Large seagoing vessel propelled primarily by oars. The Egyptians, Cretans, and other ancient peoples used sail-equipped galleys for war and commerce. The Phoenicians apparently introduced the bireme (circa 700 BC), which had two banks of oars staggered on either side. The Greeks first built the trireme circa 500 BC. War galleys would cruise in columns and would engage the enemy as a line abreast. A galley would close with the enemy at the bow, which was equipped with a ram, grappling irons, and missile-hurling devices. Invention of the lateen (fore-and-aft) sail and the stern rudder rendered the galley obsolete for commerce, but its greater maneuverability maintained its military importance into the 16th century. Seealso longship.
Learn more about galley with a free trial on Britannica.com.
A galley (from Greek γαλέα - galea) is an ancient ship which can be propelled entirely by human oarsmen, used for warfare and trade. Oars are known from at least the time of the Egyptian Old Kingdom. Many galleys had masts and sails for use when the winds were favourable.
Various types of galleys dominated naval warfare in the Mediterranean Sea from the time of Homer to the development of effective naval gunnery around the 15th and 16th centuries. Galleys fought in the wars of ancient Persia, Greece, Carthage and Rome until the 4th century. After the fall of the Roman Empire galleys remained in use to a lesser extent by the Byzantine Navy and other successors of the Roman Empire, and by new Muslim states. 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 (1571) was one of the largest naval battles in which galleys played the principal part. Galleys continued in mainstream use until the introduction of broadside sailing ships of war into the Mediterranean in the 17th Century, and continued to be used in minor roles until the advent of steam propulsion.
Galleys traversed the Mediterranean from around 3000 BC. The Phoenicians and the Greeks built and operated the first known ships to navigate the Mediterranean: merchant vessels with square-rigged sails. The first military vessels, as described in the works of Homer and represented in paintings, had a single row of oarsmen along each side (in addition to the sail) to provide speed and maneuverability. These were very popular for merchant use.
Early sailors had few navigational tools. Most ancient and medieval shipping remained in sight of the coast for ease of navigation, the availability of 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 sailing ships 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 the most famous portage was the diolkos of Corinth. At least as early as 429 BC (Thucydides 2.56.2), but 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. 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).
As ships hugged the coast and threaded through archipelagos rather than risking the open sea, they had to be designed for maneuverability. The ability to travel without regard to the direction or strength of the wind became a sine qua non for daylight expeditions across open water. Massed oars provided maneuverability and reliable propulsion.
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 leave distinctive archeological remains. There is evidence that the hulls of the Punic wrecks were sheathed in lead.
Building an efficient galley posed difficult technical problems. A ship traveling at high speed has to expend considerable energy. Through a process of trial and error, the 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. Historians believe that it could reach speeds of about 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 also kept the joints of the hull under compression - tighter, and more waterproof. The tension in the modern trireme replica anti-hogging cables was 300 kNewtons (Morrison p198).
Around the 7th or 6th century BC the design of galleys changed. Shipbuilders, probably Phoenician (seafaring people who lived on the southern and eastern coasts of the Mediterranean), added a second row of oars above the first, creating the ship widely known by its Greek name, biērēs (English: bireme). These terms were probably not used until later. The idea was copied around the Mediterranean. Soon afterwards a third row of oars was added, by adding an outrigger to the hull of a bireme. These new galleys became known as triērēis ("three-fitted", Sing. triērēs) in Greek; the Romans later called this design the triremis (in English, "trireme"). The origin of these changes remains uncertain; Thucydides attributes the innovation to the boat-builder Ameinoklēs of Corinth in about 700 BC, but some scholars distrust this and suggest that the design also came from Phoenicia. Herodotus (484 BC - ca. 425 BC) provides the first mention of triremes in action: he mentions that Polycrates, tyrant of Samos from 535 BC to 515 BC, had triremes in his fleet in 539 BC.
The Persians hired ships from their Phoenician satrapies. The Athenians defeated the first invasion force on land at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, but saw the waging of land battles against the more numerous Persians as hopeless in the long term. When news came that Xerxes had started to amass an enormous invasion force in Asia Minor, the Greek cities expanded their navies: in 482 BC the Athenian leader Themistocles started a program for the construction of 200 triremes. The project must have met with considerable success, as 150 Athenian triremes are said to have fought in the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC and participated in the defeat of Xerxes' invasion fleet there.
Considerable skill was required to row the ships used at the time of the Peloponnesian War, and there were not enough skilled oarsmen to man large numbers of triremes in the 4th century BC. The search for designs that would allow oarsmen to use muscle-power instead of skill led Dionysius of Syracuse (ruled 405 - 367 BC) to build tetreres (quadriremes) and penteres (quinqueremes).
