48 oars powered by 144 oarsmen.


A 1971 reconstruction of the Real, the flagship of John of Austria in the Battle of Lepanto (1571), is in the Museu Marítim in Barcelona. The ship was 60 m long and 6.2 m wide, had a draught of 2.1 m, weighing 239 tons empty, was propelled by 290 rowers, and carried about 400 crew and fighting soldiers at Lepanto. She was substantially larger than the typical galleys of her time.

A group called "The Trireme Trust" operates, in conjunction with the Greek Navy, a reconstruction of an ancient Greek Trireme, the Olympias.[125]

Archaeological finds

In 1965, the remains of a small Venetian galley sunk in 1509 were found in Lake Garda, Italy. The vessel had been burned and only the lower hull remained.[126] In the mid of 1990s, a sunken galley was found close to the island of San Marco in Boccalama, in the Venice Lagoon.[127] The relic is mostly intact and it was not recovered due to high costs.


Contrary to the popular image of rowers chained to the oars, conveyed by movies such as Ben Hur, there is no evidence that ancient navies ever made use of condemned criminals or slaves as oarsmen, with the possible exception of Ptolemaic Egypt.[128]

The literary evidence indicates that Greek and Roman navies generally preferred to rely on freemen to man their galleys.[129][130] Slaves were put at the oars only in exceptional circumstances. In some cases, these people were given freedom thereafter, while in others they began their service aboard as free men.

In early modern times however, it became the custom among the Mediterranean powers to sentence condemned criminals to row in the war-galleys of the state, initially only in time of war. Galley-slaves lived in very unhealthy conditions, and many died even if sentenced only for a few years - and provided they escaped shipwreck and death in battle in the first place.

Prisoners of war were often used as galley-slaves. Several well-known historical figures served time as galley slaves after being captured by the enemy, the Ottoman corsair and admiral Turgut Reis, the Maltese Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette.


