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A French galley and a Dutch galleon in front of a harbor, painting by Abraham Willaerts from the 17th century

A galley is a Mediterranean rowed warship of the Middle Ages and early modern times . Typical characteristics are a slim and flat hull, a row of straps on the sides, auxiliary sails and an overwater ram on the bow . Colloquially, the term "galley" is also applied to the ancient predecessors of the actual galleys, sometimes even used as a collective term for all historical rowed warships.


" Greek galéē [(γαλέη)]" weasel "is transferred to a sea fish, Middle Greek galía [(γαλία)], from there to the large rowing ships of the Mediterranean. About Middle Latin galea originates the Italian galera , which first appears in 1609 as gallere in the German text. [Philipp von] Zesen's attempt to replace it with a whale ship or a Walleie is unsuccessful […]. ”. Despite the sporadic appearance of this newer form, however, galee "was the dominant form until the 17th century and longer (already in Middle High German also galê [...])."

Historical development


The oldest rowing warships of the Phoenicians and Greeks were long, open boats, mostly with decks on the bow, and came around 850 BC. First used. Even the Assyrians built two-row rowing warships with a full battle deck above the upper row of rowers. In Greece around 700 BC came Also rowing warships with two rows of rowers, the Biremen . From the 6th to the 3rd century BC . BC was then the trireme (Greek) or trireme (Latin, both in German: trireme) the main warship of the maritime powers in the Mediterranean. With the rise of Rome to become the only sea power in the Mediterranean, the triremes were too heavy and too slow for their new main task, the hunt for pirates . Small, fast warships like the Liburnian became the new main weapon of the Roman fleet.

The use of rowed warships in the Mediterranean generally offered a number of advantages. A rowed ship was independent of the wind and could thus perform any maneuver in battle, and maneuverability is a great advantage in a sea area as highly structured as the Mediterranean. In addition, a rowed boat for a short time could be put to much higher speed than a sailed, and not least a ship considerably offered without sails the enemy less of a target for fire weapons, as has always been presented Brander , the greatest danger for a ship represents.

The legacy of ancient shipbuilding lived on in the Dromone , the warship of the Byzantine Empire . Dromons had an underwater ram, two rows of oars and a square sail . The dromone was thus at the end of a long development and was a mature type of ship, which, however, had reached its technical limits and hardly offered any potential for further development.

In the 7th and 8th centuries, the Arabs conquered large parts of the Mediterranean coast and began to influence Mediterranean shipbuilding. Essential elements of Arab shipbuilding such as the trapezoidal lug sail and the steeply falling stern can still be seen in the dhow today. The Dau was a pure sailing ship for which the steady monsoon wind of the Indian Ocean is an excellent propulsion system, but as a warship in the Mediterranean it would have been too slow and too sluggish to maneuver.

middle Ages

Rear final figure of a side ornament of a Venetian galley (17th century)

With the Crusades, shipping traffic in the Mediterranean grew rapidly. The Italian port cities in particular benefited from this, especially Genoa and Venice , which achieved great prosperity through sea transport and trade. They had the financial means to build and maintain large fleets to secure their sea routes. In the 11th and 12th centuries, various rowing ships were launched, some of which were only copies of dromons, but also incorporated some Arab structural features. At the end of the 12th century, the galley finally established itself as a new, pioneering type of warship. She was an agile, fast ship with a row of oars and a falling stem that ended in an overwater ram. It was superior to the dromone in terms of speed and also much more agile than the Arab dhow.

From the 13th century there was only one type of warship left in the Mediterranean, the galley, which was perfected in the 14th century. At the end of the Middle Ages, shipbuilding made rapid progress across Europe, and the introduction of the stern rudder and the multi- masted rigging did not stop at the galley, which no longer relied solely on the unwieldy oars and later the Tarida a second, smaller one I got a mast at the stern. From the 15th century a third mast was erected on the bow. The unwieldy square sails were replaced by the more effective latin sails .

With the introduction of firearms at sea in the 15th century, the galleys were also equipped with cannons. Since the galley, whose main weapon was the ram, had to steer directly towards its enemy in combat, the cannons were installed on the forecastle, pointing in the direction of travel. With that, the galley had reached its final shape, which it would maintain over the next several centuries.

The North African corsairs of the barbarian states preferred somewhat smaller and more agile galleys for their raids on the Mediterranean Sea, the so-called Fustas with 15 to 22 row banks.