According to modern historians, the numbers used to describe these larger galleys counted the number of rows of men on each side, and not the numbers of oars. Thus quadriremes had three possible designs: one row of oars with four men on each oar, two rows of oars with two men on each oar or three rows of oars with two men pulling the top oars on each side. Probably galleys of all three designs existed. Scholars believe that quinqueremes had three rows of oars, with two men pulling each of the top two oars.
Along with the change in galley design came an increased reliance on tactics such as boarding and using warships as platforms for artillery. In the wars of the Diadochi (322 - 281 BC), the successors to the empire of Alexander the Great built increasingly bigger and bigger galleys. Macedon in 340 BC built sexiremes (probably with two men on each of three oars) and in 315 BC septiremes, which saw action at the Battle of Salamis in Cyprus (306 BC). Demetrius I of Macedon (reigned 294 - 288 BC), involved in a naval war with Ptolemy of Egypt (reigned 323 - 283 BC), built eights (octeres), nines, tens, twelves and finally sixteens! Later Ptolemies continued this trend of expansion, creating twenties and thirties and, during the reign of Ptolemy IV, a monstrous forty over 400 feet long that was probably intended as a showpiece. According to a detailed description of the forty, the ship had two prows and two sterns, and this and other evidence has led some to believe that the forty, and probably the twenties and thirties, were constructed like huge catamarans with enough space between the hulls for the rowers in the middle to operate. The deck above them, stretching across the two hulls, could accommodate a couple of thousand marines.
The political unification of the entire Mediterranean sea by the Roman Empire reduced the need for warships. By AD 79 the Roman navy probably had nothing larger than a quadrireme in service, as Pliny the Elder, commander of the fleet, investigated the eruption of Vesuvius in a quadrireme (Pliny the younger 6,16) which was presumably his flagship and the largest class of vessel in the fleet. We last hear of triremes, from Zosimus, in 324 when Constantine's son Crispus defeated Licinius in the battle of the Hellespont: allegedly 200 triremes were defeated by 80 30-oared vessels (Morrisson p8 who gives the wrong year). Galleys with two banks of oars were known in the 9th and 12th centuries but no continuity of development through the Dark Ages can be established. Ships in the ancient world, presumably including galleys, were constructed skin first, with the frame inserted later. Medieval ships, including galleys, were constructed frame first. For this intermediate period see the Roman Navy and Byzantine Navy articles.
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 (Pryor p67).
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 (or lanterns) 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 lanters 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 cannon and four swivel guns. The larger lanterns carried one heavy gun plus six 12 and 6 pound culverins and eight swivel guns. These guns were really big.
A 1971 reconstruction of the Real, the flagship of Don Juan de Austria in the Battle of Lepanto 1571, is in the Museu Marítim in Barcelona. The ship is 60 m long and 6.2 m wide, has a draught of 2.1 m, weighs 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.
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 galere, beginning at 100 tons and built as large as 300, was not the largest merchantman of its day, when the Genoese carrack of the fifteenth century might exceed 1000 tons. In 1447, for instance, Florentine galleys planned to call at 14 ports on their way to and from Alexandria (Pryor p57). 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.
In the waters off the west of Scotland between 1263 and 1500, the Lords of the Isles used galleys both for warfare and for transport around their maritime domain, which included the west coast of the Scottish Highlands, the Hebrides, and Antrim in Ireland. They employed these ships for sea-battles and for attacking castles or forts built close to the sea. As a feudal superior, the Lord of the Isles required the service of a specified number and size of galleys from each holding of land. For examples the Isle of Man had to provide six galleys of 26 oars, and Sleat in Skye had to provide one 18-oar galley.
Carvings of galleys on tombstones from 1350 onwards show the construction of these boats. From the 14th century they abandoned a steering-oar in favour of a stern rudder, with a straight stern to suit. From a document of 1624, a galley proper would have 18 to 24 oars, a birlinn 12 to 18 oars and a lymphad fewer still.
The galleass or "galliass" (known as a "mahon" in Turkey) developed from large merchant galleys.
Converted for military use they were higher and larger than regular ("light") galleys. They had up to 32 oars, each worked by up to 5 men. They usually had three masts and a forecastle and aftcastle. Much effort was made in Venice to make these galleasses as fast as possible to compete with regular galleys. The gun-deck usually ran over the rowers' heads, but there are also pictures showing the opposite arrangement.