  1. ^ Pryor (2002), pp. 86-87; Anderson (1962), pp. 37-39
  2. ^ Henry George Liddell & Robert Scott Galeos, A Greek-English Lexicon
  3. ^ Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition, 1989), "galley"
  4. ^ See for example Svenska Akademiens ordbok, "galeja" or "galär " and Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal, "galeye"
  5. ^ >Anderson (1962), pp. 1, 42; Lehmann (1984), p. 12
  6. ^ Casson (1995), p. 123
  7. ^ Karl Heniz Marquardt, "The Fore and Aft Rigged Warship" in Gardiner & Lavery (1992), p. 64
  8. ^ Mooney (1969), p. 516
  9. ^ Wachsmann (1995), p. 10
  10. ^ Wachsmann (1995), p. 11-12
  11. ^ Wachsmann (1995), pp. 21-23
  12. ^ Casson (1995), pp. 57-58
  13. ^ Wachsmann (1995), pp. 13-18
  14. ^ Morrison, Coates & Rankov (2000), p. 25
  15. ^ Wachsmann (1995), pp. 28-34
  16. ^ Morrison, Coates & Rankov, (2000), pp. 27-32
  17. ^ Morrison, Coates & Rankov, pp. 32-35
  18. ^ Morrison, Coates & Rankov (2000), p. 27-30
  19. ^ Morrison, Coates & Rankov (2000), pp. 38-41
  20. ^ "Zea Harbour Project - Ancient History". Retrieved 2010-12-23. 
  21. ^ a b Morrison, Coates & Rankov (2000), pp. 48-49
  22. ^ Morrison (1995), pp. 66-67
  23. ^ Rankov (1995), pp. 78–80
  24. ^ Rankov (1995), pp. 80–81
  25. ^ Rankov (1995), pp. 82–85
  26. ^ Glete (2000), p. 2
  27. ^ Mott (2003), pp. 105-6
  28. ^ Rodger, (1997), pp. 64-65
  29. ^ Pryor (1992), pp. 64-69
  30. ^ Mott (2003), p. 107
  31. ^ Bass, p. 191
  32. ^ Mott (2003), pp. 109-111
  33. ^ Glete (1993), p. 114
  34. ^ Guilmartin (1974), p. 101
  35. ^ Glete (1993), pp. 114–15
  36. ^ Glete (2000), pp. 154, 163
  37. ^ Glete (2000), pp., 156, 158-59
  38. ^ Bamford (1973), p. 12; Mott, 113-14
  39. ^ Mott (2003), p. 112
  40. ^ See especially Rodger (1996)
  41. ^ Glete (2003), p. 27
  42. ^ The British naval historian Nicholas Rodger describes this as a "crisis in naval warfare" which eventually led to the development of the galleon, which combined ahead-firing capabilities, heavy broadside guns and a considerable increase in maneuverability by introduction of more advanced sailing rigs; Rodger (2003), p. 245. For more detailed arguments concerning the development of broadside armament, see Rodger (1996).
  43. ^ Glete (2003), p. 144
  44. ^ Guilmartin (1974), pp. 264–66
  45. ^ Guilmartin (1974), p. 254
  46. ^ Guilmartin (1974), p. 57
  47. ^ Glete (2003), pp. 32-33
  48. ^ Lehmann (1984), p. 12
  49. ^ Rodger (1997), p. 208-12
  50. ^ John Bennel, "The Oared Vessels" in Knighton & Loades (2000), pp. 35-37.
  51. ^ Rodger (2003), pp. 230-30; see also R. C. Anderson, Naval Wars in the Baltic, pp. 177-78
  52. ^ Glete (2003), pp. 224-25
  53. ^ Jan Glete, "The Oared Warship" in Gardiner & Lavery (1992), p. 99
  54. ^ Glete (2000), p. 183
  55. ^ Jan Glete, "The Oared Warship" in Gardiner & Lavery (1992), p. 99
  56. ^ Rodger (2003), p. 170
  57. ^ Bamford (1974), pp. 17-18
  58. ^ Bamford (1974), p. 52
  59. ^ Bamford (1974), p. 45
  60. ^ Lehmann (1984), p. 12
  61. ^ Bamford (1974), pp. 272-73
  62. ^ Bamford (1974), pp. 23-25, 277-78
  63. ^ Bamford, (1974), pp. 272-73; Anderson, (1962), pp. 71-73
  64. ^ Glete (1992), p. 99
  65. ^ Anderson (1962), pp. 91-93; Berg, "Skärgårdsflottans fartyg" in Norman (2000) pp. 51
  66. ^ Glete, "Den ryska skärgårdsflottan" in Norman (2000), p. 81
  67. ^ Anderson (1962), p. 95
  68. ^ Bondioli, Burlet & Zysberg (1995), p. 205
  69. ^ Casson (1995), pp. 117-21
  70. ^ Casson (1995), pp. 119-23
  71. ^ Unger (1980), pp. 40, 47
  72. ^ Unger (1980), p. 102-4
  73. ^ Casson (1995), pp. 123-26
  74. ^ Braudel, The Perspective of the World, vol. III of Civilization and Capitalism (1979) 1984:126
  75. ^ Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean in the Age of Philip II I, 302.
  76. ^ Pryor (1992), p. 57
  77. ^ Wachsmann (1995), p. 11-12
  78. ^ This flower-inspired stern detail would later be widely used by both Greek and Roman ships.
  79. ^ Wachsmann (1995), pp. 21-23
  80. ^ Coates (1995), p. 136-37
  81. ^ a b Coates (1995), pp. 133-34; Morrison, Coates & Rankov (2000), pp. 165-67
  82. ^ Coates (1995), pp. 137-38
  83. ^ Coates (1995), pp. 138-40
  84. ^ Morrison, Coates & Rankov (2000), p. 77
  85. ^ Shaw(1995), pp. 164-65
  86. ^ Rankov (1995), pp. 78-79; Shaw (1995), pp. 164-65
  87. ^ Rankov (1995), pp. 80-83; Hocker (1995), pp. 88-89
  88. ^ Rankov (1995), p. 85
  89. ^ See both Bass and Pryor
  90. ^ Morrison p. 269
  91. ^ Landström
  92. ^ Pryor (1992), p. 67
  93. ^ Pryor & Jeffreys (2006), pp. 123–125
  94. ^ Pryor & Jeffreys (2006), pp. 125–126
  95. ^ Pryor (1995), p. 102
  96. ^ Pryor & Jeffreys (2006), p. 127
  97. ^ Pryor & Jeffreys (2006), pp. 138–140
  98. ^ Pryor & Jeffreys (2006), pp. 145–147, 152
  99. ^ Pryor & Jeffreys (2006), pp. 134–135
  100. ^ Basch (2001), p. 64
  101. ^ Pryor & Jeffreys (2006), pp. 153–159
  102. ^ Pryor (1995), pp. 103–104
  103. ^ Pryor & Jeffreys (2006), pp. 232, 255, 276
  104. ^ Pryor & Jeffreys (2006), pp. 205, 291
  105. ^ Pryor & Jeffreys (2006), p. 215
  106. ^ Pryor & Jeffreys (2006), p. 203
  107. ^ Pryor & Jeffreys (2006), p. 282
  108. ^ Pryor (1995), p. 104
  109. ^ Pryor & Jeffreys (2006), pp. 143–144
  110. ^ Unger (1980), pp. 41-42
  111. ^ Coates (1995), p. 127
  112. ^ Coates (1995), pp. 131-32
  113. ^ Wachsmann (1995), pp. 28-34, 72
  114. ^ Morrison, Coates & Rankov (2000), pp. 42-43, 92-93
  115. ^ Morrison, Coates & Rankov (2000), pp. 54-55, 72
  116. ^ John Coates (1995), pp. 133-35
  117. ^ John Coates (1995), p. 133.
  118. ^ a b c Hocker (1995), pp. 95, 98-99.
  119. ^ Guilmartin (1974), pp. 157-58
  120. ^ Guilmartin (1974), pp. 67, 76-79,
  121. ^ Guilmartin (1974), p. 199
  122. ^ Guilmartin (1974), pp. 203-5
  123. ^ Guilmartin (1974), pp. 248-49
  124. ^ Guilmartin (1974), pp. 200-1
  125. ^ The Trireme Trust
  126. ^ Scandurro (1972), pp209-10
  127. ^ AA.VV., 2003, La galea di San Marco in Boccalama. Valutazioni scientifiche per un progetto di recupero (ADA - Saggi 1), Venice
  128. ^ Casson, Lionel (1971). Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World. Princeton: Princeton University Press. pp. 325–326. 
  129. ^ Rachel L. Sargent, “The Use of Slaves by the Athenians in Warfare”, Classical Philology, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Jul., 1927), pp. 264-279
  130. ^ Lionel Casson, “Galley Slaves”, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 97 (1966), pp. 35-44


