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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 eastern Mediterranean Sea and was used for warfare, trade and piracy from the first millennium BC. Galleys dominated naval warfare in the Mediterranean from the 8th century BC until development of advanced sailing warships in the 17th 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, Genoa and the Ottoman Empire relied on them as the primary warships of their fleets until the 17th century, when they were gradually replaced by sailing warships. Galleys continued to be applied in minor roles in the Mediterranean and the Baltic Sea even after the introduction of steam propelled ships in the early 19th century.

The galley engagements at Actium and Lepanto are among the greatest naval battles in history.

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 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. Seagoing paddled craft have been attested by finds of terracotta sculptures and lead models in the region of the 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 millennium 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 galleys usually had between 15 and 30 pairs of oars and were called triaconters or penteconters, literally "thirty-" and "fifty-oared", respectively. By the 8th century BC, the Phoenecians had added a second row of oars to these ships, creating the bireme. Soon after, 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 galleys 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]

The emergence of more advanced states and intensified competition between them spurred on the development of advanced galleys with multiple banks of rowers. During the middle of the first millennium BC, the Mediterranean powers developed successively larger and more complex vessels, the most advanced being the classical trireme with up to 170 rowers. Triremes fought several important engagements in the naval battles of the Greco-Persian Wars (502–449 BC) and 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. By the 5th century, advanced war galleys had been developed that required sizable states with an advanced economy to build and maintain. It was associated with the latest in warship technology around the 4th century BC and could only be employed by a sizeable state with an advanced economy and administration. They 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 galleys 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. The Roman civil wars were fought mostly by land forces, and from the 160s until the 4th century AD, no major fleet actions were recorded. During this time, most of the galley crews were disbanded or employed for entertainment purposes in mock battles or in handling the sail-like sun-screens in the larger Roman arenas. What fleets remained were treated as auxiliaries of the land forces, and 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. These were named after an Illyrian tribe known by Romans for their sea roving practices, and these smaller craft were based on, or inspired by, their vessels of choice. The liburnians and other small galleys patrolled the rivers of continental Europe and reached as far as the Baltic, where they were used to fight local uprisings and assist in checking foreign invasions. 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 galley 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] 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). His rule also saw the final major naval battle of the Roman Empire, the battle of Hellespont of 324. Some time after Hellespont, the classical trireme 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]

In the eastern Mediterranean, the Byzantine Empire struggled with the incursion from invading Muslim Arabs from the 7th century, leading to fierce competition, a buildup of fleet, and war galleys of increasing size. Soon after conquering Egypt and the Levant, the Arab rulers built ships highly similar to Byzantine dromons with the help of local Coptic shipwrights former Byzantine naval bases.[29] By the 9th century, the struggle between the Byzantines and Arabs had turned the Eastern Mediterranean into a no man's land for merchant activity. In the 820s Crete was captured by Andalusian Muslims displaced by a failed revolt against the Emirate of Cordoba, turning the island into a base for (galley) attacks on Christian shipping until the island was recaptured by the Byzantines in 960.[30]

In the western Mediterranean and Atlantic, the division of the Carolingian Empire in the late 9th century brought on a period of instability, meaning increased piracy and raiding in the Mediterranean, particularly by newly arrived Muslim invaders. The situation was worsened by raiding Scandinavian Vikings who used longships, vessels that in many ways were very close to galleys in design and functionality and also employed similar tactics. To counter the threat, local rulers began to build large oared vessels, some with up to 30 pairs of oars, that were larger, faster and with higher sides than Viking ships.[31] Scandinavian expansion, including incursions into the Mediterranean and attacks on both Muslim Iberia and even Constantinople itself, subsided by the mid-11th century. By this time, greater stability in merchant traffic was achieved by the emergence of Christian kingdoms such as those of France, Hungary and Poland. Around the same time, Italian port towns and city states, like Venice, Pisa and Amalfi, rose on the fringes of the Byzantine Empire as it struggled with eastern threats.[32]

During the 13th and 14th century, the galley evolved into a design that was to remain essentially the same until it was phased out in the early 19th century. The new type of galley descended from the ships used by Byzantine and Muslim fleets in the early Middle Ages. These 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 designs, but they were generally faster under sail, and smaller, but slower under oars.[33] 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.[34]

