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D-58: Were Galleys rowed by Galley Slaves?

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

Over the last three days we talked about the reasons why the Phoenicians ventured into the Western Mediterranean, how they used stars and winds to navigate & how they established permanent settlements once they discovered the economic potential of their new homes. 

We did not discuss yet how they actually got there. By boat, of course. But did they sail? Or did they row? Nobody knows.  The founding myth of Carthage says that Princess Elissa sailed the 1’200 miles straight from Tyre. At a constant speed of 5 knots per hour (kns/h) it would take her about 240 hours or 10 days to reach her destination.

Assyrian war ship 800 BC with 34 rows - most likely manned by Phoenicians. Assyria had no Navy

Except - she could not sail straight west. The winds blow in in her face. She would have had to cruise against the wind. But the Lateen sail would not be invented for another 1’000 years. So that was not possible either. 


Could she have reached Carthage by rowing? Old carvings show Phoenician ships equipped with both mast and oars. Let’s do the math. The sustainable rowing speed of a Phoenician galley was 3 - 4 kns/h which would make the trip a 300 - 400 hours journey. Since crews can only row for 6 hours a day, the journey would take them 50 - 67 days. Considerably longer than straight sailing but still within the summer season. Reaching the Western Mediterranean from the Levant and returning home with the West - East winds along the North African Coast was perfectly possible before the autumn storms. I guess we can assume that Princess Elissa and her fellow Phoenicians used both methods: sails and oars.


Over the coming 2’600 years, the dual propulsion for galleys remained basically the same. Sleek, long boats with layered rows of oars and one or two masts. The galleys would become bigger, Lateen sails would replace square sails, the number of oars would increase from 34 to about 140 and the weaponry would be upgraded to guns. But galleys remained galleys.

Byzantine galley with 32 rows - 8th century AD


When talking about the galley rowers, we all remember the movie scenes from Ben Hur - chained galley slaves rowing to the drum beat of a fat and ugly slave master. But rowing a galley requires skills and training. In real life, galleys were rowed by free men who did their military duties and fought - when necessary - like soldiers from boat to boat. Having a sufficient number of well trained men was one of the constant constraints of any galley fleet. Building galleys was fast compared to recruiting and training the crews. One of the reasons why the fleet of the Holy League never sailed to Famagusta to relieve the town from the Ottoman siege in 1570 was its lack of manpower. After an infectious disease had killed a third of the crews, the fleet was stuck in Crete and could not sail further. It would take a year to make the fleet ready for the decisive battle of Lepanto in 1571.

Model of a typical Venetian galley as used in the battle of Lepanto in 1571 with 60 oars, Lateen sails and 5 front guns


The movie scenes with half starved slaves on the rowing benches are also fictitious. A rower needs about 6’000 calories a day in order to do his job. He has to be well fed. 6000 calories translates into about 4 kg of daily food of which at least one kilo has to be protein, read meat. Add the 6 litres of water a rower consumes a day and we get into some interesting logistical challenges. A galley with 200 men consumed 2 tons of supplies a day and could not stay longer than 14 days on sea. Such a galley usually had an empty weight of 140 tons and could carry additional 100 tons of weight. 200 sailers = 16 tons, their supplies for 14 days = 28 tons, 5 heavy guns = 10 tons. It thus had less than 50 tons left for other purposes like carrying more ammunition, field guns or more troops. After 14 days, galleys had to find a harbour and resupply. 

Prisoners of war on a Barbary Coast galley (Ottoman Empire)


Whilst galley were mostly crewed by free men, it is true however that the Barbary Pirates from Algiers and Tunis kept their prisoners of war as captive rowers on galleys. But in order to be effective, even the war prisoners had to be fed properly and minimal hygiene had to be maintained to keep them in good health. Dead rowers could not propel galleys.

The true exception were the French galleys. They were used as floating prisons and mostly manned by convicted criminals. Life on these boats was rough and short. Being transferred to a galley was a death penalty sentence. Nobody returned. If anybody survived, people forgot that they were even there. The price the French paid for this policy however was severe. Even though France maintained a galley fleet of 30 ships, they never played a decisive role. To put it simple, an underfed and sick crew was no match for a motivated adversary. Whilst the Knights of St. John from Malta were well known for their daring raids - they had only 6 galleys - French galleys are almost absent from naval military history. But they were well known for their stench. It was said that one could smell a French galley before you could see it …

Sometimes it is good to remember that Hollywood makes good movies but that history may be different.

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