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  • Galley — Gal ley, n.; pl. {Galleys}. [OE. gale, galeie (cf. OF. galie, gal[ e]e, LL. galea, LGr. ?; of unknown origin.] 1. (Naut.) A vessel propelled by oars, whether having masts and sails or not; as: (a) A large vessel for war and national purposes;… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • galley — (n.) c.1300, from O.Fr. galie, from M.L. galea or Catalan galea, from Late Gk. galea, of unknown origin. The word has made its way into most Western European languages. Originally low, flat built seagoing vessel of one deck, once common in the… …   Etymology dictionary

  • galley — ► NOUN (pl. galleys) 1) historical a low, flat ship with one or more sails and up to three banks of oars, often manned by slaves or criminals. 2) a narrow kitchen in a ship or aircraft. 3) (also galley proof) a printer s proof in the form of long …   English terms dictionary

  • galley — [gal′ē] n. pl. galleys [ME galeie < OFr galie < ML galea < MGr galaia, kind of ship < Gr galeos, shark < galeē, weasel (in reference to its speed)] 1. a long, low, usually single decked ship propelled by oars and sails, used esp.… …   English World dictionary

  • galley — has the plural form galleys …   Modern English usage

  • Galley — Verschlossene Galley eines Zuges, am Wagenende der Club Klasse, der höchsten der drei Klassen im Velaro E …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • galley — galleylike, adj. /gal ee/, n., pl. galleys. 1. a kitchen or an area with kitchen facilities in a ship, plane, or camper. 2. Naut. a. a seagoing vessel propelled mainly by oars, used in ancient and medieval times, sometimes with the aid of sails.… …   Universalium

  • Galley — This interesting northern English medieval surname, recorded in the spellings of Galley, Gally, Galey, Gally, Galilee and Gallally, has two possible origins. The first is occupational, and a metonymic or nickname for a galley man, one who owned… …   Surnames reference

  • Galley —  Cette page d’homonymie répertorie des personnes (réelles ou fictives) partageant un même patronyme.  Pour les articles homophones, voir Galet, Gallet, Gallait, Gallé et Galey (homonymie). Garry Galley, un ancien joueur de hockey… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • galley — n. (pl. eys) 1 hist. a a low flat single decked vessel using sails and oars, and usu. rowed by slaves or criminals. b an ancient Greek or Roman warship with one or more banks of oars. c a large open rowing boat, e.g. that used by the captain of a …   Useful english dictionary

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