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.[35]

During the early 15th century, sailing ships began to dominate naval warfare in northern waters. While the galley still remained the primary warship in southern waters, a similar transition had begun also among the Mediterranean powers. A Castilian naval raid on the island of Jersey in 1405 became the first recorded battle battle where a Mediterranean power employed a naval force consisting mostly of cogs or nefs, rather than the oared-powered galleys. The battle of Gibraltar between Castile and Portugal in 1476 was another important sign of change; it was the first recorded battle where the primary combatants were full-rigged ships armed with wrought-iron guns on the upper decks and in the waists, foretelling of the slow decline of the war galley.[36]

The transition from the Mediterranean war galley to the sailing vessel as the preferred method of vessel in the Mediterranean is tied directly to technological developments and the inherent handling characteristics of each vessel types. The primary factors were changing sail design, the introduction of cannons aboard vessels, and the handling characteristics of the vessels. Oared warships are generally long and narrow in order to limit hydrodynamic drag while allowing the maximum number of oarsmen and thus the greatest possible motive force for their preferred method of attack. While the preferred form of attack shifted from ramming to boarding as the trireme was supplanted by the galley; the way in which these vessels achieved their aim did not. They closed rapidly with the enemy using the maneuverability afforded by the oared warship to attack the enemy from an advantage. The oarsmen necessarily took up a considerable portion of a galley. This left the extreme bow and stern as the only locations to mount cannons aboard. The stern, as in earlier times was the traditional place for command and control of oared warships. The bow remained the preferred of offensive armament throughout the employment of the galley whether it was a staging area for boarders, a mounting point for a ram, or cannons. This allowed the galley to initially outperform the sailing vessel in early battles. The highly maneuverable oared vessel retained a tactical advantage even after the initial introduction of naval artillery because of the ease with which it could be brought to bear upon an opposing vessel.[37] The sailing vessel was always at the mercy of the wind for propulsion, and those that did carry oars were placed at a disadvantage because they were not optimized for oar use. The galley did have disadvantages compared to the sailing vessel though. Their smaller hulls were not able to hold as much cargo and this limited their range as the crews were required to replenish food stuffs more frequently.[38] The low freeboard of the galley meant that in close action with a sailing vessel, the sailing vessel would usually maintain a height advantage. The sailing vessel could also fight more effectively farther out at sea and in rougher wing conditions because of the height of their freeboard.[39] Under sail, an oared warship was placed at much greater risk as a result of the piercings for the oars which were required to be near the waterline and would allow water to ingress into the galley if the vessel heeled too far to one side. These advantages and disadvantages led the galley to be and remain a primarily coastal vessel. The shift to sailing vessels in the Mediterranean was the result of the negation of some of the galley’s advantages as well as the adoption of gunpowder weapons on a much larger institutional scale. The sailing vessel was propelled in a different manner than the galley but the tactics were often the same until the 16th century. The real-estate afford to the sailing vessel to place larger cannons and other armament mattered little because early gunpowder weapons had limited range and were expensive to produce. The eventual creation of cast iron cannons allowed vessels and armies to be outfitted much more cheaply. The cost of gunpowder also fell in this period.[40] The armament of both vessel types varied between larger weapons such as bombards and the smaller swivel guns. For logistical purposes it became convenient for those with larger shore establishments to standardize upon a given size of cannon. Traditionally the English in the North and the Venetians in the Mediterranean are seen as some the earliest to move in this direction. The improving sail rigs of northern vessels also allowed them to navigate in the coastal waters of the Mediterranean to a much larger degree than before.[41] Aside from warships the decrease in the cost of gunpowder weapons also led to the arming of merchants. The larger vessels of the north continued to mature while the galley retained its defining characteristics. Attempts were made to stave this off such as the addition of fighting castles in the bow, but such additions to counter the threats brought by larger sailing vessels often offset the advantages of galley.[42]

Early modern period

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

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 naval powers established a dominance over different parts of the Mediterranean using galleys as their primary weapons at sea: the Ottomans in the east, Venice in the center and Habsburg Spain in the west.[43] The core of their fleets were concentrated in the three major, wholly dependable naval bases in the Mediterranean: Constantinople, Venice and Barcelona.[44] 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.[45]

