National Maritime Week – two millennia ago

greek_galleysA few weeks ago, Mary R. Woldering has asked me to contribute a piece for her blog, with the theme of National Maritime Week. I have chosen to address the issue of the life of ancient galley-slaves, and who really rowed the naval war galleys.

Below I reproduce the full post.


Hi, and welcome to the ancient history section of Maritime week!

For this article, I will be talking about ancient galleys, and in particular about the notion of galley slaves. Everyone with a love of ancient history and the sea would have heard about, and probably seen in movies, the horrible conditions of the oarsmen. Chained to their seats, sweating on the heavy oars to the beat of the drum, whipped and underfed, their life expectancy only slightly better than mine slaves.

But is that image historically accurate?

First, let me introduce you to Felix and his Roman-inspired fantasy-world of Egretia. The following excerpt (about 800 words) is from a scene near the middle of Murder In Absentia. Felix finds himself on a ship attacked by pirates at night. This is one of my favourite scenes for several reasons. First, I got to write a fight scene, and as Murder In Absentia is primarily a detective mystery there aren’t a lot of them. I have also done a lot of research into realistic sword fighting techniques, so to write one properly, realistic rather the relying on tropes, gives a good feeling. Second, is that as a writer I got to play with the tempo of story. By carefully choosing words and crafting sentence lengths, I hope to evoke the feeling of urgency and breathlessness that occur within a fight. I will let you be the judge of the results.

I woke up to urgent yells from heavy slumber. Not bothering with clothes, I grabbed my dagger and ran outside to the deck. A ship larger than ours was heading straight at us under power of oars. Their crew were silent, no drums to keep pace and no shouts. That they were pirates was evident from the vessel itself. A fast and decked bireme, its prow was painted with large blue eyes, slightly slanted to give a menacing look as they stared at us. Its sail was folded and the mast down, the pirates were ready for battle and boarding. A row of men stood at the railing, armed and ready with ropes and planks.

The pirate ship was perhaps three hundred paces from us, and by their angle and equipment I knew that they did not intend to ram us, but rather angle next to us and board us. Piracy does not make profit by sinking treasures — these come from the robbery of goods, selling the crew to slavery and holding any notable passengers for ransom.

Our crew was frantic, everybody suddenly awake after last night’s celebrations. Margaritus was yelling orders, the sailors were hoisting the anchor and going to the oars. Aulus Didius looked particularly dishevelled, not yet recovered from yesterday’s enchantments, and seemed unable to focus on the events storming around him.

With two hundred paces between our ships and us barely moving, it was becoming obvious that they would gain on us and that we would have to fight if we wanted to escape capture. Margaritus had broken out the weapon stores, and the crew and divers each grabbed a tall oval shield and a short gladius, and braced on the side facing the pirate ship. I picked up a shield and grabbed the handle inside the shield’s boss with my left hand, though I elected to remain armed only with my trusty dagger.

Margaritus yelled at the remaining crew to put up the sail with the hope that Didius Rufus could conjure sufficient winds, as the oarsmen armed themselves instead to prepare for boarding. I stared out across the dark waters watching the moonlit vessel closing in on us rapidly. At this distance I could make out the individual faces of the pirates and the murderous intent written on them. I wondered what mess I had gotten myself into and whether I would live to see the morning.

With fifty paces to go, the pirates banked oars, grabbed ready bows and let a volley go. All of us in the front lines raised our shields and managed to absorb most of the volley. Only two of our men were hit, though from the quick look I cast in their direction the wounds seemed slight. Our ship did not have a means to return fire — it was not a navy vessel, and was designed for the specific operation of the divers. It relied on speed generated by its resident incantator, who unfortunately seemed in a state of battle shock like a green recruit. The lack of a proper night guard could only be blamed on Margaritus.

Thirty paces to go, and another volley of arrows. This time one man fell down when an arrow that ricocheted from a shield lodged itself in his neck. The deck became slick with the blood spurting from his wound. Margaritus was shaking Didius Rufus by his shoulders, yelling in his face to get the wind up.

Ten paces, and the pirates cast ropes with hooks onto our rails, dragging us closer. We dislodged the hooks and struck at the ropes, but within the space of a deep breath the pirate ship bumped into ours, shaking the deck under our feet. The two ships screeched like racing chariots colliding.

The pirates were upon us. With wild cries they jumped from their ship onto our deck, swinging swords, axes, hooks and clubs. I braced my shield, and as the pirate who targeted me tried to land his curved sword in a neat arc from above straight on my head I took a step back, causing him to miss his mark and forcing him to stumble as he landed, and immediately with my full weight behind the shield I jumped and slammed into him, forcing him backwards and the boss of the shield knocking the wind from his lungs, yet still with his back against the ship’s rail he tried to raise his sword to protect himself, but I knocked it aside with my shield and plunged my knife deep into his chest. His eyes widened and a gurgling, rattling sound came from his throat as he lost balance and fell overboard, splashing into the waters in the space between our ships.

What followed was a mad free-for-all battle. The pirates were ferocious, the deck was slick with blood and the air was heavy with the din of fighting, the shouts of enemies colliding and the cries of the wounded and the dying.

Now back to the image of galley slaves. The life I described above has some basis in truth, but with a lot of caveats. The most important one is that navy oarsmen were never slaves! In ancient Greece they were citizens of lower socio-economic status, who could not afford to buy the weapons and armour required to join the rank of hoplites or marines. This was their opportunity to serve their city-state.

In Rome (and depending on the period) the oarsmen were often either low-status citizens, or recruits from neighbouring cities. They served the Roman army by joining the navy, rather than as foot soldiers in the army (and Rome relied heavily on auxiliary – i.e. non-Roman – forces throughout its history).

In both cases, when it came to military operations, the navy never relied on slaves to power their boats. These were free men, who were there to serve their country and potentially take part in the fight as well.

Where the image of galley slaves comes from is from merchant ships. Those were often powered by slaves, as being cheaper than free men. However, and though their life was gruelling, unless the owner of the slaves wished to keep buying slaves to replace dead ones, they usually kept the slaves at least fed and with minimum of sanitation. Chained, perhaps, occasionally whipped, no doubt. But kept alive. Then, as now, money and economics were an important concern for all men.


I hope this provides you with a different view about a small fragment of history. So often the depictions are wrong, based on misconceptions and outdated knowledge. Take it as a lesson both about ancient sailing, but more broadly about how history is treated in the popular culture and media.

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