Naval tactics in the age of galleys

Naval tactics in the age of galleys were used from antiquity to the early 17th century when sailing ships replaced oared galleys.

Weapons in the age of galleys

Throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages until the 16th century, the weapons relied on were:

  • the ship itself, used as a battering ram,
  • the swords of the crew,
  • missile weapons such as bolts from heavy crossbows fixed on the bulwarks, bows and arrows, weights dropped from a yard or pole rigged out, and the various means of setting an enemy alight; by shooting arrows with burning tow or by Greek fire or wild fire, blown through tubes (cannae, whence "cannon").

The nature of Greek fire is still an unsettled question, and it is believed by some authorities that the Byzantines of the Middle Ages were acquainted with the use of gunpowder. However, it is certain that even after the introduction of artillery in the 14th century, they were very feeble.

Early naval tactics

All actions were fought at close quarters, where ramming and boarding were possible. But the use of the ram was only available for a vessel driven by oars. A sailing vessel could not ram unless she were running before a good breeze. In a light wind her charge would be ineffective, and it could not be made at all from leeward. Therefore, while fleets depended on the methods of battle at close quarters, two conditions were imposed on the warship:

  • she must be small and light, so that her crew could row her with effect, and
  • she must carry a numerous crew to work her oars and board or repel boarders.

Sails were used by the triremes and other classes of warship, ancient and medieval, when going from point to point – to relieve the rowers from absolutely exhausting toil. They were lowered in action, and when the combatant had a secure port at hand, they were left ashore before battle.

These conditions applied alike to Phormio, the Athenian admiral of the 5th century BC, to the Norse king Olaf Tryggvason of the 10th century AD, and to the chiefs of the Christian and Turkish fleets which fought the battle of Lepanto in AD 1571. There might be, and were, differences of degree in the use made of oar and sail respectively.

Outside the Mediterranean, the sea was unfavourable to the long, narrow and light galley of 120 ft. long and 20 ft. of beam. But the Norse ship found at Gokstad, though her beam is a third of her length, and she is well adapted for rough seas, is also a light and shallow craft, to be easily rowed or hauled up on a beach.

Some medieval vessels were of considerable size, but these were the exception; they were awkward, and were rather transports than warships. Given a warship which is of moderate size and crowded with men, it follows that prolonged cruises, and blockade in the full sense of the word, were beyond the power of the sea commanders of antiquity and the Middle Ages. There were ships used for trade which with a favourable wind could rely on making six knots. But a war fleet could not provide the cover, or carry the water and food, needed to keep the crews efficient during a long cruise. So long as galleys were used, that is to say, till the middle of the 18th century, they were kept in port as much as possible, and a tent was rigged over the deck to house the rowers. The fleet was compelled to hug the shore in order to find supplies.

It always endeavoured to secure a basis on shore to store provisions and rest the crews. Therefore the wider operations were slowly made. Therefore too, when the enemy was to be waited for, or a port watched, some point on shore was secured and the ships were drawn up. It was by holding such a point that the Corinthian allies of the Syracusans were able to pin in the Athenians. The Romans watched Lilybeum in the same way, and Hannibal the Rhodian could run the blockade before they were launched and ready to stop him. The Norsemen hauled their ships on shore, stockaded them and marched inland. The Greeks of Homer had done the same and could do nothing else. Ruggiero di Lauria, in AD 1285, waited at the Hormigas with his galleys on the beach till the French were seen to be coming past him. Edward III. In AD 1350, stayed at Winchelsea till the Spaniards were sighted. The allies at Lepanto remained at anchor near Dragonera till the last moment.

Line abreast

Given that the fighting was at close quarters with ram, stroke of sword, crossbow bolt, arrow, pigs of iron or lead and wild fire blown through tubes, it follows that the formations and tactics were equally imposed on the combatants. The formation was inevitably the line abreast – the ships going side by side – for the object was to bring all the rams, or all the boarders into action at once. It was quite as necessary to strike with the prow when boarding as when ramming. If the vessels were laid side by side the oars would have prevented them from touching.


The extent to which ramming or boarding would be used respectively would depend on the skill of the rowers. The highly trained Athenian crews of the early Peloponnesian War relied mainly on the ram. They aimed to dash through an enemy's line, shaving off the oars on one side of the enemy ship. When successfully executed, this maneuver would be equivalent to the dismasting of a sailing line of battle ship. It enabled the assailant to turn, and ram his crippled enemy in the stern. An attack with the ram might be exceedingly dangerous to the assailant, however, if the ship were not very solidly built. His ram might be broken off in the shock. The Athenians found this a very real peril, and were compelled to construct their triremes with stronger bows, to contend with the more heavily built Peloponnesian vessels – whereby they lost much of their mobility.

In fact success in ramming depended so much on a combination of skill and good fortune that it played a somewhat subordinate part in most ancient sea fights. The Romans baffled the ramming tactics of the Carthaginians by the invention of the corva, or crow, a plank with a spike for hooking onto enemy ships which grappled the prow of the rammer, and provided a gangway for boarders. It's not certain whether this weapon destabilized ships and led to whole fleets being lost in storms. The Romans did continue their boarding tactics in the naval battles of the Punic Wars, but are also reported as ramming the Carthiginian vessels after the abandonment of the corvus. An older and alternative way for boarding was the use of grappling hooks and planks, also a more flexible system than the corvus. Agrippa introduced a weapon with a function similar to the corvus, the harpax.

The introduction of guns

After the introduction of artillery in the 14th century, when guns were carried in the bows of the galley, it was considered bad management to fire them until the prow was actually touching the enemy. If they were discharged before the shock there was always a risk that they would be fired too soon, and the guns of the time could not be rapidly reloaded. The officer-like course was to keep the fire for the last moment, and use it to clear the way for the boarders.

As a defense against boarding, the ships of a weaker fleet were sometimes tied side to one another, in the Middle Ages, and a barrier made with oars and spars. But this defensive arrangement, which was adopted by Olaf Tryggvason of Norway at Swolder (AD 1000), and by the French at Sluys (AD 1340), could be turned by an enemy who attacked on the flank. To meet the shock of ramming and to ram, medieval ships were sometimes "bearded", i.e. fortified with iron bands across the bows.

The principles of naval warfare known to the ancient world descended through Byzantium to the Italian Republics and from them to the West.

See also

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