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.[46] Galleasses and galleys were part of an invasion force of over 16,000 men 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.[47] Outside of European and Middle Eastern waters, Spain built galleys to deal with pirates and privateers in both the Caribbean and the Philippines.[48] 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.[49]

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,[50] it was the galley that was favored by the 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.[51] 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.[52] 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.[53]

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.[54] 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.[55] 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.[56] 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.[57]

North Sea and Baltic Sea

Dutch ships ramming Spanish galleys in the Battle of the Dover Straits, October 1602.

Oared vessels remained in use in northern waters for a long time, though in subordinate role and in particular circumstances.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).[58] 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.[59] During the Dutch Revolt (1566–1609) both the Dutch and Spanish found galleys useful for amphibious operations in the many shallow waters around the Low Countries where deep-draft sailing vessels could not enter.[60] 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.[61] 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.[62]

Mediterranean decline

The Battle of Lepanto in 1571, naval engagement between allied Christian forces and the Ottoman Turks.

Atlantic style warfare based on heavily armed sailing ships began to change the nature of naval warfare in the Mediterranean in the 17th century. In 1616, a small Spanish squadron of five galleons and a patache was used to cruise the eastern Mediterranean and defeated a large fleet of fifty five galleys at the battle of Cape Celidonia. By 1650, war galleys were used primarily in the wars between Venice and the Ottoman Empire in their struggle for strategic island and coastal trading bases and until the 1720s by France and Spain but for largely amphibious and cruising operation, not for large fleet battles. Even a purely Mediterranean power like Venice began to construct sail only warships in the latter part of the century. 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.[63] Spain still waged classical amphibious galley warfare in the 1640s by supplying troops in Tarragona in its war against France.[64] No large all 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.[63] They could assist damaged ships out of the line, but generally only in very calm weather, as was the case at the Battle of Málaga in 1704.[65]

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.[66] 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.[67] 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.[68] 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.[69] 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.[70]

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.[71] By 1790, there were less than 50 galleys in service among all the Mediterranean powers, half of which belonged to Venice.[72]

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.

Galleys were introduced to the Baltic Sea in the 16th century but the details of their designs are lacking due to the absence of records. They might have been built in a more regional style, but the only known depiction from the time shows a typical Mediterranean vessel. There is conclusive evidence that Denmark became the first Baltic power to build classic Mediterranean-style galleys in the 1660s, though they proved to be generally too large to be useful in the shallow waters of the Baltic archipelagos. Sweden and especially Russia began to launch galleys and various rowed vessels in great numbers during the Great Northern War in the first two decades of the 18th century.[73] 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 and a well-functioning auxiliary of the army which infiltrated and conducted numerous raids on the eastern Swedish coast in the 1710s.[74]

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.[75] The last time galleys were deployed in action was when the Russian navy attacked Åbo (Turku) in 1854 as part of the Crimean War.[76]


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 seagoing galley-like vessels were 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 resulted in a distinct split in the design of warships, and set trade vessels apart, at least when it came to use in naval warfare. The Phoenicians used galleys for transports that were less elongated, carried fewer oars and relied more on sails. 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 4:1 of sailing merchant ships and the 8:1 or 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.[77]

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. In Latin they were called 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 displaying a fresh fig to his audience that he claimed had 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 passenger transport and the lembus, a small-scale express carrier. Many of these designs continued to be used until the Middle Ages.[78]

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the early centuries AD, the old Mediterranean economy collapsed and the volume of trade went down drastically. 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, but were profitable mainly in the luxury trade, which set off their high maintenance cost.[79] In the 10th century, there was a sharp increase in piracy which resulted in larger ships with more numerous crews. These were mostly built by the growing city-states of Italy which were emerging as the dominant sea powers, including Venice, Genoa and Pisa. Inheriting the Byzantine ship designs, the new merchant galleys were similar dromons, but without any heavy weapons and 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 development of the large merchant galleys was the upswing in Western European pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land[80]

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 landfalls for rest and watering or for respite from rough weather.[81]

