The Importance of Being Galleys

By Jim Cobb 19 Jun 2017 0

Every grunt and tread head in the world will resent this statement: no major war has been won without the victor having sea supremacy. Salamis, Actium, Lepanto, Sluys, Chesapeake Bay, Trafalgar; the list covers 2500 years and the main instrument for the first half of this period was the galley. Naval computer wargames have concentrated almost completely on the 20th and 21st centuries. Oh sure, pirate sims frequently pop up and Shrapnel’s Salvo! has a decent Nelsonian engine. Yet for some reason, no galley games exist for serious gamers and a critical era has been ignored. That’s about to change.

Oars over Sails

The first naval battles for which evidence exists were fought by the Egyptians in the Nile delta. The Egyptians put raised platforms on their usual transport craft and put archers and spearmen on them. Hence, enemy ships were subdued with arrows and javelins with the occasional boarding. Speed and maneuverability kept these smaller craft safe from their larger opponents. Not surprisingly, the first purpose-built warship reported was developed by the Phoenicians. These masters of the sea used biremes with two ranks of oars and a sturdy bow ram. Little is known of Bronze Age Phoenician battles and tactics but their influence on the Greeks appear to be obvious.

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An Egyptian sea battle appears to be a cloud of missiles.

The history of naval warfare begins with the Greeks. Adding another bank of oars, the Greek trireme was a much faster and bigger warship. These vessels used sails when traveling but only oars in battle. Salamis is the best described of all the battles but may distort views of tactics. The narrow area where the clash took place lent itself to ramming but another, more difficult, tactic was used by the ancients: raking. This maneuver consisted of “sideswiping” an enemy ship to crush the oars on one side. Such a tactic required not only excellent timing in steering but also in getting the oars of the engaged side out of the water before contact. Oarsmen had to be well-trained to keep time with the stroke and tempo of movement. Even a successful ramming required a fast reverse of stroke to disengage from the wounded ship.

A much overlooked topic is the naval aspect of the Peloponnesian War. Athens started with complete naval supremacy allowing then to raid Spartan territories at will.  However, Sparta enlisted the aid of the Persians and Corinthians to field quite a good fleet. They inflicted several defeats on the Athenian navy which, although not as decisive as the Syracuse debacle, must have damaged Athenian will to fight.

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A trireme from the upcoming Trireme Commander.

Both the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars point out the strategic importance of naval supremacy. The loss of the Persian fleet in and of itself did not destroy Xerxes’ army but it did take away its strategic mobility and any hope of meaningful supplies and reinforcement. A maritime stalemate took away Athens’ ability to take the war to Sparta and to insure its own grain supply. All this was due to the capabilities of galleys.

These concepts were recognized by Alexander the Great as he ordered his fleet to parallel his marches to and from Egypt. Using bigger ships with more banks of oars, he mounted catapults on some ships to use against Tyre. Such catapults along with ballistae were used largely against crews and marines rather than to sink the vessels. The Romans were late to understand the concepts but picked up on them quickly when trying to get troops to Sicily during the First Punic War. Their nascent warship building program was spurred by the acquisition of a virtually intact abandoned Carthaginian ship. Each part was numbered when disassembled, sent back to a shipyard and reassembled. The result was used as a model but good ships are not a guarantee for victory; good sailors are and Rome was short of them.

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A trireme battle from the Mare Nostrum Store page.

The Romans compensated for this by inventing the corvus, a broad traversable plank with a huge spike on the end. This innovation was dropped across to the enemy’s deck allowing Roman infantry to cross and do what they did best. Rome secured the waters around Sicily and gradually crushed Carthage. The last major battle of the trireme period was Actium where Octavian/Augustus defeated Marc Anthony. After that, the Roman navy controlled the Mediterranean against pirates.

From Ramming to Gunpowder

After the fall of Western Empire, sea control shifted to Constantinople.  The Eastern Empire – or Byzantine – navy faced a double threat within two centuries. Aggressive Muslim powers were knocking on the door and raiding islands and coast. They brought with them the lateen sail on their nimble galleys, allowing sail power to complement the less numerous banks of oars in combat. The Byzantine had a decisive counter with the Napalm-like Greek fire. Shot through a tube on the prow of a galley, the liquid burnt not only ships but the water around them. Constantinople used this tactic to hold enemies at bay for centuries. However, Muslim raiders still had their way when out of range of the Byzantine fleet.

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Byzantine ships literally hosed their enemies.

Byzantium was faced with another competitor in the 8th century, the Serene Republic of Venice. Venice not only wanted to control trade routes but also establish colonies on the Adriatic coast. Feisty, they fought the Byzantines, Turks, Normans and other Italian states and, by hook or crook, usually came out on top. Their primary warship was a variation of the bireme incorporating lateen sails and raised fighting platforms. In the 15th century, these vessels were augmented by one or two cannon mounted in the bow. Other maritime nations soon copied this modification.

The end of the galley warship era began with the discovery of the New World. Naval focus shifted from the placid Med to the rough open seas – no place for old galleys.   The last great galley battle was Lepanto in 1571. A taste of the future was the deployments of Venetian galleasses with broadside batteries.

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The battle of Lepanto was the last hurrah of galley warfare.

Two games in progress, Trireme Commander and Mare Nostrum. cover the period from Salamis to Actium. A Pike and Shot mod models Lepanto. All well and good, but another thousand years of innovation and battle with galleys are waiting to be explored. Talented developers should starting breaking molds and develop this rich milieu.

Tags: Historical

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