The Kadirga galley ( Turkish for “galley”) can be seen in the Naval Museum in Istanbul (without masts). The ship dates from the late 15th, according to other sources, from the 16th century and is the only surviving galley in the world. She was in service until 1839. It is 37 m long, 5.7 m wide and has a draft of approx. 2 m. 144 rowers moved with 144 belt , the 140-ton ship.

Modern times

In the 16th century, the galley was still the standard combat ship in European fleets. In order to be able to keep up with the shipbuilding developments in the Renaissance , the galeas was developed , a cross between galleon and galley, which was supposed to carry a battery deck in addition to its rudder deck. However, due to its size and mass, this ship construction had lost a lot of speed and maneuverability. On top of that, she was also unable to carry as many guns as a sailing ship. Nevertheless, these floating fortresses played an important part in the victory at Lepanto, as the Ottoman fleet could not match them. Nevertheless, the galley had exhausted its development potential and it was only a matter of time from then until it was replaced by the sailing ship as the primary combat ship of the European fleets. The European admiralty soon realized that the galley was not suitable for the colonization of the New World and for safeguarding overseas interests due to its low firepower and its lack of seaworthiness or loading capacity. The new warship of the 17th century, the ship of the line , could not be conquered due to its size and armament with galleys.

In the navies of the Orient, however, galleys were used until the 18th century. Since they operated exclusively in the Mediterranean area, the lack of seaworthiness was not so important, piracy and slave trade provided a constant supply of cheap rowing power, and galleys were cheaper and easier to build than ships of the line, which were the most complex and complex technical systems in seafaring at the time. For similar reasons, galleys were still used in the shallow Baltic Sea until the 18th century. Although the galley hardly developed any further, it did not remain without influence on modern Mediterranean shipbuilding. Their hull shape served as a model for the development of the Schebecke and Polacker in the 18th century .

Until then, galleys were still being built in large numbers in the 16th century and used in combat. In 1571 the biggest galley battle in history took place near Lepanto . The Spanish Armada of 1588 consisted, among other things, of galleys and galeas. In the wars of the Spanish against the Dutch, galleys were still used on the Spanish side at the beginning of the 17th century. France also continued to use galleys, both in the Mediterranean and in the North Sea. In the War of the Spanish Succession there were 6 galleys in Dunkirk , which were only used when the sea was calm - so rarely. Then, however, they posed a danger to the opposing English and Dutch sailing ships - even well-armed ones - which could not maneuver in calm conditions.


On the occasion of the four hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto, a 16th century Spanish galley was faithfully reproduced and exhibited in the Museu Marítim de Barcelona in 1971. It is the flagship of Don Juan de Austria , the Real , with which he led the fleet of the Holy League at Lepanto as commander-in-chief . This galley was 60 m long, had a width of 6.2 m and a draft of 2.1 m, was moved by 290 rowers and carried about 400 sailors and soldiers in the battle. In keeping with their importance, their superstructures were richly decorated and the entire ship was decorated in red and gold. With it, Don Juan made a decisive contribution to the victory of the league by attacking the flagship of the Ottoman Admiral Ali Pasha , the Sultana , and defeating it after a tough boarding battle. The Real was, however, much larger than the typical galleys used in the Mediterranean at the time. The large Venetian galleys at Lepanto were 46 m long and 5.5 m wide (7.3 m with the oar arms), had a draft of 1.8 m, and weighed about 180 tons empty; the normal war galleys were 42 m long and 5.1 m wide (6.7 m with the booms), had a draft of 1.7 m and weighed 140 tons. The ships of the Ottoman fleet were a little longer (50 m) and wider (6 m), but built lighter.