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.[82] 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.[83] In 1447, for instance, Florentine galleys planned to call at 14 ports on their way to and from Alexandria.[84] 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 seagoing 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.[10] 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.[85] They had possibly developed a primitive type of keel, but still retained the large cables intended to prevent hogging.[11]

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 halfway along the length of the hull.[86]


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.[87] 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 of oarsmen enough leverage to complete their strokes without lowering the efficiency.[88]

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.[89] 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.[90] 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.[91]

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.[92] 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.[93] 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.[94]

Middle Ages

Typical specifications

The earliest galley specification comes from an order of Charles I of Sicily, in 1275 AD.[95] 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.[96] This type of warship was called galia sottil.[97] 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.[98]

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.[99] The term dromōn (literally "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.[100] 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.[101]

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.[102] 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.[103] 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.[104] At least by the early 7th century, the ram's original function had been forgotten.[105] 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,[106] with the traditional square sail gradually falling from use in medieval navigation in the Mediterranean.[107]

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.[108] 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.[109] The overall length of these ships was probably about 32 meters.[110] The stern (prymnē), which also housed a tent that covered the captain's berth.[111] The prow featured an elevated forecastle (pseudopation), below which one or more siphons for the discharge of Greek fire projected.[112] A pavesade on which marines could hang their shields ran around the sides of the ship, providing protection to the deck crew.[113] Larger ships also had wooden castles on either side between the masts, providing archers with elevated firing platforms.[114] 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.[115]

Early modern

The ubiquitous bow fighting platform (rambade) of early modern galleys. This model is of a 1715 Swedish galley, somewhat smaller than the standard Mediterranean war galley, but still based on the same design.

With the introduction of guns in the bows of galleys, a permanent wooden structure called rambade (French: rambade; Italian: rambata; Spanish: arrumbada) was introduced. The rambade became standard on virtually all galleys in the early 16th century. There were some variations in the navies of different Mediterranean powers, but the overall layout was the same. The forward-aiming battery was covered by a wooden platform which gave gunners a minimum of protection, and functioned as both a staging area for boarding attacks and as a firing platform for on-board soldiers.[116]

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.

In the mid-17th century, galleys reached what has been described as their "final form".[117] Galleys had looked more or less the same for over four centuries and a fairly standardized classification system for different sizes of galleys had been developed by the Mediterranean bureaucracies, based mostly on the number of benches in a vessel.[118] With the exception of a few significantly larger "flagships" (often called "lantern galleys"), a Mediterranean galley would have 25-26 pairs of oars with five men per oar (c. 250 rowers). The armament consisted of one heavy 24- or 36-pounder gun in the bows flanked by two to four 4- to 12-pounders. Rows of light swivel guns were often placed along the entire length of the galley on the railings for close-quarter defense. The length-to-width ratio of the ships was about 8:1, with two main masts carrying one large lateen sail each. One was placed in the bows, stepped slightly to the side to allow for the recoil of the heavy guns; the other was placed roughly in the center of the ship. A third smaller mast, a "mizzen" further astern, could be raised if the need and circumstances called for it.[117] In the Baltic, galleys were generally shorter with a length-to-width ratio from 5:1 to 7:1, an adaptation to the cramped conditions of the Baltic archipelagos.[119]

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A schematic of the mortise and tenon technique for shipbuilding that dominated the Mediterranean until the 7th century BC.[120]

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.[121]

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.[122] 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.[87]


Throughout their long history, galleys relied on rowing as the most important means of propulsion. The arrangement of rowers during the 1st millennium BC developed gradually from a single row up to three rows arranged in a complex, staggered seating arrangement. Anything above three levels, however, proved to be physically impracticable. Initially, there was only one rower per oar, but the number steadily increased, with a number of different combinations of rowers per oar and rows of oars. The ancient terms for galleys was based on the numbers of rows or rowers plying the oars, not the number of rows of oars. Today it is best known by a modernized Latin terminology based on numerals with the ending "-reme" from rēmus, "oar". A trireme was a ship with three rows of oarsmen, a quadrireme four, a hexareme six, and so forth. There were warships that ran up to ten or even eleven rows, but anything above six was rare. A huge forty-rowed ship was built during the reign of Ptolemy IV in Egypt. Little is known about its design, but it is assumed to have been an impractical prestige vessel.

