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A galley is a warship propelled primarily by oars, but also having masts and sails. Galleys fought in the wars of ancient Persia, Greece, Carthage and Rome until the 4th century. They were revived by the medieval Mediterranean states from the 14th century until the ocean-going man of war rendered them obsolete. The Battle of Lepanto (1571) was the last great naval battle in which the galley played the principal part.


The first galleys

Galleys travelled the Mediterranean from perhaps 3000 BC. The first ships to navigate the Mediterranean were merchant ships with square-rigged sails built by the Greeks and Phoenicians. The first military vessels, described in Homer and represented in paintings, had a single row of oarsmen along each side in addition to the sail to provide speed and manoeuvrability.

These early sailors had very little in the way of navigational tools. Compasses were not used for navigation until the 13th century, and the development of Censored pages, octants and accurate chronometers together with the mathematics required to determine longitude and latitude had to wait until considerably later. The ancient sailors navigated by means of the sun and the prevailing wind, and by the first millennium BC were using the stars to navigate at night, but if they were blown out of sight of land then they were lost.


The development of the ram in about 800 BC changed the nature of naval warfare, which had until that point been a matter of boarding and hand-to-hand fighting. Now the more manoeuvrable ship could render the slower ship useless by staving in its sides. There is some doubt as to whether defeated galleys were usually sunk. The Greek word for "sunk" can also mean "waterlogged" and there are reports of victorious galleys towing the defeated ship away after the battle. The paucity of archaeological remains of sunken ships, in comparison with the abundance of galleys according to the writings of contemporaries, is further evidence that it was not common practice to sink the defeated ship.

Building an efficient galley was a difficult task. A ship travelling at high speed creates a bow wave and has to expend considerable energy climbing this wave instead of increasing its speed. The longer a ship is, the faster it can travel before being hampered by this effect, but long ships were difficult to construct with the available technology. 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. It is believed that it that could reach speeds of about 9 knots (18 km/h), only a knot or so slower than modern rowed racing boats. The penteconter was large enough that cables stretched between the bow and stern were necessary to distribute the stress evenly.


Main article: Trireme

Around the 7th or 6th century BC the design of galleys changed. A second row of oars was added above the first, and then very soon afterwards, a third. These new galleys were called trieres, meaning "three-fitted"; the Romans called this design the triremis (in English, "trireme"). The origin of the design is uncertain; Thucydides attributes the innovation to the boat-builder Aminocles of Corinth in about 700 BC, but some scholars distrust this and suggest that the design is Phoenician in origin. The first mention of triremes in action is in Herodotus, who mentions that the ruler Polycrates had triremes in his fleet in 539 BC.

The early 5th century BC saw a conflict between the cities of Greece and the expansionist Persian Empire under Darius and Xerxes, who hired ships from their Phoenician satrapies.

The Greeks defeated the first invasion force at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, but realised that pursuing land battles against the more numerous Persians could not hope to win in the long term. When news came that Xerxes was amassing an enormous invasion force in Asia Minor, the Greek cities expanded their navies: in 482 BC the Athenian ruler Themistocles started a programme for the construction of 200 triremes. The project must have been very successful, as 150 Athenian triremes were reported to have seen action in the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC at which Xerxes' second invasion fleet was defeated.

Triremes fought in the naval battles of the Peloponnesian War, including the Battle of Aegospotami in 405 BC, which sealed the defeat of the Athenian Empire by Sparta and her allies.

Quinqueremes and polyremes

Main article: Quinquereme

In the 4th century BC, after the Peloponnesian War, there was a shortage of oarsmen of sufficient skill to man large navies of triremes. The search for designs of galley that would allow oarsmen to use muscle power instead of skill led Dionysius of Syracuse 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. There were thus three possible designs of quadrireme: 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 were built). Quinqueremes are thought to have had three rows of oars, with two men pulling each of the top two oars.

This change was accompanied by an increased reliance on tactics such as boarding and using warships as platforms for artillery. In the wars of the Diadochi, the successors to the empire of Alexander the Great built bigger and bigger galleys. Macedon was building sexiremes (probably with two men on each of three oars) in 340 BC and septiremes in 315 BC, which saw action at the Battle of Salamis in Cyprus (306 BC). Demetrius, involved in a naval war with Ptolemy of Egypt, built eights (octeres), nines, tens, twelves and finally sixteens!

Triremes and smaller vessels continued to be employed, however. Light versions called liburnians were used as auxiliaries, and were quite effective against the heavier ships thanks to their greater manoeuvrability. In the last great naval battle of the ancient world, at Actium in 31 BC, Octavian's lighter and more manoeuvrable ships defeated Antony's heavy fleet. After that, with the Roman Empire in charge of the entire Mediterranean, a large navy was no longer needed. By AD 325 there were no more galleys with multiple rows of oars.