The galleys of the Christian and Ottoman fleets differed only in the details of their decorative elements and deck equipment. The galleys of the Spaniards, Venetians and Genoese were often richly decorated with gold, stucco and depictions of ancient deities. On the ships of the Ottomans, on the other hand, abstractly ornamented and colored paneling was attached for decoration. The similarity of the construction was derived from the common descent from the galleys of antiquity. The rigging of a 16th century galley consisted of two masts as standard, the main mast ("mestre") in the center and the slightly smaller foremast in front of the bow. In the large galleys there was also a mizzen mast at the stern . They were provided with long spars , which consisted of two yards , each of which carried a latin sail. The ship from a platform at the rear of a kind of narrow balcony which in was controlled Steven jutted the helm. In front of it stood the so-called "Karosse", the only sparsely furnished cabin of the captain, covered with a fabric canopy to protect him from the weather. In front of the body was the "Karee", the command bridge from which the galley was commanded. The longest part of the ship was the central walkway with the side row benches. In general, the rowing places were around 30. The galley was placed directly in the center of the walkway . It was completely open and only equipped with an oven. Normally, on the Mediterranean galleys of the 16th and 17th centuries, there was also a small platform on the port and starboard sides (instead of a rowing bench) where the dinghy or the stove stood. Here, too, marines could be set up for close combat. In the bow was the forecastle deck where the artillery was aligned in the direction of travel and was used in the hunt for their opponents. The front end of a galley was formed by the elongated prow with a ram and a "galion", a platform that was supposed to enable enemy ships to board and at the same time served as a lavatory for sailors and soldiers.


The ramming of enemy ships was abandoned during the Middle Ages. The ram spur was moved over the waterline and significantly lengthened, but now primarily served as a boarding bridge. Before the introduction of firearms, boarding was the most effective method of either destroying or capturing an enemy ship. After that, the relatively deep positioning of the guns on the bow made it possible to use very large cannons or bombards . These could also be dangerous for much larger ships. The centrally positioned Coursier , the large cannon was flanked by smaller guns for close combat. In addition, the rotating guns were located in favorable locations , which were used in close combat for shooting hail and other metal parts (musket balls, nails, etc.). The armoring with firearms was generally relatively poor, mostly only five or six heavy cannons, colubrines and sea bream, although the carrying capacity of this type of ship would have allowed the installation of at least 50 cannons. The invention of the gun port around 1500 made it possible to place a larger number of heavy artillery in a broad-side setup. This was only possible with sailing ships, but not with the galleys, since the broadsides of them were covered with oars and oars. The galley soon grew into a new dangerous enemy with the sailing ships, which initially was not used very often in the Mediterranean, as the galleys were still clearly superior to them in terms of speed and maneuverability and the cadence of the firearms of the time was still too weak to to compensate for this disadvantage. It was not until the 17th century that the sailing ships achieved permanent superiority over the galleys - also due to their stronger firepower.

Life on board

Ancient Greek and Roman rowing ships were usually rowed by the outdoors. In exceptional situations, however, slaves were occasionally placed on the row benches, but they were usually given freedom before or after the mission. The galley penalty for convicted criminals was completely unknown in ancient times.

On a war galley from the 16th century that did not exceed 50 meters, sometimes over 400 men crowded an area of ​​almost 300 m². Despite the cramped space, there were two worlds on the galley that had little in common. Life on board was associated with great hardship for everyone - crew, soldiers and rowers. When the ship was at sea, everyone slept on deck, including the officers. A bed was only available for the captain in his cabin. If the ship was in the harbor, an awning was stretched across the deck. The officers looked for quarters on land, only the deck guard remained on board. The rowers sat one deck or half-deck lower, depending on the size of the galley. On French galleys they were called "la chiourme". Their overseers were the "gardes-chiourme". These names were derived from the Latin celeusma , the song of the rowers, which set the pace for them on board an ancient galley. In the case of small galleys it was 80, and in the case of the larger galleys several hundred. They consisted mainly of slaves and prisoners of war, convicts , but also free people who rowed for payment. Outwardly they differed in that the heads of the slaves and convicts were shaved, the prisoners of war were allowed to wear a braid and the free rowers their normal hair. Two to five of them each operated a belt. However, there were also galleys where each rower moved his oar alone. The further the rower sat from the fulcrum of the oar, the greater the distance he had to cover with each stroke. While the person sitting directly on the side of the ship only needed to move their upper body, the rower, who was seated towards the center of the ship, had to get up with every stroke and take a step back and forth. The rowers were deployed accordingly: the older and weaker ones outwards towards the ship's side, the stronger ones inwards towards the center of the ship. With a few exceptions, the rowers were not allowed to leave their benches. The slaves and convicts among them were chained for most of the time and even slept on their benches. The sanitary conditions were catastrophic because they also had to relieve themselves there. Rowing was sometimes done for up to 10 hours a day. You could smell the berth in a galley from afar. The mortality among them was therefore very high. It was usually cheaper to get a replacement than to nurse a sick or injured person back to health. Such galleys could be moved and maneuvered under all weather conditions, but they were unsuitable for longer journeys because there was storage space for food and the like. Ä. Was not available. Since the team mainly consisted of compulsory conscripts, this naturally resulted in serious security problems. It was only in combat that the galley convicts were disengaged and armed and, in the event of victory, they were promised freedom (see Lepanto ). Otherwise, everyone remained chained and drowned when the galley was sunk.