Ancient rowing was done in a fixed seated position, the most effective rowing position, with rowers facing the stern. A sliding stroke, which provided the strength from both legs as well as the arms, was suggested by earlier historians, but no conclusive evidence has supported it. Practical experiments with the full-scale reconstruction Olympias has shown that there was insufficient space, while moving or rolling seats would have been highly impractical to construct with ancient methods.[123] Rowers in ancient war galleys sat below the upper deck with little view of their surroundings. The rowing was therefore managed by supervisors, and coordinated with pipes or rhythmic chanting.[124] Galleys were highly maneuverable, able to turn on their axis or even to row backwards, though it required a skilled and experienced crew.[125] In galleys with an arrangement of three men per oar, all would be seated, but the rower furthest inboard would perform a stand-and-sit stroke, getting up on his feet to push the oar forwards and then sitting down again to pull it back.[125]

The faster a vessel travels, the more energy it uses. Reaching high speed requires energy which a human-powered vessel is incapable of producing. Oar system generate very low amounts of energy for propulsion (only about 70 W per rower) and the upper limit for rowing in a fixed position is around 10 knots.[126] Ancient war galleys of the kind used in Classical Greece are by modern historians considered to be the most energy efficient and fastest of galley designs throughout history. A full-scale replica of a 5th-century BC trireme, the Olympias was built 1985-87 and was put to a series trials to test its performance. It proved that a cruising speed of 7-8 knots could be maintained for an entire day. Sprinting speeds of up to 10 knots were possible, but only for a few minutes and would tire the crew quickly.[127] Ancient galleys were built very light and the original triremes are assumed to never have been surpassed in speed.[128] Medieval galleys are believed to have been considerably slower, especially since they were not built with ramming tactics in mind. A cruising speed of no more than 2-3 knots has been estimated. A sprint speed of up to 7 knots was possible for 20–30 minutes, but risked exhausting the rowers completely.[129]

Rowing in headwinds or even moderately rough weather was difficult as well as exhausting.[130] In high seas, ancient galleys would set sail to run before the wind. They were highly susceptible to high waves, and could become unmanageable if the rowing frame (apostis) came awash. Ancient and medieval galleys are assumed to sailed only with the wind more or less astern with a top speed of 8-9 knots in fair conditions.[131] In ancient galleys, most of the moving power came from a singe square sail on a mast rigged a little forwards of the center of the ship with a smaller mast carrying a head sail in the bow. Triangular lateen sails are attested as early as the 2nd century AD, and gradually became the sail of choice for galleys. By the 9th century lateens firmly established as part of the standard galley rig. It was more complicated and required a larger crew to handle than a square sail rig, but this was not a problem in the heavily manned galleys.[132] Unlike a square sail rig, the spar of a lateen sail does not pivot around the mast. To change tacks, the entire spar, often much longer than the mast itself, had to be lifted over the mast and to the other side, a complex and time-consuming maneuver.[133]

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.[134]

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.[135] 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.[136]

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.[137]

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.[138]

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 ships. 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.[139]

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.[139]

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, the 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.[139]

Later medieval navies continued to use similar tactics, with the line abreast formation as standard. As galleys were intended to be fought from the bows, and were at their weakest along the sides, especially in the middle. The crescent formation employed by the Byzantines continued to be used throughout the Middle Ages. It would allow the wings of the fleet to crash their bows straight into the sides of the enemy ships at the edge of the formation.[140]

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 the battle of Lepanto in 1571 was used by the Byzantine fleet almost a millennium earlier.[141] 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.[142] 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.[143]

The estimated average speed of Renaissance-era galleys was fairly low, only 3 to 4 knots, and a mere 2 knots, when holding formation. Short bursts of up to 7 knots were possible for 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.[144] 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.[145] 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.[146]

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.[147]

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.[148] In the mid of 1990s, a sunken galley was found close to the island of San Marco in Boccalama, in the Venice Lagoon.[149] 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.[150]