Galleasses usually carried more sails than true galleys, and were far deadlier; a galley caught broadside lay all but helpless, but coming broadside to a galleass, as with a ship of the line, exposed an attacker to her gunfire. The galleass exemplified an intermediate type between the galley and the true man-of-war. Relatively few galleasses were built — one disadvantage was that, being more reliant on sails, their position at the front of the galley line at the start of a battle could not be guaranteed — but they were used at the Battle of Lepanto (7 October 1571), their firepower helping to win victory for the Christian fleet, and some sufficiently seaworthy galleasses accompanied the Spanish Armada in 1588 (e.g. La Girona). In the 15th century a type of light galleass, called the frigate, was built in southern European countries to answer the increasing challenge posed by the north African based Barbary pirates in their fast galleys.
In the Mediterranean, with its shallower waters, less dangerous weather and fickle winds, both galleasses and galleys continued in use, particularly in Venice and Turkey, long after they became obsolete elsewhere. Later, "round ships" and galleasses were replaced by galleons and ships of the line which originated in Atlantic Europe. The first Venetian ship of the line was built in 1660.
The galliot emerged as a smaller, lighter type of galley. The number of oars or sweeps varied from 18 to 22 per side, the larger ones having twenty-five on each side.
The fusta or fuste, likewise, was in essence a small galley -- a narrow, light and fast ship with shallow draft, powered by both oars and sail. It had 12 to 15 two-man rowing benches on each side, and a single mast with a lateen (triangular) sail. The fusta was the favorite ship of the North African corsairs of Salé and the Barbary Coast. Its speed, mobility, capability to move without wind, and its ability to operate in shallow water made it an ideal vessel for war and piracy.
Contrary to the popular image of the chained convict, conveyed by movies such as Ben Hur, there is no evidence that ancient navies ever made use of condemned criminals as oarsmen.
The literary evidence indicates that Greek and Roman navies generally preferred to rely on freemen to man their galleys. 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 freedman.
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, even if they escaped shipwreck and death in battle.
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, and the author of Don Quijote, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, among them.
The decline of the galley was extremely protracted, beginning before the development of cannon and continuing slowly for centuries. As early as 1304 the type of ship required by the Danish defence organization changed from galley to cog, a flat-bottomed sailing ship (Bass p191). Large high-sided sailing ships had always been very formidable obstacles for galleys. As early as 413 BC defeated triremes could seek shelter behind a screen of merchant ships (Thucydides (7, 41), Needham 4, pt3, p693). In the Mediterranean, the decline of the galley began at around 1595–1605 AD. This corresponds to an influx of first Dutch and then English merchantmen, in the 17th and 18th centuries. These were so heavily armed and manned and were so seaworthy that they could compete simultaneously by trade and theft, as pirates. Venetian galleys could barely cope with their piracy in summer, and were no answer to their piracy in winter (Tenenti).
Because of their low freeboard and lack of storage capacity, galleys were always somewhat fair weather, inshore and short-range vessels. As the merchant marines became dominated by open-water and winter-sailing vessels galleys became irrelevant as merchant craft before they became obsolete in battle and finally for coast and ship raiding.
The late 15th century saw the development of the man-of-war, a truly ocean-going warship, based originally on the carrack, which evolved into the galleon and then into the square rigger. These warships carried advanced sails that permitted tacking into the wind, and were heavily armed with cannon. The man-of-war eventually rendered the galley obsolete except for operations close to shore in calm weather. In the ocean the dominance of the man-of-war became apparent with the Portuguese victory at the Battle of Diu in 1519. The slow transition in the Mediterranean began with the action of 14 July 1616, when a small Spanish fleet of men-of-war defeated a large Ottoman fleet of galleys. But the escape of the galleys to avoid destruction also illustrates the continued advantages of these craft in the fickle conditions of the Mediterranean. In the 1660s even a purely Mediterranean power like Venice began building men-of-war. By the end of the 17th Century, when Captain Kidd christened his privateering ship the Adventure Galley, galleys were little used in major battles, but as Kidd's choice shows, remained useful as fast and nimble privateering vessels.
Galleys remained a mainstay of North African corsair fleets and continued to play a significant role in the Mediterranean well into the 18th century. They made one of their final appearances in a Mediterranean battle in the Battle of Chesma in 1770; they lingered on in the shallow Baltic Sea and took part in the Russo-Swedish War in 1790. Galleys were used, ineffectively, by the Knights of Malta during Napoleon's siege of Valetta in 1798
In America they were used in the Battle of Valcour Island in 1776. Galleys were also used during the Revolutionary War by whalers who used their ships to raid British shipping along the American coast. These raiding parties were useful in supplying the Continental Army with many much needed supplies.
WAR GALLEY is a boardgame from GMT Games that is a simulation of galley warfare in ancient times.
A group called "The Trireme Trust" operates, in conjunction with the Greek Navy, a reconstruction of an ancient Greek Trireme, the Olympias. Further information can be found here: http://www.atm.ox.ac.uk/rowing/trireme/