Medieval galleys in northern Europe

A development of the Viking longships and knaar s, north European galleys were clinker built with a square sail and rows of oars, and looked very like their Norse predecessors.

In the maritime domain of the Lords of the Isles, between 1263 and 1500, galleys were used for both warfare and transport around their territory which included the west coast of the Scottish Highlands, the Hebrides, and Antrim in Ireland. These ships were used for sea battles and for attacking the 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. Examples are the Isle of Man which had to provide six galleys of 26 oars, and Sleat in Skye had to provide an 18-oar galley.

Carvings of galleys on tombstones from 1350 onwards show the construction of these boats. From the 14th century, they changed from a steering oar to 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 would be smaller still.


Galleys saw a comeback in the 14th century, when Venice was expanding its influence in the Mediterranean, but these medieval triremes were simpler affairs with one row of oars and three rowers to each oar.

The "galleass" or "galliass" was a larger and heavier form of galley; it usually carried three masts and had a forecastle and aftcastle (this form developed into the sailing carrack and then the galleon). The "galliot" was a small, light type of galley. The number of oars or sweeps varied, the larger galley having twenty-five on each side. The galleass had as many as thirty-two, each being worked by several men.

It became the custom among the Mediterranean powers to sentence condemned criminals to row in the war galleys of the state. Traces of this in France can be found as early as 1532, but the first legislative enactment is in the Ordonnance d'Orléans of 1561. In 1564 Charles IX of France forbade the sentencing of prisoners to the galleys for less than ten years. The galley-slaves were branded with the letters GAL. At the end of the reign of Louis XIV of France, the use of the galley for war purposes had practically ceased, but the corps of the galleys was not incorporated with the navy until 1748. The headquarters of the galleys and of the convict rowers (galériens) was at Marseilles. The majority of these latter were brought to Toulon, the others were sent to Rochefort and Brest, where they were used for working in the arsenal. At Toulon the convicts remained (in chains) on the galleys, which were moored as hulks in the harbour. Shore prisons were, however, provided for them, known as bagnes, "baths," a name given to such penal establishments first by the Italians (bagno) , and said to have been derived from the prison at Constantinople situated close by or attached to the great baths there. The name galerien was still given to all convicts, though the galleys had been abandoned, and it was not until the French Revolution that the hated name with all it signified was changed to forcat. In Spain galera was used as late as the early 20th century for a criminal condemned to penal servitude.

A vivid account of the life of galley-slaves in France is given in Jean Marteilhes 's Memoirs of a Protestant , translated by Oliver Goldsmith, which describes the experiences of one of the Huguenots who suffered after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

The last galleys

The 15th century saw the development of the man of war, a truly ocean-going warship, carrying advanced sails that permitted tacking into the wind, and heavily armed with cannon. The man of war eventually rendered the galley obsolete except for operations close to shore in calm weather.

An intermediate type between the galley and the true man-of-war was the galleass---a ship featuring side-mounted cannon such as characterized the man-of war (galleys' guns only fired directly forward) as well as banks of rowers. The guns were usually mounted on a deck over the rowers' heads, although pictures showing the opposite arrangement exist. Galleasses usually carried more sails than true galleys, and were far deadlier; a galley caught broadsides was all but helpless, but coming broadside to a galleass, as with a man-of-war, merely exposed an attacker to her cannons' fire. Galleasses were present at the Battle of Lepanto, with their firepower helping to win victory for the Christian fleet, and some galleasses were seaworthy enough to accompany the Armada in 1588. In the Mediterranean, with its shallower waters, less dangerous weather and fickle winds, galleasses and galleys alike continued to be used long after they were considered obsolete elsewhere.

The last Mediterranean battle in which galleys played any part was the Battle of Chesma in 1770; they lingered on in the shallow Baltic Sea and took part in the Russo-Swedish War in 1809.


  • Lionel Casson, Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World, Princeton University Press, 1971.
  • Maritime Scotland, Brian Lavery, B T Batsford Ltd., 2001, ISBN 0-7134-8520-5

Other meanings

A galley is also the kitchen of a ship.

In printing, a galley is an unbound signature sheet, or a collection thereof.

In book publishing, a galley is an early, pre-publication edition that has not been fully edited. Galleys are sent to reviewers so they can look over and write about the books before they reach consumers.

Last updated: 02-08-2005 11:16:40
Last updated: 02-25-2005 14:00:06