The literary evidence indicates that Greek and Roman navies generally preferred to rely on freemen to man their galleys.[151][152] 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 the Middle Ages, galleys continued to be rowed predominantly by free men, either conscripted or hired. This had the advantage that these men could be armed, thus the proportion of fighting complement to motive power remained high. By the 16th century, this was becoming harder to sustain economically and there was an increase in the use of convicts and slaves. This led to a drop in efficiency, as more soldiers needed to be carried, and a change in rowing design to accommodate less skilled oarsmen.[153][154]

In early modern times, 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.[citation needed]

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, including the Ottoman corsair and admiral Turgut Reis and the Maltese Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette.[citation needed]


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  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 Heinz Marquardt, "The Fore and Aft Rigged Warship" in Gardiner & Lavery (1992), p. 64
  8. Mooney (1969), p. 516
  9. Wachsmann (1995), p. 10
  10. 10.0 10.1 Wachsmann (1995), p. 11-12
  11. 11.0 11.1 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 23 December 2010. 
  21. 21.0 21.1 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. Unger (1980), pp. 53-55.
  30. Unger (1980), pp. 96-97
  31. Unger (1980), p. 80
  32. Unger (1980), pp. 75-76
  33. Pryor (1992), pp. 64-69
  34. Mott (2003), p. 107
  35. Bass, p. 191
  36. Mott (2003), pp. 109-111
  37. Rose (2002), pp. 133
  38. Hattendorf and Unger (2003) pp, 70
  39. Glete (2000) pp 18
  40. Glete, (2000) pp. 23
  41. Glete, (2000) pp. 28
  42. Guilmartin (1974) pp. 252
  43. Glete (1993), p. 114
  44. Guilmartin (1974), p. 101
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  46. Glete (2000), pp. 154, 163
  47. Glete (2000), pp., 156, 158-59
  48. Bamford (1973), p. 12; Mott, 113-14
  49. Mott (2003), p. 112
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  51. Glete (2003), p. 27
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  53. Glete (2003), p. 144
  54. Guilmartin (1974), pp. 264–66
  55. Guilmartin (1974), p. 254
  56. Guilmartin (1974), p. 57
  57. Glete (2003), pp. 32-33
  58. Rodger (1997), p. 208-12
  59. John Bennel, "The Oared Vessels" in Knighton & Loades (2000), pp. 35-37.
  60. 60.0 60.1 Lehmann (1984), p. 12
  61. Rodger (2003), pp. 230-30; see also R. C. Anderson, Naval Wars in the Baltic, pp. 177-78
  62. Glete (2003), pp. 224-25
  63. 63.0 63.1 Jan Glete, "The Oared Warship" in Gardiner & Lavery (1992), p. 99
  64. Glete (2000), p. 183
  65. Rodger (2003), p. 170
  66. Bamford (1974), pp. 17-18
  67. Bamford (1974), p. 52
  68. Bamford (1974), p. 45
  69. Bamford (1974), pp. 272-73
  70. Bamford (1974), pp. 23-25, 277-78
  71. Bamford, (1974), pp. 272-73; Anderson, (1962), pp. 71-73
  72. Glete (1992), p. 99
  73. Anderson (1962), pp. 91-93; Berg, "Skärgårdsflottans fartyg" in Norman (2000) pp. 51
  74. Glete, "Den ryska skärgårdsflottan" in Norman (2000), p. 81
  75. Anderson (1962), p. 95
  76. Bondioli, Burlet & Zysberg (1995), p. 205
  77. Casson (1995), pp. 117-21
  78. Casson (1995), pp. 119-23
  79. Unger (1980), pp. 40, 47
  80. Unger (1980), p. 102-4
  81. Casson (1995), pp. 123-26
  82. Braudel, The Perspective of the World, vol. III of Civilization and Capitalism (1979) 1984:126