Sea battles involving galleys


The naval battle at Meloria , fought on August 6, 1284 between Genoa and Pisa , was the largest naval battle of the Middle Ages. Almost 100 ships of the Maritime Republic of Genoa, under the command of Oberto Dorias, beat the Pisan fleet of around 120 ships, which was led by the Venetian admiral Alberto Morosini .


The sea ​​battle at Curzola was fought on September 8, 1298 between the fleets of Venice and Genoa near the Dalmatian island of Korčula in the Adriatic Sea . The Venetian fleet under the command of Admiral Andrea Dandolo was defeated by the Genoese under Admiral Lamba Doria , who was able to decide the battle in his favor with a surprise maneuver of his reserves.


The sea ​​battle at Pola on May 7, 1379 was one of the battles in the Chioggia War , which was fought between the maritime republics of Genoa and Venice. The Genoese defeated the outnumbered Venetian fleet.


The Battle of Lepanto was the last great sea battle involving rowed galleys. On October 7, 1571, a fleet of the Holy League under Don Juan de Austria defeated a fleet of the Ottoman Empire under Ali Pascha . The fleet of the Holy League, an alliance initiated by the Pope against the Ottomans, consisted for the most part of Spanish and to a lesser extent of Venetian ships. With this battle the Ottoman expansion, perceived as a threat to the West since the fall of Constantinople in 1453, was contained. The European states were able to regain a foothold in the Mediterranean. The power of Spain reached its zenith.

Fall of the Spanish Armada

The Spanish Armada included four galleys under the command of Diego de Medrano and four galleys under Huc de Montcada.


  • Hans DL Viereck: The Roman fleet . Koehler, Herford 1975, ISBN 3-7822-0106-X .
  • Hugh Bicheno: Crescent and Cross. The Battle of Lepanto 1571. Phoenix Paperback, London 2004, ISBN 1-84212-753-5 .
  • Edmond Paris, Lothar Eich, Ernest Henriot, Luise Langendorff: The great time of the galleys and galeas. Delius Klasing publishing house, 1973, ISBN 3-7688-0163-2 .
  • Jean Marteilhe : galley convict under the sun king. Memoirs. Beck, Munich 1989, ISBN 3-406-32979-9 . (The only experience report of a galley convict).
  • Jean Yves Delitte, Frederico Nardo: Lepanto 1571. (= The Great Sea Battles. Volume 3). Finix, Wiesbaden 2018, ISBN 978-3-945270-72-1 .

Web links

Commons : Galley  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: galley  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
  • Colleccions (website of the Museu Maritim of Barcelona for the replica of the Galley Real , in Catalan)

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Friedrich Kluge : Etymological dictionary of the German language. 18th edition. edit v. Walther Mitzka . de Gruyter, Berlin 1960.
  2. Galee. In: Jacob Grimm , Wilhelm Grimm (Hrsg.): German dictionary . tape 4 : Forschel – retainer - (IV, 1st section, part 1). S. Hirzel, Leipzig 1878, Sp. 1160 ( ).
  3. galley. In: Wolfgang Pfeifer et al., Etymological Dictionary of German, digitized version in the Digital Dictionary of the German Language, revised by Wolfgang Pfeifer. 1993, accessed August 29, 2019 .
  4. a b c History of the Galleys. In: Hauke ​​Friederichs, DIE ZEIT, no.26-24 June 2010, accessed on 29 August 2019 .
  5. galley. In: Rene Griesinger, November 12, 2015, accessed August 29, 2019 .
  6. ^ Jean Marteilhe: Galley convict under the Sun King: Memoirs. Beck, Munich 1989.
  7. a b Delitte / Nardo 2018, pp. 52–53.
  8. Except for a possible case in Ptolemaic Egypt . Lionel Casson: Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World . Princeton University Press, Princeton 1971, pp. 325-326 .
  9. ^ Jean Marteilhe: Galley convict under the Sun King - Memoirs. Beck, Munich 1989, from p. 266.