  83. Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean in the Age of Philip II I, 302.
  84. Pryor (1992), p. 57
  85. This flower-inspired stern detail would later be widely used by both Greek and Roman ships.
  86. Coates (1995), p. 136-37
  87. 87.0 87.1 Coates (1995), pp. 133-34; Morrison, Coates & Rankov (2000), pp. 165-67
  88. Coates (1995), pp. 137-38
  89. Coates (1995), pp. 138-40
  90. Morrison, Coates & Rankov (2000), p. 77
  91. Shaw(1995), pp. 164-65
  92. Rankov (1995), pp. 78-79; Shaw (1995), pp. 164-65
  93. Rankov (1995), pp. 80-83; Hocker (1995), pp. 88-89
  94. Rankov (1995), p. 85
  95. See both Bass and Pryor
  96. Morrison p. 269
  97. Landström
  98. Pryor (1992), p. 67
  99. Pryor & Jeffreys (2006), pp. 123–125
  100. Pryor & Jeffreys (2006), pp. 125–126
  101. Pryor (1995), p. 102
  102. Pryor & Jeffreys (2006), p. 127
  103. Pryor & Jeffreys (2006), pp. 138–140
  104. Pryor & Jeffreys (2006), pp. 145–147, 152
  105. Pryor & Jeffreys (2006), pp. 134–135
  106. Basch (2001), p. 64
  107. Pryor & Jeffreys (2006), pp. 153–159
  108. Pryor (1995), pp. 103–104
  109. Pryor & Jeffreys (2006), pp. 232, 255, 276
  110. Pryor & Jeffreys (2006), pp. 205, 291
  111. Pryor & Jeffreys (2006), p. 215
  112. Pryor & Jeffreys (2006), p. 203
  113. Pryor & Jeffreys (2006), p. 282
  114. Pryor (1995), p. 104
  115. Pryor & Jeffreys (2006), pp. 143–144
  116. Guilmartin (1974), p. 200
  117. 117.0 117.1 Jan Glete, "The Oared Warship" in Gardiner & Lavery (1992), p. 98
  118. Glete (1993), p. 81.
  119. Jan Glete, "The Oared Warship" in Gardiner & Lavery (1992), p. 100
  120. Unger (1980), pp. 41-42
  121. Coates (1995), p. 127
  122. Coates (1995), pp. 131-32
  123. Morrison, Coates & Rankov, The Athenian Trireme, pp. 246-47; Shaw (1995), pp. 168-169
  124. Morrison, Coates & Rankov, The Athenian Trireme, pp. 249-52
  125. 125.0 125.1 Morrison, Coates & Rankov, The Athenian Trireme, pp. 246-47
  126. Coates 1995, pp. 127-28
  127. Shaw (1995), p. 169
  128. Shaw (1995), p. 163
  129. Guilmartin (1974), pp. 210-11
  130. Morrison, Coates & Rankov, The Athenian Trireme, p. 248
  131. Pryor (1992), pp. 71-75
  132. Unger (1980), pp. 47-49.
  133. Pryor (1992), p. 42
  134. Wachsmann (1995), pp. 28-34, 72
  135. Morrison, Coates & Rankov (2000), pp. 42-43, 92-93
  136. Morrison, Coates & Rankov (2000), pp. 54-55, 72
  137. John Coates (1995), pp. 133-35
  138. John Coates (1995), p. 133.
  139. 139.0 139.1 139.2 Hocker (1995), pp. 95, 98-99.
  140. Pryor (1983), pp. 193-94
  141. Guilmartin (1974), pp. 157-58
  142. Guilmartin (1974), pp. 67, 76-79,
  143. Guilmartin (1974), p. 199
  144. Guilmartin (1974), pp. 203-5
  145. Guilmartin (1974), pp. 248-49
  146. Guilmartin (1974), pp. 200-1
  147. The Trireme Trust
  148. Scandurro (1972), pp209-10
  149. AA.VV., 2003, La galea di San Marco in Boccalama. Valutazioni scientifiche per un progetto di recupero (ADA - Saggi 1), Venice
  150. Casson, Lionel (1971). Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World. Princeton: Princeton University Press. pp. 325–326. 
  151. Rachel L. Sargent, “The Use of Slaves by the Athenians in Warfare”, Classical Philology, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Jul., 1927), pp. 264-279
  152. Lionel Casson, “Galley Slaves”, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 97 (1966), pp. 35-44
  153. Guilmartin (1974), pp.125-31
  154. Guilmartin (2002), pp.120-4


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